Snow falls into the waves. By the thousands, flakes unify with the water while I sip coffee and watch, separated from the chill by my sweater, the fire I lit upon waking, the tall pane of glass that overlooks Keuka Lake.
I dream of winter because the lake is for summers. It’s not cheap at any time of year to rent a house on a shore: if you’re spending the money, you do it when you can kayak or swim or fish, or at least read a novel in the shade of a tree without the upstate January driving you indoors. My wife and I married within sight of our lake in July 2008; since then, her parents have rented a house on Keuka for a week every summer for us to gather. Those seven days are a highlight of the year because they exist outside of man-made time, without external demands or appointment calendars. There is food; there is love; there is the water. Two million years ago, glacial ice scraped out the valleys that would fill. Since then, the lake has been. Lakes invite being.
We have a couple kayaks and a canoe in our garage where we ought to park a car. Between May and October, I’ll hoist the boats atop our vehicles, lash them down and drive fifteen minutes to the public beach, solo or with the family. We admire the various lake houses as we paddle. Our favorites are not the new constructions, whose thousands of square feet dwarf the family cottages they replaced. We prefer the homes that have been here for at least the fifteen years we have, the old favorites.
“I wish we could live in that one,” my daughter said once as our canoe glided by.
“We could have owned a lake house,” I answered. “I started college as a business major on a finance track. Fund managers make a lot more money than teachers.”
“Why did you become a teacher?” she asked.
“People in finance told me to expect 80-hour work weeks, and I knew I wanted a family. A house on a lake is no good if you don’t have time to be with your family. And I wanted to teach,” I added. “I believe in it.”
My own father passed on lucrative promotions that would have uprooted us from our home and schools; he did, genuinely, attend every baseball game and concert. I understood then, as his son. I understand as a father now, and I hope my children will, too.
Regardless, I chose my path. As I told friends at the time I changed my major, I did not want to dedicate my life to earning more money for rich people—I wanted to teach; I wanted to have a family. These were the right choices. There are good days and bad days, but I do not pine for a road not taken. My hours are meaningful and good. The road ahead has unseen twists and turns, and there may be bridges out. Accidents. I feel optimistic, though, that I can continue to glance in the rearview mirror and see a life well-lived. Be a simple kind of man, Lynyrd Skynyrd sang. Be something you love and understand.
A teacher can live securely, not luxuriously. It is still possible my wife and I could someday retire to a lake house of our own through a combination of prudence and luck, but well-lived lives do not necessarily yield dollars. I am at peace with that truth. All the same, as my kayak cuts through Keuka’s waves, I dream sometimes of occupying one of those homes for decades rather than a rented week. I dream not just of summer but winter days, of that coffee and snow on the water. I dream of watching seasons pass over the water a morning at a time so I am part of the cycle of the lake. Of being there.