Sharks

I’ve been back to writing recently and thought I’d share one of the stories I’ve been working on. Enjoy!

“Every angel is terrifying.”

Maria Rilke

Throughout high school, I spent every free moment of study hall in the library where I was transfixed by a peculiar book. It called to me from a distance. I couldn’t wait to see the striking blue binding in the stacks, to feel the gentle tension of pulling it off the shelf, to walk it ceremoniously to a table holding it with both hands like a sacred text. With the turn of each thick, glossy page something inside of me sought the mysterious darkness of their eyes. They peered into my soul from every magnificent photograph. I was in awe of their power to both scare and soothe me at the same time. They felt familiar and honest.

Sharks have occupied a space in my psyche for as long as I can remember. I think about them most days whether I’m around water or not. As a kid, I feared bathing without my mom or a sister in the room. I imagined sharks could emerge from below the pale green ceramic tub. I never swam in pools or the community lake without another body close by. I figured it lowered my chances of an “attack.” For a time, I even believed they came out from under my bed at night and swam just below the surface of the lava-orange shag carpet. I often stared at the floor expecting to see a fin pierce the surface.

Alongside my fear lived fascination. I was in awe of these creatures. Somehow I knew there was more to them than my terror. I dreamed of becoming a marine biologist adorning my walls with National Geographic centerfolds of cetaceans. Though fearful, anytime I actually found myself near the sea, I couldn’t resist entering but remained on edge the whole time.

Anxiety was a big part of my life besides the shark thing. My parents are “worst case scenario” kind of folks. It’s still a running joke among my sisters and me how mom can think of the most ridiculous things to be afraid of. It was in her parents too. My maternal grandmother mistrusted joy itself. “What are you so damned happy about?” she’d gripe at us as youngsters whenever we laughed in her presence. When I reflect on this alone, I don’t find it funny at all. I see how we were indoctrinated with fear. Fear of feeling, especially feeling good. Fear that the world was an innately dangerous place. Fear we would lose control. This hyper vigilance created a belief that somehow simply being myself was unsafe. 

Despite all this I ventured beyond the shoreline of life farther than my family ever did. At ten I chased my land-based dream of being with horses by riding my bike way past the set parameters of the neighborhood. At the border of the local Metro Park was a small farm where two old horses lived. I hung over a fence communing with Equus for two years before the farmer came down one day. He said I could brush the horses if I had my parent’s permission. The rest was history as they say. Horses have been a mainstay of my life ever since. 

Taking that risk saved me in so many ways. I know in my heart of hearts that without horses I would have died from my eating disorder or succumbed to one of the other mental health afflictions and addictions that ravage my family tree. I learned to obsess about food and hate my body from both grandmas, my own mother, aunts and cousins. My paternal grandfather’s twin, my uncle and a cousin all died of suicide. I was bingeing and restricting by ten, drinking by twelve and smoked pot at fourteen. I lost many memories of my adolescence. My father’s life long battle with alcohol is still a wound I’ve spent many years tending. 

When I was brave, more opportunities with horses and other ventures came my way when I was brave. I dove in headlong. However growth and healing were slow however due to those well planted seeds of doubt. Shame whispered that somehow it was wrong to do what felt right for me. I feared yet followed my heart’s desires most of the time. The dichotomy felt like turning through those shark infested pages in the library. At times fear won and caused me to sabotage beautiful things, things I had manifested from like: healthy relationships, parts of my dietetics career and a trip to Alaska to kayak with killer whales in the company of women I looked up to in my field of recovery. 

Alongside the seemingly random shark obsession came a burning desire to visit Hawaii. In 2009 a retreat like the Alaska one I had missed years earlier was being offered on The Big Island. I had to go! When I received the invite, my initial excitement quickly faded as the fear voice emerged from the depths to say “no way.” I flippantly dismissed the possibility. It would simply be too much goodness. A few days later while biking through the woods an unseen force stopped me dead in my tracks by. It was as if I had run into an invisible wall. I swear I never even touched the brakes. I stood there in stillness straddling my bike in awe and confusion when I felt a message shoot through my heart from, what felt like, above. My partner at the time, who had been riding with me, circled back when he realized I was no longer trailing him. When he saw me he recognized something big had transpired. “What happened?” he gasped. Still dazed I muttered matter of factly, “We’re going to Hawaii.”

