“Please Lord, don’t let this kill me,” I prayed, silently, as I stepped in.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just spontaneously jump into the water, in January, in Ohio, just after it had stopped snowing.
I planned this, and prepared, and prayed.
I got a blessing first from one priest, then from another.
And I went to work figuring out how to make it work.
Let me go back a little….
I knew this year, 2021, was going to be difficult. And yet I was also grateful. We had survived 2020.
The pandemic did not hit our parish as hard as it hit others, for which mercy I am grateful. But like the rest of the world, we went through a huge upheaval. Church changed, not the structure of the services but the attire and the gatherings. We had masks, sanitizing, spacing, and even set up a livestream candle counter for those who needed to be home to be able to put up candles for their loved ones. It was Different and even off-putting but it was much better than no church at all. We, as a jurisdiction have a history of setting up storefront parishes and small missions wherever we have enough people gathered to pray; these have grown into cathedrals, schools and monasteries. And so from our history we know that we can survive, grow, and thrive if we are faithful in the small things for the duration. It just was a setback, which led to more changes.
My husband and I had settled into our “semi-retired” life somewhat before the pandemic hit. We had a townhouse apartment that held our books, half the windows looked out onto trees, with good internet access to streaming services when it wasn’t our turn to be at church. It felt a little like we were sitting out WWII in Switzerland, in that we didn’t have children home and we had already established the home offices from which we do our work. And while we weren’t praying together as a parish in one place, there were more services rather than fewer. Our parish took a maximalist approach to having services — if we had x people and were allowed y people per service, we had x/y services each week. It was a lot of church, sometimes four liturgies per week, which is a blessing, but hard work.
I had been pressed back into service. When we moved here, I joked that I was the Princess Eugenie of our choir — so many capable people were ahead of me in line to conduct the choir should the need arise that I could go put my tuning fork away and just sing alto, contentedly. I had been sight reading the new-to-me settings and translations of church music for a year, and had begun to learn our parish’s ways. But most of those people ahead of me to conduct were related and had forged what one person calls a “germ pod,” singing together with one priest while the deacon or I sang when my husband served, to cut down on the change of cross contamination should anyone be sick. God was merciful and nobody from among our singers or servers came down with COVID. But my husband and our rector did what I called the “Bruce Wayne and Batman” thing, not coming to the same services and having different altar servers, which was lonely because we like each other. We saw only so many people from church at a time, whether on the screen from the livestream or in person in church. The absence was disquieting.
And my mother-in-law, who reposed a month and a half ago, was suffering once more from the sarcoidosis that had plagued her for over thirty years and from two bad falls. She lived alone and only needed sporadic help, but it was clear that her condition was worsening and things could turn sour quickly. She had spent her previous birthday alone because of Michigan’s restrictions, although we came to celebrate as soon as visiting was allowed. (I will always be grateful to the people from Village Kitchen, in Ann Arbor, who brought lunch to her porch from another restaurant because they were not yet reopened. Beautiful people, wonderful food — worth a trip if you are out that way!) My mother-in-law was a trooper and an inspiration, keeping in touch by phone and through cards. But we lived under the shadow of the threat of unpleasant change.
I was grateful that things had not been worse and wanted strength for when things were no longer better. I wanted to do something inconvenient and beautiful for God. I wanted to be strengthened for whatever was to come. And I wanted to revel in the goodness of God and the mercy He had shown, so far. And an opportunity arose.
After Leaving the Water
I had often seen the videos that others shared of people in Russia dunking themselves three times in the freshly blessed outdoor water on Theophany, and my response was always, “Yeah, that’s something I never will do.” Then we moved to Ohio, and our parish had the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Little Miami River and three men from the parish plunged in. In January.
“Can girls do that, too?” one of the parish children asked, and the answer was, “Of course!” I started to think.
