Swim On (or, Beyond Graduation)

5 May


The Guadalupe River from landing next to swimming area.

The Guadalupe River from landing next to swimming area.

NOTE: Serving the Story is on a three-month, coast-to-coast road trip focusing on volunteering and the role it plays in people’s lives. The trip began in my home of Worcester, Massachusetts on April 11th.

It’s the river that makes it real. I don’t mean just seeing it, even though it was good to dip and rise in and out of a dozen or so little gorges, the bridges so shallow that locals sometimes drive through six inches of river with no more thought than New Englanders negotiating an icy street. No, first I had to negotiate all those twists in Texas Farm and Market Road 1340, turn through the entrance to Mo Ranch, and check in at the registration desk. I waxed nostalgic with the clerk about my times here back in the ‘80s, but even then the reality hadn’t hit; I was still shaking off a road hangover after an 11-hour drive from New Orleans.

Now, though, I dangle my feet and calves in the cold Guadalupe, which winds along the Texas hill country northwest of San Antonio, varying in width and depth. Here it looks to be 10 feet deep, if I’m gauging the layers of small trout and perch massing around my feet, taking a tentative peck. I contemplate a dive, but don’t quite trust my depth perception, so I let myself down the ladder, then release.

At the impact, my bad right shoulder complains sharply – reminding me that I’m 56, not 23 – but I’d might as well be the latter right now. Certainly my mind is right back to those summer swims here in 1981. Back then I’d just graduated from college and, in the search for my life’s path, wound up here, along with 14 other anxious folks, training for five weeks to become youth directors at struggling churches. Since we were in our early twenties, and the commitment was two years, the Presbyterian Church called the program Tithe of Life – the math was flawed, but a lot closer to right than it would be for all of us now.

Our leader, the recently passed Dusti Moser Deaver, worked hard to build friendships between us, figuring we would need each other to make it through two potentially lonely years spread out from east Tennessee to the Mexican border. It worked. Over five weeks we had our share of personality conflicts, but we got to know each other very well. One of the interns I clicked with most, a big Texan named David Floyd Judd, would join me and sometimes others for moonlight swims halfway out into the river, where a raft was held in place by ropes back to shore.

Lying there, we’d all stare at the stars – so very clear in the dry Texas air devoid of light (and other kinds) of pollution – and talk about a wide range of topics, one of them our futures. Sure, we were afraid, and unsure, and only half of us would take the plunge into seminary. But I also remember excitement, potential, a celebration of the uncertainty. We were in our early ‘20s, working hard to learn to do a job we weren’t sure we’d be good at, for churches excited to have earned the right to have one of us come in and build their program. I, for one, had no idea what I was doing, and for what church I would be doing it.

It wound up being one of the best things I could have possibly done, even though at the time I didn’t understand the reasons why. Wouldn’t until a decade later, when I became a college teacher in grad school.

Around the bend looking back upstream.

Around the bend looking back upstream.

As I swim the Guadalupe, back in Massachusetts at Assumption College, some of my favorite students are celebrating the last day of class of their college careers. Some of them have signed up for volunteer program like the one I lucked my way into, in the process both serving others and buying time to figure out their next move. Yet others have chosen different paths. Some probably don’t even have a job as of yet.

What I wish for all of them is that their next move makes them feel just as excitingly and occasionally terrifyingly alive as I did here at Mo Ranch in 1981 – and that, like the Tithe of Life interns, they know that don’t have to go through it alone.

As for me, I do feel oddly alone, with none of my colleagues from three decades ago here to share in the memories. But I needn’t have worried – on the wide lawn beside the river, two camp counselors about the age of a college graduate are setting out orange cones to map out a playing surface.

“You might want to get out of here now,” one warns. “We’re about to be hit with 100 or so sixth-graders.”

Sure enough, here come the kids, much like the ones I directed in the missionary program, only a whole lot more of them. Their laughter and shouts echo off the sandstone cliffs across the river.

“Only the first day,” one of the counselors said, sounding more my age than his own, “and already they don’t listen.”

I think they’re going to be fine.

Hundred or so sixth-graders cross the riverside field where I once played volleyball with my future pastor/boss.

Herd of sixth-graders cross riverside field where I once played volleyball with my future pastor/boss.

One Response to “Swim On (or, Beyond Graduation)”

  1. The Rev J May 5, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

    Reblogged this on Righteous Faith, Humble Reflections of Religion and commented:
    What a great place, memory, and a super reporter to stir the heart and spirit. Thanks Mike for the shout out! All three names, what a privilege. Maybe I should go by David Floyd, like my friend Fred Foy Strang??? Enjoy my dear friend.

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