My windshield has been the recipient of some of the foulest trash talk imaginable, and I make no apology for it. Growing up on New York’s Long Island, home to the world’s longest parking lot, laughably named the Expressway, I was predisposed to such behavior. I apprenticed in the passenger seat of my mother’s Mustang, watching her middle finger ably signal everyone she felt deserved to see it. Her mastery of the many nuanced intonations of the word “asshole” was equally impressive.
When I got my driver’s permit, all I needed to learn was how to handle a vehicle. I was already well skilled in the fine art of relating to others with whom I shared the road. Not a fan of hand signs, my concentration was in verbal styles of communication, my New York accent only enhancing my delivery techniques.
“I’m driving here, shithead. Stay on your own side of the road… You want to tailgate me? Watch how slowly I can drive… Listen asshole, your turn signal is not optional equipment… Don’t you even think of pulling in front of me (said as I adamantly maintained the required ‘bumper to bumper’ distance in heavy traffic.)
I continued to perfect these skills until I finished my Master’s Degree and began my professional career. Soon after starting my position as a United Methodist pastor, I realized that there was a level of disconnect between my verbal driving techniques and the public’s opinion of behavior behind the wheel for someone with a clergy sticker on the bumper. It was, however, not too difficult to morph my talents to meet expectations. Since I was then able to afford a car with an air conditioner, I merely rolled up the windows so my verbiage could not be heard outside my vehicle. I also then responded to every “F Bomb” floated my way with “Oh yeah? Well, bless YOU.”
This worked well until I joined the Navy as a chaplain. Being in the military, I could keep my New York driver’s license, as long as I still used the number of expletives required each month of all New York drivers. But that also meant that since most of the people with whom I shared the roads on base knew I was a chaplain, I had to actually become a bit more gracious. Still, it was not a problem as I was able to fulfill my state mandated quota of vulgar commentary by taking long drives away from the base while on liberty.
Then I was sent to Iraq for the invasion in 2003. Although I never drove a vehicle there, I soon learned that the irritation level attainable in traffic was not limited to being in a car. A combat arena is able to bring out the asshole in many a frightened, tired and frustrated person just like what happens during an evening commute, only more so. And unlike a commute, which ends in an hour, that ever-vigilant environment goes on for months without pause, keeping stress hormones raging until they become a person’s new normal. I had no idea the profound affect it all had had on me until I returned home, got back in my car and tried to drive as if nothing had changed.
To say that my New York edginess had made a turn for the worse is an understatement. What used to be an almost comic monolog about shitty drivers became pure road rage that even I found frightening. No longer did I yell in response to a dumb maneuver in the road around me, now I screamed at every little thing. I thought my outrageous behavior would pass with time, as I settled back into a routine, but it didn’t. Moving to a new duty station with a much shorter commute didn’t help, either. I began to think that perhaps I should give up driving altogether, but how does one do that and still maintain the ability to live and work without public transportation?
Thinking a vacation might help, my husband Ken and I decided to take leave in Cancun, Mexico. Although fresh air and ocean breezes wouldn’t fix my problem, having a bit of time to relax couldn’t make it any worse and for a week, at least I would not be driving.
Since Ken is a scuba diver, the plan was that he would make a dive each day, and while he was out, I would sit by the pool and calmly read a book. On the first morning we were there, I grabbed a novel and headed over to find a shady spot under a palm tree. I settled in to the lounge chair and opened the book. I was barely a page into the story when I noticed Ken standing at the foot of the lounger.
“Your dive lesson begins in 10 minutes. Close the book and follow me.”
“No buts. Your lesson is paid for and you are taking it. Besides, it’s only in the pool. Since I dive, you should at least try it.”
Realizing it was futile to argue, I followed him. For the next hour and a half, I learned all about dive gear – how to wear it, how to use it, even how to clear a mask underwater and recover my regulator should it get bumped out of my mouth. That last bit was rather easy for me, since I had had to use a gas mask many times in Iraq, even donning one from a sound sleep when the chemical sensors buzzed.
Being underwater was strangely peaceful, especially since I could be there for an extended period without the need to surface. All I could hear was the rhythmic bubbling of the regulator as I slowly inhaled and exhaled. For the first time in a long time, I felt calm.
When the lesson was over, Ken was waiting for me. “Well, how was it?” he asked.
“Better than I expected,” I replied and began to tell him what I had learned, but he stopped me mid-sentence.
“Glad you liked it; your first open water dive starts in 45 minutes. Let’s get you into a wet suit and get sized for a weight belt.”
“No buts,” he replied.
My open water instructor’s name was Manuel, a very pleasant and competent gentleman from Cuba. I could tell right away that he expected me to follow his orders to ensure a safe diving experience, and I was grateful. Before we got into the boat, he reviewed what I needed to know about the gear, the gauges and how to exit the boat and descend along a rope. Since Ken was an experienced diver, he was going off with other divers and a guide. Manuel and I would be dropped in the ocean and they would come back to get us. As the small boat headed out to an area over a reef known as the Aquarium, Manuel gave me one last instruction.
