on (not) drowning

In a previous version of my life, I spent a lot of time around water. Eventually, I discovered that if you hang out around the pool enough, you might as well get paid for it: as soon as I was old enough to take the test, I became a lifeguard.

You can learn many things while guarding, from personal preferences like the roles you prefer to play in a team, how you handle boredom, and whether you can manage a crisis . . . to highly task-specific knowledge, such as how to safely help a person who has become unable to save herself.

This is not me.  Just so we're clear.

This is not me. Just so we’re clear.

The first rule: if you yourself are in the water, don’t ever try offer your own body as a saving base for an active drowning victim.  This means do not grab the person without something between you and them, and never—EVER–let them grab you.  This rule is why the rescue tube—that long orange floatie that lifeguards have been carrying for the past 15 years or so—was created: to provide a buoyant buffer between a rescuer’s body and that of a drowning victim.

This innovation didn’t arise from a fear of closeness: it’s because active drowning victims act irrationally and dangerously.  They flail.  They hit.  They grab and hold without discrimination, and sometimes with strength and tenacity that are not entirely helpful.

In a worst-case scenario, the victim gets hold of your head, wraps her arms around you to keep herself afloat, and takes you both under.  This is a dangerous situation that lifeguards practice in certification training, and the solution is counterintuitive: you must break the hold by swimming down—away from the surface, away from the air, and away from the person you’re trying to help—and then try again to approach from a different angle, remembering to keep yourself farther away.  In some circumstances, it’s actually necessary to wait for the person to lose energy and stop fighting before you can assist them.  Occasionally that happens only when s/he becomes unconscious.

Aside from drills, I have never been a rescuee.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that would happen; I was basically born with fins.  And yet, the past semester of freaking out—about seminary, the call to ministry, changes to my role in my congregation, and life-altering transformations, in general—it seems akin to a drowning process.  Or, more accurately, to a fear-of-drowning process.

First I was the kid who climbed to the top of the high dive and then refused to jump.  For a long time.  A looooooong time.  (and honestly, who hasn’t wanted to climb up there and give that kid a great big push?)  But it’s so far down, and it looks different from the top than you thought it would, and falling is scary, and having to swim after that is daunting, and everybody’s staring at you and . . .

And then I was the panicked swimmer floundering in the water.  Head back.  Arms flailing.  Oblivious to the crowd gathering, and a potential danger to those who would try to help.

Only—check this out—it turns out that the gathering crowd is yelling.  At me.   “Put your feet down!”  “FEET! DOWN!”*  They are yelling because it turns out I’ve been flailing around in exactly 2.5 feet of water.

I can stand here.  My children could stand here.  This is both noteworthy and embarrassing, but I don’t dwell on it, because I have also realized something else: I can swim.  (It’s hard to do a thorough self-assessment of skills while actively drowning.)

In fact, it turns out that I actually love swimming.

I love it more than I thought possible.  I love it so much that it changes my dreams—they get bigger.  Much bigger. Bigger than I could even have imagined.

And so, this evening I went to look for some of those dreams . . . in a small and surprising container.  One that, of course, is filled with water.

This is a sensory deprivation tank, affectionately known by devotees as simply “the tank.”

IMG_1805

There is a chair.  There is a tiled shower area.  There is a warm glow from a candle, surrounded, altar-style, by shells and stones.  There are earplugs, and a towel . . . and little else.  There is not, for example, a clock.  There’s not a window.  There’s not background music, or light reading material, or an internet connection.

It’s just me . . . and the tank.

And I stand there, taking deep slow breaths while the uber-Zen tank guy gives me a floating 101 run-through, and I try to nudge my fear toward “excited” rather than “terrified.”  That sort of nudging, after all, is what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, and it has taken me places.  I am leaning in—to my fear, using it to power through, to take the leap into the deep water—and I have found myself talking in class, holding a microphone at Vespers, offering a writing workshop to my classmates and leading experimental humanist worship on the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue.  (yep, that happened.  I did it.  It was C-R-A-Z-Y . . . and wonderful.)

