Bullseye Electric Ray: A Real Shocker
You know those rare dreams you wake from and can’t shake off because you know, you just KNOW, that your subconscious was trying to tell you something important? Something that your day-to-day busy-ness keeps you safe from feeling? Well, I recently had one and it was a real zapper.
Maybe the catalyst was land-sickness. I’ve become so used to the motion of the sea that sitting still on solid land had me pitching and rolling with vertigo. Maybe it was the aftershock of the event that quite literally landed me and Paul and Gizmo between a rock and a hard place in San Carlos, Sonora, MX for an un-desired, boat-repair month (long story there that is best for Paul to tell). Maybe it’s the complete lack of internet. Maybe I’m just weird. Whatever the multivariate reasons, I found myself dreaming of my own slow death. It was quite beautiful actually, in a bizarre sort of way. This video will give you the peaceful feel of it:
I was blissfully floating in a sun-bright, shallow surf, swaying with a school of rainbow-colored tropical fish, hovering just above the sparkly-dappled backs of various stingrays and electric rays. I was being gently rocked to and fro like a fetus of momma ocean and occasionally tumbled in the sand just like any of the rest of the seaweed flotsam. With every wave that rolled me over the pastel-shelly sand some of my body would painlessly slough off. This gradual erosion of my corporal self may sound macabre, but it was quite freeing. After countless wave tumbles, I felt that all that was left of me was something mushy and organ sized (A heart? A brain? A pulpy bit of soul?).
My dream-self realized that it was simply my time to let GO of myself, of this life. I was ready to break apart into life’s basic CHON molecules (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen) and get sucked into the soft gills of those slumbering rays I could see below me. I began to give myself over to the loving mother sea when, suddenly, something forcefully bit into me from within: a deep, gut-wrenching, emotional pain. I semi-woke in the night-black AirBnB, sweating and heaving on all fours like I was back in the long labor of my only child’s birth.
Paul, the dismayed hero, immediately tried to comfort and wake me fully but I pushed him away. Through my intense weeping and ululations, I remember saying to him that I needed him to let me go. Then I cried out for my son, Zane, realizing that he was the one gristly umbilical cord holding me tight to the planet whose gravity I was otherwise ready to escape. It wasn’t a tendon of love that was binding me though, I instantly and wordlessly realized, but some messy, regret-filled, neck-choking sinew that I had numbed myself from feeling. I knew there was something ugly that I needed to take a long, brave look at and then reconcile with my now adult and distant child.
Before I reveal the ugly thing's deformed face, I want to tell you something literally shocking about one of those species of ray who my lump of a diminishing self was floating over in my death surf. I could see them and their unmistakable bullseye-patterned backs just centimeters below me. As a whole, you can think of rays as sharks who evolved to be flat for various advantageous reasons. You likely know that sharks have been finning into a conservation crisis, but did you know that rays, overall, have recently become even more at risk than their famous, toothy cousins? Our rays’ vulnerability, like so many overlooked species, is exacerbated due to data deficiencies. They are woefully understudied. And, adding insult to injury, not only are rays commonly caught as by-catch in gill and trawling nets but, ironically, with greater protections for sharks, many rays are now being killed for their “wings” which are then marketed as shark fins for such eastern delicacies as shark fin soup. If you think that’s some weird human behavior, just hang on a couple paragraphs.
Of the over nearly 700 species of ray in the world, from prehistoric-looking sawfish to tourist-attracting giant mantas to the “better shuffle your feet” round sting rays found in shallow beach waters around the world, one of my absolute favorites (and there’s a LOT of competition for a freaky fish-o-phile like me) is often spied day-sleeping in the sand right under our Triplefin home on the Sea of Cortez: the bullseye electric ray (Diplobatis ommata) with their blacker-than-black, bulls-eyed backs seeming more like interstellar black holes - thumb-sized portals into alternate realities – their curious gravity pulling on you, tempting you to touch them to discover what’s on the other side. (Am I alone here or do you also feel that kind of temptation to leap when standing on a cliff edge?)
Lying in sandy wait in shallow waters around the world, the various electric rays use their 30 – 200 volts with up to 35 amps of current to stun their prey and predators. Think of up to 27 hair dryers tossed into a big bathtub – zap! They even use their electricity to communicate with each other. How do they make electricity? I’ll honor my electrician father by explaining it. Electric rays have a pair of kidney-shaped organs which are simply stacks of muscle that instead of contracting and releasing energy, create a chemical reaction that releases a charge. The special cells (electrocytes) in these muscle fibers act like an array of batteries that move charged atoms (ions) across their cell membranes. Stack all those cells up and they generate a kick; one that is currently being used in biomedical research to help us learn more about how our human nervous system functions.
