Wednesday, April 14, 2004


Trey at Only Connect recently wrote about the experience of learning to scuba dive.

I learned to swim at age 53 so that I could learn to scuba dive. As Trey notes, to be certified for diving you have to swim two hundred yards and tread water for ten minutes. Admittedly there is a bit of terror and trembling involved in learning to scuba dive. The moments of incredible beauty come later.

Here are excerpts about my own experiences learning to dive, from my essay "Poet In the Water" in Kissing Poetry's Sister, reprinted for Trey's amusement.

Trey, it's all worth it!

There must be other poets who scuba dive and I just don't know them. Scuba diving and poetry seem to belong to one another. There is nothing so regular in poetry as breath, and nothing so regular in diving.

For sheer terror for the Iowa-farm-boy-poet-at-age-53 there is nothing like putting his face into the water and taking that first deep breath; breathing in water is not natural! I struggled to do it. I was having a good stout argument with myself: my head was saying "Go ahead, go ahead" while my heart cried "No, no, no!" My instructor watched me wrestling with myself; he said to the other students: "Look at Tom, he's doing a Zen thing." I was. By sheer force of will I was going to take my first breath underwater.

Growing up I was not well acquainted with water, let's put it that way. My grandparents had a creek running through their farm, one not deep enough to drown in. Our own farm didn't have much water, not creek, nor pond, not even any big puddles. Rush Lake was four miles from us, you wouldn't swim in it. The summer I was supposed to learn to swim - in fact I took lessons at the swimming pool in Laurens, Iowa - it snowed; well, maybe it didn't actually snow but it was cold enough to snow and I'll tell you a farm boy who turns blue with cold is not going to learn anything. I didn't even learn how to float.

We did get to see water at the midpoint between summer solstice and the fall equinox - August 15 was a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into Heaven. We went to our landlord's cottage on Lake Okoboji on the Feast of the Assumption for many years. The landlord's family was Catholic, and so were we. I didn't swim in Lake Okoboji, I put worms on a hook and drowned them. I was a little older when I tried diving head first into some Iowa pond in a little park at a family picnic. I scratched my nose on the gravel bottom and when I surfaced someone told me Marilyn Monroe had killed herself.

These are not the kinds of experience that make you want to spend much time in the water.

So how did I come to scuba diving? Well, my wife, Mary, had cheerfully put up with me as I covered a thousand miles of gravel road in southwestern Saskatchewan a year and a half ago - I called that a vacation; she just smiled. She smiled and said: "No, go on, drive to your heart's content, we can buy more tires if we need to." We needed to; we bought a pair of Canadian tires to replace ours when the steel belts started showing through. I drove on; and I said: "You've earned a trip to some warm tropical island."

This past fall Mary called in the chit. Our sister-in-law Karen had died of cancer in September. Karen's husband and their daughter, Mary's brother and our niece, Philip and Kirstina, were going to Cozumel after Christmas, scuba diving, part of a reef ecology class that Philip has been involved with for several years. Philip and Kirstina would continue living in joy at the memory of Karen's life, rather than wallowing in the loss of her. We could too.

Karen never wallowed in the unfairness of it all.

Mary took firm grip of the front of my shirt and pulled me up close to her and she said: "We are going to Cozumel with Philip and Kirstina, we are going to scuba dive, and you're not going to screw this up." I got the impression we were going to Cozumel, diving. She may deny this is how it happened, but that's the way I remember it.

If I'm going to scuba dive, I figured, I'll probably have to tread water at least, so I decided to spend three or four nights a week during November teaching myself to swim. Some evenings my wife joined me and offered support. I told her: "You know when a three-toed sloth comes down out of the tree and swims across the river? That's what it looks like when I swim." She gazed at me full steady and said: "Except the sloth is graceful." She'd been watching me.

I spent enough time in the water during November that I was no longer entirely panicked when I got wet. Then soon enough I could swim two hundred yards, three hundred, four hundred, and I could tread water indefinitely; sometimes, admittedly, it was hard to tell my treading water from my swimming. It turns out that to get Open Water Certification, you must be able to tread water ten minutes and swim two hundred yards (no time limit); you will be tested. When our class took the swimming test, I got done a full ten minutes after everyone else was out of the water. They had dried themselves off, packed up their equipment, and were heading out the door; I was still swimming my two hundred yards. But I passed. It wasn't pretty but I passed. Our scuba instructor thought the farm boy who'd taught himself to swim like a sloth did a pretty good job of it. Of course my wife is a fish so the swimming test was little more than a sneeze for her.

