I thought I was just too early for Master swim when all I saw were four bright orange rescue rings floating on the surface of the pool. It turned out the absence of lane markers was on purpose. Today’s workout would be free-form. “Choose a direction and swim outside the rings. Pull a few, kick a few, swim a few, whatever you feel like.”
Today we were doing the pool imitation of an “open water swim.”
Actual open water events are pretty much free-for-alls, with every swimmer fending for him or herself. There’s climbing and clawing and a sprint to the front in order to avoid the same. And if the dark, choppy water doesn’t provide ample challenge, there’s the matter of keeping your bearings… and contending with cramps, hypothermia, injury or exhaustion. Of course, for those swimmers who cannot continue, rescue boats are close at hand.
None of this happened at the neighborhood swimming pool today.
At least not to me. Because, after jumping in, swimming a few strokes, looking up every two or three to be sure I wasn’t gonna clobber another swimmer, then taking extra irregular breaths to gauge my bearings per the buoys, then preferentially stroking with right arm to navigate the turning radius, I completed one lap and climbed out.
“This just isn’t my thing,” I apologized to the guy who set up the course. “I come here more for the Zen.”
But what I really meant was, “This is totally nuts!” There’s no way I voluntarily subject myself to an hour of dizzily circling the pool while hyperventilating in fear of ramming somebody. All that just because nobody set up the lane lines…
One of the guys called to me as I was leaving, “What’s the matter? Don’t like the waves?”
Nope. It wasn’t the waves. Effort I am okay with. It was the tight turns and uncertainty I objected to. It felt… debilitating.
Wow. As soon as I named the feeling, it all made sense. This open-water swim felt like the year and a half we’ve been living. Our orange buoys — pandemic, climate change, injustice and cultural division — have set us a-spin. They’ve changed all our rules. Boundaries we thought were fixed have now moved. Truth may not be true. Our friend may not be our friend. The system we thought was fair, isn’t. Temperatures trending upward may not be temporary.
What we thought was unchangeable isn’t; the world can change in a minute.
Life right now feels like an open water swim, and even if you’re a good swimmer, it’s disconcerting and dizzying. Our opportunities for collective Zen have gone missing.
I need to inject more of my life with stuff like organized Master Swim. I need lane lines, a planned workout, the right equipment, a clean, well-kept space and some hearty companions. Because in that space, even and especially after supplying maximum effort, I find peace — the peace that settles my mind and clears my head, the peace that trains my heart and uplifts my soul.
How I am longing for structure, discipline, order and clear expectations where I can be free to supply my effort, my skills and my talents to contribute to my world as it is and make it better. To find a bit of good news and amplify it. To uncover a good idea and inspire a group to pursue it. To lift up the work of others who are on track toward something great. And to lend a hand where I can.
Because this head-spinning time needs a-righting. And getting out of the pool isn’t an option.
Honestly, I’m not used to lagging behind when things get physically demanding. I’ve always been more of a front-of-the-pack, encourage-people-up-the-hill kind of a person. But this week was different; this week of bike touring in Columbia Gorge and Willamette Valley, I was the last. Always. Everyday, I was last to lunch.
When my cycling group whizzed by me, I’d shout, “I’m slow but I’m coming,” trying to sound upbeat (and hide my frustration). “Have a great ride!” I would add, as the last of them passed me by. One bemused farmer called out, “Yur falling behind. Better catch up.”
I would have if I could have. But in the rolling hills and quite steep regions of Oregon, I was no match for any of my companions. Neither the “older” cyclists zooming by on e-bikes (motorized bicycles you dial in your level of assist) nor the younger set who barreled through unconcerned about preserving their knees or conserving their energy, were waiting around for me.
The younger set who were traveling together all hailed from Chicago. We called them the Chicago-7, although there were actually 8 of them. Four couples, each with elementary and middle-school-aged children attending the same private school and, at present, all enjoying time away at camp. Good for the Chicago-8, I thought, taking time away as couples and time away from demanding jobs and schedules. This was a high-achieving bunch. Even on vacation, their morning ride was a full-on sprint to lunch at the daily winery, followed generally by a van shuttle back to the hotel for a dip in the hot tub before dinner.
All of my tour-mates were extremely friendly, even when they had to wait for me in order to load the shuttle we all planned to take up the big hill. One brushed aside my apology for slowness saying, “Oh Wendy, you’re in great shape, for your age.”
Oh those words… “for your age.”
But I knew that already, didn’t I? I knew it for SURE when my quads refused to keep pedaling and my gasps of breath barely drowned out the pounding of my heart. Several times over the 6 days of cycling I (gasp!) got off and walked my bike up the hill. This would include on the last day, after riding into a stiff head wind all morning, when I struggled up the pebbled path toward lunch at the Keller winery. I was last by far.
Cresting the hill, I scanned the scene: checkered tablecloths adorned picnic tables which welcomed us into the shade of towering beech trees. Rows of sunflowers bent shyly before the expanse of rolling hills covered with Willamette Valley vines.
My biking companions took no notice of my arrival; they were fully engaged, enjoying each other’s company, smiling and laughing, wine freely pouring, the tables now littered with empty plates, the only remnant of the luxurious buffet lunch they had enjoyed. By the time I got a plate (I had to ask for one because they had run out), my choice was a picked-over cheese plate, some greens and whether or not to challenge the half-dozen bees greedily enjoying the only salad left — chicken salad or tuna — I couldn’t tell.