It seems I’m not the first Homo sapien to sense something otherworldly when in the watery presence of rays. Human history shows a long and multi-cultural employment of rays as creatures who act as conduit between this world and the whatever the next may be. Check out just a few ways we’ve employed them: decorations in tombs of Egyptian pharaohs for their underworld journeys; ancient and modern Aboriginal Australians’ Dreamtime art; West African fisherfolk’s pirogue prows adorned with electric-ray skin amulets for protection from dangers at sea; Aotearoa’s (New Zealand’s) Māori’s supernatural spirit, Punga, who mythologically gave rise to rays and other ‘deformed, ugly beasts’; the most prized life-taking swords of Japan’s samurai with handles covered in the original “grip tape” made of rays’ sandpapery skin; Brazil’s Amazonian Yanomami people’s rumored sexual rites that involve copulating with giant freshwater stingrays (Hmmm. Rays can be hypnotized by stroking them, so it sounds a bit date-rapey to me.); and Mexico’s Mayan bloodletting rituals involving stingray envenomation done to open a fiery communication pathway between the natural and spiritual worlds. *
Euro-centric culture is not to be overlooked regarding rays either. None other than Odysseus (Ulysses), Ithaca’s famed Greek king, had it foretold that his death would come from the sea (I can relate to this lately) and indeed, he was stabbed in the chest with a spear tipped with a stingray’s stinger (something my Aussie dive buddies will appreciate). On a life-giving note, ancient Greek and Roman doctors used electric rays as shock therapy for gout (rich, white-dude disease) and migraines as well as an anesthetic for surgeries and dental work. (Yes, I AM picturing Steve Martin in white scrubs wielding an electric ray above my open mouth while goofily saying, “Don’t worry, after the shock you won’t feel a thing”.) Indeed, electric rays, known collectively as numbfish, were our earliest anesthetics because of the numbing effects left over after the zap. Our word narcotic is even derived from narke, the Greek word for electric rays. Finally, most relevant to my death-dreaming self (and oh my gosh, I love this), electric rays were also employed during childbirth to numb the pain of labor! Can you imagine it?! This fun fact spirals us right back to the Gorgon beast of a thing my dream forced me to stare at, but it melted me instead of turning me to stone. So, here’s what I figured out from the “dream”. . . .
When I divorced my son’s father almost two decades ago it was something I absolutely needed to do in order to live true to myself. I do not regret it. But at the time, destroying our family unit was so unbearably painful that I had to numb myself in order to go through the labor of it and not chicken-out. I walled myself off from the pain of the man I will always love as he transitioned into a cool “co-parent”, and I absolutely refused to recognize the emotional suffering that my then 8-year-old child must have been bearing. I convinced myself that our divorce would simply be an opportunity for our child to learn that change is inevitable and can be a positive force if done mindfully and with love. Yeah, right, I know. Deluded and idealistic, for sure. We are humans and we have egos so we both made some messes in the decade-long process. It was often very painful for our son who I continued to numbingly reassure that everything was (as Paul likes to say) “f@&#ing rainbows and unicorns”. My death dream was an incredible gift from my sea-made, intensely perceptive, and sensate subconscious. My waking self is simply way too asleep to figure this stuff out.
As I fully woke that night beside a stunned Paul, I grabbed my battery-powered cellphone to use as a conduit with my son far away in the so-not-a-desert Pacific Northwest. I knew I had to immediately acknowledge his pain and suffering that I had so long numbed myself against feeling. To have recognized his pain sooner would have challenged my identity as a good mother since we all know that the second most important thing a mother has to do is protect her child from pain and suffering. I not only failed at that but had actually been a catalyst for the emotional pain in his childhood. F&#k. Paul loosened my cellphone grip by reminding me that it was around midnight at my son’s house and that he likely had work and classes the next day. Did I fall back to sleep? Ha! I called as soon as I could the next day and we had the most open, honest, heartfelt, and forgiving conversation you can imagine. I somehow raised a compassionate young man who knows how to deeply listen and to graciously forgive and reassure. It was a conversation we both deeply needed without either of us realizing it.
Thank you, electric rays . . . you hit it and woke me up right on the bullseye!
PS – I realize too now that there are people who have caused me pain that they have not acknowledged, likely for their own anesthetized reasons meant to preserve their identities as “good persons”. I see now that they have likely been unable to apologize to me because they are numb and blind to my hurt just as I was to my son’s. What a conduit, a portal, to forgiveness! Now, what about you? Any lingering and gnarly sinews you need to take a look at in order to get on the other side of suffering so one day you can just let go and be fish-feeding CHON?
*Much of the biological and historical info on rays came from the 3-inch-thick-book, Rays of the World, gifted to us by a dear friend and lover of freaky-beauty, Ross Maynard. The fetus of my leading illustration is based on a beautiful medical etching by Jan van Riemsdyk from the mid 1700’s.