On Balance

Published on July 11th, 2016 | by Renee Macalino Rutledge


BREATHING UNDER WATER by Renee Macalino Rutledge

We are in line for snorkel equipment at Hanauma Bay. I know Maya is nervous because of all the questions she had asked for weeks leading up to the trip:

“What if water gets in my snorkel?”

“Do I have to wear flippers?”

“Are there fish in the shallows?”

I had answered her questions patiently, not with the “It won’t; Because; and Yes” responses I sometimes resort to. I also emphasized that snorkeling is effortless and weightless—the closest thing I can imagine to flying. Brightly colored schools of fish dart in all directions, some alarmingly big, but harmless; hermit crabs scuttle across the surface; the occasional eel uncoils before you; and all around the reef itself assumes strange shapes. The best part is finding giant sea turtles and gliding among them, pacing yourself to their rhythm, pausing as they pause, gently waving your arms and legs to float in place, all 360 degrees around your body free as you watch a turtle nibble on this bit of sea kelp or that patch of moss. That turtle is perhaps a hundred years old and fully aware of you. When it finds sufficient cause to return your gaze, you forget about flippers or snorkeling or the water’s depth, knowing only the space between yourself and those ancient eyes.

Now we stand at the beautiful blue expanse of the bay and Maya doesn’t offer any other questions. She’s lost in her quiet once more, a preoccupied silence I know too well.

2014-08-20 16.47.10

The silences were the first sign of change. In the beginning, they were a welcome relief from her constant chattering. Now I often miss the child who spoke in a humorous and profound rush, at the speed of her thoughts, which were always moving. She has barely entered the self-conscious adolescent world, and I imagine that in her silences she reflects on what her place might be. She keeps her thoughts to herself, now, unlike the words, which were for everyone.

As we wait in line, my husband follows Maya’s 3-year-old sister, who’s immediately befriended another family. From a distance, I can tell that Raina’s new friends, all adults, have found her entertaining, their faces wide with smiles as she chatters, not only with words but the tilt of her head, slant of her body, and wave of her hands. She returns to this conversation between bouts of climbing a nearby boulder or standing on the first wrung of a short fence that separates the rental area from the beach below. With a swift and unexpected motion, though, her escapade is over. Her dad has scooped her into his arms and they wrestle their way back to us.

“I need to climb the rock!” Raina screams, kicking all the while. “I need to climb the rock!” When they reach me, I show her an alternate rock to climb and it’s suitable enough to distract her. She conquers it and rewards herself with a song.

His eyes still on our little climber, Chris says, “Maybe Maya should wear a life vest.”

Maya had learned how to walk early—how to ride a bike late. She skied instantly—but took two seasons to navigate a volleyball court. Her grades reflect all five letters, like a fickle songbook, throughout the school year, before finally settling on As and Bs. As with everything else, we knew she would either get this right away, or grasp it in slow-motion mode.

“I don’t think she needs it,” I reply, looking to Maya for confirmation. “Do you want to wear a life vest?”


I imagine the bulky vest inhibiting Maya’s freedom beneath the ocean, then realize its security might lend her, and us, the calm we need.

“Okay. Let’s rent one.”

“Actually, the life vest might make it harder for her to submerge herself,” Chris says, changing his mind aloud. “Remember Waimea Falls?”

The vests had been mandatory at the falls just a few days before, when even the most experienced swimmers looked awkward treading water with the vests constantly rising up their necks.

“Let’s get her a flotation belt instead,” he suggests. “That way, she won’t have to worry about sinking, but it will be easier for her to drop into the water.”

We agree on the compromise, and, gear in hand, make our way down the sandy slope.

Our beach mats spread, Maya and I try on our snorkel gear as Chris and Raina race to the shore. Trying on the snorkel mask feels like forcing my way into a child-sized Halloween costume. The mask should be snug, yet comfortable, but my hair gets stuck with each pull of the fitted rubber edges. I realize it’s been years, that I’ve had another baby since the last time I snorkeled. Maya begins insisting that her mask does not fit. We make several adjustments and readjustments before finally heading to the water. Once there, the water’s far rougher than I remember, and it seems impossible to walk in against the breaking surf with the flippers on.


(jennY), flickr creative commons license

“Walk in backwards!” Chris instructs from his comfy perch in the sand, and I ignore him, too impatient to change the momentum of what I’ve started, ineffective as it may be. Maya, however, takes heed and begins to make progress. Eventually we are both submerged to our thighs.

I ask Maya to practice breathing with the snorkel on, first above the water, then underneath. When she is ready, we link hands and kick off. It is a matter of seconds before Maya lets go and surfaces again, gasping for air, reaching immediately for the mask, adjusting and readjusting. We repeat this several times, but it is clear she resists the gear.

“Just relax,” I say. “Bite down on the snorkel so it doesn’t move. Once you get used to it, it’s easier than swimming because you can breathe under the water.”

She continues to try but remains quiet after each failed attempt.

“It is so much fun,” I persist. “Wait till you see the fish. It’s awkward for everyone, at first…”

From the shore, Raina calls to her sister and Maya goes to her. They begin scooping piles of sand.

