Friday, April 16, 2010

Underwater Breathing

Sam didn’t know if it was wonderful or a complete disaster but she knew that she was beginning to breathe under water. She first noticed this ability when she took her 5-year old, Julian, to Matthew’s Beach on Lake Washington for a swim. The boy played on the sandy, weed-strewn shore with another boy and Sam had been lazily watching the two, occasionally looking up from her copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. She must have dozed off for a moment when an uncomfortable sensation, like falling from a height in a dream, forced her to sit up. She heard the familiar slosh of water on the shore and the ambient music of children splashing and shouting; she felt the warm press of the sun on her body but something was missing. Sam scanned the beach, her eyes traveling out to the deeper water. Nothing. Nothing. There! She spotted Julian’s hand, raised as if to politely ask a question before it slipped under the water.

In the few seconds it took before Sam dove into the lake and swam toward her son, she felt her senses sharpen. A slight breeze made her skin prickle and she could hear the quickened pump of her heart. She noticed a crow gracefully landing in a pine tree, saw the way its feet pushed forward like landing gear, heard its cry so piercingly that tears filled her eyes. Sam felt the raw sensation of panic clutch at her chest and throat, but her mind seemed to split into two kinds of awareness. One half of her mind remained steady and clear, sought the lifeguard and tried to calculate how much time she had to find Julian before he drowned. The other half of her mind became dreamlike, unreal. When she spotted the young lifeguard, his arm propped against one side of the lifeguard chair, the pose emphasizing his muscular arms and slender waist, Sam traveled back to the summer when she was fifteen and had a crush on the lifeguard at her neighborhood pool in Maryland. As if her senses were a tape that looped back and then suddenly sped forward, Sam could smell the delicious summer aromas of baby oil, chlorine and juicy fruit gum, could feel the sensations of that time nearly thirty years ago colliding with the present sounds of splashing and the melody of voices at the beach. In the midst of this floating reverie, which seemed to take place in some kind of hole in time, a place where each second slowly unfolded, Sam heard her own voice yelling from a distance, ”My god! Someone help me! My son!”

Not waiting for help to arrive, Sam raced to the water and plunged in, the muscles on the side of her body straining. Where was Julian? Sam opened her eyes to a murky, greenish underworld, heard the sounds of the surface made hush and gauzy soft underneath. Grasses and weeds swayed beside her like the hair of dead mermaids. Her feet touched a stone, felt its smooth hardness, then the lake bottom muck, cold and gelatinous as it shifted under her weight.

In the quiet under the surface of the lake, Sam searched for Julian, pulling through the weeds and debris near the bottom. Despite her fear, she felt the freedom and ease in her body that water had always bestowed upon her. As a girl, Sam had floated for hours on her back in lakes, pools and oceans, sky gazing. Those hours in the water were her happiest, brief slices in time when the boisterous cacophony of her siblings, who always seemed to be fighting, was finally silenced. In the water, the responsibilities of school and the complexities of adolescent friendships dissipated. She felt peaceful, engulfed by the water like a fetus suspended in a womb. As Sam searched for Julian, she became aware that she felt no urgency to surface, even after a full minute had passed. Two minutes passed. Finally, her gaze turned toward the shore. She spotted Julian’s legs, instantly recognizing his orange suit with its print of black flames. Sam surfaced just in time to see Julian pop up, a wet grin on his face. “Marco!” he shouted. It was only a scare.

The next day Sam breathed underwater in the bathtub. Before Julian arrived home from school, Sam laid in the tub, looking down the length of her 45-year-old body, the water returning to her breasts the buoyancy that aging had begun to strip away. She slipped her ears beneath the surface, sinking into its muffled peace. Soon her whole face was submerged. Sam lay like that for five minutes; the breath came, not through her mouth or nose, yet there was breath. It’s real, she thought. I can really do this.

Afterwards, Sam experimented with underwater breathing as often as she could. She took to visiting Lake Washington nearly every day, leaving the house as soon as her husband headed off to work and she returned from dropping Julian off at the bus stop. In the summer months, Sam was well-camouflaged among the many swimmers and waders at the lake. She would stroke to the diving dock and then, when no one was looking, plunge down deep before she propelled herself underwater all the way across the lake. As the weather began to turn and the beaches closed, Sam, fearful of being noticed as a lone bather, sought new ways to pursue what had evolved beyond a passion into a physical need.

