Monday, August 31, 2015

Floating: A chance encounter

I feel like I've been floating all summer. Longer, even.

I was splashing in Lake Burien in June with my kids, when I noticed they'd lost their kick board. Despite my admonitions, they followed me as I swam after it. They're good swimmers for their age, but I've got to be ready to go full-on Hasselhoff when they're in over their heads, which is always at grandpa's lake.

As I grabbed the blue board and handed it to my son, I noticed the only other people on the lake, two women, were pedaling toward us on a paddle boat. As I handed the kick board to my son, one of the ladies in the two-woman paddle boat said, "Are you a Baker?" Busted. But I wasn't sure for what.

"Uh. Yes."

"Which one?"

"Which what?"

"Which Baker brother are you?"

The Baker boys didn't have the most fabulous reputation during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations. I wasn't sure where this was going.

"I am Eliot. Son of Gordon. Son of Edward. Our tribe has swum these waters and hunted these lands for generations, as my children shall for generations to come." Okay, I didn't say that. But I've always wanted to say something like that. Actually, my family ancestors are from New Jersey and California. And I'm dork, and it's late. But anyhow.

I told the mysterious women in the boat that I am indeed Eliot Baker. And then one of them introduced herself.

"I was your ninth grade English teacher."

Uh-oh. Double busted. I wasn't exactly teacher's pet back in those days. "I swear I'll turn in that Harper Lee paper. It's going to be so much better now that her new book is coming out." OK, I didn't say that either.

But what followed was the conversation one hopes, upon graduation, to have with a teacher 20 years after high school (C / O 1995, go Pirates!). Turns out I was considered less of a schmuck by my teachers than I'd anticipated. One of them, at least.

But then, I should have known that. She used to let me write book reports for extra credit on novels I wanted to read, from Anne Rice to Dean Koontz and Stephen King, and she'd let me put creative spins on assignments that were otherwise so tedious they'd drive me to doodling inappropriate cartoons in the margins. Somehow, all these years later, she said she remembered several of them. The writing assignments, not the doodles. And, somewhat to my surprise, she had liked me.

It all came back to me, floating and chatting about old times. Using her powers as the girls' volleyball coach, she used to set up a volleyball net for me and a group of outdoor volleyball bums a couple times a week after school. Washington State doesn't fund organized boys indoor volleyball, so we played sand and grass and didn't play other sports; it was kind of punk rock at the time. But her going out of her way, sacrificing her time to play volleyball with us, enabled something of a volleyball career for several of us after high school. I stopped playing after college, but some of us still play and coach.

But more than the volleyball, I remember how she told me, as early as 9th grade, to keep writing. That gesture of confidence helped enable a writing career for me.

"You really stood out," she told me there in the lake, 20 years older and wiser, smiling at my kids. "I knew you'd be a writer. You had a gift."

We chatted a bit more. I promised to come to her class and talk about writing and being an author. She asked if I'd written any novels since The Last Ancient.  I replied the way I have been replying to that same question over the last year. "Got a couple projects that stalled. Just so busy. Had to focus on other things for a while. But I'll get back to it." She gave me a look that only a teacher can give to a former student.

"Keep writing," she said. "Whatever you do, keep writing."

The kids got tired and started swimming back to shore. My teacher and I agreed to meet up again before I flew back to Finland with my family. Didn't happen. But...

If you're reading this, Ms. Legate: Thank you. You have no idea how much I needed to hear that. I've been writing at my new job, and it's great, couldn't ask for a better gig, but it's not my soul's work. When I put down the manuscript I've been working on, I thought it would be just for a month, just to get my head clear before coming back to it. But one month became two, which accumulated more and more days to become a 9 month black hole. Having just picked it back up, I know my manuscript has miles to go before I sleep. But I have promises to keep, and so on and so forth and all that jazz.

Because fuck the metaphorical woods. They aren't lovely. Giving up and letting the Dark and the Deep consume you isn't lovely. It's a slow march into a kind of paralysis of the soul. It just gets so easy to not write. There are so many reasons not to. They all slide over you like a ton of water and next thing you know, you've sunk.

Along that unique connection between teacher and student, certain messages travel with particular electricity. Ms. Legate's refrain of "Keep writing" was a much-needed jolt to remind me I'd been putting off doing what I loved for way too long.

Anyhow. Back to floating.

Sometimes we float in life. There's no escaping it. The trick is to stay afloat, and not let the tide carry you out to sea, or let the waves push you into the deep. The trick is to learn how to float well, how to take in all the things happening below you and above you and around you so that you can come back to shore toting a few more treasures than you had before you got wet.

I watched my kids learn to float in the ocean not long after saying goodbye to Ms. Legate. I was terrified. There they were, these tiny, fragile beings kicking their skinny legs inside a great big ocean full of waves and eels and sea turtles. My daughter is a mermaid, she took to it immediately; my son's a little younger, and he was terrified when he first felt the sheer power of the ocean, so much scarier than the pools and ponds he's used to. But within a day they were both floating without life jackets or kick boards, looking through their masks at tropical fish, pointing and laughing through their snorkels. "Daddy! I can float! I don't need the board!" It's an indescribable feeling, to watch your kids float in the ocean the first time.

When they were done floating, they came back in, full of miracles and beauty and memories. By floating, they'd allowed themselves to grow in a new way.

I've been floating for some time now. I've seen -- and heard and tasted and learned-- some amazing things, some noteworthy things; but it's been a long time out floating, gathering, watching, and not writing. It's time to come in now. Time to keep writing. Just keep writing.