The path was clear. I effortlessly planned the trip. Money showed up, crazy travel deals were available for the dates of the retreat and my work could accommodate my absence. I was even able to swing taking my daughter Elle, my partner and mom along. It was another dream come true but with the added awesomeness of sharing it with loved ones. I was over the moon!

I was thirty-five at the time and had been to hell and back through an abusive marriage and messy divorce. I was still struggling through harassment and custody battles with the ex. The trauma of that and compassion fatigue from work came along for the ride. These had also stripped me of my mojo. I was living most of my life back in that familial vibration of fear and having a hard time breaking through to honor the creative pulse of Body Karma Healing, my signature work in the world. It was rising to the surface longing to be birthed and in retrospect, to rebirth me. Being a good daughter of the patriarchy I was overworking, overdoing and overproducing at the hurried pace of capitalist colonialism. It was too much, too fast but I couldn’t seem to stop. I was drowning inside my own life and didn’t even know it. I was afraid to stop and feel anything within in its fullest expression.

The opening session of the retreat was a guided meditation. I was so excited! My official yoga journey had begun just a few years earlier. Now there I was in Hawaii surrounded by soulful leaders with several other women who “get” the work I do in eating disorders treatment. “This will be so relaxing.” I thought. As we dove into the moment I felt anything but calm. I took an uncontrollable descent into the epicenter of my anxiety. At home I could escape it. Here I had to stay with it. Below the tip of that emotional iceberg was a grief like no other. Nothing could stop the tears as I crumbled into the grace of the divine feminine. She held me tenderly in her womb, stroked my face and told me it was time. It was an all-consuming, transcendent experience. And it was also only the beginning. 

That night I had a dream. Engaged in a ravenous binge a mirror appeared before me. There I saw the bloated, distressed and depressed face of my mother. My body was her body, my pain was her pain. I saw in our eyes the heartbreaking stories of her childhood. Her basics needs for unconditional love and protection unmet: when she fell off a dock in a dry rotted life jacket that pulled her toddler body to the bottom of a Canadian lake; when my grandmother slapped her across the face anytime she showed emotion; when on vacation she and her younger brother were startled awake by a coconut striking the roof of the hot car where they were left alone. My grandparents were inside a bar drinking at the time. 

She barely survived the neglect and abuse. I could feel her despair in my own flesh. The heavy shield of her worry weighing down my own heart. There was more in the dream that I could not quite access, some other piece of her story intricately linked to mine. I woke in the darkness, trade winds blowing through the room. They soothed me as I wept and journaled and wept some more. That morning my mom, not knowing of my dream, shared about having a panic attack while pregnant with me. It happened watching the blockbuster movie Jaws that came out the year I was born. She said, “All I could think about was being a clueless teen sitting on surfboards by the peer while on summer vacations. We had no idea! I could have died out there!” I was in awe. She had a panic attack retroactive to being in a situation she once had no qualms about. She had trusted herself in those moments of joy floating in the sea. She abandoned that trust and joy in the movie theater that day. And I am sure many times before as she experienced trauma. It was all starting to make sense.

Later that afternoon, I went on a snorkel charter with my family. Much to my delight, we had a special tour guide named Bryce. I liked him as soon as I saw his sun-kissed ball cap with a shark embroidered on it. The design was a sleek marine body forming a circle nose to tail. Once on our way up the shoreline Bryce shared a video of his partner’s work with sharks. Her passion was focused on changing people’s perception of sharks by doing the very thing most people fear, swimming with them. Bryce’s sharing helped my worrisome mother muster up the courage to get in the water with us. To this day, it is her favorite memory. I had a blast too but was still anxious in the Pacific for the first time. I was comforted being close to shore, the boat and lots of other folks bobbing in the water.

Several days later towards the end of the retreat our women’s group took a snorkel trip as well. On the way out to the reef one of the women mentioned how a previous retreat group gathered around an ancient tree naked. Without hesitation I shouted, “Let’s snorkel naked!” To my surprise, the idea was embraced by all. As we anchored well offshore, clothes dripped from thirty-three bodies of diverse shapes, sizes and shades much to the delight of our two male boat captains. We entered the deep blue sea and headed towards the reef. I felt safe surrounded by that many people and swimming for the shallows until that force from the bike trail showed up. 