Our parish would be together again for the blessing of the water. Only one of the three men who had taken the plunge in 2020 were planning to do it this year. My aunts have a very strict rule: “Never go into the water alone. And don’t let your friends swim alone, either.” I couldn’t let our friend V. go into the water alone. After all, he could be swept away, and who would be able to get to him on time? But if the current took him, I could slow him down till help arrived.
And so a few months before January, I approached our rector and said, as casually as I could, “If one were to want to go into the water at the river on Theophany, theoretically, hypothetically, what would one wear?”
Fr. Daniel is hard to shock, and after a second to process the question he said, promptly, “Clothes. Clothes as opposed to a bathing suit, because it’s still church, and also because it’s cold. The water is cold and after you go in you will be wet and it will still be cold outside the water. So you will want a thick robe to put on immediately after, and towels.”
When I talked to his wife, later, she added, “We did this in Russia at one of St. Seraphim’s pools there. When you first go in, it’s so cold that it takes your breath away. So you will have to remember to wait and catch your breath before you go under again.”
I did online research about how to prepare. I read about cold water swimming, and learned the belly fat that I keep fighting may, in this case, be my friend. It would protect my organs. The Canadian Red Cross had some advice, as well. They said not to plunge in, but to wade. Well, our river is shallow on the edge, so that wouldn’t be a problem. They report, “Wear socks, aqua boots, neoprene surf boots or running shoes to stop your feet from sticking to the snowy or icy shore and prevent cuts and scrapes from the frozen ground.” I had water shoes, and decided to pair them with fuzzy socks.
I read about how a scuba suit works, and decided to wear nylon, and lots of it. I chose a dress that I could wear both to church and into the water. Then I took a cold shower while wearing it, and looked in the mirror, alone, to check for wardrobe malfunction.
I was going to need more undergarments.
I chose underwear: a synthetic girdle that would dry fast and hold things in when I was wet; something thicker than a sports bra, for the same reason; a half slip to keep the skirt from clinging; leggings (but I accidentally wore yoga pants instead) to keep my legs warm; my fuzzy socks; and water shoes to keep the rocks from tearing up my feet.
My husband and I discussed the matter more than once. He reluctantly blessed me to do this, if I really wanted to, but also blessed me to change my mind at the last minute. He said that I shouldn’t tell a lot of people that I planned to do this, so I could back out graciously if need be. But he agreed I would need allies, or, as I called them, co-conspirators. So I told my goddaughter and her mother. They agreed to hold my robe and coat and towels. And they would take pictures.
We also brought a hot water bottle, which I filled at church at coffee hour, and my leg cramp medicine, in case I needed them.
The great day came. Our parish chose the Sunday after Theophany for the blessing of the river, because the feast itself was midweek. It was snowing when we left church, raining as we drove in caravan to the river, and by the time we parked the sun was out, though the shore was lined with ice and snow. We approached the river.
I kept my headscarf and coat on but left my eyeglasses and purse in the car. The hot water bottle was in a thermal bag. My husband opened my door and said, “Still doing this?” I nodded. He smiled resolutely. We’ve been married a long time. My co-conspirators caught up with me and took all my accoutrements, God bless them.
The place where we bless the water is off the main drag by a little and we had to walk down-hill over not yet dry rocks. We formed clumps of people, walking down, and some friends made note of my footgear. “Oh! Matushka is prepared! Look at her shoes!”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going in.”
“Wait. Really? In the water? All the way?”
V. the other person who planned to go in, and his wife and daughters gasped and then beamed. “Really?”
“Yes!” I said, and showed them how my goddaughter’s mom was carrying most of my gear. My goddaughter beamed and said, “I’m going to hold her coat!” Word spread as the service began.
It was a glorious day. The air was fresh from the rain and snow, the ground clean, the sky blue and open. The children scattered down the shore, the girls gathering pretty stones and the toddler boys digging in the stony sand with sticks. There was still ice on the surface around the edge of the river, but in the middle, the water flowed.
The men of the parish held banner and icons, backs to the water, and our rector and my husband blessed the water using long poles with a cross on them.
