My medium, my element where I come alive is under water. Earth grounds me, particularly when running; the latter feeds my soul as well as my body. Anything that defies gravity or is at any height scares me witless. As a boy, I prided myself on how long I could hold my breath underwater or how many lengths of a pool – likely more or maybe less than one length – I could travel before surfacing. Swimming on top of water was of little interest, a means to an end. Diving for objects at the bottom of a pool or lake was far more alluring. In university, playing intramural, underwater hockey, armed only with a short stick, wearing an eye mask, scrambling to maneuver the puck along the bottom upped the ante on breath-holding and added a competitive aspect to staying down longer than others could not-breathe.
Guddling or grabbling, catching trout or catfish with bare hands after tickling their underbellies into quiescence, actually a sport in some southern US States, has captivated me since first reading and then teaching English professor Don Johnson’s haunting poem, ‘Grabbling.’ Johnson elegantly and eloquently describes a young boy, ensconced in a boat watching a veteran grabbler hand-fishing “by braille in a pool darker than the skins of old Bibles” as the fisherman “probed under root-knob and rock,” all the while “holding his breath longer than any of us in air or common light could not breathe.” The boy finally calls out quizzically above the river’s hum, “how?” And the old man’s answer – an exquisite variation of Nike’s advertising exhortation – “Get wet boy!”
Nothing there is about water – if not most land-related experiences – do I remember more profoundly than scuba diving on Christmas eve at Porteau Cove, just north of Vancouver, British Columbia. On sabbatical at the time, I had self-committed to my life-long ambition of learning to dive. During the Fall, I immersed myself, literally, in every level of diving certification course I could take, even in the relatively frigid waters of BC. Pierre, our instructor, was a highly adept diving teacher possessed of a nearly reverential respect and unquenchable thirst for what he called, the urge to submerge. Shortly before the winter holidays, he invited a group of us to a night-dive on Christmas eve; no details were given other than we were to bring glow-sticks, 4-inch, water-proof plastic tubes that, when cracked, glowed a kind of green fluorescence in the dark. Attached to a diver’s tank or diving vest at night or in poor visibility waters, the sticks were enough of a marker such that divers could keep visual track of each other.
Having donned our scuba gear, glow-sticks alight, we were given no instructions other than to buddy-up, the axiomatic diving practice of always pairing up for safety sake, and swim out to a marker buoy not far off-shore. Once we all reached the site, we descended, 8 or 9 strings of vertically ascending, effervescent bubbles back-lighted from the glow sticks. At the sandy bottom, some 40 feet down, we reconnoitered briefly, Pierre gesticulating in one direction with a signal to follow him. After a short swim, he stopped us in front of an upside-down spruce tree (or pine, or fir…some coniferous variety) anchored to the bottom with about 10 glow-sticks affixed to various branches, each stick gently wavering and pointing toward the surface. While we watched him, numbed slightly from the cold water, he cracked each stick into a glow and then looked back at us. None of us moved until he reached out one arm to take one diver’s hand. As if on cue, we each and all followed suit until we were in a line of hand-holding divers. Effortlessly, Pierre moved laterally until we encircled the tree completely, now a linked chain of bent-knee vertical divers, buoyantly suspended staring at a partially-illuminated, upside-down Christmas tree.
After what must have been a minute or two of almost silence, everyone mesmerized and wreathed around the tree, I became aware of a regulated thrumming sound, indiscernible at first, and then distinct. Unaware of who had initiated it, we each and sundry joined into humming Silent Night through our regulators or breathing devices. And just as imperceptibly, our circle began to move counter-clockwise around the tree. Time slowed down and seemingly disappeared into merely being in the experience, warmed now. When our aquatic carol ended, we stayed pendulous, each entranced by the tree and our vocal-time together. Someone moved to release the evergreen from its tether and then re-pairing, we swam underwater toward shore until shallow enough that we surfaced. Not speaking, removing fins and then regulators, we emerged from water to cove-land, awestruck amphibians.
I don’t remember any of us talking for some time and when we finally did, it was as though our marine-time transcended words – we knew and felt what only each other in our group knew and felt. To restate the profound theme of CLR James’ masterpiece, Beyond a Boundary, what do they of scuba diving know who only scuba diving know. Years later, long after that Christmas eve, each time I actually dive – or meditate about diving – lying face-up, body horizontal, perfectly still, at-depth, 100 feet of water above me, arms akimbo, breathing bubbles so effortlessly has become a water-home. However, that choral ensemble experience remains one of the most reverential encounters with self, with others, perhaps even with the divine. I tumble home to that Porteau Cove assembly every time I hear Silent Night.