I kayaked out here to Hope Island yesterday, taking my first day off work since Christmas.
I planned to be here over a week ago. But ten straight days of rain pounded our windows. I always forget about “June-uary” in the Pacific Northwest. May is a tease, a month of blessed sun after five months of dark rain, when families around here ride bikes and garden, the drone of <quote-01>lawnmowers<quote-01> a constant soundtrack, the music of May. Then weeks of rain return in June. It’s part of why the Evergreen State is so damn green. Actually, I don’t mind the long, rainy winter. The early dark. I rather like the gloomy months of permission to hide, read, and be together indoors. But a childhood of Southern California summers has trained my mind to leap at the word June, the first month of holy, glowing aqua-chlorine swimming pools in unimpeded summer heat. My now-fifteen years in Washington haven’t been enough to undo it. Without fail, I find myself planning camping trips during this month and then throwing clean laundry across our bedroom when I see <quote-02>rain on the forecast<quote-02>, furious. People in WA look at me, like, Dude. Junuary.
But two days this week showed sun icons on the weather app, so I strapped up the kayak.
Another unfortunate surprise: I’m pretty lonely out here on this island all by myself. Just days ago, I felt like I was going crazy, desperate for time alone, guilty for longing to drive into the sunset away from Abram. But only a half an hour into setting up my tent, I started to miss him. There was no one to grab sticks and duel with, no one to kindle excitement with me or help me pretend.
Last night, in the hazy 10pm twilight, I walked the perimeter of the island. I crept through laurel and beneath arm-like madrona trees that reach over the tiny cliffs, over the foam and the bull kelp below. I crawled over fallen cedars, each padded with a carpet of moss. But I had no one to lift over the logs before me, no one to hoist up behind me. Instead I lay in my tent, hours into the windy night, unable to escape my own head. Normally I work so steadily at my job that I manage to keep two steps ahead of an always mounting wave of self-doubt, anxiety, and sadness. As soon as I find myself sick in bed or alone in a cabin or monastery—like once or twice a year—that <quote-03>wave of avoided feelings<quote-03> crashes through me, hard. It always surprises me. I guess that’s how <quote-04>denial, the weakest form of hope<quote-04>, works.
This morning, it feels nice just to stare out across the bay, the immense body of water all around this island and me. I can lose myself in its many textures, almost rough to the east and glassy to the west. I’m not sure if these varying surfaces are created by <quote-05>things above or things below<quote-05>.
In fly-fishing rivers—much smaller bodies of water—you often find yourself guessing what’s under the surface, looking for the “seams,” where to cast what little time and materials you have. This is called reading the water.
<quote-06>I’ve never taken you guys fishing<quote-06>. But I remember standing in the pebbly shallows of the Nooksack River two summers ago with you, Murph, when your family and Andy’s came up to re-run the evergreen charm of my bachelor weekend at the same big cabin we rented in the Cascade Mountains nine years ago. On the second afternoon of this small reunion, I was explaining to you how the immense log jam on the far side of the river—a man-made structure built for the conservation of native Coho salmon—had helped create the swimming hole we’d discovered. We’d already spent much of that dreamy summer day frolicking there, as adults in swim trunks and cutoff jeans, whooping and hollering. I remember enjoying explaining all of this to you, Murph, a professor for whom such information can be a gift. The cool current around our flip-flopped feet, we stood watching Andy scale the massive stack of felled trees, take a deep breath way up there, and jackknife—as we’d taken turns doing for the last hour—before disappearing at least ten or twelve feet below.
Reading the water around this island summoned this shared memory to me, a memory that keeps getting better—because right about then you, Wuck, suddenly stepped out of the thin alders and cottonwoods behind us.
You were in full jeans and <quote-14>high-top Converse<quote-14>, Wuck, just then crossing the Northwest’s afternoon finish line after a full day of travel that began in Brooklyn’s dawn. Paul’s family would be joining us the next day in Seattle, making the journey from their California avocado farm for the rare Dodgers-Mariners series. Tom would fly in as well. But you, Wuck, wisely chose to come a day earlier and join our three families at the cabin. For my birthday.
Rachel’s present to me, Wuck, was driving the nearly two-hour round trip—away from our cabin play and hours of river swimming, poor Abram hot in the back seat—to pick you up at the airport shuttle depot back in the Valley and escort you here to our mountain getaway. So I could soak in the quiet and play with Murph and Andy. As you sauntered awkwardly towards us over the river basin stones, Abram scrambling happily just behind you, I saw Rachel smile to me behind both of these pale loved ones she’d delivered, as if to say, “You’re welcome.”
