Last night I wrote a whole different post about air and breathing, but the timing felt wonky and I didn't send it.
I went to bed last night with a head full of water and air.
This morning I woke up with a story about scuba diving; the intersection of water, air, and fear.
Whether you connected with me for yoga, meditation, art, my upcoming book Love Me or another reason, I’m really glad you’re here now.
Today I’m writing with some snapshots of my journey with water.
Some of you have asked for a closer look into my process. So I'm preparing to do just that. What you’re going to be reading in my email list and Patreon in the upcoming months are slices of my writing process as I “shovel sand” and braindump stories for the book. This week, it is all about water.
Water means something different to each of us - but one thing is for sure... we need water to survive.
When I think of water, I first think of its potent healing power in a nation where 75% of us live in a chronic state of dehydration.
I live in a desert that was shaped by flood waters. We depend on the river, and in turn on the planet's seasons, for our very existence.
Water is associated with the color blue; speech, speaking your truth, communication, listening…. And feeling. Not just happy emotions, either. Blue can mean sadness. Grief. Cleansing. Healing.
What is your worst fear?
Death? Public speaking? Fire? Snakes? Clowns?
For most of my life, the thing I feared most was water.
I think maybe I was born with it.
Nothing “happened” to make me terrified of water.
Through a toddler’s perspective, I remember looking over the side of a boat into a patch of milfoil in the Columbia River. As my mind registered coiling green brown shapes beneath the surface, horror rose from within and I became inconsolable.
If you’ve never experienced milfoil, it is an invasive aquatic weed that grows in slow-moving freshwater. In my case, the Columbia river.
Milfoil has feathery leaves and grows in long ropes that wave and sway beneath the surface, or if the water is low enough, float like alligators in a swamp.
Pieces of milfoil will detach in the current and slither around your ankles.
This dread of water appeared away from the river, too. At swim lessons, squinting through blurry water eyes, I held my breath and snatched my caramel from the blue bottom. I pushed off and shot to the surface fast as I could, imagining dark tendrils drifting below me.
When I was 19 or 20, my brother and sister walked with me out on a land bridge we had walked dozens of times. We stayed on the island longer than we planned, and the disappearing sunset made the water appear pitch black.
In the fading light, we had gone off course on our way back over the land bridge, and the black water crept up my waist toward my chest.
Undulating outlines of weeds suddenly emerged in the deep water before me.
I froze to the spot in panic.
My sister, hearing my hyperventilating breaths, took my hand and helped me across the land bridge.
I was the only one of my family or friends who seemed to have this paralyzing fear, and it didn’t seem to diminish over time as I hoped.
That bothered me.
Falling into dark water was my most frequent flier in the bad-dream rotation into my twenties.
Then I learned that my college offered a semester-long scuba course.
Know thyself echoes in my mind.
I knew enough to think if I literally immersed myself in my worst fear and sit in it, then the fear would relax its grip on me.
It’s A Small World After All
In one of the first dive classes, we were given an initial physical test which we would then have to repeat at the end of the semester within certain parameters to pass the course.
For this task, we had to swim the full length of the pool, underwater, without pushing off.
If you’re a pretty confident swimmer, you may think this will be easy.
That’s what I thought.
But when my lungs began burning, no, screaming for air and my diaphragm started to involuntarily heave, I’m wasn't driving anymore. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about making it to the other side of the pool – the burning need to breathe is far more urgent than that – and I can see air right overhead and relief is just four feet away... two feet away...
I broke the surface, awareness and control returning as soon as I breathed in. I looked around. I only made it halfway across the pool.
A handful of students swam the entire length on their first try.
Our beloved no-nonsense instructor told us, “Your body needs to learn that you can actually stay conscious and keep swimming for a long time past when you feel like you absolutely have to breathe.”
We learned through experience that if we stay calm, and swimming techniques to use our oxygen more effectively, we can go much farther using less oxygen.
She told us, “Sing this song in your head: ‘It’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all.’ And exhale bubbles bubbles to keep your diaphragm relaxed”
That involuntary diaphragm-trying-to-breathe-while-I’m-still-underwater feeling was really uncomfortable for me.
So I practiced. And practiced.
I tried different pre-breathing techniques, I tried holding different amounts of air, I tried different swimming strokes she recommended.
One day during a practice session, my fingers touched the wall.
My face split into a wide smile before my head broke the surface with a splash.
That splash wasn’t just the sound some swimmer in a lane, popping up for breath after a half lap.
