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On Nearly Drowning, Three Years Later

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I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.
--From "I Am a Rock," by Simon & Garfunkel

I am an attorney and an "island advocate," writing about and working on behalf of low-lying island communities that are jeopardized because of climate change. When people ask me how I got into this nuanced line of work, I have a really hard time answering the question. It's deeply personal, and answering it requires telling a difficult story. On the third year anniversary of the experience that changed my life and led me to this important work, I'm answering that question here.

***

I almost died in the Pacific Ocean. On June 14, 2010, at the age of twenty-eight, I nearly drowned in Costa Rica. I had walked into the ocean that overcast afternoon confident and carefree. But somewhere between playing in the surf and treading water, I lost my strength. All of a sudden I realized my arms and legs were exhausted, I was out of breath, and I knew I was in trouble. Having been an ocean lover all my life, suddenly I lost sense of what I knew to do in the water. ("Brook, don't fight a rip tide, just float until it eventually releases you, and then swim to shore.") I fought the rip tide, stupidly, and yet with all of the force I could muster, battling wave after wave. I grew increasingly frustrated, then scared. What began as simple ocean play became a near-death encounter, which sobered me and ultimately redirected the entire course of my life and career.

This was supposed to be my first relaxing week in a long time. Just a few months prior, I had quit my first job at a law firm, against the sound advice of loved ones. (It was, after all, a recession economy, and plenty of friends and fellow graduates had not been as lucky as I had been to get a job right out of law school.) I was tired and disconnected from why I'd thought becoming a lawyer would be a good idea in the first place. Work was less about helping people and more about deadlines, money, and everything I did not like about law. I didn't have a sense of the overall big picture, and worse, I lacked the passion and purpose that I'd always thought I'd have in my work. It was almost by accident that I started my own law practice. There was an intensifying pressure around money and whether I was fulfilling my ultimate goal of making a difference. But still, there was a small but dedicated voice inside that kept nagging at me, urging me to make my career into something I believed in. I didn't want to use my waking hours simply paying bills and passing the time. The week away in Costa Rica at a dear friend's wedding was supposed to be a welcome and relaxing break from the monotonous and demanding day-to-day routine that existed for me back at home in San Francisco. I really wanted the vacation to provide a sense of clarity and purpose. But instead, I experienced a complete breaking.

The beach was empty that day, aside from the groom-to-be, my husband, and me. It was cloudy and warm. There were moments early on when we all swam in the big waves close together, laughing and enjoying the water. But before long, the powerful ocean separated us. We were each like tiny, insignificant pawns, bobbing up and down on the surface of this deep and commanding body of water. The waves grew higher and more violent, and the riptide carried me out farther than the others. By the time I realized I was stuck and completely powerless, I was already exhausted and didn't have much fight left in me. My husband was within eyeshot, in his own struggle to reach me despite the waves and the determined current, but he seemed miles away. For what seemed like an eternity, I cycled in a pattern of lying on my back for long enough to suck up a few seconds of air, only to be pounded by the next set of waves, which sent me back into the dark salt water. The waves spat me out each time and I would again find my helpless back-float position, sucking up air and wishing with each breath that the struggle would end, one way or another.

The rest is a painful blur, but I remember my husband and I yelling to each other over the roar of the ocean, feeling frustratingly close and yet impossibly far away from each other and the shore. At some point, he turned his back to the shore, and made the decision to try to save me, whether or not we would make it out. Although I can't remember the hazy details, he eventually brought me to shore, gasping for air and completely shaken. Moments after I was pulled from the water, I sat on the beach and just stared at the ocean. I did not marvel at the ocean's power; I did not reflect on white light or experience warm feelings about coming close to death or earning a second chance. Instead, I experienced gloom, insecurity, and sadness. I felt a quiet desperation. The next day, I got a massage with the other bridesmaids and the bride-to-be. My masseuse didn't speak any English, and my choppy Spanish is haphazard at best. But at the end of her time with me, she communicated quite clearly that she had never touched a body that exuded so much "terror."

