I Learn By Going Where I Have To Go
Do you know about the Canadian Coast Guard? It’s a huge part of my family. My father worked there for almost 40 years. My sister has worked there for about 5 years. My uncle works there, and I’m sure one of his kids will decide to join him. My grandfather didn’t work for the Coast Guard, but he worked in nautical/sea-related stuff for his entire career, too. Water and boats and living by places where you can’t see the end of the rolling waves: that’s been my life. And so it’s been a career option for me, too. I just didn’t choose it.
There was a time when all I could smell was water – and I still can, because Toronto is on the north edge of Lake Ontario. Waking up in the morning, smelling the fresh water on the edges of the air, inhaling deeply as I walked to the bus stop. Water followed me. Water was in the air. Humidity clung to us in the summer, lapped at our toes as we immersed ourselves in gentle Lake Huron, and sung us to sleep with the low roar of the waves when the north wind blew. The only time the lake was silent was when it was frozen under sheets of dirty ice. It’s the same here. You can see the other side on clear days, and when it’s frozen, you feel like you could walk there, too.
I’ve crossed the country twice due to my father’s job. He was Chief Engineer on the CCGS Simcoe for twelve years, then he went ashore and worked in the Central & Arctic Office until he retired last April. I’ve been on icebreakers meant to break ice in the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve stood on search and rescue vessels and wondered what it would be like to race through the choppy waves to get to an emergency. Water is in my blood. We’ve always lived by water.
“A job in the government means job security,” Dad would say as we leaned over the guardrails at the government docks, staring down into the oily harbour. “You could really go places. And anyway, you love the ships, don’t you?” We’d walk along the riverfront and stare out at the grain and oil freighters, steaming under the Bluewater Bridge. I could see him watching the cut of the boats through the water. I wondered, and still wonder, if he ever missed being out there, feeling the wind in his face.
It’s true, I do love the boats. I never do get seasick. I keep my footing perfectly. And I love to feel the spray of the waves as we race across the unbroken ribbons of satin blue, across to the horizon. I wonder if I’ll ever get there – that edge of the world.
But I’d still say it, every day. “Dad, it’s not for me. It’s just not. I want to write.”
And he’d absently fiddle with his Coast Guard key ring, probably remembering his Chief Engineer days, then smile. “You need to do what works for you, honey. But it’s a hard road to travel.”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. It’s what I love.”
He had me come to work with him on “Take Your Kids To Work” Day, an annoying tradition still practiced in Ontario schools. I would staple together briefs on ship budgets and look at presentations on SAR logistics and learn the names of the Coast Guard fleet, and all I could think of was, “Dad, you left the water for this?” It was the first time I realized that what you love may not match up with what you actually do.
I eventually left my hometown to go to school in St. Catharines, Ontario, on the other side of Lake Ontario, but far enough away that I couldn’t hear the waves. I ended up dropping out of university to go to college for Journalism, and there I fostered my love of writing. I adored the way descriptions flow out, the way you can coax information out of someone with a mere look – the power you have in your words. And I knew that this was where I belong. I knew I could change the world with my writing.
I was fired from my first internship a month in. “We can’t afford you,” said the publisher, carefully not looking at me, knowing that he was crushing my dreams of being feature editor for that publication someday. Staff writers are the first to go, always. And my editor regretted losing me, but she offered me freelance work, at least. It wasn’t a complete bust, and I still had hope.
So, okay. You win some, you lose some. But after the next three layoffs due to lack of money for writers, I started to wonder if writing was really my path. Starving at home, refusing to call my father and hear, “You could always apply to the government. In fact, you should have to begin with.” Not something I wanted to hear right then, or ever, to be honest. I ate heated-up V8 cocktail and bread and kept applying to jobs.
My current job is in social media and marketing. I do love what I do, to a degree. It’s not what I thought I’d do, and it’s certainly not something my parents really ever thought I’d do. I don’t write all the time, but when I do, I enjoy it. The research and the praise from my bosses do keep me going. It is somewhat what I wanted to do.
My dad and I still walk beside the lake when I’m home, sometimes. When we do, I watch the plumes of the wake behind the boats on the water, and wonder why I choose the harder road, always. When the solution is always there in front of me – when I could do what would make my parents happy. The Coast Guard is full of good jobs and good people. It’s a family tradition. And I am drawn to the idea of working with and on the water.
But the fact remains: would it have made me happy?
“I learn by going where I have to go.” It was my yearbook quote, by Theodore Roethke, and it remains true today. What my parents instilled in me was the ability to make informed choices that influence my well-being. And my passion and talent lies in my writing. I throw aside the anchor so that I can sail on. It’s how I’m built – and it’s how they’ve taught me to live.