Monday, March 5

Sink or Swim

In every family, there are stories that, over the years, have grown and mushroomed into tales of near-legend which no longer bear much resemblance to actual fact. My family is no exception.

Perhaps my dad's favorite with which to regale guests at the family's B&B, church, let's face it...complete strangers is the story of his grandson's birth. I had been in labor for a mere 36 hours in a military hospital. For you civilians, this means that your doctors are garbed in camouflage and you address your doctor as Colonel. Very comforting. After much discussion and debate, a surgical delivery was decided upon. But then the committee of officers decided to discuss some more. Don't mind me. I'm just sitting here in my hospital bed in excruciating pain. After many more back-and-forths and votes and talks, my mom politely asked to speak to Dr. Colonel in the hallway and informed him (did I mention politely?) that it was time. We'd made a decision. It needed to happen. Now. Politely. And it did.

Of course, when Dad tells this story now, Mom has put a Five Star General into a chokehold and has taken siege of the hospital by the mere sound of her voice.

My older brother has inherited the embellishment gene and likes to my parents by informing everyone that HE learned to swim this way: my parents dropped him off at the local YMCA whereupon his simply looked him in the eye and said, "Time to swim." And then they dropped him in. Sink or swim buddy.

My mom always corrects the story with a kindler, gentler, possibly more truthful version. But my brother's story always gets the laugh.

His experience, fictional or not, has come to my mind a lot recently. Life is a strange and circuitous route of brief periods of calm, where I am simply floating, and then other stretches of Class 4 white water rapids where there is no time to catch my breath and no time to even think about how to paddle. Instinct and a lifetime of habits, good or bad, kick in. When the stretch of calm comes again, I can look back, inhale for a moment and think about how I handled that intense water. But I can't think for long, because there is always another rapid around the bend.

The last few years, with their health difficulties, cultural challenges, financial stresses and relational navigations have felt like one rapid after another. I was talking with a friend about it recently and she mentioned that she often felt guilty for being stressed over her problems when so many have it so much worse. It's true. I feel that same twinge. But the thing is, my deep waters ARE deep waters to me. And hers are deep to her. No one is given the same boat, the same river or the same passengers.

The trick comes in how to make it through those deep waters. Many days, all I want to do is survive. Swimming? Eh. Overrated. Paddling well? I'll figure that out later. It's sink or swim time.

I don't have the "Sunday School" answer for that. Many people will quote things like Romans 8:28 or say, "This too shall pass." And that might bring comfort to them. For me, I have found strength in two vastly different phrases. First, simply repeating, "This too shall be made right," a lyric repeated to me not long ago (Derek Webb song by the same name). I might not always believe it, but I say it until I mean it, and I can see the calm waters ahead. Justice. Wrongs made right. Mercy. They will all come someday. And then there's the less-spiritual-but-just-as-helpful Spanish phrase I hear a lot..."poco a poco." Little by little. Not just surviving but sticking my oar back into the water even when my arms are exhausted. Moving forward. Forward being the key word.

So I'll keep paddling and maybe, in those rare moments of calm, I'll turn to the others in my boat and say, "Let me tell you a story about these rapids I went through once." And proceed to exaggerate my way through the tale. Because what's a good story without a little embellishment.

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