The sun beat down, simmering the sounds of splashing and the smell of chlorine goodness together into a summer stew.
The sun was tearing into the Chicago suburbs, finally, after a weak but lovely early summer run. Rain fell for longer into July than my mind could recall, swelling the grasses and plant life up and out of the soil with an urgent beauty - like a child returning their bike upright to push on and push forth.
I could smell the sunscreen on my skin, that sticky greasy smell that says "You most likely, well, probably won't get burned" and "You probably won't have to deal with skin cancer" even though the only thing between my skin and the heat of the most powerful energy force and the cosmos was a milky film of SPF 50 (whatever that means). Walking the perimeter of the pool I watched families interacting with children, leathery men and women soaking up unnecessary sun in order to preserve, well, preserve something the point of which was completely lost on me.
Whistle. "Don't run!"
The seamlessly tan lifeguard shouted down a speeding, spindly boy rounding the corner toward the diving board. I looked at my own frame. Pink here. White there. Brown there. I was a neopolitan patchwork person, dotted with the hair and freckles.
Screams from the water slides floated down the breeze, tickling my ears with the sounds of fears disposed of and replaced with the joy of abandon. Let it go, let it go, it's only water and speed and rubberized plastic. All will be well. Life emerges when you swallow your fears and push off the apex of the body slide. That is living.
Food is not allowed in the main seating area so I was seeking a quiet spot behind the imaginary "food line" where I could stand and finish my giant pretzel. The salt knobs, visible from space if satellites cared to look, burst on my tongue with doughy softness underneath.
Tear. Munch, munch, swallow. Repeat.
Somewhere in the middle of munch, munch, swallow I saw her.
A giant permanently extended umbrella covering ten or more poolside chairs and puckered at the top like a circus tent cast a deep shadow in the late afternoon blaze over her seat. She appeared to be in her middle years, skin olive and intensified by dark eyes, brows, and lashes. I assumed her hair was of the same darkness but couldn't be sure. Not because it was under a hat or towel, no, to be sure it was hidden far better under a head scarf.
In fact, the only skin visible was on her face and hands as she was draped in a long white garments splashed with amber blotches like great misshapen maple leaves. Her head scarf was a lighter shade of auburn, but delicately matched to the leaf-splotches so as not to present too much of a departure from the color scheme. Leggings emerged from the garment and dove quickly into white shoes with no laces to be found.
It was not this fully robed woman perched on a plastic chair in stifling heat that caught my eye, no, my eye is fastened on one woman and she is the one who wears a platinum band that matches the one I see now on my left hand. What caught my eye were the objects of the robed woman's focus.
No, not the finger-flick digitalized images of a smartphone but the flesh and blood Kodachrome remnants that could be bent, smudged or taped into an album. She sorted and gazed, expressionless, through a 3/4 inch stack and carefully moved the front photo to the back with the delicacy of a biologist handling petri dishes of unique and microscopic new-world discoveries.
What was she looking at?
Were they pictures from the most recent night of post-Ramadan celebration? Was she even an orthodox Muslim or is that my bias coming through? Does anyone bring a camera to Ramadan meals? Are they photos of birthday parties, children smiling and playing games? Are they of a wedding, flush with beauty and ceremony tying the couple to thousands of years of habit and ancestry? I didn't know. I wanted to know but I didn't know. I walked by, munch munch swallow repeat, keeping in my mind the world that existed on the colorful fronts of those photos whose backsides I could see quite clearly.
In the stifling heat, dutifully covered and modest in the line of life and tradition, and I standing shirtless in only my trunks wolfing down a processed flour pretzel, a realization occurred.
There is little difference here, you know. This woman's life captured in photos largely mirrored mine. The scaffolding of our differing faiths, I assume, had distinguishable notches and lines but there are many more similarities. Dreams. Hopes. Fears. Ego. Failure. Taste buds. Grocery stores and libraries and traffic and taxes all surround us the same way. We receive it and perceive it and process it differently, sure, but that is because we are individuals and we are distinguishable one from another.
But we are also community - we are gathered in the sun on the same day in the same place in the same way, framed together in a grand photograph of life as we know it at this moment and there is no rational reason for fear or hate or ignorance. The God who fired the sun with the flick of a divine word-match has said, "I have made you well. So be well, and seek me, even in the sun." Her conception of God may or may not have been different from mine, but her photographs were of the things that my God taught me to love and cherish and protect. Why would it be any different, at any time, for anyone, regardless?
I digested the last of the pretzel and returned to find the girls. The frame growing ever larger, and God growing ever more good as the degrees ticked on.
Splash. Laugh. Breath. Repeat.