Self Discovery and Things That Lurk in the Deep

I've been thinking about things that lurk in the deep lately.

Not too long ago, I really looked at the deep, wild bottom of a lake for what seemed like the first time; not a sand-covered, human-curated extension of a beach, but a land of rocks and weeds, murky-green and nearly unconscious. Having grown up in Wisconsin, raised by parents that believe firmly in the importance of the out-of-doors, I've been swimming in lakes for as long as I can remember. Picking my way through a rocky, sandy, weedy bottom; feeling the water creep up my legs, shiver against my belly, and then then the sudden cold of getting it over as I let myself plunge entirely into the water; sweeping my hair back from my forehead while it floats weightless and nearly independent from my head, and never quite succeeding in corralling all of it; these things are second nature to me, things that I've done so many times before that they've become ritual, that I can't pull the different instances apart in my head, differentiate one from the other. As I go through the motions, I can feel myself centering down, letting the tendrils of thought that connect me to my day-to-day worries go one by one, until it's just me and the simultaneous pull-and-resistance of the water.

I had brought my goggles, not with any intention of looking into the lake, but only of keeping the water out of my eyes so that when I brought my head out of the water, I would be able to see clearly. I had swum with googles in lakes and rivers before, but they had all been so silty, so murky, that all you saw beneath you if you opened your eyes and looked down was murky darkness, usually green, but on one memorable occasion, the dark red-brown of a strong cup of tea. Better to keep your eyes closed, then, and pretend that nothing more threatening than the bottom of a swimming pool lurks beneath the murk. You swim in denial, by pretending that the unknown doesn't exist, and the murky water and the lake itself conspires to support the denial, telling you sure, of course, nothing lurking here.

And the truth is that there's not much, if anything, in a lake that's going to hurt you. That's why, when the water is murky, you don't see anything below the murk; the majority of mobile life in a lake is more afraid of you than you are of it. They sense us thrashing our way across the surface of the water so much less elegantly than anything that gestated in a tiny ocean should be, and they dart away, unseen, unsensed. And we get to pretend that we are alone in the lake, swimming, carefree. If you can open your eyes underwater and see nothing, and if your hands stroke through the water and encounter nothing, you are free to make the easy, comfortable assumption that there is nothing there.

The water of this particular lake afforded no such easy self-deception. Its waters were, if not crystal clear, certainly clearer than any lake I'd encountered in recent memory. You could see the dividing line between the sand that humans had dumped to create a beach and the natural lake bed, tawny sand on one side, with the darkness of living lake bed like a shadowland on the other. It was disquieting just to swim over that dividing line, feeling as if with one stroke of my arm I had passed from the realms that lay under human control into a wilder place where I was unprotected, perhaps even unwelcome. Well past the point where you could no longer touch the bottom, you could see the outlines of weed-covered rocks looming out of the depths, deserted for now, but deeply unsettling nonetheless. I could feel unease unfolding like a flower in my gut. My strokes grew short, choppy, guarded, plowing through the water instead of flowing with it. 

Directly below me, something... moved. A rock, I had thought, just as green as the ones around it, maybe just a little more rounded, a little more regular--it was as big as my torso, easily, maybe bigger depending on how deep the lake was at that point. And it was moving, a comparatively tiny head poking out ahead of it, limbs propelling it forward, through the water, going in the same direction I was. A massive turtle had detached itself from the lakebed and was swimming just below me, swimming with me.

If there had been glass between me and that turtle, if a similar turtle had swum so close to me in an aquarium, in a zoo, I would have been enchanted to see it so close--I would have pressed my nose against the glass, would have craned my neck to keep it in sight long after it had passed.

If I had been swimming in a siltier lake, like the ones I was accustomed to, I wouldn't have seen it. It could have swum right below me and I would never have known, never so much as guessed that I was sharing the lake with such a monster.