“Okay,” said Fr. Daniel, “now it’s time, if anyone wants to go in.”
V. bravely drew near the water and I stood next to him. His wife explained the situation to him quickly. “Matushka! You are going in, too?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay! We will go in together!” And he held my hand and we started to wade. I made my cross, prayed silently, and we took one cautious step after another over the slippery stones.
I grew up in New England, and that water was cold, yes, but it wasn’t that much worse than Powder Point Beach, where I had spent most summers. My brother and I watched each other, in those years, and knew it was time to get out of the water when the other one’s lips turned blue.
We walked. My feet were wet, my ankles were wet, my calves, and then there was a sudden drop off, and I found myself gasping while standing in thigh-high water. V. made sure I was okay and took a few more steps, further out, so we would each have space.
“Okay!” he said, and he in Slavonic and I in English said, “In the name of the Father!”
And we dunked.
I tried to stand up and I couldn’t. I was floating, and hanging on, with my toes, to the nearest underwater rocks before the drop off. “And of the Son!” I dunked my head and tried to lower my backside, as well, but I was swimming rather than standing. “And of the Holy Spirit! Amen!” And we were done and V. walked over to me. I tried to stand but my feet could find no purchase, and a current started to carry me, slowly but steadfastly, away. I was in the very situation that I had hoped to keep V. from facing.
V. took it all in quickly, took two big steps, and grabbed my arm and tugged. I floated back toward him. He helped me stand and we walked out together, where we were greeted with hugs and shouts and towels and robes.
I was baptized when I was eleven. The monastery used an oil drum, cleaned up and painted blue. On days when my courage fails me and melancholy threatens, I remember the sensation of the cold water on my skin that day, and I am refreshed.
And this? This was a booster shot.
I smiled all the way home. There was going to be a wedding at three, to which we were invited. Fr. Daniel needed to set up the church and greet people, so we drove his son home. He had held a banner on a metal pole for the whole service while not wearing gloves; I let him defrost his hands against the hot water bottle. I didn’t need it. I didn’t need the leg cramp medicine. I only shivered a little. My endorphin level must have been off the charts.
My husband dropped me at home so I could change clothes for the wedding while he drove Fr. Daniel’s son home. “You’ll probably want to take a hot shower!” he said.
“No, I don’t think so! The water has been blessed. I think I will just let it dry.”
My bravodo did not last. When I entered the house, the cold set in. Once more I showered fully clothed, this time in the hottest water I could stand, and I let the sodden clothes fall one layer at a time to the bottom of the tub. I changed into wedding clothes, the warmest I could find of my nicer dresses, and bundled back up again. We were only a little late for the wedding, which was beautiful even if I shivered through the whole thing. It was a day of grace and blessings.If you start the year by jumping into near-freezing water, it changes your perspective. You come to see that everything else, also, won’t be as hard to bear as it looks from the distance.
God gives us what we need — a dress from Mom, water shoes, friends to keep us from floating away to Indiana, bathrobes and coats and a beaming goddaughter to hand them to you. Mercy flows, more strongly than the current of the Little Miami River.
Also, sometimes you’re the one who needs to be dragged back because she’s been swept away. It is a blessing to save and it is a blessing to be saved. On days when fatigue speaks more loudly than reason, when my heart is overcast and everything looks bleak, I remember the sensation of the river water on my skin despite all those layers.
And I smile.
And I might even try it again next year.
Writing prompt: What is something you swore you’d never do, and then did do, and it changed everything?
I am grateful to everyone who still reads my blog after this difficult year of learning and love. I went back to Music School, I visited all three of my former home towns, I got to see and hug all of my siblings and children in a variety of places. I lost important, powerful, relatives and friends and am still reeling. I have been inconsistent in posting things, and one of my pocket full of New Year’s Resolutions is to try to set up more posts in advance, so if something happens, there will still be content. May God bless us all with a good, healthy, fruitful 2022.