Salty Words

The Perfect Ending

One man’s awakening on the water

By Nicholas A. White

During my senior year at Clemson University, I lived in student housing on the wooded shores of Lake Hartwell. It was a dream community for someone like me. Not owning a boat, I sometimes borrowed my buddy’s kayak after class, and on the best evenings, caught fish with almost every cast. But I loved that time on Lake Hartwell for more than the good fishing. True contentment for me exists somewhere within the calm of open water.

After graduation, however, it only took a few months for the “real world” to chip away at my happiness. I worked as an engineer in Charlotte, surrounded by the bustle of corporate America instead of the serenity of a lake. My writing suffered. I didn’t know that in a few years I would move to the coast for graduate school at UNCW, but still I stumbled from bed with a cup of coffee at 3 a.m. to squeeze in a few hours of writing before heading to work. It didn’t take long for me to start waking each morning with bitterness, a vengeance to conquer the day, as if my post-graduation life were something in need of bludgeoning with a big stick. I dreamed of escaping the real world for a few hours in search of the contentment and peace I’d once known during moments in college.

Something needed to change.

I bought the same model kayak as my friend’s from college, versatile and well-priced — the cheaper option of high-quality fishing kayaks. My pleasure-purchase stoked a dormant fire. With something to do other than sulk, I added accessories between weekend fishing trips, bought a safety flag for increased visibility, and mounted two adjustable rod holders. It was the best money I’d spent in years.

I continued going to work each morning at the engineering office, although by now I understood the restraints on my passion for creative writing would one day burst. But at least I had something to reach for. With a kayak in my truck bed, I had something to excite me, something to ground me in the present moment and keep me from floating away.

I lasted until 2016 in a cubicle, a whopping two years, before resigning.

After my last day, I went straight to a local lake, hoisted my kayak overhead with a grunt, and walked to a nearby floating dock. It was more important than just a fishing trip. It was a turning point between old and new: a major milestone in my life.

I paddled toward the main cove of the lake, hoping for a perfect ending to a perfect day. I knew even then I might someday return to engineering, especially if the time came to start a family, but for now, I intended to enjoy the next era of my life, the present moment, like I had on Lake Hartwell during college.

Before long, a peaceful sunset hovered above the trees, and I stopped fishing to admire the different shades of orange on the horizon. Even as I passed one of the best fishing spots in the lake, I paused to enjoy the sunset, absorbed by a feeling of peace and contentment that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

I found my perfect ending.

Heading home in my truck, I rolled down the windows and glanced in the rearview. The things I loved that evening: my kayak, my truck, my life, the radio’s music, the sweat on my skin, the wind, the road, the freedom — I had them all. My heart was full, not from the future or the past but from the present, from the miracle of what happens between sunrise and sunset each day, while the world’s alive with light, ready for us to explore.

Almost four years later, here I am, living in Wilmington. I’m about to graduate with my MFA in creative writing at UNCW. I work part-time at an engineering firm in town, and I’m also a teaching assistant for a couple of engineering courses. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been finding enjoyment by splitting equal time between engineering and creative writing, both sides of my brain able to work. All I needed, apparently, was a little balance.

My truck has a new owner, as does my kayak, after I sold them both for financial reasons. Following a passion comes with a price. But the water still calls to me. I find myself writing short stories about the tidal creeks here. I find myself, even without a truck or kayak, still aware that true contentment exists somewhere within the calm of open water. So I use the cheaper option for now: a twenty-dollar inner tube, an exercise weight, and a rope. With warmer weather, you can find me floating in the Intracoastal at sunset, barely anchored to shore.

Nicholas A. White is a writer and engineer with degrees from Clemson and UNCW. He lives in Wilmington, where he’s at work on a novel.

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