Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Coming Back to Your Breath"

This poem is spillover from the May 5, 2015 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from tigerbright, DW users Curiosity, and Librarygeek.  It also fills the "be here now" square in my 5-2-15 card for the Wellness Toolbox Bingo fest.  This poem belongs to the Aquariana thread of the series Polychrome Heroics.

WARNING: This poem contains some melancholy stuff.  Highlight to read more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It involves worrying about friends, debating the ethics and risks of intervening, a mess of depression-anxiety-PTSD, acute stress response, intense discussion of spiritual awareness andradical acceptance, graphic descriptions of traumatized behavior, and other challenges. Current environment is supportive, and it helps.  If these are sensitive topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before continuing.

This microfunded poem is being posted one verse at a time, as donations come in to cover them.  It is on sale, making the rate $.25/line, so $5 will reveal 20 new lines, and so forth. There is a permanent donation button on my profile page, or you can contact me for other arrangements. You can also ask me about the number of lines per verse, if you want to fund a certain number of verses.
So far sponsors include: DW user Curiosity, book_worm5, curiosity, clockworklady

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Coming Back to Your Breath

"Are we going out today?" Captain Koul asked
as Aquariana strolled down the dock to the Bilimbi.

"I don't know yet," she said. "Maybe."
Ever since the Japanese whalers had
violated Maldivian waters, everything
had been in an uproar here.

"You still haven't heard from them, have you?"
Seth said. His eyebrows pinched in and
then up. "This isn't good, Aquariana."

"I know, I know that," she said. "It's just --
I'm a waterworker, not a telepath. I can't
really find them if they don't want to be found."

"Bullshit," Seth said. "Forget superpowers,
it's not good to rely on them too much.
Tune in to Moderato's 'body jewelry' instead.
I can't imagine Steel will be far from him,
the way those two stick together like glue."

"Are you sure you want to pester a whale
who doesn't like humans at the best of times
and likes us even less right now?" said Aquariana.

Seth's long face got even longer. "I don't think
Steel should be alone right now," he said quietly.

"He has Moderato," she pointed out.

"Moderato has been very lucky until recently,"
said Seth. "He may not ... really understand
what Steel is going through right now."

"I think Seth is right," Captain Koul said with
a nod to the old sailor. "I'll bring up the signal."

"I just worry about how Steel will respond,"
Aquariana said. "He doesn't like being crowded.
When he gets upset, things can get broken --
things like ships a lot bigger than this one."

Seth and Captain Koul looked at each other,
sharing some silent communication.

Aquariana watched the two men,
wondering what they saw
in this situation that she didn't.
Sometimes they made her feel
hopelessly young and naive.

She'd had two whole careers,
professional swimming and then
environmental activism as a superhera,
and she still wound up out of her depth at times.

She didn't actually know them all that well,
even though they'd been working together
for a while now. She trusted them, though.
They were both as reliable as the tides.

"Steel needs to know that he's got friends
who'll stick by him even if he's being a butthead,"
Seth said. "So we're going to go out there and
remind him that we're here for him. If he tells us
to buzz off, well, we haven't wasted anything
but a few hours riding the waves."

"No time on the ocean is ever wasted,"
Captain Koul said firmly.

"True that," Seth agreed.

So they rode out over the turquoise waters,
letting the sun and the wind lift some of
the worries that had settled over them.

"What's the word about the whalers today?"
Captain Koul asked eventually.

Aquariana usually gave them an update,
but the conversation had gotten sidetracked.
"Half the lawyers in Malé want a piece of them.
One of the whalers has already been ruled unfit
for trial, though, so now people are arguing over
whether to keep him here or send him back home.
Apparently he had some kind of nervous breakdown."

"Serves the bastard right," Seth muttered.
"Where are our whales now?"

"They're actually not very far,"
said Captain Koul. "I confess, that
surprises me. If they're being so aloof
they don't even want to answer Aquariana,
I would've expected them to head for deep water,
not stay here in the archipelago. I wonder why."

"Maybe we'll find out when we get there,"
Aquariana said as she watched the horizon.

It took another ten minutes to reach the spot
where Captain Koul's instruments pointed
to the tracker that Moderato wore.

"I don't see anyone," Seth said,
gazing over the unbroken waves.

Aquariana extended her senses down,
searching for the two familiar minds.
She found them far below, hovering
just above the sandy ocean floor.

"They're not coming up," she said.

"Damn," Seth said. "I was afraid of that.
Steel's gone wallowing in it."

"Aquariana, can you tell what they feel like?"
Captain Koul asked. "Maybe get Moderato
to say something, even if Steel won't?"

She tried framing her thoughts as
carefully as she could. Moderato?
You don't have to talk with us if you
don't want to, but we're kind of worried
about you and Steel. Could you
at least let us know if you're okay?

The scanner blipped.

