Breath

 IMAGE: Louise Kenward

IMAGE: Louise Kenward

By Louise Kenward:

I sick up the last of my breakfast. Spittle drips on my arm and over the side of the boat. Diesel fumes mingle with sea and sweat. Anxiety has purged my stomach and pumps adrenaline in an attempt to stop me. I am compelled.

It is the second time I have reached this point, I cannot stay on the boat again, I cannot return to the shore without seeing for myself what lies beneath the surface.

Watched over by Mount Agung, I tip backwards over board and into the Indian Ocean. Weight and discomfort of my dive kit on land disappears with the horizon.

I suck at air, teeth gripping the mouth piece. It sits awkwardly, jaw aches, I'm holding too tightly. I adjust weight belt, tighten straps loosened by the water. The pressure gauge registers a full tank, clean tasteless air. I have already checked these things twice.

I am last to dip beneath the waves. Air released from buoyancy jacket, I am weighted down with equipment and 6 kilos around my waist. Despite this, I struggle to sink. Instinctively I take a deep breath before putting my head back under water. I bob up to the surface again. Looking down I watch others as they drop through the door to an other world. I continue to pull, to knock, it is jammed. Resistance of water against my body is too great. The blue beneath me tantalises and terrifies.

I'm being pulled down. My right leg is being tugged below me, dragging me under. I realise the need to push at this door, not pull. I let go of the breath I've been holding and slowly, slowly sink.

My first breath beneath the waves. Colour scattered blue, movement of fish, glitter and gold. Constant motion and total stillness. Swollen bubbles escape my mouth joyously as I descend further. Three, four, five metres deep. Submerged in water, a return to the womb, to the source of life, a time before evolution brought legs and lungs. A sanctuary. Yet life is taken as easily as it is given, stolen by cruel and unsentimental seas. A careful balance of body, air, water. It is easy to perish, to dissolve into saline. I try to swallow, for airways to adjust and regulate pressure in air cavities. I shift my jaw, willing ears to pop. Swallowing with the mouth piece is difficult. I bite down hard, swallow, ears release. I drop further.

Ten metres. I realise my buoyancy and its control is the biofeedback of my breath - my body acts as a balloon. I inhale, lungs swell, I rise up. I exhale, lungs deflate, I fall deeper. Having risen and fallen with initial breaths, I am now learning to pace inhalations, exhalations, slow, deep, breath. Steady, calm breath. An exercise in stillness, a meditation. The whole of my body is needed to focus on this one thing. Body connects breath, breath connects body.

Fifteen metres deep and I have never been so aware of my own breath. Never before have I had to attend so carefully or so completely to inhaling and exhaling. Rib cage expanding and contracting. It is more than concentration - to think about what I am doing I may lose control - I am a whole, mind and body acting as one.

Elusive, delicate, fragile breath. Mouth open, organ of life, pulls in air. Lungs, heart, connected, pumping blood, sustaining body. Twenty metres. Slow, full breaths. Senses alert. Mind quiet. Air swells from regulators as I exhale. Steady, measured, breath. All I can hear is the escape of bubbles to the surface and the crunching of parrot fish on coral beneath me.

I sink further. I look more closely, orange and white clown fish dodge the caress of pink tipped anemones. Wide flat laced table corals shelter blue and purple nudibranchs - tiny molluscs the size of a finger nail wearing their lungs on the outside of their highly decorated bodies. Delicate red sea fans sway gently as yellow tipped black and white striped angel fish glide past. There is an abundance of life quite oblivious to my presence. I watch, I drift, all feels at peace, all feels just as it should be.

Slipping through depths the gentle grip the ocean has taken does not let go. I do not ask it to. The further I descend, the tighter grasp the sea takes of me. Temperature drops, light weakens, I surrender to it. All consumed, it holds me. Immersion of body and mind. My pulse gently beats in my ears.

Sense of time is lost. I check the pressure gauge, I am running out of precious air. The spell broken, I have to surface. Again, gradually, slowly, I readjust my body to changing pressure. Rising too quickly is as risky as not rising at all. Emerging upwards warmth returns and sunlight dusts my face.

I return again and again. A calling of the sea sings more loudly than before. A sense of arrival, of coming home when I stand on the shore. A restful calm descends and envelops me, a sense of other, of completeness. Shoulders fall, breath quietens, thoughts calm. I am now embedded in molecules of ocean and they in me.

Louise Kenward is an artist engaging with place and person, past and present. Making journeys, writing, connecting. At times accompanied with 19th Century Victorian traveller, Annie Brassey.