“Stay with your partner. And whatever you do, don’t go inside the ship.”
The immortal words of our middle-aged dive master who appears to be taking a hiatus from his 80’s heavy metal band to teach several wide-eyed newbies to night dive. He tightens the knot on his red paisley bandana, slips his neoprene hood over his head, presses his dive mask against his face, then points at me in a crowd of six other divers and reiterates, “Don’t go in the ship.”
I glance around, bewildered, on the verge of incredulity. Have I not been a model student diver throughout the entire training? The answer to that is a solid no. My raging curiosity has given many a feline severe myocardial infarction.
Tobermory, Ontario is a Canadian diving mecca if you don’t mind water which turns nipples to ice picks or the absence of coral reefs and neon spotted fish. What there are, however, are shipwrecks. Accessible wreckage hunkered only 40 feet below the surface of crystal clear waters. To float above this watery graveyard in a boat that works (aka floats) is a chilling experience if the imagination is allowed to swim free. One can almost see the shimmering images of Jack Sparrow’s vengeful liquefied enemies hovering on the submerged decks, shaking their fleshless fists while chained to the depths.
Perhaps these spectral scoundrels were responsible for instigating a lesson that is firmly entrenched in my cells. An experience that showed me what to do, be, and seek whenever I am lost in abysmal darkness.
There is no black like that of water at night. The whale-like density of this darkness swallows everything that it is given. Before falling backwards over the rail of the boat and surrendering body and mind to what lay beneath, no one can prepare you for the disorientation, discombobulation, and the feel of springs flying loose from your internal compass. The concept of up and down rapidly sinks out of sight, and all you’re left with are the bubbles. Bubbles float up.
This is the experience of falling into your shadow. If you are a soul diver or one of those “odd ones” that no one quite understands at family gatherings, then you know shadows and the sunken treasure they hold at their gritty depths.
In the world of scuba diving, sinking is not as natural as one would assume, especially when the diver is panting like a dog having a stroke. Hyperventilation is not a diver’s best tool. It keeps you buoyant. Falling into the depths requires calmness, serenity and a bit of lead strapped to your body. Why would anyone leave the safety of a perfectly good, floating vessel and sink themselves into a blackness that steals the breath and turns the world upside down?
Because there is so much to learn in the spaces we cannot see, the uncharted depths beyond our daily lives. That is where the truth and treasure of new perspectives nestle.
My breathing calms, the bubbles rise. I know where the surface is and I adjust my visual world to being no bigger than the six-inch beam of my underwater flashlight. I pray the Energizer Bunny keeps on pounding that drum. The beams of the other divers sweep through the grey water as stubby marquee lights in an aqua sky. And then I see it. A piece here. A part there. Barnacles decoupage her rails, her propeller, her body. As my beam traverses the deck and scans the wheelhouse, I imagine the people who captained her, and I wonder who was her last lover before she was laid to rest.
When you dive into the shadows, there is no vast landscape to admire. There is no wandering about in open spaces. The mind must cobble together the pieces of what the beam reveals and assemble the disparate parts to make the beauty appear. And there are times when you and the beam slip into a place that, by comparison, makes the regular darkness seem like brilliant sunshine. A shadow within the shadow that you did not know existed. A space that requires every ounce of courage, every spec of Source vibrating in your cells to navigate. A place in which it is best to do nothing when all the humanness in your bones is scrambling and as freaked out as a cat doused in water.
My beam catches the surface of her rusted hull. Blatantly breaking the rule: don’t touch anything, I swim toward her so that I may stroke her side. My justification; she’s been alone down here for decades, we all need connection. I lay my neoprene palm on her side, just a quick moment, no one will see. When I turn to leave, my forehead meets steel. I twist in the other direction; the same result. Floating upward, my tank clangs against an iron ceiling. A bucket of water is thrown on my internal cat; my claws are out. I unknowingly slipped through a perfect me-shaped hole in her hull. I found her navel and slid tidily into her belly.
I hear the voice of my dive master; don’t go inside the ship. And then I remember the rest of the safety talk that flowed into my ears without me actively listening.
“If you get stuck, stay still. You’ve got lots of air. We’ll find you.”
The part of ourselves — the vast, cosmic, brilliant, no bullshit, I-know-what-we-need-to-know-Self speaks in the stillness. Its voice is best heard in the black voids we willingly or accidentally float into. And it speaks louder, with more clarity and authority the further we fall into the belly of our shadows. It is there we best learn to trust this Self who always has our back and is listening while we are twisting off, screwing around, not paying attention in life.
I hear her. My Self. She means business.
Be still. Breathe even. Float.
I hug my flashlight to my chest to keep my heart from bursting into a watery crimson cloud. I close my eyes and listen to my Darth Vader-esque breathing as it meets the water. I hear my Self as she instructs me to go against the natural prey instinct to fold, tuck and be tiny. I stretch out my long legs, an extra 14 inches of fin makes me lanky, easy to catch. I picture mermaids and eels, seaweed and all manner of stingray, hovering, gliding, living.
Like all precious, precarious moments, time is lost, compressed, disintegrated. I float for days, I float for minutes, I have enough air. The yank is strong and comforting as I glide backwards. Another beam. A set of relieved eyes behind glass. A wagging finger in my face. My bubbles float up, no ceiling.
As I take my scolding on the deck, wrapped in a towel and shivering, I nod in all the right places. My mind is elsewhere. It’s with my soul. As I stare up at the billions of pinpoints of light — stars and planets and galaxies — the vastness of it feels familiar. I suddenly understand this was the place I slipped into as I unfolded my panic-riddled limbs and floated in the shadow of a shadow. For the first time in my life, I allowed my unfathomable Self which is made of the of the stuff of stars to override my brittle finite humanness.
Your inner or outer pragmatist might bellow; just follow the goddam rules, do as your told, don’t fall off the edge of a perfectly good vessel. But there are times when we find ourselves purely by accident tucked inside the shadow of a shadow, far below the surface with no clue how we got there or how to get out. It’s in these sightless and groping times we learn that our best choice is to be still, remember you’ve got lots of air, and listen for the voice that says, “I’ll find you.”