Beauty and the Magic of Art

What Tony Taught Us

The young men on the boat rushed by Napoleon wrasse, lionfish, 
and other marvels—so much life they missed where you glided at sixty feet 

in their hurry to get to one hundred feet, though less life can be seen
that deep. But they wanted to photograph themselves there.

Your dive buddy was an older man who lingered over rocks browsing,
gazed into crevices, poked his head under ledges and went slowly. 

Now we go slowly too. 

Bringing magnifying glasses, we examine scales on coral trout, 
contemplate a dart fish’s translucent eyes, peer inside corals’ mouths, 

studying their miniscule movements, explore the color glowing inside
a nudibranch’s skin, its wavering gill, and its cerata’s spunky fringe.

We move along leisurely, mesmerized by appearances and activities.
The point of diving is to observe, to look deeply, to let go into being

a stranger, and to absorb a world not your own, to immerse yourself
in amazement, soak in its presence, let yourself become one with it. 

To notice, to see, and to see again. 

Anna Citrino, from Buoyant

Beneath the ocean’s surface is a world of wild beauty. It’s a place worth moving through slowly because moving with slowness allows one to see more. A central focus of diving is simply to experience the sea’s environment and what presents itself there. Something amazing might appear, or it might not, but the diver is on the lookout for what might surprise or awe. What looks like a stone might be a fish if you look carefully. Tiny seahorses might be hiding on a piece of coral. Observing coral feeding is fascinating. As the poem above describes, “The point of diving is to observe, to look deeply.” When we take time to look closely, allow ourselves to sink into a quiet space of being with what we observe, we can often notice details we otherwise wouldn’t. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” If unmixed attention is prayer, then diving is a kind of prayer. A diver’s entire body is attentive to the world the diver is immersed in. To dive is to purposefully let go into an unfamiliar world that functions in an entirely different way. Simply witnessing the variety of life in the sea is astonishing.

Artists, too, are keen observers whose work requires focus. A skilled artist brings the world alive for us in a new way, allows us to see it more fully. New Mexico artist Joseph Galvan has been carving lucite for several decades, and a number of his pieces include under water scenes illuminated from below, such as these fabulous jelly fish. Something I especially love about this work in lucite is how the subjects seem to float in clear water. Galvan’s jelly fish carvings are full of interesting texture, their forms alive with a sense of fluid movement. Looking at the carving feels something akin to watching actual jellyfish.

People’s creative efforts enrich our lives. They bring meaning, and help us to be more fully aware of the world around us and how others are experiencing it. We need more beauty in the world, are hungry for it. Like other artists, Joseph Galvan brings beauty to our lives. To do creative work over long periods of years is challenging and demanding. It takes a great deal of fortitude, resolve and prolonged focus to bring one’s imaginative vision to fruition. The earth, too, is in an ongoing creative process. Think of the millions of years it has taken for the natural world to evolve into places like Yosemite, Uluru, and the Great Barrier Reef! When we see natural beauty or we look at great art, it changes us because such observation reaches directly into the heart and touch us with life.

Gregory Wolf, in his essay “The Wound of Beauty,” on Image, Art, Faith, and Mystery site states, “Beauty also has the capacity to help us to value the good, especially the goodness of the most ordinary things. The greatest epics, the most terrible tragedies, all have one goal: to bring us back to the ordinary and help us to love and to cherish it….That is the magic of art. It may spread a huge canvas, it may be bold and baroque, but its essence is to remind us of the everyday and to transmute it into a sacrament.” Scuba diving isn’t the only experience that helps reconnect one to the wonder of being alive. I hope you find the practices or experiences that bring beauty into your life and that help you recognize the preciousness of even the seemingly simple things of life such as water in all its wonder. As Wolf suggests, the ordinary experiences of life are beautiful when we have eyes to see them.

This coming June 9, at 5:00 pm Pacific Time I will be reading from Buoyant my book of poems about diving. If you would like to participate in the Zoom meeting, send me a message and I will send you the link.

You can order Buoyant from Bellowing Ark Press here.

pilgrimage, poetry, snorkeling, Uncategorized, Wonder

Into the Wide, Diverse Sea

Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,” begins John Masefield’s poem, “Sea Fever,” my favorite poem in grade seven, a poem that made me fall in love with poetry because of its rhythm, and the mystery of the sea the lines evoked. The summer before grade seven, I lived in Seaside, in Monterrey County, CA, close enough to visit the ocean often, where I would sit on the rocky shoreline, mesmerized by the tireless waves–their strength, endurance and foamy beauty rolling in from depths.


Decades later, living and working in Singapore, a friend encouraged my husband and I to spend our winter holiday diving in the area near Palau in the middle of the Pacific, where we would be able to see incredible fish life among the reefs, including schools of barracuda, and manta. During the years I lived in Turkey, I’d loved snorkeling in the Mediterranean, and had spent many hours suspended in the water staring into the ladders of light with fish wandering through. When I moved to Singapore,  I was a new scuba diver, and barely aware of the rich life beneath the water’s surface. Traveling to spend several weeks swimming alongside fish wasn’t something I’d considered doing on a holiday.  Instead, I’d hoped to experience the world I’d read about from books but had never seen–historical places with art and architecture. I wanted to listen to people speaking languages I didn’t comprehend, and to experience something of the world other than the one I was comfortable with. I’d never considered what two weeks of diving might do to open my eyes to the world’s wonder, how diving could expand my experience of life beyond what was previously familiar. My friend’s various descriptions of diving in Palau and Truck Lagoon convinced me, however, that there was, indeed, a phenomenal new world to explore underwater beyond what I’d previously known, and I made the trip to Palau and Truk lagoon.