And yet this tank is something else entirely.  For one thing, it’s dark.  This is not a run of the mill, lights are off kind of darkness.  It’s not even lost-in-a-forest, or heard-a-noise-at-midnight darkness.  This is primordial darkness.  Darkness as living entity.  Darkness as beginning, middle and end, the kind in which you might experiment to determine whether it even matters if your eyes are open or not (answer: it does, and it doesn’t).

For another thing, an hour can seem like a very (very . . . very) long time when I am alone with my brain and nothing else.  Which I eventually am—it simply comes down to that once I stop fighting.  There is nothing else left.

First, though, I have to overcome my physical fear, and I realize that I am literally trembling as I lie down in the tank, door still ajar.  My body rises immediately to float atop the surface—there are 800 lbs of Epsom salts dissolved in these 200 gallons of water, creating a buoyancy roughly equivalent to that of the Dead Sea.  My head tips back a bit, and I float peacefully.  Calmly.  With pleasant orange-toned visions of the ceiling outside of the tank.  Just this, I think . . . it is almost enough.

Except that I’m done with almost enough.  And so, I close the door.

It is a bit heavy—heavier than I thought, definitely heavier than Alix said (“You can push it open with a finger!”) and it closes with certainty.  And then I am alone.

It is dark.  I cannot see.  I cannot hear.  The only thing to feel is water, and it’s a pleasant nothing, warmed to exactly skin temperature.  All that is left is to float, and I lean back, slide down, and rise again to the surface.  This is ok.  Odd.  Surprising.  I’m doing it.

Then I take a deep breath, reach out to feel the walls, and realize that I’m turning a bit in the darkness.  I’m not turning over—the buoyancy makes that essentially impossible—but around, as you might floating down a lazy river.  I take another breath.  IcantseeIcantsee.  I worry about finding the door.

I sit up suddenly, splashingly, and scratch my way toward the where I think the door might be.  Saltwater runs down my forehead toward my eyes as I try to keep franticness at bay.  I find the large circle with my fingertips.  I push, hard.

Door open.  Air.  Breathe.  Sigh.  Sit.

Try again.

And so it goes for maybe 10 minutes, until suddenly, during a floating moment, I have a realization.  It’s a thought both small and profound.  It belongs in the category, a designation for which I recently laughed at my float-experienced friends, of “Things the Tank Told Me.”

This realization is: “’Trapped’ is just a feeling.”  I turn that over in my mind, and realize it’s true on a deep level: there is no space that will feel big enough unless I’m content to find myself within it.  And conversely . . . perhaps I could choose to find myself right here in this tank.  To be here.  To fully inhabit this space and my body for this hour.  To live into where I am for now, and to trust that I am safe here.

And so I do.  I start with this moment in which I can concede that I don’t need to do anything—but for my panic about “what if?,” I am calm and happy and safe.  Realizing this, I commit to remain calm for the rest of the hour. It sounds reasonable inside my head, but almost immediately, I feel the familiar well of fear.  Too big.  Too much pressure.

Well . . . perhaps, then, dear self, we can agree to remain calm and happy in each moment where that works, knowing that we can make a new plan and respond appropriately if something changes.  No need to worry about it now.  Just be, until it’s time to be in a different way.

And this works.  This I can do.  One moment to the next, until the moments cease to be.

I dream.  I imagine.  I lose track of time and thought entirely.  I come back to myself and use my hands to scull the length of the tank until my head bounces gently off the top.  I scull back down to the bottom, pushing off with my feet like an amphibious pinball.  The water moves sloshily around me, rocking, swaying, and I feel an unnerving sense of vertigo.  This too shall pass, I think.  It does.

