Refracted Light

As I glided upward through the cold, clear water I opened my eyes. Light filtered through the turquoise and the water around me glittered as I moved toward the surface right above me. 

I don’t remember the last time I opened my eyes underwater. For that matter, I don’t remember the last time I swam in a body of water without a nawing sense of discomfort and a fighting back of niggling fear and underlying disgust. Even now, the thought of deep impermeable water, of oozing muddy banks, or seaweed caressing ankles, or vast depths in which I cannot breathe, creates within me a visceral unease that catches in my chest. Occasionally I go in anyway, willfully shoving that unease down, down deep in my stomach and smiling with wonder at everyone around me who seem to splash around with real enjoyment.

It’s not a fear of drowning. I’m actually an excellent swimmer and swam competitively throughout all of my childhood and teenaged years. And it’s not a fear of critters per se, though the idea of what could arise from the depths of an ocean is certainly enough to give me great pause. Swiftly moving rivers don’t bother me at all, though I have a deep respect for moving water and for the inherent risks associated with its power. But confronted with the vastness of the sea or the murky depths of a muddy lake, I have to swallow hard my fear and reluctance and my preference is always to limit my interaction to wading no deeper than my knees.

But this water was different. This lake in all its alpine glory was deep, yes, but its depths shimmered with clarity and its banks were lined with great boulders that tumbled into the water, slick where wet but not slimy. For the first time in what might be decades, I could not resist the call of the blue-green sparkle and I dove out towards its center without reserve, without the need to ignore any misgiving. The icy water was sweet and invigorating and I had a real moment of shock to realize that I wasn’t faking it, that I wasn’t putting on a brave face because I was embarrassed to once again be the only one left on shore. I meant it, this smile, this childlike energy and innate calling to splash and play and dive back under the surface. 

When did it happen? When did these fears begin taking root? I have precious childhood memories of swimming out past the breaking waves with my dad when we lived in Virginia Beach, his teaching me to body-surf my kindergartner self back toward shore, my hiccuping with laughter when a wave pummeled me back into the sand. Or my high-school self running back into my hotel room for goggles when in Florida for a big swim meet, eager to dive into the ocean and see what mysteries awaited, only relinquishing the water when our coaches threatened to pull us from our events if we didn’t rest. I can’t pinpoint when exactly the prospect of swimming in the wide sea began filling me with a leaden dread, but it happened somewhere between high school and now.

It’s only swimming and I know I’m not alone in my reticence, but I wonder about this inclination toward fear and reluctance as I get older. How many tiny ways I allow my world to grow smaller in order to avoid unease and uncertainty. As I floated on my back in this mountain lake, I wondered how many moments of shared exuberance I’d stayed on the sidelines for, watched from my knee-deep comfort-zone at the edges. As I relished the icy embrace of the clear, pure water, I wondered what other fears I’d allowed to move in, to shrink my existence, to become habit, maybe less obvious than murky water. 

I flipped over and dove down, the cold hitting my face, playing with my hair as it floated around my head in a cloud. And as I made my way back up toward the sun and sky and warm late summer air, I opened my eyes. I opened my eyes and took in the glittering beauty of refracted sunshine and deep quiet. 

And I resolved once again to keep them open, to set aside habit and comfort and to look at my decisions closely, to do the work of honesty and to push out against the fear that would keep me on shore, that would keep my life and my experiences and my perspectives small and shrinking.