She took to night swimming. Satisfied that her husband and Julian lay deep asleep, Sam would quietly rise in the middle of the night. She kept a swimsuit in the trunk of her car that she slipped on, feeling physical relief as she shed her clothes and felt the chill, damp elastic of the suit snap against her skin. In her first forays into night swimming, Sam climbed the fence and broke into several members only outdoor pools in North Seattle. Chlorine soon began to bother Sam; she longed for briny or at least brackish water, so she drove all the way to West Seattle and snuck into the saltwater Coleman Pool. Under the moonlight, in storms and once in snow, Sam did underwater laps, gaining strength and energy the more she swam. Cold water had ceased to bother her. Even in the depths of winter she could manage the waters of Lake Washington. Sam found herself losing the need to sleep through the night. Instead she began to spend her days in a kind of slowed down, almost trancelike state, as if storing energy for her night swims. She roused herself to full alertness only when her family was around.

At first, no one in the family suspected Sam’s secret activity. Determined not to be discovered, worried that maybe she had become a kind of freak, Sam was meticulous about keeping up appearances. Her husband, a heavy sleeper, was used to Sam’s longtime habit of showering at night. Unaware of the time of her return as Sam climbed back into bed, he enjoyed the earthy smell of her damp hair. No ripples were created in the life of her child either. Julian loved the routines with his mother, the daily walks to the school bus stop, the way she would stand there waving until the bus pulled away. He loved the delicious snacks he would come home to, the sound of her voice as she read him his bedtime stories, the feel of her arms embracing him and the softness of her lips as she kissed him goodnight. But in time Sam’s ability to keep everything normal became a challenge. To do so took energy. It took energy away from where she felt her energy to be naturally drawn. Into silence. Into freedom. Into the swaying, cradling womb of a large body of water.

After three months her family began to notice odd changes. Her husband noticed the water bills had risen dramatically and thought maybe there was a leak in a pipe. In truth, Sam had been filling the tub near the brim several times a day and showering for over an hour when no one else was at home. Her husband noticed subtle changes in Sam too. She had always been prone to coldness in her extremities but lately her feet and hands had become shockingly cold. He worried about her health. The warmth had seemed to drain from Sam’s personality as well. Though never a big talker, Sam had always been an attentive listener, her words well-timed and caring. Lately, Sam shunned physical contact with her husband and she answered most questions with a simple yes or no. Julian noticed, too, that his mother didn’t seem to enjoy their time together as much as in the past. It was always he, not she, who initiated a cuddle or a kiss anymore. She would yawn during his bedtime stories and tell him that she felt tired. Instead of finding a nicely prepared snack awaiting him after school as in the past, Julian would have to call out to his mother, who seemed distracted and distant, “Mom, I’m hungry!” Sam’s husband suspected depression, or worse, an affair. He planned to confront Sam soon with his suspicions.

Around Christmas, nearly a half a year had passed since Sam first discovered her ability to breathe under water. She decided to fabricate an elaborate lie to buy extended swimming time. Realizing that her husband had grown suspicious, Sam decided to “confess” that she had been very depressed and that she knew she hadn’t been acting herself. The relief on her husband’s face was clear. Not an affair. She told her husband that she wished to visit her best friend in California. She needed to be with a close woman friend. She promised that if she didn’t feel better afterwards, she would go see a therapist. “A short trip, a few days is all I need,” Sam pleaded.

Her husband gladly accepted the plan, thinking it might help Sam to spend time with her friend. Sam made arrangements for Julian’s care for the days she would be gone and bought a plane ticket. On the day of her flight, she parked her car at the house of a friend who lived near Lake Washington. She knew her friend’s family would be away for a few weeks vacationing in Canada. Her car would go unnoticed.

