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The Sacred in a Swimsuit
Maybe having faith is not nearly as complicated as we make it out to be.
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I have been talking to a woman at the gym almost every weekday for the past two months. Just before our water aerobics class starts, we chit chat. Swapping stories about our kids. Comparing notes about our instructor. Reveling in the weather and time at the beach. Small disclosures that reveal a larger life. Last week, she told me her husband of more than 40 years died unexpectedly this past December. I’d barely uttered I’m so sorry! when she disclosed that just two weeks later her house burned down. Whaaaaat?!? There’s more. Two weeks before her husband’s sudden passing, their two golden retrievers died, 13.5 and 14.5 years old respectively. Noooo! She said she sometimes wonders if his grief over losing the dogs was, at least in part, what contributed to his heart attack at only 62. “Some days I can hardly believe this is my life.” Understandably!
Who can say what will happen in a life, even in a given day? Still, we plan and predict and manage and anticipate and hope. Of course! We must, really! How else could we have groceries in the fridge, schedule flights, write books, plan weddings, even get up in the morning? How else could we stay, let alone survive, in a relationship that’s tenuous, in a job that feels too small, through a pandemic that overwhelms, in a political landscape that shocks and saddens. It’s profound—the way we keep going with little thought of all that could happen. Yes, we’ve had seasons of obsessing over exactly what could happen—nearly paralyzed by our fear of the unknown and all that is out of our control. But in comparison, we’ve also experienced driving 30 minutes to Target with no memory of the trip, the traffic, or the topic of the podcast we listened to along the way. In between our biggest fears and our forgetfulness lies an almost unquestioned belief that today will be much like yesterday, tomorrow like today. And this, it seems to me, is faith.
I’m decades removed from the church and religion, but I still reflect on how I used to experience so much of it. Rigor, requirement, and obligation come to mind. If only I had more faith, then I could begin to hope my concerted efforts would make a difference. Surely my life would get easier, my infertility would end, my marriage would survive. I’d be saved by faith. No fire (eternal or otherwise) would consume. But my life did not get easier. And though I did eventually and gratefully give birth to my two amazing daughters, I ended the marriage . . . my version of burning down the house, I suppose. It’s been a long (and ongoing) journey to untangle the messages that left me feeling faith-less; to no longer place my faith in someone else—whether a husband or a god—but in myself; to find the sacred NOT in searching and striving, but in the unexpected and sometimes in a swimming pool.
She told me that late last Christmas Eve, while her son, daughter-in-law, and 6-year-old granddaughter were sound asleep down the hall, she sat on her bedroom floor and wrapped presents. “It was just days after the funeral, but I wanted to keep my tradition. It’s sort of a sacred time for me—the joy of taking care with each gift, the quiet, the anticipation of the day to come.” When she finished, she went downstairs for a glass of water and noticed how inordinately hot it was. With just a bit of investigation, she spotted flames in the wood stove flue, called the fire department, and got everyone out of the house before it was engulfed. “I spent a lot of time in denial that this could possibly be happening to me. It felt like I was in a bad Hallmark movie where everything went horribly wrong instead of happily ever after.”
We hope and pray our stories don’t go this way, that we somehow escape such Job-like trials. And because we have been lured into believing our faith will spare us, we cling to what little we have and struggle to develop more. But I think we’re making it far too complicated. In truth, we demonstrate mountain-moving amounts of faith every single day. Just like the woman at the gym, we survive and show up and smile and share the tiniest snippets of our story—a life that is incredibly vast and heartbreaking and brave. Even though our lives are not remotely predictable, we live as though they are, and almost all of the time we make it through even when they aren’t. This IS faith.
Without knowing how today or tomorrow will yet go, I’ll hit “publish” on this post with faith that you will read it. I will cross a myriad of things off a very long list in preparation for my daughter’s wedding, just six days away, with faith that it will be perfect in every way. I will count down the twenty-three days remaining before my book is released with the sometimes-faltering faith that what I have created matters. And I’ll head back to water aerobics in the morning with complete faith that the woman next to me is evidence of the sacred in a swimsuit.
She told me her kids believe her husband somehow—energetically, mysteriously, “from the other side”—caused the house to catch fire, because had it not, she would have never been released from the burden of staying in a place they’d shared for decades, never would have moved to North Carolina to be closer to her daughter, never would have moved on with her life.
And I never would have heard her story.
As the music started up and we grabbed our weights she said, “I still miss my husband so much, but I’m pretty sure he’s proud of me for making it through another day.” Pretty sure. No doubt. Faith. Faith. Faith.
I’m pretty sure that everything is sacred: all that we so blindly trust, all the randomness, all the meaning we make of both. And I have no doubt that the faith we demonstrate in making it through another day, let alone living a life, is nothing short of miraculous.
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