It has been nearly twenty years now, but I remember it like it was yesterday. We drove out to Priest Dam in Nashville and sat near the shore of the lake. It was clear and cool, one of those nights when the luminous moon glowed with such ferocity that the stars appeared to be lightly painted, barely recognizable on the coal canvas that stretched as far as we could see above us, until it became one with the furthest reaches of water. My friend Wes brought his guitar and was strumming some random tune. My friend Mikey and my brother Zach sat looking at the lake, cracking jokes, speaking of music, girls, Michael Jordan’s unfortunate baseball escapade, and God.
We were right out of college, carefree, and working odd jobs that saw us getting out late into the evening hours… well after most of the city had turned their lights out.
It was nearly two in the morning when a black Jeep Wrangler veered quickly into the vacant parking lot behind us and screeched its tires to an abrupt halt. We peered back toward the interruption of sudden headlights and watched a lone girl kill the engine, jump out of the driver’s side and slam the door shut. She marched hurriedly down the walkway past us in jeans, a dark flannel shirt, and her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was driven by some unknown purpose and moved forward with an intentional stride that reminded me of the way business folks power-walk to their gate through a crowded airport.
We said “hello” like good Nashvillians, but she neither broke her stride nor made eye-contact. The only sound was the rhythm of her boots’ heels drumming the surface of the cool concrete. We were suddenly overwhelmed with fascination by this new character in our scene. She moved purposely toward the lake, paused momentarily at the rocky shore, and then began to wade into the water fully clothed. Our jaws dropped and we watched intently, concerned that we may need to run and pull her from the water.
She pressed forward until the lake had enveloped all but her shoulders. She paused again pulling her hair down, looked up toward the sky and lunged forward disappearing under the moonlit surface of the lake. For a moment, there was nothing but the quiet breaks in the water and it seemed to me that the moon may have been pleased that it could gaze on its own reflection without further interruption.
We looked at each other and held our breath until she emerged through the shimmering mirror with a splash. Without shaking a single drop of water from her hair she turned toward the shore and made her way back as deliberately as she had arrived. She walked from the shore back up the sidewalk with water pouring from her clothes; her long brown hair matted to either side of her face, her boots sloshing out remnants of the lake. I remember that she ambled passed us again without even acknowledging our presence. This moment was solely hers. She opened the door to the Jeep, climbed in still soaking wet, turned the key, revved the engine to life and was gone as quickly as she had arrived. The only evidence of her visit was the sopping trail of footprints leading down the sidewalk and back to the parking lot.
After several minutes, Mikey finally broke the silence, “Well… she must’ve had one heck of a night.”
I wrote a book about breaking free from the things in our lives that keep us from joy. You might imagine that one couldn’t endeavor through such work without a little gut-wrenching self-reflection. It made me realize that change in our lives happens in an instant, a decision, one step toward the ever present and holy invitation to emerge from our “life sentences.” Those are moments we should trust. It is too easy to forget those decisions in the tens of thousands of important hours that come after them… it gave me a new appreciation for public declarations, for carrying a coin in our pocket, for confessions, for throwing parties, for dancing until we fall down, for observing the liturgical calendar and yes… even for jumping into lakes fully clothed.
I often wonder what happened to our “Lady of Priest Lake” that evening. I am curious about what moved her to dive into the water in the middle of the night. I like to pretend that she was marking some moment of emergence in her life. I want to believe she had made some drastic and positive change and that she remembers the evening as a turning point.
I hope that when she feels buried in some “cell” (like materialism, addiction, religiosity, anger, or hopelessness), the thought of her midnight immersion brings her back to life and sets her walking forward as purposefully as she did that evening.
I often wonder if we shouldn’t go to greater extremes to mark the significant moments in our journey. Maybe we should all jump in a lake a little more often.