Breathing underwater

I dabble in running. I’ve run a half marathon, but it really is only dabbling. The only reason I do it is because early morning is when my friend’s and my schedules align, and running is how she can rationalize leaving her bed that early, and she seems to have a vague but not annoying commitment to me living beyond the age of 45.

But the other day I was talking to one of my favorite OPC partners who was trying to convince me that going to the gym was fun. “If you need to lie to yourself about enjoying it to convince yourself, that’s fine with me,” I joked back.

“NO, Sandhya!” she said emphatically, her beautiful eyes wide with the enthusiasm of a convert. “I make my [teen] kids go with me every night at 10. That’s MY time. They make fun of me that I spend two minutes on each machine then lie down on the massage chair, but that’s the time NO ONE else can bother me.” This particular partner works so hard that she makes me look lazy, and I said, “yeah…I pay way too much for a gym that has an outdoor pool because if I can sneak away during lunchtime, that’s one hour under the sun with no noise or interruptions. No one can find you under water.”swim-1

But I’ve been paying way too much for that gym membership without making use of it for six months. For six months the rest of the world has been way more important than me escaping it. I’ve worked really hard not to be unreasonable or unkind as a result of my fatigue, but I’ve definitely let people know that I am working hard to be patient with them, which is pretty much the same thing.

I have pushed through weeks at a time without a day off, and have only had two full weekends in that six months.

And I hear the voice of my friend and clergy colleague saying “God took a day off. Why do you think you’re better than God?”


For the next three weeks, I’m in hiding. I’m taking care of administrative work for my nonprofit and working on my next book. I’m in full-on retreat mode because I need to hide for a little while and re-learn how to breathe periodically. Like my favorite activist Buddhists point out, if we only breathe out (serve others) our lungs will eventually collapse; if we only breathe in (focus totally on ourselves) we’ll get CO2 poisoning. We need to breathe in AND out.


My parents are covering my grocery bills for this whole stretch, so I immediately turned around and sank my grocery money into a 15-swim pass at the county swimming center. It’s an antiquity from maybe the 1980s when Maryland was still solidly democratic and the government still funded community programs. There are literally dozens of lanes, and today I shared one with an impossibly fit senior citizen for 45 minutes before I let her reclaim the lane she had occupied alone before I joined her.

My parents both grew up swimming: my mother in the icy water off the Hebrides and my father in the pond where the village bathed and fished. So my favorite memories include picnics at Lake Erie, my mother doing the breaststroke slowly and gracefully and my father freestyling efficiently until he got beyond the break, and even once doing a thoroughly impressive butterfly, a stroke I still have not learned. We lived simply when I grew up but we made it to the ocean almost every summer to eat seafood and fight post-hurricane surf and build sandcastles. The water has always equated to joy for me, even before I realized that water is a privilege: to visit, to afford to swim in, to safely drink.


With rambunctious kids’ swimming lessons on the south side of the pool and high energy aqua aerobics on the north (jamming to Michael Jackson, and why not? does he not belong to those who raised their kids on him as much as those of us who grew up to Thriller and Bad?), the space was not silent like my pool in Oakland. But it was joyful. And who doesn’t need joy right now?

And when I put my head underwater, the silence returned. As I swam laps, I thought about everything I was missing in Oakland: solidarity and support for those grieving the senseless death of a 16-year-old over $5 lost on a dice game. The chance to be with and love on the amazing LGBTQ folks who give me life and support on the daily including the powerful QTPOC at my church. The chance to show up at a fundraiser for the one Oakland politician who doesn’t break my heart on the regular. My intern’s going away party. Speaking out for police accountability at a critical council meeting in a city plagued with decades of massive dysfunction despite recent statements that Oakland was modeling police accountability for the rest of the country. The gathering of my justice-oriented Christian network for some nonviolent public liturgy to express our shared grief and rage.

I kick out frog style as my arms make little hearts in the water. That’s what a swim coach taught me when they tried to modernize my breaststroke about ten years ago: “We don’t make those big arm motions any more. It’s more efficient to make little hearts with your arms, staying above your shoulders.” So I make little hearts with my arms and think “this is the best I can do right now.” It becomes my mantra.  Little hearts underwater where no one can see them and it feels like it’s doing no one any good but me. Amidst all the grief and rage and loss and dysfunction, I know I should be doing more right now. But there is always urgency to do more right now, and if I keep going at this pace, my running coach might not get her unspoken wish to keep me healthy and alive.

I mess up a kick turn on the back wall and feel the stabbing pain behind my eyes as I inhale water; my sinuses scream at me for a few moments. And even so, for the first time in months, I’m breathing. Underwater. “This is the best I can do right now.”

The worst part of my calling is that there will be more injustice for me to join with my brothers and sisters in opposing. There will be more senseless deaths, and exponentially more as gentrification crushes communities already on the margins and rapidly increasing wealth disparities creates greater desperation among all of us who aren’t wealthy. There will be more and more need for faithful actions of grace and mercy in the face of more and more cruelty and hate and violence driven by irrational fear.

But the best part of my job is that when I return, breathing a little more deeply, maybe I’ll be able to spell someone who needs to get away even though we need them so badly…and maybe I’ll be able to spell someone who needs to get away BECAUSE we need them so badly. Maybe while we’re fighting all that is profoundly destructive about this community, we can build up the Beloved Community, a place where the tyranny of the urgent does not choke out what is important, a place where all needs are met and all gifts are embraced, and where we can truly breathe, including underwater.


One thought on “Breathing underwater

  1. This was beautiful. Thank you for sharing. That underwater silence is what I love about swimming, too. Blessings on your time away, my friend. Breathe deeply.


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