A year spent diving into the wreck

If there really, truly are years that ask questions and years that answer, which of these years has 2020 been for you?

With all of the scientific and technological advancements we've made, it should feel as though this was a year of answers. So many things were thrown into the spotlight. How we treat ourselves. Each other. All of these questions about who is important to us, what we value, thrown into stark relief. Yet the answers we found to those questions were like Russian nesting dolls: always something more wrapped inside.

Questions about this disease that's taken over our lives, upending comfortable (for some) systems, have led to startling scientific advancements and answers. Waiting on these answers, however, has raised so many more questions: about who we are as individuals, as a collective, as a society. Who we entrust to make decisions for us. How we are spending our days (because as the saying goes, this is how we are spending our lives).

Every year in December, I sit down to write a personal end-of-year review, a look at what I've accomplished the year before, creating a new list of goals for the year ahead. Some of those goals carry over year after year. A common one: Toes in the ocean. Another: Organize my life. Throughout the year, I turn to that list for inspiration and this year, well, I could cross each of those goals off one by one. Not because I achieved them. But because by leaving them out there as possibilities in a world turned upside down, I would only be taunting myself. Travel. Gone. Seeing the ocean. Gone. Spending more time with my aging relatives. Gone. This whole year has felt really focused on just one thing: Do No Harm.

In place of these goals, it some days felt as though the only thing to do was the work of getting to know oneself, something far more exciting and scary than the annual journey to places unknown. The spaces we made inside our homes provided the opportunity to dive into the fathomless depths inside of each of us. Ask the hard questions of ourselves, undistracted by the everyday. It is no wonder that there are people out there who are rejecting the restrictions we've been given. To explore what lies inside is a frightening venture; we never know what is there to uncover. This endeavor reminds me of something that Jacques Cousteau once wrote:

Until our day, the oceans have always raised huge barriers to man's curiosity and understanding. Enormous distances and stormy weather made early navigation uncertain and perilous. For the diver the sea was a hostile environment which discouraged or limited his daring. And even the fisherman, who draws his food from the deep, is still compelled to grope blindly—the only hunter in the world who does not see or who does not know his quarry. Finally, the oceanographer still lowers his instruments more or less haphazardly, rather like an explorer setting out to discover a new continent with modern equipment, but with his eyes blindfolded.

In the past, we have been groping in the dark. Today, we have so much available to us to help in this exploration, both in the ocean and inside ourselves. In this text, introducing the Aqualung technology he had developed to see into the deepest parts of the ocean, Costeau reminds us of how useful the tools we have on hand are in these explorations and how important this work is to do, now:

Seeing under water, in order to be better able to understand and interpret what we are doing, will be an obvious necessity tomorrow. Only yesterday, it was an impossibility;

With the Trieste, he writes, "It is now possible for us to descend, to observe and to take action at any depth." We have these tools now, for understanding ourselves better, just as, 60 years after the introduction of the Aqualung, we have so many tools and a better understanding of the ocean's depths.

While Cousteau's invention is a very literal way of protecting divers interested in reaching further than anyone has reached before, not everyone needs to dive so deep. Not everyone requires the same tools to dive into the dark ocean in search of pearls.

A group of women who live on Jeju Island, just off the coast in southern Korea, have been practicing the art of free-driving known as muljil for decades. Although they do not go into the abysses Cousteau's divers might venture into, they dive as deep as ten meters underwater without oxygen tanks in their search for seafood. This underwater fishing, undertaken as a conscious decision by women known as the haenyeo, most of whom are over the age of 60, is a means of both providing for the community and supporting themselves in a male-centric society. They do this in lieu of commercial fishing on an island whose land is not arable for agriculture. They have taken what they were given—their bodies—and cultivated them—through swimming and unique breathing techniques—and created out of that something valuable, for both themselves and for their community. Much has been made of this diving, with art critic Park Young-taik taking the metaphor to the extreme: “The sea’s water surface is a border between life and death. Haenyeo frequently cross over this boundary."

And while our own internal explorations do not carry that same metaphorical weight, it can sometimes feel that way. In undertaking these dives, however, in spite of the dangers we face underwater, we can return to the surface with something so meaningful, so valuable, that we are doing something not only for ourselves, but also for our community, just as the Haenyeo do. It may not be a pretty endeavor, we may get tangled in the seaweed, but we have the tools we need to return, more or less, to safety. As Adrienne Rich writes in her poem, Diving into the wreck, we can find our way back:

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.