"One of them is moving," said Captain Koul.
"Hard to tell at this distance, but I think it's Moderato."

A wisp of thought drifted over Aquariana's mind.
We are here. Moderato's voice carried the long moan
of whalesong, barely shaped into human concepts.
Steel will not come up. He is not breathing normally.
He dives and stays down as long as he can before
he needs to take another breath. He is ...

The signal trailed off into wordless sensations
that made Aquariana's throat ache in sympathy.

"What about you, Moderato?" she asked him.
"How are you feeling? Can you think of
anything that we could do to help?"

More feelings riffled over her,
like cold currents through warm water,
trickles of sorrow and fear and regret.

From someone as cheerful as Moderato,
it was as if the sun had gone out.

They thought we were food, he whispered.
I never ... Steel always hunted whalers alone,
and if they caught up to us then he made me hide.
This time I felt them. They wanted to cut us up
and eat our bodies. It was all they could think about
until Steel got angry and started hurting them back

Even the echo of it made Aquariana's stomach lurch.
She had to grab the support post for stability.
Her friends were afraid to come up for air,
because what should have been a safe refuge
had suddenly turned hostile.

Seth caught her shoulder and said,
"Are you all right?"

"Yes ... well, no ... sort of both,"
she replied, struggling to frame feelings
for which there were no human words.
"I'm not injured or seasick. It's just,
Moderato is sad and scared, Steel is ...
I don't even know what's going on there."

Moderato brushed against her mind,
offering a secondhand glimpse of Steel
hanging head-down at the bottom of the ocean,
groaning and clucking through a broken song,
empty spaces that there was no other voice to fill.

The savage rage had given way to a bottomless abyss
of despair and grief so complete that he had forgotten
even the friend who swam faithfully beside him.

Tears welled up and rolled down Aquariana's cheeks.

Seth wrapped an arm around her to keep her
upright, and handed her a handkerchief.
"Steady as she goes," he murmured.

That sounds really awful, she sent to Moderato.
Would you like a hug? I could sure use one.

?? he sent back, baffled but curious.

Aquariana thought about hugging her friends.
It's something humans do for affection or comfort,
she explained. We wrap our arms around each other.

Ah, like nuzzling, Moderato said, trailing images
of whales snuggling side-to-side, even a few of
himself pressed against Steel. The warmth
of his mental touch soothed Aquariana's nerves.

A sudden snort and swish of air startled her.
Moderato surfaced only long enough
to take a quick sip of air, then disappeared.
It felt wrong to see him so withdrawn,
not dancing across the surface like usual.

What do whales do when they feel sad?
she asked. How do you cheer yourselves up?

We breathe, Moderato said. There are patterns
for different purposes ... I have been trying
to get Steel to do some with me, but he
can be so hard to reach sometimes

Aquariana tried reaching out,
very gently, for the other whale.

Steel didn't feel angry or sullen
the way he so often did.
He felt wounded.

Immediately after the incident,
he had been as scrappy as ever,
but after the adrenaline wore off,
then this must have happened.

She almost wished for
the brusque shove and snarl,
if it would pull him out of this tailspin,
but she was afraid that prying would
just hurt him even worse.

She'd had an introverted roommate
one year at college, and it had taken
some practice to get along, to learn when
to push for going out and when to shut up.

She had also learned other ways
to cope with a moping roommate.

"So yeah, Steel and Moderato
are both really upset about the whalers,"
said Aquariana. "I asked Moderato what
they do to cheer up, and he mentioned
some kind of breathing exercises, but
Steel hasn't felt much like participating.
I thought maybe we could try something
and see if that perks them up any."

"Like what?" Seth said. "I don't know
any of that New Age ... stuff."

"I do yoga," said Captain Koul.
"I know a little pranayama. I have
family in India, and the tourists here
like that sort of thing so it's easy
to find people to practice with. I've
never done it with whales before,
but I'm willing to give it a try."

"How are we supposed to get
their attention?" Seth said. "Even
Moderato is barely speaking to us today."

"Read me," Captain Koul said solemnly.

"What?" Aquariana asked.

"They're telepaths, right?" he went on.
"I'm thinking of something, it's right at
the surface of my mind, has been
since the incident really. Tell them
to be gentle, but they can take a look."

Aquariana relayed the message,
and felt Moderato glide past her
to reach out for the captain.

A few moments later, Captain Koul said,
"Yes, I'm fine now, but it took me a while
to get here and I had a lot of help. We're just
worried about you, especially me and Seth
because we've been through some rough seas
ourselves. We want you to understand that what
the Japanese did was wrong and we know that.
We want to help fix the damage if we can."

It was weird listening to half the conversation.
Aquariana wondered if the crew felt that way
when she talked with the whales too.

Captain Koul kept talking, although he didn't
reveal much detail about what unhappy memories
the recent incident had dredged up for him.