And so does the hour, until I hear a knock at the door and then another knock on the tank.  Relaxed and ready, I meet that knock with two of my own, sit up, and climb back into the light, leaning in toward whatever comes next.  I’m grateful to be swimming, grateful to be floating . . . grateful to be here.

j

*water safety PSA: joking aside, yelling is not an effective strategy for an actual active drowning victim.  (come to think of it, yelling is also unlikely to be helpful for people who  only think they’re drowning.)  We’re taking some literary license for the purpose of telling this story. 🙂

shut up and swim (the Gospel according to Luke)

I went to the ELCA church in my town this past Sunday, and walked inside in a spirit of relieved anticipation.  I was expecting, I think, to have my “needs” met exactly . . . so it disturbed me to discover that the confession of sins had been reduced to a perfunctory paragraph at the very beginning of the service, the words to the Lord’s Prayer updated (leaving me muttering about forgiving trespasses and proclaiming power and glory forever and ever while others spoke staidly of sins and times of trial), and the cadences altered for the call and response portions of the liturgy.

Nevermind that this isn’t my church anymore, and hasn’t been for more than a decade.  Nevermind that I don’t make myself part of the community here—in fact, I don’t think I know a soul these days—support the church financially in anything but a perfunctory way, keep in touch or engage in any of its work.  I want this institution to stay right where I left it, how I want it, so that I can come back and take what I need.

Predictably, the institution is failing to cooperate.  I am disappointed.

So disappointed, in fact, that on Sunday I considered leaving, mid-service—not out of pique, exactly, but because I was suddenly very sure that sitting through this not-what-I–expected thing was not a good use of my time.  Unwilling to climb over my neighbors or make the walk of shame down the center aisle, however, I finally committed myself to a further 40 minutes of unhelpfulness . . . and there I sat, resigned and sort of bored, until we got to the Gospel reading.

It was the one from Luke 9—(verses 9:52-61) in which Jesus refuses to allow those who would follow him to so much as say goodbye to their families or bury their dead.  Not only does he refuse to grant his followers even these small mercies– he condemns their inclinations, saying, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit to enter the kingdom of God.”

I was glad to have a chance to unpack these verses a bit more, as they have always troubled me: this is Jesus we’re talking about.  What kind of love looks like this?  And honestly, these demands seem not just unloving but . . . sort of crazy.  Uncomfortable, yes, but also potentially damaging.  And personally, I tend to follow only reasonable-sounding instructions (reasonableness TBD by yours truly).

I was mulling this over as we heard, in the children’s story, that it’s hard to follow Jesus—he asks so much of us, and he means come right now; abandon all that you were doing, thinking, and planning and trust instead in me.

That means leaving.  That means loss.  Which of you would agree to that?  What say you, little people?  What think you, big ones?  It’s hard, right?  But, not to worry—Jesus gives us other things when we follow him.  Jesus gives us so much that we don’t even miss what we left behind.  (Patently untrue, this last part, and I felt a blog post brewing—why must we lay words of sacrifice before our children only to smooth them over in a neat little lie?  I think I would have had one composed by the end of the service; perhaps you’d be reading it right now . . . but then the sermon came, and it knocked me right on my butt.)

The assistant pastor’s name is Jennifer Kiefer.  Rev. Kiefer is young, my age.  She sings beautifully, leads worship calmly, and shared a bit about the story of her call to ministry with us all when I dropped in for the Ash Wednesday service.  I was interested to hear her preach, and I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly . . . but not this.

Rev. Kiefer retold that story from Luke, highlighting the unreasonableness of it all.  (That’s what I’m saying, girlfriend!)  And then she shared how she’s been thinking of these challenging verses, and what they mean for an ongoing struggle in her life: the need to be in control, or at least to feel like she is.  I recognized a few of her personal examples—it’s that way, isn’t it . . . but the challenge didn’t stop there.

Rev. Kiefer invited us to consider for ourselves how the desire for control manifests in our own lives, and what we might be dishonoring as we cling to what feels safe—as we put a hand to the plow but then look back.  She encouraged us to reflect upon who we might be hurting as we thrash about like fish on a line, when we move to turn back when ultimately we have no choice but to go forward.  And then she called on us to look at what we might be fighting against in a new way—to acknowledge the scariness, and then to name it differently.

Some people find meaning in using other language for God (how well I know it, sister), and one of the most interesting terms I’ve heard is “The Place.”  That never resonated with me, until thinking about what it might mean to give up control.  About where we might find ourselves.  About why that is so scary—because when we move forward, we lose things, and we step, however briefly, into a vacuum.  That emptiness can be terrifying.  It can be painful.  We can find ourselves in a hurting, lonely place. 