I took my mostly empty plate to a seat at the last table and guzzled from my water bottle, warm from the morning’s ride. As no one approached me with an offer of wine for tasting, I ventured to the “happy” table to examine the bottle of white everyone seemed to prefer. There was hardly a swish in the bottom, which I declined. The guy looking on drained it into his already full glass. Waste not, want not, I guess.
After the obligatory group photo, they called “First shuttle leaving!” As I boarded, I heard one of the tour leaders ask in a sheepish voice if they could possibly have 2 more bottles of white for the Chicago Table, who would be taking the second shuttle back.
Before you shout SOUR GRAPES, let me say that I don’t begrudge these young professionals their success, good fortune and fun. They work hard, get their kids to all their activities, and still manage to dress in style — showered and put-together — their affect proclaiming their readiness to take on the world. Bike trip or home: same status.
Oh, and my goodness how they danced with technology! Multiple notifications managed, emails caught up, scanned through daily camp photos, even ordered text books for the upcoming school year — all while shuttling to the the morning’s ride. “Look how productive I’m being,” one adorable woman cried with glee. And you couldn’t disagree. She had the most infective laugh I’ve ever heard, and she was a surgeon, to boot.
Clearly I have fallen waaaay behind this group. It’s no wonder I’m last to lunch. But the view from behind turned out to be quite eye-opening, for me who normally leads the way. No, I do not begrudge these “youngsters” their due; rather, I see myself in them. I see the me who was proud of my accomplishments, felt deserving of my rewards, and eager to celebrate my self-sufficiency and productivity.
Graciously, on this occasion, God allowed me to see myself through different eyes.
The me who is often oblivious to the last and the least The me who, amidst the plenty, helps herself to more than her fill The me who allows my joviality to dull my sense of proportion The me who becomes too easily absorbed in my own revelry
Suddenly these words from the Gospel of Matthew take on new meaning: “So the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
I have often interpreted this verse as the promise of a God-assist, proclaiming that in the end of times God will lift the poor suffering ones to the front of the line. This, I presume, helps me feel better about their plight and my distance from it. But in this, my week of perpetual Lastness,* I was introduced in the smallest sense to the nature of Last.
The Last don't want to be "encouraged" with hollow qualifying words. ... ie. You're good in spite of your obvious incapacitation. The Last don't want to cut to the front of the line. The Last aren't looking for a hand out or a hand up. The Last just want us to leave them room. ... a fair share, ... a proper portion, ... a helping of what we ourselves have helped ourselves to.
Because NO ONE deserves to be first. Hard work may earn you a blue ribbon, a gold medal or first prize but it may not. Some are too young to keep up; some are too old. Some have been supplied with extra resources, while others have to pay their own way or pave their own path. For some, every step is a struggle. Others have circumstances holding them back. Some started further back so they have further to go. Some are just unlucky.
But NO ONE one deserves to be first. This may be the primary lesson and not-so-hidden meaning of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” When those who arrive first leave room for those coming behind …
... when we notice, ... when in our plenty we pause, ... when we quiet our reveling to listen, ... when we emerge from our self-absorption to see ... and we say, "Please, you first." Then, the last will be first and the first will be last. And we will all enjoy lunch together at the Kingdom Table.
*My brief experience of Lastness, of course, does not even approach the plight of the last and least that is the day by day of so many in our world. Please forgive my pretense of this here. I was offered a simple and indicting God-glimmer and it was surely a means of grace.
Have you ever watched water striders, the spindly-legged creek-surface-dwelling bugs, scoot along the surface of still water? (Did you know that not everyone refers to these wonders as water striders? Some call them Jesus bugs. Ha! They walk on water… Jesus bugs!!)
Anyway, amazing isn’t it that a creature can be so nimble and light they can walk on water? And how? Isn’t it astounding that a water molecule can be created with such precision that its chemical bonding supplies a tension sufficient to hold this creature up?
What a cool feat! To travel oblivious. To not worry about falling, drowning, being submerged or over your head in life’s travails. Amazing … and yet think of all that bug is missing underneath what he travels across.
That little guy has me wondering if I’m not part water spider. Because if I’m honest, I am often pretty darn willing to skirt the issues and keep things at surface level, too. It’s easier that way, and I can operate on my reflexes and survive on my instincts a good while before I am really called to task. Tactics, not strategy has always been my mantra.
So today as I wandered past a rather unkempt lawn sporting dry patches and dried-brown hard pan, my inner water strider felt a bit of a nudge. We’ve had enough rain to support the greening of that lawn, if only the homeowners had sprinkled it just a bit to prepare it to receive the nourishing rain. If only they had softened the surface to let the water seep in.
Oh how that seems true in a dozen other arenas too.
If I research the company, I am better prepared for my interview.
If I read the text before class, the lecture makes so much more sense.
If I practice my sporting skills before the big game, I play so much better.
If I prepare the ground to receive the seed
If I plan the steps before needing to execute them
If I bring extra seats around the table in case of later-comers
If I put out feelers so I know the objections
If I ask the questions so I can address them
All of this, to soften the surface. Seasoning, tenderizes. Marinade, flavors. Swim lessons allow the deep dive. Prayer, softens the landing.
Yes, if I take the time do the groundwork, the provision that follows flows so much deeper.
Just don’t ask me how those Olympic spring board divers rip the surface and enter without a single splash. I, in my exceedingly short diving career, landed my back dive splat on my back. Felt like concrete. I wasn’t prepared for that.
I’ve heard ripples are a good idea. Bubbling the waters softens the landing. Of course, if you’re Jesus, you can walk on water at will and dive under when a rescue is required. Thank goodness for that.