But I could see the turtle, and there was no glass between the two of us, just silty water. I felt no wonder. I did not keep swimming on my original course, unconcerned and unbothered. I did not crane my head to see where the turtle went. Adrenaline pumped into my bloodstream, screamed along the courses of my nerves. I reared my head out of the water just to stop seeing the behemoth swimming below me, childlike, as if removing it from my line of sight would make it cease to exist. I panicked and mastered the panic in the next instant with gritted teeth. I didn't scream, but I wanted to. I turned myself around, forced my head back in the water so that I could swim more efficiently, even though I couldn't bring myself to open my eyes while my head was below the water, couldn't face whatever else might be hiding in the depths below me.

I got myself back behind the dividing line between the wild and the man-made, dropped my feet down onto sand and stood, gasping, at the end of the pier, shivering with adrenaline, flinching when minnows nibbled at my toes. Once I left the water, it was a full day before I stuck a toe in the water again, and when I did, I didn't feel at ease in the water anymore, couldn't help but wonder about what else was waiting below the surface that I hadn't planned on coexisting with.

Self discovery is a little like that, I've found. There are pieces of the self that are uncomfortable to look at, that put you at war with yourself, or with the world that raised you. Things that you were happier not knowing about yourself, that you decried in others, that run counter to what you were led to believe you should be, there, lodged in your own psyche, undeniable, terrifying, honest. That will send you paddling for the shore, eyes shut tight, hoping that if you ignore it long enough, and paddle in the opposite direction fast enough, it'll cease to exist. 

Just so, being bisexual in a school where 'lesbian' is the insult of choice lobbed at girls who don't fit in. Just so, the atheist yearning for ritual, for magical thinking, for something more than what science can provide. Just so, discovering the femininity that you tried to murder when you were young so that you would be taken seriously.

If the you that the world expects is the swimmer, then what are your turtles? What parts of yourself have you become so estranged from that you would be terrified to see one another? What lurks inside of you, great and wonderful and natural and strange, that you are closing your eyes to?

And who or what have you invited into your lake to cloud the waters? The belief that you're not good enough. The belief that you have no power. Every vision of helpless femininity that you've ever seen on a TV screen, every instance of a man who doesn't show show emotion. Every bully from high school who ever made fun of you for who you are, for what you like. Your family's expectations. That one time that someone made fun of you for using a word they didn't understand. The idea that pleasure is bad, that suffering is good. That everything that you enjoy is worth less simply because you enjoy it.

The truth in the deep makes us uncomfortable. It makes us react on instinct, lash out without meaning to.  We catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of our eyes and trample the people close to us in our stampede to escape it. Even the contours of the rocks looming in the murky dark make us uncomfortable. But. Their unfamiliarity does not make them alien. Our fear is only a personal truth, not a universal one. We are not better swimmers when the bottom of the lake is hidden from us. We are uninformed swimmers, pushed around by currents we can't understand, brushed or nibbled at by creatures whose natures we don't understand. Swimming on a heading that has nothing to do with the true contours of the world around us, that does not take into account *what we actually want* down in our deepest depths, and is therefore just as likely to get us horribly and completely lost as it is to get us to a harbor where we can be happy, safe, content.

If I had followed that turtle instead of panicking and swimming for shore, what would I have found? Nothing, maybe. Maybe all that would have happened is that the turtle and I would have swum together for some time, it going about its business, and I observing, taking in the experience, getting to know it, enjoying the company. What a magical moment that would have been. I can think that intellectually, but I don't step in the water without thinking what's lurking beneath anymore. What if that turtle had been a snapping turtle on a bad day? I could have lost a toe. I didn't. Now I know that I could have, in a visceral way that I didn't before. The conversation between I and the water is not longer easy--I flinch, I startle, I hesitate to even enter it. No more quiet moment away from the world for me and the water. The ritual is... different. Darker. More fraught. Worldy.

If I could go back and do it again, and leave my goggles at home, and never see the turtle, would I make that decision? To regain the water? The ease? Put on the blinders and sacrifice the knowledge I've gained about the world as it is? I couldn't. Even if it was an option. I wouldn't have not seen that turtle for all the ease in the world. And after all, I can regain that ease--or build something more mature and durable--by going back as often as I can, goggles on, eyes open.