"All right, I've convinced Moderato to listen in
on a little impromptu yoga session," he said.
Pranayama is good for peace and relaxation.
Anyone else want to join in? I've heard that
telepaths appreciate positive thoughts."

"Most of them do," Aquariana agreed. "I'm in.
Seth? Are you up for some New Age stuff?"

"I don't get a lot of peace these days,"
he said. "I guess it couldn't hurt to try."

"So, we're going to focus on breathing ... wait.
How fast do whales even breathe?" said Captain Koul.

"It varies a lot," Aquariana said. "Sperm whales are
some of the best divers. Steel can hold his breath
for over an hour. When he surfaces, he'll pant
faster to release all the carbon dioxide ... maybe
a breath every twelve seconds or so."

Captain Koul chuckled. "I can't go anywhere
near that slowly. I guess we'll just have to
breathe at human speed and hope that
the gist of the exercise translates somehow."
He waved for them to take a seat.

Aquariana settled onto the floor of the boat
alongside Seth. She used spare cushions
to give them some support and padding.
She was no expert, but she had done a little
meditation as part of her training at SPOON.

"Several years ago, I went through a difficult time,
and I needed some psychological support,"
said Captain Koul. "Yoga was part of that,
and what I learned is that breath is life.
As long as we're still breathing, we are alive.
Every moment is a gift. Every breath is a treasure.
To live we have to open the gift and be in the moment.
When we breathe in, we agree to keep living. When we
breathe out, we accept that death is part of life."

Aquariana listened, letting his words wash over her,
lapping softly against her thoughts. She could
just sense Moderato at the edge of awareness
and hoped that he was following along.

Captain Koul leaned back in his chair,
relaxed and easy, his breaths slowing.

"I come to the ocean because
it makes me feel calm," he said.
"No matter what I feel when I
come here, soon it all flows away.
I used to be a taxi driver. I could
fill up a car with anger or fear or pain.
So I quit my old job and learned to sail.
I can't fill up the whole ocean. Whenever
I go to the ocean, it frees me from my feelings."

Aquariana felt like that too. She always had.

Seth sighed and looked out over the water.
He seemed to be unwinding, though.

Captain Koul guided them
with his slow, patient words.
"Feel the waves of the ocean,
how they are like little breaths,"
he said. "They go up and down,
they breathe in and out. So do we.
Breathe with the ocean. Be here now."

Aquariana felt the lazy rocking of the Bilimbi
and the languid strokes of Moderato's tail.
She found the pace of the waves,
breathed with it, lost it again.

"You may find yourself thinking about
things that bother you," said Captain Koul.
"That's all right. Thoughts come and thoughts go.
Just keep coming back to your breath."

Aquariana remembered her diving accident,
and let it go; remembered the whalers,
and let go of them too; running out,
like the tide under the moon.

"Now let's try counting our breaths,"
said Captain Koul. "Breathe in,
and count how long it takes ...
then breathe out, and count again.
They should be about the same."

Aquariana counted, four seconds in,
another four seconds out. Lazy minutes
passed as she timed her breaths.

"Stretch it out a little," said Captain Koul.
"If you're counting fours, stretch to fives.
If you're already on fives, go for sixes.
When you inhale, pause for a moment
and just be here now before you exhale.
When you breathe out, pause again
before you take another slow, deep breath."

Aquariana felt like she was melting. That was nice.

Beside her, Seth began to snore.

"Now let's do some long breaths,"
said Captain Koul. "These are good
for calming anxiety or any other stress.
Inhale, and count. When you exhale,
count just one beat longer. Imagine
blowing out anything that makes you
feel tense or unhappy inside."

Seth lolled against her side,
and Aquariana shifted her position
to support him more securely. Then
she let herself go boneless again.

Captain Koul continued the counting,
gently shifting the length and proportion
of their breaths without ever pushing too hard.

Aquariana felt more relaxed than she had
even before the incident. Maybe
they should do this more often.

Eventually the sunlight slanted and
began to turn rosy in late afternoon.

Captain Koul talked them back up
to their everyday state of consciousness.
Surreptitiously Aquariana elbowed Seth
so that he wouldn't miss the return trip.
The old man stretched and muttered
something about sitting on the floor
for too long, but seemed happier.

Thank you for coming. That was
very peaceful,
Moderato said as
he surfaced beside the boat and
blew a tall bushy column of spray.

A smaller spout joined it,
jetting forward and to the left.

Will you come back tomorrow?
Steel whispered.

"Yes," Aquariana promised.