Sam decided to follow the lake waters as they flowed out to Puget Sound. She needed to reach open water, felt the urge as strongly as one feels the need for food or sex. She entered Lake Washington at Matthews Beach just before sunset, feeling an odd stirring in her limbs, a deep and thrilling excitement, as if she were returning to her true home. The park was empty: the boaters come ashore and the bicyclists and walkers on the Burke Gilman Trail gone home. Wading straight out to the deep water, Sam firmed her thighs and began to undulate, her legs working together like a strong tail. The movement propelled Sam quickly through the water. Occasionally a fish would eye her, and Sam would eye the fish back, no threat passing between them.

Heading south from her point of entry, Sam sped toward the Montlake Cut. There she noticed a group of UW students dangling their legs over the cement walls, cigarettes glowing like red tracers in the dark. She swam silently past them, feeling no curiosity, only a mild level of threat. Passing through the Cut, Sam entered Portage Bay and headed to Lake Union. As she glided past Ivar’s Seafood Bar, she glanced up and felt a wave of sickness as she watched the diners fork pieces of fish into their mouths. Sam moved deftly past the house boats; her ears took in the strains of Mile’s Davis’s “Kind of Blue,” which seemed vaguely familiar but she could not recall how she knew this sound. In truth, Sam had loved this music for nearly 20 years, but she heard it now as just a sound, different from the churn of motors in the water, different from the bubbling and swishing of tides. She caught sight of a man and woman kissing as they slow danced on a deck and observed them coldly. Sam swam westward toward the Ballard Locks, straining to reach open water.

Following a yacht into the Hiram Chittenden Locks in Ballard, Sam could feel the waters’ turbulent pull beneath her, the force of gravity in the locks as it began to drain. She instinctively hovered near the yacht, grasping the bottom rung of a ladder to steady herself. She heard voices from the people in the yacht. They spoke loudly, drunkenly. Suddenly a man appeared at the side of the yacht and looked down at Sam in the water.
“Goddamn seals!, he said.
“Eat all the goddamn salmon. Ought to just shoot ‘em.”
Though she didn’t understand the man’s words, Sam felt alarm rippling through her system, electric, urgent, primal. She dove deep down into the waters below the yacht, the swirl and force of the churning currents spinning her around. The lock finally opened and Sam felt her blood quicken as first the smell of the salt water brightened her senses and then the briny waters of the Puget Sound caressed her skin. Pumped with energy, she swam, her kick gaining power as she felt herself pulled toward the San Juan Islands.

The next morning, when Sam’s husband called California to speak with Sam, he found out she had never arrived. He called the police. Her car was found where she left it, parked at the house of the friend who was in BC. They found Sam’s clothes in the car and speculated that she had been assaulted. A tip hotline was set up. An emergency search began through the thickets in the park. A team of waders scoured the waters near the shore and divers were dispatched to search the deeper waters, but no body was found. The Seattle Times reported the mystery of the local woman who disappeared and the TV stations repeated the story endlessly. Footage of the grieving family was shown, a heartbreaking image of a man cradling his boy whose face turned away from the camera as he sobbed into his father’s pant leg. “Please, Sam. If you can hear this, know that we are here and we love you,” her husband pleaded.

Out on the water, Sam swam with the orcas of J-Pod. It was they who had approached her, curious, playfully racing alongside, urging her to leap. Sam mimicked the orcas, her body springing from the water with the freedom of a child on a trampoline. Again and again she alternated swimming and leaping. A memory of dolphins she had seen in Greece flashed in her mind. But the memory was different than in the past. No longer was she standing on the deck of a ship with her husband on their way to the Greek Islands. No longer did she feel the same set of feelings, the human awe of seeing the dolphins leaping through the air, the human joy of being young and in love and sailing on the Mediterranean, the human pleasure of thinking, “I, like Odysseus, sail upon the wine dark sea.” This time the memory came as if she were inside the body of the dolphin, her joy a dolphin joy. She swam through the night, occasionally resting on the currents, but possessed of a great free vitality that pushed her forward. After three days in the water, no trace remained in her memory of her life on land.

Encounter with Spirit

I had walked down a certain path for very long. During my journey, I had traversed various landscapes, some were desert, some lush green forests, yet others were rolling meadows that made me want to gallop on them like a jubiliant horse. Then, one day, deep in the middle of a forest, I came to a fork in the path. I wasn't sure which way to go. I could go either ways, it would be my choice. In a state of confusion, I stopped and stared down both paths. From where I stood, they seemed fairly similar, but I knew that far ahead they would take me to very different places.

