Once, I lost my bearings in the ocean. A friend and I were on vacation, learning to surf off the coast of Spain. We had drifted away from the line of easy riding, away from our beautiful but neglectful instructor. We were away from safety, closer to more experienced surfers and a section of coral reef clustered on the ocean floor. It took the first of a long set of waves to knock us both under. Our boards—fastened to our ankles by velcro straps and a line of rope—flapped helplessly at the surface above us. Under the water, amidst bubbles and the rushing sound of relentless crashing and gathering, I couldn’t determine which direction was up. I couldn’t sense my own orientation, couldn’t feel anything but the back and forth sway of the swell. Somehow, there was serenity in that moment. While the air leaked out of me and my brain sent panic coursing through my limbs, there was recognition. The forces around me were more than I could cope with, and there was nothing I could do in that moment to affect them.
But then, in the whirling rhythm around me, I found my friend’s arm. I felt the muscles there straining and fluttering, and my body remembered its imperative. I wrapped my palm around her bicep and forced us both up, towards the direction I knew was up, now. When we broke the surface of the water, when we finally scrambled onto our boards after two more waves knocked us under, we were gasping. We paddled to shore and collapsed on the sand. The salt that rimmed our mouths and stomachs tasted sharper, stronger. The ocean had bested us and we admitted defeat, sucking air into ourselves and laughing at our folly.
During my first float, I found that time again. I found the moment of calm under the surface of the water, that moment of realization that there were things much bigger than me, much stronger than I could master. But in the tank, without the panic of lungs, I could bask in the feeling longer. I remembered the times I had been surrounded by water, remembered the feeling of it coursing around me or holding up my floating frame, and there was peace there. The tank was a reminder of those times when I felt small and vulnerable and content, completely at the power of the forces swelling around me.
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