“Since we cannot talk underwater, we will have to rely on hand signals. Thumbs up means you need to surface right away. Hopefully you won’t need that.” Forming a circle with his right thumb and forefinger, he said, “This is the okay sign. Periodically I will ask if you are okay using this sign. But before you answer with the same sign, I want you to do three things. First, look at your air gauge to make sure you are not running out of what you need down there to keep you alive. Second, check the rest of your equipment to see if anything is amiss. And third, look around to see if there is any potential danger, like a speedboat, a torpedo or a shark.”
“A shark,” I stammered. “There could be sharks?”
“It’s the ocean. There could be sharks.”
“What if I see one?”
“Try not to annoy it.”
I laughed, trying to control my fear in a situation I was not sure I wanted to be in, in the first place.
“Let’s go over this again,” Manuel insisted. “I give you the okay sign as a question. What do you do?”
“Check for the immediate threat of lack of oxygen. Then check for the pending threat of equipment malfunction. Lastly check for a potential threat like a SHARK. Shouldn’t I check for the shark, first?”
“You won’t get away from him if you don’t have any air,” Manuel replied with a smile. “And if all those threats of yours are, how do you say, ‘neutralized,’ then what do you do?”
“I signal back with the okay sign, not the thumbs up, right?”
When we got to the drop spot, with fear and trembling I fell backwards out of the boat, letting my heavy air tank lead the way. Then I followed Manuel as together we descended the rope almost forty feet to the ocean floor, stopping periodically to clear our ears.
I had never seen anything like it! There were fish. Lots of fish! Iridescent ones, spiny ones, blue, pink, silver, striped fish, blowing sand off the sea floor, hiding behind coral, slipping past my face mask fish. There were fish everywhere! I understood at once why this area was known as the Aquarium.
With Manuel leading the way, we swam in, under and around the reef. At every turn there was something to see. At one point, a large eel slipped out of his hole to see us. I stopped dead in the water. Eels look like thick snakes, and I am not a fan of snakes. I began to look around with a more critical eye. If there is one eel, there could be more of them. Perhaps other dangerous creatures are lurking nearby. Maybe even a shark. I am down here with a person I don’t know well, in an environment I don’t really understand, using equipment that is unfamiliar. I froze. Manuel looked in my direction and I guess he saw a look of panic in my eyes. He gave me the okay sign. When I didn’t immediately respond, he pointed to my air gauge. I looked at it. I had been breathing so calmly up to that point that I had lots of air left. Then I felt around my gear. Everything was in place and functioning. I looked up. No torpedoes, speedboats or cruise ships. I looked around. The fish were still swimming around my head with no sense of urgency. Everything was just as it should be. I gave Manuel the okay sign. Looking at my eyes, he could see they were wide and staring inside my face mask. He pointed at me and gave me the okay sign again. Quickly, I did a second inventory. All was well. I okayed him back. Then he took his forefinger and middle finger and pointed them at his eyes, then turn his wrist and pointed them away. We hadn’t covered this sign, but I knew it meant look. Then he put his two palms together and wiggled them. He then repeated the two signs, to tell me to “Look at the fish.”
In my panic, I had forgotten to do that. I had stopped looking and reverted to merely seeing. As we continued our dive, I tried as best I could to regain the fascination I’d had when we first descended, but it was difficult. Now that I was looking for danger as well as beauty, it was hard to relax. For a moment, Manuel swam away from me and when I looked to see where he had gone, he was floating next to a large nurse shark. Putting his hand on the shark’s side, he used the other to beckon me forward, but I was already swimming backwards as fast as I could to put distance between that big fish and me. I don’t know where I thought I was going, but eventually Manuel was beside me again. Thankfully, it was time to surface. We had gone full circle and were back at the rope. It took all the strength I had to stop and clear my ears as needed instead of shooting straight for the surface and away from any other threats.
Back in the boat, Ken wanted to know how it had gone. Before I could say anything, Manuel said, “Your wife was a little nervous, but she’ll fix that on her next dive.” Then, as Ken went off to tend to his gear, Manuel pulled me aside. “Diving is about wonder and beauty. It is an opportunity to relax and enjoy the environment. It is not an exercise in how well you can control panic. You need to dive more. It will do you a world of good.”
On that trip, I did seven open water dives and two cave dives. Over the course of the week I got more familiar with the equipment and ever more fascinated with the diversity of life on the reef. Again and again, Manuel gave me the okay sign until I could do the three checks automatically. Do I have what I need to sustain life where I am? (Oxygen). Is what I rely on functioning? (Gear). Is there a potential problem I can foresee? (Anchor dropping on my head). If all is well, then look at the fish. Just look at the fish. Appreciate them for all that they are. That is why we are here.
On the first day back to work after Ken and I returned from Cancun, I again had to face the horrific just-over-one-mile commute that had become so unbearable. And wouldn’t you know it? A driver cut me off.
Automatically, I took a deep breath, mumbled, “Well, nothing happened to my car,” glanced at the other drivers around me and said out loud, “Wow, the trees are already budding. Those pale green baby leaves are so pretty.”
Without thinking, I’d done the check and moved on to appreciating the world around me, a world sometimes in need of laughable, somewhat vulgar commentary, but never anymore rage.
Many thanks to Manuel Mola, my patient instructor, who thought he was just teaching me to dive, but taught me so much more.
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