I felt a panic grow within me as I realised that for once, I had no idea which way to go. What if I went down the wrong path? What if I made the wrong choice?

As my confusion grew, I heard the sound of footsteps in the distance. My first reaction to the sound was one of fear. Who could that be? The "crunchy" sound of fallen leaves being walked upon is mysterious, especially when you can't see the person! I looked in the direction of the sound, and eventually saw a man walking towards me. He was old but radiant, wore a yellow robe, and walked with an air of confidence about him. With a flowing beard and a slender form, he resembled what I thought Christ must have looked like. As he came closer, I looked into his eyes and saw a light in them that warmed my heart instantly. I was not scared anymore. The forest around me began to glow as his presence drew near. He was not of this world. He was a man of the Spirit. A Holy One.

As he stood before me, I was stumped for words. I didn't know who he was, how he knew me, and why he had come to meet me. I bowed to him in reverence, my reflex reaction when I encounter a being who radiates the light of the Spirit. He put both his hands on my head, looked up at me with the pride of a parent who is seeing their child after a long time. I was taller than him, much taller. Yet his light was far brighter than my mortal eyes could bear. The extent of his aura was far beyond my reach. I closed my eyes.

"My child, you are here at last," he said.  I began to cry. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I sobbed for no apparent reason. Every burden, every anxiety, every disappointment I had ever faced in my life began to melt away in those tears. I cried like a baby. He wiped away some tears from my cheeks, then embraced and held me as my tears streamed down his yellow robe. With each tear shed, my heart felt lighter. Not a word was exchanged between us. Only the sounds of the forest in the background, interrupted by my steady sniffles.

As my sobs subsided, we sat down on the stones under an oak tree. "Where have you come from, and more importantly, where are you going?" he asked me, lovingly. I felt like saying, "That's exactly what I was hoping you would tell me!" But I didn't. However, the smile on his face told me he had already read my mind. "Son, it doesn't matter which path you choose. The path you choose will take you where you must go. But first, you must love the path. Then trust it. Finally, let go, and just walk it. The more you love it, the more it will bring you to where you should be. Learn to love the path. However difficult it may seem."

"But what if I spend my whole life on the wrong path?" I retorted, anxious and fearful as usual. "Right and wrong is in your head. The path is just that... a path. Your judgement says it is right or wrong. Nothing you do can be wrong, it is only a choice you have made," he explained.

He pointed towards the fork ahead. "Each of those paths ahead is very different. The one on the left takes you across scenic valleys. The sights are lovely, I must say. There are lakes, ponds, and palaces to feast your eyes on. You can be very happy if you enjoy each moment along the way."

"And what's on the other path?" I asked, eager to make my decision.

"At first, it's forest on either side, but very soon, the path ends at the edge of a cliff."

I was relieved. "Okay, so that's settled then. I'm going with the scenic valleys."

"Before you make your decision, though, I must tell you something." He pointed towards the sky and continued, "At night, I've seen angels hovering over that cliff. One night, as I looked closer, I saw an angel holding the hands of a little boy as they both glided across the night sky. The boy squealed in happiness. She was teaching him how to fly."

My eyes were wide with wonder.

"Only when you trust the path, son. Only when you trust it. When you do, happiness awaits you at the other end. It doesn't matter which one you choose."

He arose and put both his hands on my shoulders, gave me a reassuring look, and told me to continue on my journey. As I picked up my things, I felt a pang of sadness. "Will I see you again? Where do you live? How can I find you in future?," I asked him all at once.

He laughed at my questions, shook his head, and said, "Always eager to know the future. What do your people call it? Planning! Ah, yes. You like to 'plan' for the future. My child, in Spirit terms, there is no such thing as a plan. There is no future, no past. Only this moment. So how can there be a plan for a time that does not exist? We are here now. It is beautiful. I am happy to see you."

With those words, he walked away into the forest. The crunchy sound of fallen leaves being walked upon faded away into the distance. I put my backpack on and made my choice.