That splash was the sound of my universe expanding; of delight; of joy that was greater than fear.
And I was laughing.
To date, skin ditch is still one of the hardest and scariest things I’ve ever asked my body to do for me.
Let’s see if I can remember how skin ditch goes:
You start at the edge of the 14’ pool wearing your weight belt, mask and snorkel, booties, and fins. You dive to the bottom of, take off your mask, fins and weights and leave it in a pile. You then swim to the surface and tread water in your booties until you can recover enough to dive down again, find your pile, put on your gear then clear your snorkel on your way up and end in a face-down snorkeling position.
The first time I tried this, it was an utter disaster. I hated it so much. I kept swimming underwater and practicing controlling my body as it starved for oxygen.
On the day of the final, I felt a twinge of dread. Will I be the first student to drown and/or fail during skin ditch?
But I had been practicing. And when it came time for our final, skin ditch was here and there was no escaping it. I had to at least give it my best shot.
The initial dive was simple enough.
Fins, off. Kneel. Weigh down mask and fins with weight belt. Swim up. It went slower than I expected, feet creating resistance on the way up.
When I came up to tread water, I inhaled a little drop of water and coughed. I was still breathing hard, heart pounding, treading water mostly with my arms.
I knew that no matter how long I floated at the surface putting off my second descent, my pile of fins and mask and weights would still be waiting fourteen feet below.
I couldn’t seem to get enough air. I tried to float and slow my breathing.
More students disappeared for their second dive around me, and I was still breathing hard. I realized I would have to go down anyway.
I took one last breath and dove.
The descent was slowed by my useless bootied feet, and I wasn’t particularly calm, burning up the oxygen I brought with me even faster.
Through my blurry water eyes I saw the wrapped caramel in my mind's eye. It’s a small world after all. Mask. On. Tuck my chin, press the mask to my forehead, exhale through my nose and look up. Irritated, I now saw one of the boys who swam the length of the pool on his first try, sitting crossed legged on the bottom of the pool watching the rest of us, already having put on his gear.
My heart pounded. Weights. On. Shove left bootie into fin #1. Tighten. Lungs shouting now. I fumbled with the second fin, impatient, the strap twisted. Diaphragm tried to inhale. Got it. Fin #2. I shoved the snorkel in my mouth, swimming upward and trying to exhale forcefully enough to clear it.
I broke the surface facedown and inhaled cautiously, but I had incompletely cleared my snorkel and got a mouthful of water.
I spit out the mouthpiece and coughed my way to the edge of the pool.
I’ve never felt relief quite like when I touched the concrete edge. I didn't nail the very ending - and there was water in my mask - but I did it.
I fucking did it.
Or, I did it well enough AND I didn’t even die.
My universe expanded again.
My second night dive in Hood Canal was a night to remember.
We floated along the shallows with lights and mesh bags, fishing for crabs with our neoprened hands.
A slight miscalculation of where to grab a rock crab resulted in its pincer clamping down on my fingertip.
A cloud of bubbles blew out my regulator as I swore and wiggled it into the bag.
On our way back, I dropped my light.
In the split second of darkness, something caught my attention.
I covered my light again, and then I saw something I will never forget.
I motioned to my dive partner to cover his light.
I waited for him to see what I saw: little puffs of bright green light, appearing all over the ocean floor.
I waved my hand in the water. A green shimmer appeared, then dissipated.
Another cloud of bubbles blew out my regulator as I giggled! Phosophorescence!
I uncovered my light and took a close look at the sea floor. Thousands of tiny hermit crabs and tiny strange fish I hadn’t noticed before danced about the rock bottom, sifting the silt, searching for food, doing what tiny sea creatures do.
…. To be continued.
Remember prana? In Sanskrit, Prana refers to the breath (inhale/exhale air), and also to life force that moves through us and everything in the universe.
Pranayama, or the modification of prana, comprises an entire limb of yoga.
When I first start talking about breath, people sometimes scrunch up their face and go, I’ve been breathing my entire life without help, sooooo what can you add?
I want to dig deeper into that in coming weeks.
What I can tell you is that from my experience, I believe breath is one of the most potent and ever-present healing tools that I’ve acquired so far. That’s what my deleted email was about. I’ll post it here on Patreon soon.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, diving taught me to go way beyond what feels safe and to trust in my body’s ability to calm down, to slow my breathing, to believe that I am safe, to be safe.