Monday, March 9, 2009

The Sleeper of the Sea

Some thoughts for my too-long-put-aside journal...The photo, above, of a chain connecting a diving bouy to the sea floor about 100 feet below.

How do you write about diving, or flying? How do you even start to think about flying, yourself, standing there in a windy field after you’ve shrugged off your harness, trembling from the vast complexities of a simple landing and trying to blot out your instructor’s post-flight analysis—even though you know you should be listening to him? There isn’t much time, you have to get it down immediately. Remember this feeling, I think, trying to listen to my instructor.

And how do you even start to think about diving as you shower off the saltwater, combing a fragment of jellyfish tentacle out of your beard while Billy Mays shrieks a commercial at you from a TV in an adjacent motel room? How do you think about this unbelievable thing you've just done--spent 45 minutes underwater, breathing air from a canister--as you try to jam the cheap motel showerhead back onto its pipe? How do you break away, where do you find the peace of mind to take wisdom from these experiences? There's grading to do, even on the drive back to Portland...

And how do you communicate what it’s like—and what it does to you—to breathe underwater? If it doesn’t transform you, you can’t be alive. Start by forgetting most of what you’ve read about diving, about the killing things down there; most divers don’t die while diving. Remember, there is good: Philipe Diole struggled to commuicate his experience with these confounding and heartening words about diving:

Intoxication and dream cradle me. Reason still controls me, but enticed by every kind of treachery, it is poised for mad flight into the sky, attracted by the slumbering phantoms of the deep. I am the sleeper of the sea, the drowned but conscious man drawn by the wires of dream into dangerous monologue…poetic transcription was a stage toward knowledge of the abyss”. (from “The Undersea Adventure”, © 1953 by Philipe Diole)

That’s a place to start. A portal, a door into the world of one man desperately trying to communicate with others not in words he dares to speak—they would so sound so high that people would say something noncommittal and wander off—but in writing, when the reader is asked one thing: to pay a little attention. Diole's writing, then, is not fast food, it’s not “How’s it going?” and “Oh, OK,”, there is gravity here, it’s important, the most important thing in the world while you write, and—you hope, to the reader—for the moment you have their attention. The responsibility to do it well—to reward attention in a world of sound bites—is exciting and terrifying.

So start: the universe underwater, for a human being, is comprehensively alien; you move slowly and with almost embarrassingly slight effort, compared to your exertions to just to cross a street up above. Suspended in the space of water, you roll your body to the right and through a few seconds you revolve skyward, past a great and irregular plain of light, then continue around to face the darkness of the sea floor again, stopping yourself with a palm gesture, hovering above the muddy plain perfectly horizontally by the simple magic of physics which become so apparent and plain here underwater in a few moments.

Sound travels fast here, underwater, and far, and you hear things you can’t see, all the time. There are a half dozen clicks and groans; there are snapping sounds and long low crunches. There are distant dragging sounds that make you hold your breath, feeling deeply afraid so that your eyes widen and you breathe more conspicuously, one inhalation and one exhalation at a time.

Once, a rubber hose rubbed across my neoprene hood near my ear, exploding with the 500-decibel wail of a stuttering siren, stopping my breath, stopping every muscle as my whole body tried to identify and classify the audio signal; and in that frozen moment I sank three feet to land softly on the mud of the sea floor. Even touching down I didn’t move as mud billowed up around me, blotting out anything beyond a grey haze as I’d wondered, is this a lethal equipment failure? Will I die, now? For a moment I’d thought—as I do when an jet plane just touches down and I feel the airframe heave against itself as it slows—it’s OK, it would be OK to die here, this way, but instantly after this my mind had raced and arrived at a solution: No, I would not die now. The sound—it was just the friction of a hose against my hood. And so, after slow thought and calming myself by maintaining my state of immobility—by just not doing anything and seeing what came of that while I let my mind sort the pieces of the puzzle—I’d come to a decision and tilted my head a little which resulted in the replication of the sound for a moment, and the sound screamed through my hood like a tortured violin string, the audio expression of a wracked and pinched shoulder nerve—dispelling fear for a moment because I had identified it. So: it was OK. I knew what the sound was. I would not die in the next few seconds. I was still alive and could look forward to even minutes more of conscious existence.

But then I’d remembered where I was, over a hundred feet beneath the surface of the sea—just a scratch on a monolith compared to the five-mile deeps, but still a great plunge for a frail little human frame—and the encyclopedia of possible disasters, the accident reports I imagined reading about myself, materialized again.

It’s so dark here, so cold and different from everything I’ve ever learned about the world. Be careful, Cameron! Don’t take anything for granted. Expectation is your enemy. Satisfaction is your enemy.

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