(Also posted on my blog)

365 Lessons-Lesson 106: Commune with Nature

In nature's presence I am anonymous. I become part of the symphony of all that is. I blend in with what's around me and am one with it. A bumble bee, a fern, sparkles in the sand, the caw of a seagull, the smell of salt water from the Sound, my husband's face.

I went to Discovery Park today with my husband. The Pacific Northwest is gorgeous this time of year. Seattle is a city that lives in harmony with nature. I'm in awe of the trees right here where I live. They tower above me like guardians of the land. I dissolve in their presence.

We found a make shift fort and decided to take a rest on the logs there. I closed my eyes and could hear the sound of the waves, taste the salt in the air, smell the ocean, feel the sand caressing the spaces between my fingers. This sand seemed to hug my body in it's warmth.

After strolling on the beach for what seemed like hours, we headed off on one of the many trails through the trees. The first trail had a rain forest feeling. I felt like a monkey might swing down from a vine at any moment, but there are no monkeys in these parts.

There are harbor seals, however. The mothers leave their baby seals on the shore while they hunt for food. There's even a sign at the park warning visitors to leave nature alone, especially the baby seals.

We continued through the canopy of trees up endless stairs. It was quite a climb up from the shore.
We kept walking until we reached a dense forest full of cedar and pine. The trees towered over us.

And this is all right in Seattle. It's unbelievable to me. I can't wait to come back in July when all the berries are out. In this park, and all over Washington, we enjoy salmon berries, huckleberries, thimble berries and blackberries.

But I know we'll be back much sooner than that. After all, we don't have to go far to experience nature, it's all around us.

One Mouth Open, One Mouth Shut

I don't know what it is about talking about my work, I just don't do it anymore. I joke with other writers about getting me an agent, but they don't get the joke. I don't want one. I want to write. So I do. I am a creator and that has been my objective. I made the hard choice, not the easy chase the craft and not the dollars. There are plenty of best sellers out there that I would use to build a fire. They marketed and sold their work and did the book signings. It was their way, not mine. I realized that I had built up a collection of followers, close to 2000 on a social network site, and it got a little weird for me. Weird is a kind word for it. One day I looked at the page and I committed fan-tracide. I killed the page because it no longer was the place of art and collaboration I wanted it to be. I had written articles for an international fashion mag, had my own column, and in short it seemed to be everything I wanted. Ladies and gentlemen, it was all an illusion.

I vowed never again. I had a taste of the obsession of fame, the requests to do book signings, and even the cyber stalking, and I put an end to it all. That was off of one book of poetry. Sounds pretty strange, doesn't it? I had to go off of the radar to do the work I want to do. It involves people, life and the best, real collaboration. When I was in Daegu, South Korea, a wonderful poetress, name Lena Vanelslander, from Belgium and I began an incredible collaboration. The kind we both hungered for, the kind that is absent of competition and worries about things like ego and money...just to create art.

One of Lena's dreams was to publish. I smiled and wrote to her, that we could make it happen if she just trusted and believed. It seems looking back, that at any point the project could have derailed if an ounce of fear entered the picture. There were starts and stops. I hated the original cover design by the publisher and provided them a picture I snapped in South Korea. There was a bumpy road with our critiques of the editing process back in the United States, but despite all of the struggles, a work was published without two writers ever meeting each other. We just trusted in our art and in each other. That, my friends, is the magic of creation. Nothing beats the feeling.

The best part about this work was the friendship we forged together. An article was recently published in Her Circle about this venture. Really, it was more a a literary adventure. However, the main reason I am writing this post to encourage you in your writing pursuits to not chase the money. Chase your art. Chase what it feels like to touch one life. Try to write about what is close to your heart and don't prostitute your work.

I think the world is beginning to see how much security is an illusion right now. To me, the highest form of security are friends. The greatest value in my life is people. Whenever money becomes the focus, you get what Hollywood is churning out...profit driven entertainment. I don't write for profit, and some of my work has cost me. It's all in the journey.

For whatever reason you write, do it with your whole heart, without an eye on the bottom line, without chasing after fame. Well, even if you are chasing after those things...if you are, write one hell of a story that isn't what the industry pushes out there on us all.

Be the original that everyone copies.