Like someone pushed pause, I was held in an eerie stillness just above the reef shelf. There hung a small shadow fish. Black and white like a Yin/Yang symbol. He was suspended too, barely moving his tiny fins in a delicate figure eight. I was enchanted with him. Then, my old friend fear showed up to rain on the parade. Beyond this single, solitary fish was the abyss. I had never been in water so deep. My eyes traced the line from the reef down, down, down to nowhere. Turquoise turned to indigo until indigo faded to black. 

In that moment, though terror pulsed through my veins, I made a life altering choice. A conscious decision to stay right there. I was enjoying the company of the shadow fish though away from the safety of others and unsure what could emerge from the infinite void. I literally shrugged my shoulders underwater as I thought, “Well…if this is how I die, eaten by a shark in the middle of the Pacific Ocean then so be it.” Surrendering released me into one of the most blissful moments of my life. It was transcendent. All these years later I still can’t put words to it. 

I have no idea how long I hung out there. I don’t even remember breathing through the snorkel. At some point I lifted my head above the surface to look around. Much to my surprise, I was completely alone. Everyone else was back on the boat patiently waiting for me. The boat that was approximately a quarter mile away, further out to sea, mind you. Now, had I found myself in this situation before my recent awakening, I would have become Christ himself and walked (rather ran) on water. Instead, I simply put my head back into the magnificent blue and slowly made my way back. Mother Ocean holding me tenderly as I swam calmly towards the vessel.

Once anchored back in the bay near the resort we organized into small groups in order to take turns riding the dingy to shore. I overheard one woman say she’d like to swim in. The distance being about that of a football field. I then heard one of the retreat leaders agree to go with the woman, “Only if you stay close to me. I’m afraid in the water alone.” she said. I was shocked. Surely she was braver than I. I felt a deep and healing resonance with her and heard a quiet voice inside say, “We’re all working on the same shit.” I chimed in, “I’ll swim with you too.” The three of us, back in swimsuits now, plunged joyfully into the crystal blue water together. 

On our final day in Hawaii, I got my first tattoos. I had planned to do a Hibiscus flower from the start of this adventure. I did so on my ankle. Unexpectedly I also got two sharks dancing in a figure eight on the inside of my left forearm. I found the perfect artist to do the work. Erika was a Native Hawaiian who had just opened her business with her two sisters. I also have two sisters and she is the middle child same as me. I pitched her my idea and she created the design. She laced it with Polynesian tribal symbols and showed me four choices for color. I was drawn to the vibrant turquoise which represents the throat chakra, our energy center related to truth, communication and authentic self-expression. The Sanskrit name for it is “vissudah” meaning purification. Purification is exactly what I felt happened to me in the sea that day. My ancestral fear washed away. The woman smiled and said, “That’s the one I chose for you too.” 

As Erika went to work, my partner looked concerned. I could tell he had judgements about my getting inked in a place everyone could so easily see. I shared with him that what mattered was that I see it. I needed to remember this vital lesson; like the extremely rare chance of having an adverse interaction with a shark, fear is almost always an illusion. The worst-case scenarios our mind conjures hardly ever become reality. Fear is often a ghost from our past, perhaps from our own experiences or a family legacy of pain. Fear often shows up when we dare to dive deeper into life and leave behind the versions of ourselves we became to satisfy the status quo or to shield ourselves from judgment or rejection. I needed to remember that below fear is often grief and we must, like sharks, keep moving through the depths. If we stop swimming, we will die.

Much like myths about the sea and other aspects of nature, fear also comes from the lies we are told about the sacred feminine. Such that she is dangerous, like sharks or wolves or the wisdom in our own bodies, when actually, she is essential to the very existence of life itself. Without these apex predators balancing the entirety of the ecosystem, life on earth is unsustainable. Likewise, without fear and other intense emotions (feminine energy) to heighten our self-awareness we may miss opportunities to heal deeply through the grief inherent in losing ourselves to the superficial life. Finally, I’ve learned through this and other experiences that fear is largely our ego trying to keep us from our sacred desires. The ones that if followed, would bring us to the brink of our humanity and force us to choose love again and again. Fear is a gateway to self-realization. 