Sierra Exif JPEG
Anna in the Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

The experience there changed me. Enveloped in wildness and beauty, I came to realize that to scuba dive is to have the most other worldly experience you can have on earth and still be on earth. Diving into ethereal blue waters to see bioluminescent clams and corals, watching coral feed, peering up close with a magnifying glass at a jeweled fairy basslet’s golden scales, observing a tiger shark emerge directly from the deep and swim toward you, witnessing a school of fish so large you can’t see the edges, or a hammer head swing its body back and forth in a movement fluid as an unfurling flag, watching the wildly patterned mandarin fish dance as it swims away, lying on the ocean’s sandy bottom as a ten foot wide manta ray wings its way gently over your head, these experiences are but a droplet in the life the ocean holds and that I’ve experienced underwater as a diver. It is a world other than the one we live in from day to day, operating with its own rules, and for a few minutes–as long as your air tank lasts–you are a part of it.

The nature writer Barry Lopez writes in his book, About This Life, how a man he sat next to on an airplane asked him what his daughter should do if she wants to be a writer, “…get out of town,” advised Lopez. “I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.” Ocean diving will most certainly separate you from the familiar and expose you to other languages–the ones fish speak with the behavior they display. It can also bring one a fresh sense of the world, how diverse it is, how wide, and what a gift it is to be alive. In this poem of mine written after diving in the Maldives, I describe the experience.

Days At Lohifushi
Anna Citrino

Underneath the wing of the reef
twenty or more oriental sweet lips
lounge contentedly in the hammock of the ocean,
their happy striped and spotted bodies
swinging lazily back
then forward with the surge,
their yellow and black faces playing
peek-a-boo with passers by.

Flowers burst in suns of buttery yellow
from the salmon pink fingered nubs
of corals stretching out from the wall,
a passion of color dancing out
into the darkness of the watery night.
I have traveled a long distance to stare at them here
thriving riotously underneath the overhang,
and notice how without traveling any distance,
with only reaching out to feed their pudgy bodies
on what happens to come their way
they dazzle with brilliance.

Minuscule transparent shrimp float
almost invisibly in the shimmering
aquamarine windows, the smoldering
fiery gold jewels of their iridescent eyes
left as hidden treasure for seekers
to find, secreted inside the silent
dark caves of the ocean’s night.

Underneath me, the eagle ray rises
from the edge of the reef,
raises his wide arms, circles
the blue reach in slow spirals,
gliding, turning, each revolution
a lifting of his arm’s white lip
a mantra of smoothness.
I watch him until he slides away
into the far distance. I peer after him
though I can no longer discern
his body’s shape
from the lift of his wing,
and the shadow of the sea.

We stand in a circle, waist deep in water,
watching the sea gently tumble
up the white coral shore.
Above the waving green palms, a rainbow
curves into a cup of blue sky.
Lars spins cartwheels, his legs
pointing up toward the clouds,
body twirling with the pinwheel spiral
of the earth whirling toward twilight
as the sun rolls, molten orange,
down the sky, smoothed
into the sea’s soft, silken cradle.
Hush. Can you hear the stars singing?

Skimming along the surface of the inky water
the boat speeds ahead toward the city’s lights
and the plane that will take me home. I do not want to go.
I stare off into the distance out the side window,
unable to distinguish the difference between sky and water,
the whole world folding into one. Beneath me
water flies in showers of starry phosphorescent light.
Luminescent sparks flare in bright streaks.
I am leaving, carried on the tail of a comet.

Lion fish, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

Immersing oneself in the sea may not be what everyone feels motivated to do, but the ocean is the place where all rivers meet and a source of immeasurable life. Now that I live in the US again, I’ve not had the opportunity to dive, though I admire the work of oceanographer and explorer, Sylvia Earle, and her efforts at Mission Blue, to preserve the ocean’s biodiversity, and as well as her work with National Geographic to create underwater marine reserves--blue parks. The natural world’s diversity enriches us and brings us more life.

Blue spotted ray, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

It’s comfortable to stick with what we know, but it’s also good to recognize that our individual lives depend on the diversity of life worldwide. Appreciating and supporting that diversity is perhaps one of the most important things we can do to bring more life into the world, our own and the natural world as well. When diving into the ocean, we can see the variety of worlds going on there all at once. Many ways of being co-exist. A manta ray might be swooping over an underwater mound of rock where cleaner wrasse wait, ready to feed on the mucus, damaged cells, and parasites that live on the manta ray. To the side and below the scene with the manta and wrasse, an octopus prepares his den, shoving out sand, while suspended between the two worlds, bat fish slowly circle.

The natural world thrives because of its diversity. In the financial world, as well, advisors tell us that a diversified portfolio is the foundation for sound investments. Similarly, diversifying our activities can benefit both our mental and physical health. Being open to new kinds of people, activities, and ways of thinking is good for us. When we purposefully choose to allow new ways of thinking and being to enter into our lives, we, enhance our health and well being, says the Harvard Medical School newsletter.

Stepping out of our comfort zones to do or learn something new, go somewhere different, to consider unfamiliar thoughts and different ways of seeing the world that contradict our former ways of being can bring challenges. Those very difficulties can also wake us up inside, though, and help us feel more alive. They can enable us to become more whole. David Steindl-Rast points out in his book, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, an Approach to Life in Fullness, that Abraham was seventy-five years old when God told him “‘Go forth out of your land, and out of your kinsfolk, and out of your father’s house.'” It takes a lot of courage to leave the world you know, in particular to do this at an age when people often prefer to settle into what’s familiar and comfortable. Abraham left his familiar world behind, though, and it’s interesting to note that Abraham didn’t know where he was headed when he set out on his pilgrimage. He was willing to be uncertain about what he knew, where he was going. Perhaps this is a central reason he’s revered–his willingness to reach beyond the borders of his understanding, and to move into unfamiliar territory and ways of being.

Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino