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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

The woman who swam with sharks

Contrary to popular belief, swimming with sharks does not require courage, at least in my case. Yes, I had always had a deep seated fear of sharks probably born of Shark Week commercials. But being in a cage surrounded by other people, breathing through snorkel masks, feet firmly planted against the floor and looking out inside the deep sea? That was not the hard part.

The hard part was getting into the two inches of clear water lapping against the shore.

Traumatic experiences in water as a child had led to a life of panic attacks when approaching the water. The fear was indiscriminate. Cloudy water, clear water, lakes, oceans, rivers…all caused an elevated heart rate, and in some cases, full blown panic attacks.

But my desire to snorkel in the warm waters of Maui outweighed my incapacitating fear, and thus began a painfully slow journey towards a different relationship with water. I remember standing in two inches of water, forcing myself to breathe slowly as the clear waters lapped over my toes. When my heart rate would begin to calm, I would take another step and begin the process anew. I had to condition myself to breathe through my fear and eventually learned to replace the lies in my head with calm voices that spoke the truth. The journey literally took years.

And so swimming with sharks was not a “first step.” It was, as we say in education, a culminating exhibition.

I thought of those years of facing my water fears this morning when I left my house for my usual early morning walk to watch the sunrise over the Santa Rita Mountains in the Sonoran Desert. Leaving the portico of the home, I was surprised to see it

seemed nightfall had not lifted- the sky so full of dark clouds, it was difficult to see.

I felt the familiar rise of my heart rate signaling the birth of fear. For the desert is home to night creatures, and, like the sharks, all carried the debris of fictional encounters and warnings from the human inhabitants of the landscape. As I glanced at my surroundings, like the shallows of the sea, every tiny movement became a threat to my existence. But my desire to encounter a rising sun was so powerful, I could not go back into the home.

Breathe. Just breathe.

I stared at the ground in front of my feet on the sidewalk watching for hidden dangers in the half light. Every splotch became a tarantula. Every crack in the street became a rattler. Every bush I walked under had a black witch moth waiting to land.

Breathe. Just breathe.

A bat cut across my field of view and swooped back and forth. I pictured a legion following behind. A rustling in the bushes of a wash I passed must surely be filled with hostile javelina disturbed by my presence. Harbingers of death, it seemed, lurked everywhere.

In the presence of these fears, it would have been would be so easy to go back and hide inside. But this I could not do. Because I knew my fear, as an author once stated, was just this: False Evidence Appearing Real. That lesson had been honed in the waters off the Maui shore, and I needed to sharpen it in this dry desert landscape.

Breathe. Just breathe.

I continued to walk and breathe deeply to keep the fear at bay. The sun finally won its battle against the monsoon clouds. The skies lightened, and the air warmed. Walking back in the growing light, I saw the “tarantula” splotch hadn’t moved; it was simply leaf debris on the sidewalk. The “snake”crack in the road remained in its original place and no rattles were attached to its tail. The rustling leaves of the mesquite contained only awakening birds, and solitary bat, merely hungry and harmless, had flown off to roost for the day.

False Evidence Appearing Real. Nothing was as it had seemed through the lens of my fear. That is a lesson I continue to learn and relearn as life unfolds in this new desert landscape and reveals what this journey holds for my soul.

I have to keep my eyes on the hidden Light on the horizon. I have to trust in the truth of its presence even in the absence of evidence.

And I have to breathe..

Just breathe...

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