Lifesaving 101: Experiencing the divine in new ways

I remember my high school lifesaving course more than any other class. The smell of chlorine. The high-paned windows frosted in the winter. The circa 1950 blue and white bathing suit and cap we were required to wear which was rather unflattering in 1986. My all-girls high school mandated that we take swimming for three of our four years. Why I chose lifesaving my junior year, I really don’t know. I never intended to be a lifeguard, and it was the first period of the day.

What I do recall is that my lifesaving partner, JoAnne, was significantly taller than me and equally unmatched in weight. When it came time to “save” her, as she pretended to flail in the deep end, my job was to pull her under the water fast, turn her around, and then come back up with her secure in my arms. We did that, I learned, to shock someone who really is drowning. Done with enough speed, you essentially trick the person’s body into submission. If not, the magnitude of the person’s panic can cause you to drown.

The speedy pull-down and turn around were easy enough, but given JoAnne’s stature, coming up to the surface strained every muscle I had. Once we finally reemerged, I had to pull her to safety―the opposing pool wall. Swimming with one arm wrapped under her shoulder and across her chest translated into me going under with each stroke and fighting my way back up for air. I used to talk myself through it in my mind, “Okay. Okay. Just focus on the wall.”  I remember well the rush of relief I felt once we both touched the smooth blue tile on the other side of the pool.

Needless to say, it was not a graceful process, and I almost failed to get certified because of it. But the experience has proven to be quite lasting as it gave me the most visceral analogy for the realities of life. Sometimes, despite our very best intentions, we go under. We get turned around. Everything in our lives shifts. We lose our livelihood. A close friend dies. A lover leaves. And we find ourselves fighting our way back up and trying mightily to land on a different shore.

What I did not know at 16, that I now deeply appreciate, is that the very same thing can happen in our relationship with the divine—and often at the same time we go under. Our familiar way of knowing God can disappear altogether, sometimes for long stretches of time, before a new and deeper understanding resurfaces. In times such as those, I try to imagine the divine pulling me across the pool, whispering in my ear: “It’s okay. Really, okay. You’ll understand in time.”

And, in time, I usually do. As joyous as my son is to me, becoming an instant mom of a three-year-old who had a rough start in life has most definitely pulled me under and turned me around. A span of 45 minutes can range anywhere from the news that my son has swallowed a quarter (Why? “I don’t know, Mama.”), to racing dump trucks up and down the hallway, to demanding a “good stop” to the water being splashed lavishly across the bathroom floor, to happily snapping pictures of him dancing on the couch in his underwear and light-up sunglasses.

Moment to moment is a wild card. Sometimes I can smooth out the rough edges. Sometimes I make them worse. Sometimes I just hold him in my arms until all the anguish passes and we both come back up for air. And other times, we give each other hugs just for fun. Faced with this new reality, most of what I thought I knew about God has all but disappeared. And in its wake, I am learning to experience the sacred instead, to trust more fully in the mystery and the elegance by which the sacred moves seamlessly through our days.

Take last week. Still on holiday from school, we spent the afternoon at my friend’s house to stay warm. Our radiators had rather abruptly stopped singing once the temperatures plummeted. My son was happily playing with his friends; I was humming along on a deadline. Everything was feeling rather cozy, until I left to meet the “heat guy” and my son unraveled in ways unimagined. My friend intervened so I could race home, only to discover that I had left my computer behind and would not be able to email the proposal in time.

Prayerfully the “heat guy” worked his magic and a warming trend took hold. I negotiated the proposal over the phone with the help of several very gracious colleagues. Bracing myself for a tough night, I ran to what we affectionately call the “big M” in hopes of using my son’s dinner du jour as a means to get him in the car without another scene. He did so effortlessly, and then asked, softly, “Mama, why couldn’t I go with you to meet the heat guy?”

I could see the earnestness on his face as I launched into my rationale. “Mama,” he said again. “Can I interrupt you for a moment please? I cried this afternoon because you didn’t explain that to me.” (Sometimes I’m not sure who is raising whom.) I instantly apologized as did he. He then downed his favorite Happy Meal and promptly fell asleep at 5:15pm. I drove home, relieved. In the quiet of his slumber, I prayed in gratitude for all the ways love showed up that day.

I used to look for the sacred in much grander gestures. I remember reading book after book about other people’s life-altering experiences and longing for my own, for all the ways I wanted God to usher in the vision I had prepared for my life. And now, with my life being measured out from one moment to the next, my relationship with the divine is being transformed by the nuances of my day that remind me just how present and loving God is. All I have to do is let go and let myself be carried. And that, in and of itself, is lifesaving.