Rural landscape in Poland

What if that place—the vacuum, the emptiness, and even the painful parts—what if that is The Place?  The only place we can be, the place where we are, and our task is to live into that space, let go of our need to control it or have it be different, and find ourselves and God there, just as it is.  What if we did that, in faith?  What if we put a hand to the plow, and moved forward, not because it’s what we planned, or thought we wanted, or what makes sense to us . . . but because we’re putting our trust in The Place?  It will be what we need . . . when we are willing to find ourselves where we are called to go. 

This might be obvious to anyone who reads this blog, but friends, I have looked back.  I have done more than look–I have tried to leave the plow entirely.  I have argued about the need for tilling in the first place.  I may, in fact, have attempted to sell the plow for parts.

When things hit as close to home as this message did, I struggle a bit with interpretation.  Has God, acknowledging the mounting evidence, determined that it’s best, in my case, to dispense with subtlety?  Was my need to make meaning so great on that day that I would have heard anything—anything at all—as though it were speaking right to my soul?

I do not know the answer to these questions.

What I do know is that I sat, laughing, through “Lamb of God,” that I cried through communion, and that I left knowing that some things I thought were wrong are actually much, much too right . . . and vice versa.

And then, a couple of days ago, I remembered the first summer I spent as a camp counselor.  I was part of the waterfront staff, which invariably involves a lot of ongoing training, and after one of these sessions our team lead asked if anyone had anything to say.  My hand shot up as I announced, with urgency and enthusiasm, “I have a question!”  Ali looked in my direction, shook her head, smiled, and drawled, to general laughter, “Why am I not surprised?”

I remembered this because “Wait, I have a question!” was my first reaction—my default reaction—to the clarity I felt after church on Sunday.  Astonishing, but true: it is possible to meet even clarity with questions.  In fact, for me it’s actually quite tempting because clarity can be really uncomfortable.  Questions, on the other hand, allow me to spend time merely talking about things; this is less scary, and thus, much more appealing, than simply shutting up and doing them.

Thus, in this case, the “Aha!  I really actually am supposed to trust this,” realization was followed in short order by “Wait–trust what?  Trust whom?  Trust all the time?  And what does “trust” mean, anyway . . . ”  (Yes, my inner self does sound a tiny bit like Bill Clinton on the witness stand.)  I think at one point I was actually going to ask these questions—reasoning, perhaps, that this might keep everyone, and especially myself, too busy to actually do anything meaningful.

In a small victory for the way of the plow, I did quickly realize that this was ridiculous.  Which led me to muse, on Facebook, whether my calling is actually to ministry, or merely to color commentary about ministry.

That was a joke . . . and yet it wasn’t.

I am beginning to understand that I can jump in and do this work—the work of ministry, the work to be where I am, the commitment to allow myself to fully participate in the process and be changed by it—or I can stand on the sidelines and talk about it.

One or the other.  Choose.  

In this post, my friend Mandie likens this decision to experiencing a brook by sitting by it and trying to understand, or by jumping into the water to experience it firsthand. For Mandie, this says a lot about how we live our UU faith.  For me, right now, it says a lot about how I live into this call.  All the chatter and worry and questions about questions . . . even the pondering—it’s so much sitting by the brook.

I don’t want to sit by the brook anymore.  It’s limiting.  It lacks mission (other than the completely self-serving, “Do not under any circumstances get wet.”)  And it’s not even fun.

I will say that I don’t know what this means yet, or what it looks like, including for Raising Faith.  I’m an extrovert, and I experience writing as a compulsion . . . but I am headed to Chicago in a few days–spending the rest of the month there, in fact–to attend my first set of intensives at Meadville Lombard.  And I’m planning to do some swimming.  Plowing.  Whatever.

Maybe I’ll bring you along.  Or perhaps I’ll discover the beauty of silence.

Or, just maybe, I’ll tell you about it later, a few years from now . . . when I have a sermon to give about a certain few verses from the book of Luke.

j