* * *


Captain Boshi Koul -- A native of the Maldives, he works for the Whale & Dolphin Company.  He worked his way up the ranks, having captained a number of ships for them in recent years.  Sometimes he still mans the public cruises or tours, and now he also works with Aquariana and the cetacean soups.  He strongly prefers life on the water, dislikes going ashore, and doesn't deal very well with cities.  Boshi collects postcards from around the world, mostly waterscapes but a few landlocked monuments as well.  He knows an amazing amount of trivia, the kind of things that people print on such souvenirs.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Ship Captain, Expert (+4) Yogi, Good (+2) Interspecies Relations, Good (+2) Swimming, Good (+2) Postcard Collector
Poor (-2) Not a Landlubber

* * *

"The practice is simply this: keep coming back to your breath during the day. Just take a moment. This will give your mind a steadiness and your breath a gracefulness.... There’s so much to let go of, isn’t there? Your nostalgia and your regrets. Your fantasies and your fears. What you think you want instead of what is happening right now. Breathe."
-- Rodney Yee, Yoga: The Poetry of the Body

Sometimes people just want to be alone, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on personality and context.  In cases of emotional trauma, depression, PTSD, etc. it's usually a bad sign.  It's important to strike a balance between ignoring and smothering a friend who has such challenges; the best approach is to make persistent offers but take no for an answer.  There are tips for helping a traumatized friend, a depressed friend, or a friend with PTSD.

Local-America rules someone unfit for trial if they don't understand what's going on and can't communicate effectively.  In Terramagne, the higher-quality countries such as America and the Maldives add that someone having a mental or physical health episode may not be brought to trial if their caregiver states that it would likely cause further decompensation.  The person's health must be stabilized first, if possible, and once stable they may be re-evaluated for fitness.  While most of the whalers knew what they were doing and considered it perfectly okay, one of them abruptly realized that he had been eating differently-shaped people and liked it, which shattered his composure badly enough to cause a nervous breakdown.  Compare with the scene of Puddleglum eating the Talking Stag.

Whalewatchers in local-America use marine radar to locate whales, fish, underwater hazards, and so forth.  In Terramagne, scanner options are more diverse and more precise, but the general concept remains similar.

Tagging whales is a way to find out where they go, and many different devices have been used.  Moderato has one of the early radio models attached to his right flipper.  Modern tags customarily use GPS or a combination of GPS and radio.  Steel isn't tagged but he rarely strays far from Moderato, so find one and you find both.

Traumatic Grief happens when a loss is compounded by a horrific event.  This creates complications which make it subtly different from plain grief or plain PTSD.  In essence, the natural grieving process jams and cannot continue, so the person gets stuck in it indefinitely.   In this case, the recent whaling incident brought up the parallel experiences from the past when Steel lost family members to whaling.  He was functional enough to respond to the threat, albeit magnified by past trauma; but afterwards he fell apart.  Recovering from that will nto be easy. Evidence-based treatment including aspects of interpersonal therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy tend to help a great deal.

Acute Stress Reaction is a normal response to trauma, featuring unpleasant symptoms which tend to fade within a few days or weeks.  If they don't fade, if they get stuck, then that's PTSD.  The goal of treatment, therefore, is to assist the healing process so that ASR does not fester into PTSD. Psychological first aid and cognitive-behavioral therapy can help keep the process on track so that the mind heals cleanly.  Moderato shows signs of ASR after close contact with hostile minds and physical danger.  He's a healthy, cheerful guy and will probably be fine with no more than the passage of time and a little help from his friends.

Stress can be contagious.  This is a serious concern for all first responders, including superheroes.  It becomes a concern for Aquariana, who fortunately has plenty of backup from friends.  Know how to protect against secondhand stress, a skill especially vital for caregivers.

Sometimes the most important thing you can do is provide a nonanxious presence.  This appears in many fields such as therapy, health care, mediation, law enforcement, and spirituality.  Even if you can't fix  the problem, you can still provide comfort through company and security.  For telepaths, this actually offers direct benefits for healing mental injuries.  Learn how to maintain a nonanxious presence in difficult conversations.

Spouting is one of several ways to identify whales.  In these videos, you can see that a humpback spouts a tall bushy column, while a sperm whale spouts forward and left.  Read more about humpback and sperm whales, along with how to spot them.

Whales breathe through blowholes.  Sperm whales breathe about every 12 seconds on the surface, and they are amazing divers.  When feeding, an average dive lasts about an hour; estimated maximums range around an hour and a half to two hours.

Pranayama  is a type of yoga that focuses on breathing.  Here are some healing exercises from this tradition.

Accepting help can be difficult, and people have many reasons -- ranging from mistaken to quite practical -- for resisting help.  For Steel, the challenges include his minimal familiarity with humans, a lot of negative experiences in the past, and his general need to be independent in the open ocean.  So he doesn't know much about how people could help, and he thinks poorly of others in general.  His human friends get his attention by simply demonstrating what they can do -- since Moderato is willing, Steel can observe what happens with him, and then join in if he feels like it.  This article offers insights on how to request and receive help.

Tags: cyberfunded creativity, family skills, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, writing

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