Irene E. Anderson

1923 — 2012

by David Hawkinson

A few personal thoughts upon the life and enduring witness of Irene Anderson (while standing on the shore of Round Lake, Wisconsin).

The most indelible image I have of Irene Anderson is watching her take her morning swim outside the cabin she and Phil lovingly cared for in Wisconsin. She practiced her ritual without fanfare, taking seriously the words of Jesus to pray in secret. For the swim seemed a prayer, a way of beginning the day in deep connection, through water, to life, to the world she loved, abundant with flower and fern, bird and doe and all the family and friends who filled her heart with joy and laughter. Mary Oliver observes a similar practice when she writes in Why I Wake Early:

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulip
and the nodding morning glories,
…Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

I watched Irene take the first steps into the lake, carefully following the incline until her feet were lifted up and her arms gently waved her out into the deep, paddling slowly and unhurried, leaving no wake. It was breathtaking and it took patience to watch.

After a bit, only her head could be seen above the surface, like a gliding muskrat, perfectly at home in the clear cool waters of Round Lake, moving effortlessly, nearly imperceptibly on her course. If we were looking for something else, something loud and splashy, the evidence of effort and larger self-awareness, we would miss her. But observing Irene, knowing her in and out of water, reveals to my eye an unusual (and by this I mean rare) integration—the swim, an embodiment of life lived with faith and beautiful grace.

I would say it this way: Irene’s way of being created a quite remarkable life in a very non-conspicuous manner. There are many things to say about her, many stories to tell—some of them quite hair-raising. She experienced adventure and brought her children into danger and many exotic places during their two tours in Indonesia (stories that would make kids want to become missionaries). But in the rush of life, and through it all, she remained most intimate with “nearby life,” to what was happening close by, the sights and sounds in the branches above, the people gathered and the particular place she found herself. She attended carefully and responded thoughtfully, often with great wit and humor, with warm acceptance of each person and the awareness of the present moment.

This manner of being expresses a basic trust, a faith in life and living that is not “a clanging gong or clashing symbol.” Simply, almost effortlessly, she was authentic and glad to be wherever she was!

When I learned Irene had entered hospice care, I envisioned, in my heart’s eye, this same image of her awaiting the morning swim, though standing on another shore, not unlike the banks of the river we sing about in our old hymns; the place the Hebrew imagination and African slaves called the “promised land;” the place the old pietists called “home.” I saw her stepping slowly into the water full of hope and without fear, each stride taking her into the deep, farther away from us but toward her soul’s longing.

I imagine as she drew near, she could see Phil, her lifelong companion and lover smiling at her approach. As her feet reached the bottom and she began to stroll up toward the beach, he smiled and said quietly: “It’s good to see you.” She smiled back at him and said, “It’s good to see you, too.” He reached out his hand, and she took it. Seeing them together again, Irene dripping wet, I want to paraphrase Oliver:

Watch, now, how I end the day
in happiness, in kindness.
For as it was in the beginning, is now and ever will be.