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Friday, December 9, 2022

Mammalian Diving Response by Olivia Swasey

Mammalian Diving Response 

The mammalian diving response is a reflexive behavior seen in all mammals. When submerged in water, the animal will involuntarily stop breathing, as part of the body’s effort to conserve oxygen. Veins constrict, and the heartbeat slows down so that oxygen stored in hemoglobin will last a little longer during submersion. As humans, we often take advantage of this reflex, splashing our faces with cold water to soothe ourselves, to calm down. But spend a long enough time underwater, and this behavior will give way to drowning. As with all things, there must be a balance. 

I close my eyes and immerse myself deep into the water. I feel suspended, fetal, utterly vulnerable in this ritual bath which is my becoming. I am careful to make sure my feet are off the floor, that every inch of me will be purified. I rise up out of the water for the first time, rivulets streaming from my hair, my past melting away into the water, and I wrap my tongue around the string of Hebrew words that I have learned like a song. Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with mitzvot and commanded us concerning immersion. Our God. My God. This time, finally, my God. 

My path here, to this place of rebirth, was long. It was challenging. I craved something desperately, and I found people who would help me become one of them. I began living my life as a Jew before I really became one. That’s what everyone says—living Jewishly is the best way to become Jewish. And I embraced it, wrapped both my arms around it in a bear hug, held tight, tight, tight, as though if I just held tight enough it would sink into me, osmotic, and then I would be home. But not yet. 

The second time I sink down, my chest feels tight with the gravity of my actions. I can feel my hands trembling as again I am submerged below the water. I feel my heartbeat slow down, becoming rhythmic rather than panicked in my chest. There was a time when I wrote about what I wanted, how I felt my heart speaking to me, speaking to God from within my chest, saying “hineini, hineini, hineini,” begging God to see me with every labored beat. I wanted this. I want this. I will keep wanting this, for as long as I live. I rise from the water, and I say the Shema. I hear it resonate fearlessly from my chest, declaring my faith with my clearest voice. Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is one. Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom, forever and ever. Forever and ever. 

There were times on the path to Judaism when I would feel terror reach up from my gut, climbing into my throat, strangling me. I would retreat from the oneg into the bathroom, catching my breath. If there was no one else inside, I would splash cool water on my face and feel my heart rate start to return to normal, that faithful reflex, and I would feel grateful to the whales and seals and dolphins of the world, whose evolution gave me this great physiological gift. I would dry my face and tell myself, it’s okay. They want you here. You are working so hard, you want this so much, you can do this. Every day, you can do this. And I would go back out, facing that greatest of challenges, social interaction. And I would keep fighting the voice that said “you don’t belong here.” 

My third immersion, my last one, comes quicker than I imagined. It was all so fast—after the long months of study and worship, I was suddenly here in the water, and it was beautifully, intensely real. I savor the weightlessness of my body as I sink beneath the water for the final time. I spread my fingers apart, feeling water fill the spaces between them, and I feel almost as though I am dissolving into it, unable to tell where I end and these living waters begin. I open my eyes briefly underwater, and for a moment I can see my life stretched out before me, a map of the entire planet, only there are no roads plotted onto it, no dots for towns. I have to draw the roads and dots myself. I come up from the water again, and I say the final blessing. Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day. I am so happy, so thankful, that I fear my heart might pop inside my chest. Thank you for keeping me alive to see this day. Thank you, thank you, thank you.  

I step out of the water. I have not drowned. I am new, just born today. The scars that mark my body and my heart have not been rinsed away, but I feel so new and whole, finally myself, finally and truly Jewish. I embrace my partner who held my hand the entire way. I embrace the three rabbis who made this possible for me. I am overflowing with happiness. I sign my name, and then it’s in writing. Here I am. Jewish now, forever and ever. Forever and ever. 

At night sometimes, I dream about the water. I recall the way it felt as it covered my nose and mouth, my eyes, soaked my hair, touched every inch of me, as deeply intimate a sensation as I’ve ever felt. In the dreams, my heart slows, that diving response again. I am perfectly, singularly peaceful in the water’s embrace. And inevitably, I surface again. Because no matter how sweet, how kind the caress of the water that allowed me to become myself again, I must rise out of it, step out into that world I saw, find my way on that map. In the dream, as I come out of the water, I find that there is a pen in my hand. It hovers, poised, over the map. And confidently, I mark a single dot. This is the place where my road starts.

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