My thirty minutes negotiating for my life left me feeling betrayed. I'd grown up with an unusual comfort in and around oceans, lakes, and rivers. Now after arriving back home to San Francisco, I panicked near any body of water. It wasn't just the ocean, either, but bathtubs, driving over the Bay Bridge on my commute, or sitting near a swimming pool. I walked around in a haze, questioning everything, including why I had even lived through the experience. I was not myself. I was having a hard time concentrating on my work. I wasn't sleeping well. I felt like I was coming undone or somehow fading away.

It was a dark time that moved in slow motion. But after a few months, just as quickly as it had come in, the fog parted. I felt a sense of clarity; I didn't feel cheerful or buoyant, but eventually I realized that I had a new perspective: I had experienced a profound vulnerability in Costa Rica. It made me uncomfortable because I was used to being in control of everything--my experiences, the outcomes of those experiences. I realized that I, a lover of the sea and friend of the ocean, had been witness to the two-edged sword of the water.

This was my epiphany: My experience of vulnerability in the ocean allowed me to empathize with those people who are the most vulnerable to sea-level rise. My vulnerability exposed their vulnerability. In law school, I had decided I wanted to do something with my career to benefit islanders and coastal communities that faced climate change impacts. I had quit my "real job" to free up time to learn how to better serve these communities, perhaps to get involved in climate-related litigation. But amidst the haze of paying bills and a recession and the trappings of an adult life, my intention got muddled. In my honest moments, I realized that I had not done one thing since graduating from law school a year before that in any way benefitted anyone on an island. I had no idea what they were going through, no idea how they felt, and even less of a clue as to how to help. I was just going about my day, about my career, about my life--treading water.

Charting a Path

In law school I had learned about how climate change was impacting coral atolls. Ever since I put together my first presentation on how climate change was altering life for islanders for an environmental law class, I realized this issue had struck a chord deep inside of me. The islands were remote and relatively unheard of. Their isolation was intriguing, particularly because their carbon footprint was almost nonexistent, yet they bore the brunt of climate-related impacts.

In my research, I saw some of the early climate-related photos coming from the coral atoll island countries of the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands. The images captured the islands during the king tide, the highest tides of the year that are caused by lunar and seasonal shifts. The high tides are worsened by sea-level rise, and they create havoc for the islands, causing flooding and seawater surges. The images were of powerful waves bursting over sea-walls, crashing onto individuals and their homes, leaving devastation in their wake.

But over the next few years, I fell into the trappings of what most attorneys experience. I got busy, tired, overwhelmed, jaded. And all the while, the sea continued to rise and the islands continued to suffer. That's when, less than a year out of law school and only two years into my job, I quit. A few months later, I had my near-drowning experience.

When the haze that followed that experience began to lift, I realized that I didn't know the islanders themselves. I had no idea what they wanted. I didn't know what their relationship with the water was. My own experience with the ocean was personal and unique. Since that time, I have been to every coral atoll nation, worked on countless islands, and met with islanders young and old, happy and sad, hopeful and reserved. My path has been unconventional to the extreme - balancing a thriving and rewarding family law practice with island advocacy, but I tell every client I meet the same thing: I'm in this for the long haul.

***

Connecting

People live on tiny slivers of land, land that barely stands out above the water, and they are vulnerable to rising sea levels in an extreme way. For those living life on a small, exposed island, comparing daily life to the threat of drowning might seem excessive, until you visit a coral atoll. These people eat, sleep, and live their lives close to the ocean, in an unusually harmonious and symbiotic relationship with the water. Millimeters of sea level rise might seem insignificant to the average person, comfy in his or her living room in London or Dallas or Seattle, sipping wine and watching the evening news. But for those people living on an atoll, every millimeter of water threatens homes, freshwater wells, and livelihoods.

