Grace Is No Dainty Fool

At the office park, men stand on the green grass and test the sprinklers. Water droplets splay themselves out on the sidewalk. I pedal slow and time it right so drops of water land on my forearms as I ride by. I feel like a water thief, and by the time I reach the corner to wait in the sun for the light to change, the hot air has snatched the water back. My arms are dry, as if the water never landed there at all.

The light turns green, the walk signal changes, and I pedal past the sign that lights up and tells us the new water use goal is 60 million gallons of water a day. Yesterday, the sign says, we used 66 million gallons of water. I can’t even image what that looks like.

We’re experiencing a drought, complete with voluntary watering restrictions. If I want to see water when I ride my bike, I have to look deep into the drainage ditches that run ten feet deep beside the bike trail. The ground on either side of the drainage ditch is steep, and all the grass has turned brown and burnt. Tractors kick up clouds of dust when they lower blades to cut the thistle and the brush.

Water seeks the lowest places and these days it runs slow and low, along with crumpled styrofoam food containers and plastic bags from Target and slimy green gunk that mixes with the scum and turns the thin trickle of water the color of sludge.

“Runoff,” people call it. That’s what ends up in the drainage ditches. Water from the overflow of life. On its way to the drainage ditch, there’s no telling what the water picks up and and then leaves behind, here in the lowest places. It’s certainly not swimming water. Or drinking water. I try to imagine what kinds of circumstances would lead me to dip a cup and take a sip. I’d have to be desperate, I conclude.

Last week, when H went with our son to spend a week on an island in the middle of a lake in Canada, I went with a friend and her daughter to the Presbyterian church around the corner. Some would say it’s an edgy church.

I confess to not yet being grown-up enough to say the music doesn’t play a part in how connected I feel to the congregation, the service, God. At the Presbyterian church, the music is always good. There’s a guitar, a piano, a set of drums, and even an accordion. The vocalist is amazing. They know their stuff. But on that Sunday, I didn’t know the songs and so I stood still and felt like an observer, my hands folded in front of me.

Even when the minister was preaching, I found myself having a hard time engaging, not sure where he was going or how it applied to me. I wrote random notes in my journal and tried not to fidget; I hoped my guests were feeling more connected than I. I had almost slipped completely away, lost in my own thoughts, when I heard the minister say, “Grace flows downhill.”

I thought about the drainage ditches near the bike trail. I thought about the sludge and slime and runoff from life that dribbles and trickles and seeps into the lowest, darkest, slowest places. I thought about the year I chose “Grace” as my word because I liked the way it sounded — light and airy and pure. Wispy, even. Dainty. It fooled me. Or maybe I fooled myself.

Grace, it seems, is no dainty fool. Grace rolls up its sleeves and seeks out the places from which I’d rather retreat. It aims for places I like to pretend don’t exist, until the water recedes and reveals what’s been languishing beneath the surface all along. Grace aims for the bottom and I find myself scrambling down the hill, slipping and stumbling through brush and thistles, and kicking up dust, until I arrive at the water’s edge — scratched and bruised and dirty and bent over, trying to catch my breath — an empty styrofoam cup in my hand.