I think, after hugs and other greetings, we quickly initiated you, Wuck, into the other game Andy, Murph, and I had discovered at the swimming hole: taking turns hucking perfectly smooth river stones at the huge yellow diamond—a flood-warning sign—bolted to the top of the highest beam of the stack. Kinda like a scenic carnival game with a free and infinite supply of throwing stones beneath our feet. Most of our tosses disappeared with either a ffttt into the aromatic blackberry barricades on the far side of the river or a clop against one of the timbers. But when we hit the yellow target, that blessed metal diamond let out a resounding CLANG!! like a village church bell echoing between the mountains around us. We were hooked. Even Abram entered the timewarp as hours passed, tossing his own rocks into the deep pool in front of us as we all took turns aiming and loosing stones across the river, without conversation, perfectly lost in that rare state our group of friends has sought since our teenage years: a return to pure childlike play together. A game we invented.
But the memory doesn’t end there.
Because then Kristen, Ashley, and Rachel emerged from the trees—with Grammar and Renzo—after enjoying mixed drinks on the cabin’s shady porch during the afternoon heat. It was probably past 6pm, but northwest summers radiate a ripening golden light well into the evening. <quote-07>Dinner was the last thing on our minds<quote-07>. Grammar toddled to you over the stones, Murph, and as you and Kristen helped him wade into the eddying shallows in his <quote-08>foamy flip flops<quote-08> and bright rashguard, you turned and shrugged to me, “Should we just do it now?”
Earlier that summer Kristen had emailed me to ask.
I’ve baptized handfuls of homies over the years, two of them in that very river. After all, I’ve been part of their awkward, beautiful stories for a while: jail visitations, teary prayers and harrowing confessions, sitting in courtroom pews together for parole and custody hearings. My late-night conversations with them naturally evolve into a curiosity about Jesus, about their possible participation in a community trying to live his stories out today. So by the time they text me something like, “i wanna get baptized do you do that or do i gotta get a priest?” it’s only natural that I’m the one holding their hands in the summer river, asking them the ancient baptismal vows, if they want to die to their old self—living for selfish ambition and the world’s vanity—and be baptized into the love of God and live the way of Jesus. I can feel their heartbeat through their wrists. Most homies have been initiated, jumped in, before. They know this is no feel-good religious <quote-09>pageant<quote-09>. I can barely support their weight as they dunk into the glacial melt and struggle to rise out of their past.
Jesus too was baptized in adulthood in similarly heavy fashion. His cousin John was leading a protest movement at the border, along the River Jordan. He was rebuking nationalism, corruption, wealth, and lots of other problems with the established religion as it centered around Jerusalem’s Temple. John led people out into the desert to be cleansed of that warped religion, back into the waters their ancestors crossed as nomads long ago. Imagine a fringe reform movement of progressive Christians repenting of American imperialism by crossing backwards through the Rio Grande, or stepping into the shallows at Plymouth Rock, to be cleansed of xenophobia and racism and the genocide of indigenous peoples on this continent. John’s baptizing folks at the Jordan, then, was pretty damn radical, as bold as the protests going on today, easily.
You both know the story: Jesus steps into the river, gets his turn among the crowd, and lets his activist cousin dunk him into the water. When he rises, however, dripping under the desert sun, everyone hears a voice: This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased. Some translations say, In whom I delight.
The political is fused with the mystical, the deeply personal. Something outside of the protest message happens. Some burst of parental love erupts into their consciousnesses. The identity of this poor laborer, this man in the crowd of construction workers (that’s where the quaint “carpenter” lore comes from) conscripted to build the Empire’s new Mediterranean summer city of Sepphoris just miles away—he’s now revealed, seen, as a son, a beloved child.
As a father, seeing nightly Abram close his eyes in the bathtub and lean back, his hair becoming fluid, his skin glowing and wet, I suddenly understood that moment in the midst of the river—despite the crowd and poverty and politics and dehumanizing systems. <quote-10>That is, the God who keeps emerging around and through Jesus is one that delights in human beings<quote-10>, whose affection explodes at the sight of one’s child dipped into the water, suddenly new and basic and beautiful. Jesus gave this voice he heard a nickname as his movement and followers grew. The terrifying Mystery of fire and brimstone his own tradition had feared—not daring to even utter the unspeakable name of YHWH but instead Adonai, Master, or Lord—Jesus familiarized, endeared as something much more intimate: Abba. It’s not really Father. More like Daddy. Papa. What does Grammar call you, Murph?