Perhaps I have not said enough about the immensity of this achievement, learning to swim. I am flushed with pride. The farm boy who had never gotten sun on his legs his whole long life has learned to swim! I had never been "terrified" of water, yet I was never comfortable with it either and was terribly deficient in experience. At the age of 53, I remedied that. I took hold of myself and made myself do it. I learned to swim, then I learned to scuba dive. I amazed friends and co-workers. A much younger and much fitter acquaintance who already snorkels said: "Oh, I could never do that, scuba diving is too scary."

I said: "If I can do it, anyone can."

Mary and I took our classroom and our confined water training in Wisconsin in December. We wanted to take our open water training in warm water, hence we would get certified when we got to Cozumel. Anything else would be crazy, wouldn't it? Although we had already practiced our skills in a swimming pool twelve feet deep, I had a moment of panic the first time I needed to demonstrate "a controlled emergency swimming ascent" with one breath from the depth of a full 33 feet. To be certified, you must do it, there's no choice. And you must be blowing out small bubbles the whole way up. (The first law of scuba diving is never hold your breath.) On my first attempt, within a couple feet of the air above me, I was sure I had run out of breath and I aborted the attempt; I sucked on my regulator. If this had been an actual emergency, as they used to say on the radio, I suppose I would have exploded out of the water. I succeeded on my second try....

Scuba diving may be as close as humankind will come to the sensation of bird flight, to the climb and roll and pitch of it, the tilt and swoop and sweep, the stoke and dive and hoot of it. We are mostly water; underwater the wetness seems an extension of us. Or are we an extension of the water? Is it the dancer or the dance? Why oh why did we ever come out of the sea? Why did we ever choose to become clumsy land beasts when water is our essence and feels so much like home?

And the colors underwater! The psychedelic aura of everything. The shine and color and shake. Well below the surface, a large fish swims past, close to me, very close, it looks as if it has been drawn and colored by a small child, it looks like a cartoon of a fish come to life. I laugh, and laughing I nearly lose the regulator from my mouth.

We are at Palancar Reef, the outer wall at the edge of open ocean. We are swimming at 55 feet amongst the coral heads there, then the wall of the reef falls away and we fall into a blue ocean, into an infinite midnight blueness of outer space receding forever, there are little blue fishes winking on and off like stars twinkling, the Yucatan channel is 2600 feet deep, it is a great blue abyss and looking into it takes my breath away. I am not seeing God, but it's like seeing God. Looking into the abyss, I have to remind myself to breathe. We cannot speak the name of God and now I know why. I have to remind myself again - breathe! I have never been so alive.


APRIL 20, 2001

It's a grey, wet morning.
This pale light has been
used already at some dim
street corner in a small
town along Maine's coast;
beneath the yard light
of any farm in upstate
New York; or a steel mill
in Indiana,
the fire in it. It is
light as seen through water
the way a fish's eye sees.
A used-up brightness
but good enough for us,
we're middle western,
we don't have to have
the best of things.


APRIL 14, 1998

It rained yesterday. This morning, broken clouds and blue sky above. A dark front seems to be moving in from the west. There is a pattern to all this - to the weather, to the roll of our days, to the turn of the season - though sometimes I do not discern it. It seems, sometimes, simply a roiling, grey mass around me. I know that's not true, but often I'm not able to find the end of the string and tug out what is special. It would be even worse, I suppose, in a climate less given to extremes, less blessed with the color of its changes. The tropical fellows would likely say "No problem, mon!" but I wonder. Lethargy is the fruit of sameness. When we come through a tough blizzard, at least we can feel blessed that we have survived.

Smug midwesterner, no?

"Yeah, mon."

Very Canadian clouds this morning. Daffodils bent low by yesterday's rain. A wind. The call of a goose overhead.

Still a high, hurried river coming through Fairwater. Still wild geese in the farm yard. Still fierce water in the ditches.

The farmers have been making progress in the fields - corn stalks are being disked into the soil.

When did they disappear, those piles of snow that had been heaped up in the park in Ripon? I do not know. You think you've been paying close attention and all of a sudden you recognize how much you miss.

"Yeah, mon."

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