Fast forward to 2021. Our country is slowly climbing out of a pandemic. Fear, anxiety and tension rage everywhere due to political divide, a climate crisis and white supremacy emboldened after a sociopath had a turn at the helm of our nation. In the chaos of it all, another dream of mine decides it’s time. I have the opportunity to take a couple of long-time yoga clients on a trip to, you guessed it, Hawaii. At this point I’ve been back twice since the first trip, both times with Elle who is now nineteen years old. 

Thought I never became a marine biologist I had been following and supporting the work of a group of them on Oahu. Their main work is shark conservation, part of which involves taking folks out to snorkel with these amazing animals. It was the first thing I booked during the trip planning. Surprisingly Elle, who was going along as my assistant, and the clients chose to join me in it. We all agree to give ourselves complete permission to not get in the water if we were scared. 

Goddess Pele is a fierce one. The trip brought up a lot for each of us to work on while there. It was intense to say the least. Our shark outing fast approached forcing all to stay present so we could make the best choice when traveling into the deep. My heart danced between the emotions of fear and excitement in the days preceding the trip. After many years of growth and healing work, I was proud of how I could mindfully track what was happening within and stay committed to honoring myself when the moment arrived. I could trust myself to do what was best for me despite how badly my ego feared what would happen if I didn’t follow through. I was exquisitely mothering myself. Something I’ve always struggled to do well. 

I allowed my clients to navigate their journey with the shark snorkel on their own. I made it clear that I would be solely tending myself and my daughter in respect to this part of the trip. I did however encourage everyone to listen to their own inner guidance. The night before the trip, Elle began to have increased anxiety. The Dramamine protocol helped take the edge off and she was able to get to sleep despite the fear rising. It was still there when she woke up and she nearly threw up because of it. “You do not have to get in the water!” I reminder her. “Yes, I do. I told people I was doing this.” “Um huh,” I said. “That’s the worst reason to do it. Don’t let your ego run this show or Pele will surely teach you a lesson.” 

On a windy Monday morning we ventured three miles out to the shark aggregate site. The biologists did a fantastic job of educating us on the ride out. From safety to shark and climate science to the concept of “aumakua.” Native Hawaiians believe that sharks are their ancestors—the reincarnations of family that have left the human form. As Forest, our main guide shared about this, a pod of spinner dolphins jumped playfully around us as if to celebrate the sharing of this lore. I could see Elle begin to relax. 

We soon reached our destination. The boat bobbed up and down in the chop as the captain slowed her to a stop and said coyly, “Anyone see sharks?” We all stood and turned excitedly towards the sides of the vessel. There in a swell of dreamy blue water I saw an image I had feared my entire life. The silhouette of a shark swimming straight at me. Much to my surprise the emotions that surfaced were completely opposite of what I’d expected. It was as if every cell in my body released its knowing of fear itself. I melted into the deepest state of relaxation I’ve ever known. My knees buckled but luckily found the support of the bench. A sense of what I can only describe as reverence overwhelmed me. I began to weep. The only thought in my mind was, “Of course I’m getting in the water.”

I came to my senses and turned around to get check in on Elle. To my delight, she was already in the water. She would also be the last one out. A maternal legacy of fear cleared in the blink of an eye by the presence of primordial grace. Filled with child-like wonder I joined her in the water. Gazing down it was like seeing my tattoo come to life. Thirty some sharks in multiple layers swam in circles and figure eights below us. We hung to a rope on the side of the boat. I could simply float there on the surface, completely at ease, taking in the light and shapes of the submarine universe. Should you choose, you could let go of the rope and swim away from the boat to join the guide several yards out. Once there the invitation was to free dive straight down towards the gathering of sea creatures. I’ve never felt more safe, free or peaceful in my entire life. I only wished I could stay under longer. A new level of self-mothering was discovered that day. And in liberating myself from fear, I set my daughter free. This is a gift we can all give and receive in a never-ending flow of love: we embrace our pain and love ourselves and each other back to wholeness. 

Shortly after our return home, Hawaii passed House Bill 553 protecting sharks in state waters. On World Ocean’s Day 2021 the U.S. Senate passed the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (S. 1106) — a bill that would ban the buying and selling of shark fins in the United States. These are both huge wins for our endangered friends, humanity and  and Mother Earth. 

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