When Kristen emailed me, I replied with excitement, expressed how honored I was. But I also wondered how you both understood the request. Sure, you’d already asked me to be Grammar’s Godmother nearly two years earlier. That logic was perfect: you already had a Godfather in Pat, but, you both laughed, while Pat offered a lot of wonderful things for your firstborn, spiritual guidance was not one of them. Hoke! you both said. But can we have two Godfathers? Murph shrugged: I mean, Hoke’s got tenderness for days. Godmother I became. But now it got more real: what kind of spiritual guidance? I wrote back about how I understood baptism to be a chance for the adults, the parents, to commit to raising the child into the difficult way and hope of Jesus, to drag other “co-parents” into the takes-a-village, decades-long effort. That’s when you, Murph, interjected on the email thread, not replying to anything I wrote. You had something different in mind. You wrote something like, “Maybe one evening at the cabin you take Grammar, just the two of you to the riverside, do the water thing, and let him know you’re his guy.”
It kinda undid me.
Somehow, it was right at the heart of this whole mystical story I wrote about above. I didn’t argue. I just said we’d figure it out at the cabin.
“Should we just do it now?” you asked.
I had no script for the public part. I can improvise intimacy more easily—if it were indeed just Grammar and I at stream’s edge. But Andy and Ashley and Renzo all in bathing suits drew near with SLR camera at the ready; you too <quote-11>sauntered<quote-11> over, Wuck. Though the riverbed dropped into the logjam abyss just feet behind me, I knelt in the knee-high shallows and held Grammar on his back. He flexed nervously at first, like The hell is going on? But when he saw his mom and dad’s faces smiling at him above my shoulder, he looked into my eyes and relaxed. <quote-12>I don’t remember what I said<quote-12>. I blessed him in the name of that father-son-spirit mystery, held the entirety of his life in my hands, and dipped all of him into the Nooksack River, his wild tangle of brown curls going fluid and halo-like before his sweet, pudgy face slipped under the clear water for less than a second.
Writing this, it’s as if I can feel Grammar’s weight in my arms, hear the wet clop of stones slipping around my knees, smell the mineral water and sunscreen on his brow, hear your cheering, Murph, and KG’s higher-pitched “Yaaaaayyy,” I can hear your baritone approval and solid clap as well, Wuck, even Rachel’s whispered cheers into Abram’s ear a few yards away, helping him bear witness.
And there’s still so much more to say.
Like how Andy—after snapping photos of all of us sucking in our <quote-13>exposed thirty-something guts<quote-13> around Grammar before an incredible, twilit vista of river and rock—shyly approached me and asked if it was . . . ok . . . or not out of line . . . if maybe, well . . . I could baptize little Renzo, too. “It would be so meaningful,” Ashley added, her hands pressed together with Renzo down at her side, totally unaware of what his parents were negotiating for him. “My parents always wanted Renzo to be baptized,” Andy said, “but, like, you know we’re not really churchgoing types, and it’s never really felt right. But this is different.” He paused for a second. “We trust you, Hokey.”
What was happening among us friends that afternoon? Something ancient, something important, something worth remembering, I think. In my years among migrant families from southern Mexico, I’ve witnessed huge baptismal celebrations, events that forge larger families together, solidify alliances to survive that which one family alone cannot withstand.
That day, my birthday, beneath the late summer sun, still standing in my wet trunks, near a cabin most often filled with homies but now filled with my childhood friends, I was reforged. The child in me, the suburban kid pencil-diving into the pool, losing all sense of time, he wasn’t permitted a costume change before the pastor in me, whom California never knew, heeded the call to service under very new terms.
I still have Andy’s photos from that day in my phone. I’m holding the little boys I’d awkwardly blessed, surrounded by their families—my friends. But now I more clearly see myself in the middle, as the one being held anew, by my friends who have trusted me and seen my identity as one whole through the years, at least since junior high.
I realize I keep talking about the light of that dreamspell afternoon. What did you call it in your last letter, Murph—a few sparkling hours? But as I scroll through these photos in my phone now, I see the light was bland, kinda hazy. Maybe from the fires in Canada that summer. Why do I remember a dreamy, golden light? The gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism describe the spirit’s descent from the heavens as fluttering, a magic act, like a white dove alighting on God’s son, resting upon the beloved as they all stood in the river.
I doubt there was a literal dove. Rather, there’s an event, and then a recognition of something greater in the retelling.
Like I’m experiencing now, in my retelling of this riverside afternoon. Oh, God. I’m just now seeing the connection. I’d forgotten that the dark chapter in my life—the one I alluded to in my first letter—well, it began the very next day.
I’ll have to wait for my next letter for that.
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