On the water front

Writers are always looking for a place to ply their craft in solitude, either in the name of art for art’s sake, or to get real work done, or to cure some sort of writers block. For many, it is also therapy; putting pencil-to-paper has saved me countless thousands in psychologist couch rentals.

For me, solitude near or on water is writers-block dam buster that releases the gushing torrents of thought that eventually make it into print….except when the result is a cheesy line like that last sentence.

A few years ago, I spent a good chunk of a summer afternoon sitting in a small paddleboat in the middle of a large lake in northern Minnesota. During a company retreat at a nice resort we had free access to the things, and during my free time one afternoon, I took a one out, paddled to the middle of the lake with my notebook and pen at hand, and began writing as I drifted.

It was a nice, contemplative afternoon and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, filling multiple pages in my notebook in my hour-plus just floating and writing. I came back to shore refreshed and ready for more meetings and workshops, while many of my colleagues returned frazzled and sweaty from rushed rounds of golf or games of tennis.

Having spent most of my youthful summers on a different lake not very far from where I was adrift in my yellow paddleboat, the water has always been a welcome respite – something I didn’t get to do much anymore in adulthood.

Fast-forward some seven years or so, I am now living in New Orleans, Louisiana – a far cry from the northwoods of Minnesota, but a state that I nonetheless feel a kinship to in terms of its affinity for and ability to provide all opportunities water related.

Not that I’ll be going out by myself in a paddleboat on some alligator-habitat bayou anytime soon – there are other options aplenty. This is not like a pastoral Minnesota lake, where the biggest danger might be a cocker-spaniel sized mosquito.

My family and I have lived in Louisiana for going on three years, but only in the past month have we indulged ourselves with trips to white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. (This is not as odd as it seems to those familiar only with Louisiana in a geography book. Look closely at a detailed map; New Orleans is not ON the Gulf – it is a good 50 miles upstream from where the Mississippi dumps into the Gulf itself.)

It’s one of the interesting aspects of living in a city people want to visit; you can play the tourist game with them and do stuff you don’t normally do or haven’t gotten around to yet. Hence two trips in the last month to the Gulf shore of Mississippi with visitors from first Germany, and now, Minnesota.

The white sand beaches of the Mississippi shore are just that – fine grained, beautiful, hot, white sand; the oil from the B.P. disaster last year is not an issue at this point. Plus, most of their local facilities have been rebuilt since Katrina, so there is ample, easily accessible parking, nice restroom facilities, wharfs to walk out on, that sort of thing. To be sure, there are still plenty of signs of hurricane destruction within view of the shoreline, but the area seems, on the whole, to be nicely on the rebound.

Both of our beach trips have been to the Bay St. Louis area, less than an hour drive from our New Orleans home. This past weekend saw us loading up the van with our lawn chairs, stocked cooler and such, and heading out for a day of fun-in-the-sun; the Louisiana/Mississippi variety of sun that already had northern-girl visitor Angie slyly questioning the sanity of why people live in such a place.

We stopped and had lunch at a nice little café with a view of the gulf, then scoped out a nice spot to make beach camp for the afternoon. Our boys, ages 12 and 15, took Angie on the obligatory souvenir seashell strolls up and down the beach, while my wife sat under an umbrella reading and enjoying the breeze.

I hopped into the surf, and was enjoying just floating around, letting the warm water and gentle waves roll me around a bit and working me back toward shore. One of the great things about the Gulf of Mexico is that it is fairly shallow along the coast; you can walk out a few hundred feet and still be only waist-deep in the water. I could wade out a bit, do my lounging fish routine, float back into shore.

Rinse and repeat.

After a while, with everyone else doing their own thing, I was looking for something different, something more; all that floating is rather taxing physically, as you are constantly fighting the waves trying to wash you ashore. I left the water, grabbed one of our lawn chairs, some pages from my travel composition book and a Sharpie marker, and headed back out into the surf. The paper and Sharpie were enclosed in a one-pound plastic coffee container with lid, which I had actually brought along so Angie-the-tourist could bring some beach sand back to Minnesota.

I got out about three hundred feet from shore, and plunked my nylon sling-chair into the sandy ocean bottom, then sat down in it. The water came up just over my waist, and I immediately noticed a benefit to my set up; the rolling waves pounded my back like Neptune’s masseuse. Very relaxing. The chair anchored me in a singular position and it was very comfortable. And therapeutic.

By this time, my fifteen year old son Will was post-swim toweling off by his chair, up on the shore. He looked at me quizzically, shrugged his shoulders and yelled “Why?” The definitive answer to that, of course, was “Hey, why not?” Will just shook his head and sat down to sun bathe.

I opened up the coffee canister and removed the lined paper and purple Sharpie, my thought being that a soothing situation like this would be a good cure for my recent writers block. I was sure my muse had some mermaid in her.

So I sat there for a bit, waves slapping my back like ‘an avuncular uncle at a family reunion’ (so sayeth my water-splotched notebook pages) and began writing. It is not as difficult to write sitting in the Gulf of Mexico waves as I might have thought, save the periodic jostling of writing elbow, which skewed my already iffy penmanship. Using a Sharpie marker helped; a plain old pen wouldn’t be up to the challenge. Even wave-induced smudges were still legible. Mostly.  

My time in the chair in the water was actually quite restorative, both physically and mentally, as my writers block was eroding with every wave. It wasn’t totally smooth sailing – er, sitting – as every once in a while a ‘more jovial drunken uncle at a family reunion slap on the back’ (notebook) wave would whack me on the shoulder, sending me leaning forward in my chair, while also causing water to cascade over my shoulder and into my lap. Fortunately, my reflexes are still sharp enough to get my pages mostly out of harm’s way, though the sea spray caused me to move dampened paper to the back of the stack and start anew on a fresh page a couple of times. There is also some smeared ink, but that is a small price to pay.

After about twenty minutes, I packed up my pages and marker in coffee can, folded up my chair and waded back to shore, refreshed and with the outline of a fresh blog post ‘in the can’ – literally and figuratively. The afternoon was waning, and it was nearing high tide so it was a good time to depart.

I had already experienced my high in the tide.

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