My experience in the ocean thrust me out of my comfort zone. No longer would I sit back and wait for my life to happen. Before I left for that vacation I'd been treading water. After I came back I was fighting the current. Something had to give, and I suddenly knew what it was. I had a purpose and I was not living it. Everything in my life was set up to do exactly what I wanted to do. I was young, had my own practice, and I was married to a supportive partner. Yes, I still had some of the trappings of adulthood, but I also had the power to create a shift in my life. When that fog lifted, I saw my way out and through.

Why Care?

The environmental movement has come under criticism lately--and indeed has even criticized itself--for its clinical and sterile messaging. Polar bears and virgin forests are worthy of our attention in and of themselves. But to inspire massive change, which is what it will take to reduce global emissions, it's important for people to see how climate change impacts human beings.

The epiphany I had after nearly drowning had to do with our interconnectedness. We are all vulnerable, no matter how independent and strong and willful we think we might be.
This independence has turned America into an island all its own. We are an island of unwavering autonomy and self-rule. True, we have neighbors to the north and to the south, and we roam the globe near and far, exerting our influence and defending our interests. But from an environmental perspective, America operates in a vacuum, allowing no one to touch it and all the while doing what it pleases. We either don't realize or simply don't care about the ways in which our actions and inactions impact others around the globe.

Before my experience with the rip tide, I was a prototypical example of American irreverence. I was too bold, an island of self-containment, detached from the reality that I, too, am vulnerable. Anyone who actually lives on an island understands that dependence is important to survival. There is a holistic and integrated approach to island living. To live well in a village is to live in harmony with others. When one person takes the coconuts from the tree, others in the village suffer. When tuna outside the lagoon are sold to China or Hawaii, the village goes without. When livelihoods are threatened, the villagers must band together so that families don't starve. People in villages experience life together, interconnected. They have an almost nonexistent impact on sea level rise on their own. Yet they are impacted disproportionately, bearing the brunt of climate change impacts in a silent struggle. That is the opposite of autonomy. The emitting world acts, and we leave them with little choice but to react.

I went into the water that day in Costa Rica feeling like myself, liberated and free, but I came out feeling vulnerable and small, like a grain of sand. Ultimately, I connected these emotions to a deeper understanding of what it is like to live on an island in the age of a global economy and anthropogenic change. We all have these moments, which we see in the wake of tsunamis or domestic flooding with an outpouring of donations and volunteers. We are all islands, and sooner or later, we all need each other's help.

Americans cannot go on thinking we're immune to the effects of climate change. Historically, Americans have emitted more carbon emissions per capita than any other country in the world. While countries like China, India, Russia, and Brazil are hot on our heels, each American is responsible for releasing massive amounts of emissions into the atmosphere. Statisticians from Oregon State University recently calculated that every child in the US adds 9,441 tonnes (which is equal to1,000 kilograms, or 2,204.6 pounds) to each parent's carbon footprint. That's compared to 1,384 tonnes of carbon dioxide for each child in China, or 56 tonnes in Bangladesh. We live comfortable lifestyles buttressed by air conditioning and readily available heat. My colleagues and I fly around the world spewing emissions into the atmosphere en route to climate change negotiations, so I put myself squarely in this category. But one thing is certain: We cannot keep this up.

As an attorney, I have a unique understanding of the legal complexities that these island populations will face if they are forced to relocate. The present legal infrastructure is inadequate to address the issues that will confront them. Lawyers, governments, and activists must begin to build the legal framework to support these populations. But we must do so with the help and understanding of the public, which is why I write from a human-interest perspective, highlighting the islanders themselves. It took nearly drowning in the Pacific Ocean for me to truly comprehend the plight of low-lying islanders in the wake of climate change. Now I view it as my mission and passion to share their stories with the world.

There have been many people that I am grateful for during my journey these past three years, supportive and compassionate friends, family, and colleagues. But I literally wouldn't be here if it weren't for my brave and supportive husband who risked his life saving mine in the water that day. For that and for him I am infinitely grateful. [Visit www.drowningislands.com or like Drowning Islands on facebook for more information and images from the most beautiful, threatened places on earth.]

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