“I’m tired,” she says, not looking up when I reach her side. With a red shovel and blue bucket in hand, Maya looks cozy among the other castle-builders Raina has recruited: a two-year old boy and his four-year-old sister.

Chris and I take this opportunity to leave Maya in charge of her sister and snorkel into the reef.

At first, the water is murky with sand and I don’t see a thing; I kick as if into a nova that is rendering me blind. It is exciting, then suffocating. Chris swims quickly and I imagine the ocean floor disappearing suddenly beneath me. I begin to feel short of breath, as if I cannot suck enough air in through my snorkel. I stop, gasping, to inspect the breathing tube. I wonder if it’s defective.

Chris waits and we re-submerge, locking hands. He swims too quickly now, as if catching up for lost time. I think of signaling him to slow down, but the water clears and the fish begin appearing, their lively colors illuminating the fog, and soon the reef is below us. At times the rocky crags are directly beneath our bellies, then they sink and we fly above an underwater cavern of fish. They are flashes of red and purple over green and yellow; lightning rods of orange and blue; works of art, at home among a cast of unwanted visitors.

The fish are truly remarkable. I marvel at their beauty and number and think of Maya.

We return to the girls quickly, because I’m eager to check in on the little one and to relieve Maya of babysitting duty. I don’t tell Chris the third reason—that I’m uncomfortable swimming the distances he wishes to go. I recollect my past experiences snorkeling, the freedom I felt. What’s changed in me since then?

The girls remain where we left them; only now, Raina tries to order her sister around at the loss of her recruits and Maya appears listless and undecipherable.

“I know where to go, Maya,” I say excitedly. “There’s nothing but sand for this entire stretch in front of us—sand that’s gotten kicked around all day, making the water murky.” We walk farther out so she can see the dark patches that signify where all the fish are. “See the reef there, and there? We started in the wrong place. We can walk closer to the reef and start snorkeling there. Your dad and I saw so many fish!”

As I predicted, Maya forgets her fear once she sees the fish. I show her how to balance on her tiptoes on the tops of rocks when she needs to readjust her snorkel; but once she taps into the slower rhythm of breathing through the tube, she no longer needs to do so. We swim hand in hand and remain submerged; save for those instances when I feel I’m not getting enough air. I continually guide Maya toward the shallower reefs where our feet are never far from touching bottom. She does not seem to notice and points here and there at the strange underwater sights. The vision of large fish eating smaller fish, in particular, gets Maya excited. We laugh several times to the point where I need to take longer breaks just to catch my breath.

I pad back in my flippers to the mat on the beach, while Maya decides to return to the bay with her father. They snorkel away. Raina, beside me, offers “cookies” and “ice cream” made from sand. I ask for sprinkles, cinnamon, whipped cream, blueberries, and she is happy to oblige. In the back of my mind I feel a tinge of regret—I had imagined that Maya and I would see a sea turtle and would have that moment to look back on together. But mostly I am happy—Maya had done it, and she was out there in the water still.


Breathe by Matt, Flickr Creative Commons

Father and daughter return chattering, joyful, and something else I can’t quite pinpoint. They tell me how they’d swum to where the ocean sinks into wondrous caverns, the formations themselves a spectacle among the sealife who lived there. With knowing glances, they reveal that they’d also seen and followed a sea turtle for perhaps half an hour.

“How was that?” I ask. Chris tells me how they watched the turtle eat, and it didn’t mind their company.

“It was cool,” Maya says cheerfully, but with no intention to elaborate when I wait for more. Maya has resorted to a compulsory response, not too different from the ones I sometimes give her. But there’s a shine to her eyes that wasn’t there when we first stepped on this beach.

“You should go back,” they say, but neither is willing to accompany me. They had had the longest swim yet and need food, shade, and rest. No amount of my convincing changes either’s mind.
“But we’re not supposed to go in alone,” I whine. “It’s not safe. Everyone out there has a swim buddy.”

“Not everyone,” Chris replies. “You can do it. Just stay near other people.”

I enter facing the dark patches beneath the ocean. The water is murky. It makes me nervous to dive in alone but at the same time, the solitude feels liberating. I make an effort to control my breath, slow and even, like adjusting to a new altitude. It’s new, this extra exertion. I feel myself being older, now. I imagine Chris and Maya out here, free, not limited by my protectiveness.

I’m the one she ended up leaving behind. Now, alone, I am still worried, thinking of those waiting for my return. I project that they must be worried about me, now. I alternate between relaxation and anxiety, wonder and impatience. The water, too, clears up for short spurts then clouds back up again. I search halfheartedly for a sea turtle. I think back to those knowing, ancient eyes and the grounding sensation returns. The steady beat of breath, paddling legs, and heart—simultaneous and fluid. The containment of all things in a single moment.

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About the Author

Renee Macalino Rutledge is a journalist and book editor who loves travel, parenting, and sea turtles. Her debut novel, The Hour of Daydreams, is forthcoming from Forest Avenue Press in 2017. Find her at www.ReneeRutledge.com.


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