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Move Beyond Your Comfort Zone with Kristin Armstrong

The columnist reclaims her summer and experiences a new level of trust as she goes underwater as a scuba diver

Summer is a seasonal season. What I mean by that is that it looks and feels different depending on what season of life you are in. My little kid summers meant being outside all day long at my grandparents’ lake house in Northern Minnesota — vegetables from their big garden, Grandpa grilling pork chops and smoking a cigar, me wearing my Wonder Woman bathing suit as all-day attire, and sleeping in the screened-in cabana at night.

I remember the rude awakening after college graduation when I realized my life had no more summers. Then reclaiming summer again when I had children of my own, love-hating the absence of schedules and wondering how to strategically entertain three active little people in 100-degree heat. Then as they got older, the painful realization that summer meant three months of non-stop weekends, late nights and loud pool parties. Now my kids have internships, study abroad programs and job hunting, and I will go to great lengths to carve out a couple weeks of summer fun with all of us in one place.

I wonder what summer means to me now, in this season.

It’s a time to prioritize making some memories with family and friends. The days are longer, and dinner parties can linger later by the pool or on the porch. It’s time for beach books, margaritas on the patio, extra sweaty runs and cookouts. It’s a time to enjoy our comfort zones, and perhaps even push them a little bit.

My summer kickstarted with a late spring catamaran trip with dear friends in the British Virgin Islands. We spent a week island hopping; hiking; walking on deserted white sand beaches; snorkeling; diving; paddle boarding; swimming; savoring sunsets, fine food and cocktails; and uninterrupted conversation with extraordinary company. In a word, it was heaven.

I wonder what summer means to me now, in this season.

I wanted to be able to join the divers on the trip, though I had never gone scuba diving before. I felt a combination of fantasy and fear about it. I have this recurring dream where I am tossed about in waves and dive deeper into a kelp forest of stillness where I discover I can breathe underwater. In a moment where the fantasy level rose ever so slightly above the fear, I signed up for a weekend-long scuba certification class. It was a combination of classroom work and pool instruction.

The information overload and risk warnings about what would happen if you neglected any of the vital information in the overload was highly unnerving. Not as unnerving, however, as the pool.

We practiced connecting our heavy gear and entering the water, which was overchlorinated and chilly even at 80 degrees (after an hour or so I had full body tremors, blue lips and chattering teeth). Then we began practicing skills. I could feel my heart racing, and it seemed like I was gasping for air, biting down on my regulator for dear life. I asked the instructor what was going on, and he said I was “just anxious and needed to calm down — try to breathe slowly.” No one likes to be told they are just anxious, for the record, especially when attempting something new that requires courage.

We practiced a skill where we would borrow our buddy’s emergency regulator in the unfortunate event that we ran out of air. When I borrowed my buddy’s air supply, it was nirvana. I could take a deep breath instead of wheezing. I raised my hand on the surface to ask why that felt so different, at which point, the instructor finally came over to access my gear and quietly informed me that my tank was almost completely out of air. Somehow they gave me a used tank by mistake, so I was literally gasping remnant fumes of air! “So, basically it would make sense to ‘feel anxious’ when you are drowning?!” I asked him (grrrrrrr).

We did other terrifying things like flooding our masks and clearing them underwater, or losing our masks entirely and putting them back on. I wondered how I would feel 60 feet under the ocean if it was this dire at the bottom of a 10-foot swimming pool. I opted out of the open water final certification the following weekend in the murky depths of Lake Travis, which turned out to be a brilliant decision because that weekend was a frigid 26 degrees outside, and I’m certain it would have been my first and final dive.

Instead, my final certification was done in the warm, turquoise blue, clear water of the BVI’s. Some of the skills were still stressful, but mitigated by the reward of feeling warm in a wetsuit, surrounded by my friends, sunshine, gorgeous water, colorful fish and an amazing and very patient instructor named Reka. Perhaps the finest gift, other than the feeling of accomplishment when I completed my fourth and final open water dive for my certification (and the celebratory margarita on deck afterwards), was the connection I felt with my dive buddy. To do something new and scary with the person you love takes the entire experience to a much deeper depth, far deeper even than our final shipwreck dive at 80 feet. To be able to speak without words — just eye contact in a mask. To experience the wonder of a completely other world beneath the surface, and feel the trust of putting your life in the hands of another with the explicit instruction to never leave each other’s side, well, it was kind of everything.

I wonder if maybe we have to push beyond our comfort zone to learn something important about comfort.

Are we willing to go deeper?