Lake Education

I am currently reading Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes, a collection of  superb short stories and essays by women homed in their unique, transformative (i should say contemplative) experiences with Lakes Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. The 95000 square miles of the Great Lakes alone is more than enough to turn these women, wounded or playful, into poets or mystics, storytellers or wisdom-keepers. Author Keith Taylor had his praise penned for the book:

“There is the hydrology, the biology, and the biochemistry of our Great Lakes. Then there is the history, the economics, and the sociology. And somewhere in there we forget the aesthetics – but it is our sense of their beauty that brings us back to our lakes and will ultimately protect them.”

In every story, I sense deep humanity emerging from the deep water of diverse pains, playfulness, wonder, humor, self-honesty, solidarity with creation, letting go. Life. Of dying and death.

There is Linda Nemec Foster who reminisced her childhood time around her family, posing for souvenir photos with Lake Erie. Her mother, who always hated water was always absent from the keepsake. As a girl, she would look at Lake Erie as a large, open hazel eye, as the source of all hazel eyes.

“And so every year, I swam in the color of hazel eyes, never stopping to realize that I submerged myself in the color of my mother’s eye.”

There is Gayle Boss, who developed a hobby of climbing an over 200 feet high dune along Lake Michigan, “heaving upward against the press of gravity and the centrifugal pull of sand” and who when comparing the climb to a childbirth, upon reaching the summit felt she was the one birthed. At the dunetop, she muses:

“There’s nothing I need. Food, yes, but no particular food; the apples in my backpack will do. No music, pictures, or books – no further information, explanation, or story. Certainly not the organizations to which I belong.”

All she wished is to die on top of the dune on:

“September morning – an azure sky and a warm rising sun, barely a whisper of a wind. Ninety-five years, I’m still able to climb the dune myself. Though I don’t need anything, I’d like a mat, maybe a pillow, so I won’t lie in the sand. I don’t expect my ninety-five year old husband to carry them up for me. Maybe they could be dropped on the dunetop by helicopter – before dawn, so as not to draw spectators. Note that for the lawyer, too.”

But then…

“After enough climbs to the top, after enough hours spent there, I should beable to die anywhere, anytime, without objection. Because the dunetop would be inside of me.”

There is Rasma Haidri, a mother who remembered the tenth anniversary of her son’s drowning in Lake Michigan, all but grief and remembrance only poetry can contain:

“You turned to run back to the shore, but even as you ran your soul was rising, your body dissolving, merging soul and being, and in that moment you saw your true self: body outside of body, the fluid world where wind, waves, rock, and all that you thought you were merged into one pulse beating, one heart song, one whisper in the mouth of God: no end no begin no birth no drown. Just you, just you tumbling in pure joy at the sound of your own name calling you home.”

Then there is Loraine Anderson, celebrating her 50th birthday by the creek near Lake Michigan, where she met an “aging, dark fish.” It was a salmon, a powerful symbol of life especially for the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians.

“I kneeled down for a closer look. She didn’t back away. Her body was rotting the way salmon do after spawning.”

I stood there for a long time. Two other fish flicked by. The salmon didn’t move. Her lower fins had come to rest on the creek bottom. Her tail was still. She seemed suspended, lifeless. I think she died right there in front of me.

For some reason, I felt immeasurable gratitude, both for her life and mine. When I left that spot, I understood something about the cycle of life, death, and renewal that I hadn’t before. I accepted it, too. Maybe the fish was a conincidence, maybe not. I do know she was a gift.”

Lakes continue to fascinate me not only because it is a primal symbol of the richness and depth of the human subconscious. I grew up with it. Lake Mainit – it was simply there, in my childhood years. It is there even in my adult absence from my hometown. Seemingly eternal, immovable, mindless whether some Mainitnons turn into criminals or technocrats, politicians or business magnates. Like mountains or deserts, it doesn’t seem to care about the antsy human strivings. It is simply there, faithful to its mission as home to many water-based and land-based creatures. Like many other lakes, it is Godlike in its stability, at times its wildness as wild as the indifference of God to what’s “important” for its townpeople. Being is disturbing. If given the chance, I would retire in a hermitage overlooking Lake Mainit so I can learn to be with the lake. To listen more, to behold its beauty and its wildness, to allow the lake to transform me into a storyteller of the Sacred in the mundane lives of its living creatures (a theologian in other words), or into a poet or scientist of heightened senses and changed perceptions.

I call this lake education. Young Mainitnons are never too young to learn from this big university.


Source: Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. Alison Swan, Ed. (Michigan State University Press, 2006)

My gratitude to whoever owns these photos of Lake Mainit.


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