Originally published in Issue 11 of Driftless, along with an essay entitled “Secret Beach”.
It begins with the Lake. It always does for me. The story of how I found myself in a small Northern Michigan town on the brink of my thirties, living alone in a tiny house and writing poetry every chance I get, only makes sense if I mention Lake Michigan.
It begins before I can really remember, sometime before I was five when the memories are still hazy and exist mostly as colors and objects. The green leather couch in my Grandparents' family room, the worn wooden steps that led from their house down to the beach, smokey sunsets where beach fires mingled with the sun's glow to turn the horizon and the Lake, and my recollection of it all, a warm orange. Faint memories that are mostly feelings––a cool stone placed in my hand, crashing waves that knock me over––are embedded in my body. I return to them now as distant dreams.
The memory-feelings stayed tucked away for awhile as I tried on different places to call home, different relationships, different jobs. I bounced between cities, between coasts, in and out like the waves. Always I would return to Northern Michigan––for a long weekend of camping, for a family vacation, for a friend's wedding––but for years I let myself walk out of this place, intent on finding somewhere else to call my own.
I tried out Northern California for a while, and while living in a cold apartment in the city, I would lay on the couch and listen to music that reminded me of Lake Michigan. It made me cry with a desire that surprised me. Through the light and noise of the city moving outside my window, I dreamt of the quiet air of the lakeshore, the breeze moving through the maples on a summer night, the feeling of walking on the sand after midnight with nothing but the moon to light my way. As the soundtrack to my dreams, I heard Lake Michigan touching the sand, sometimes wildly with the crash of mighty waves and sometimes with the soft touch of a mother on her sleeping child. The hazy beach fires of my youth warmed my sleep with their memory.
Eventually, the warmth of those dreams begged me home, begged me to the shoreline I always tried to visit but had never imagined living on. It was vacationland, and living in the community full time seemed largely reserved for retirees. I couldn't picture a life there in my late twenties. I was afraid I would get too lonely or that I wouldn't be able to do the type of work I wanted to do without the hustle of city life. Still, my body knew its home and I moved anyway.
Returning to this lakeshore awakened something in me, required me to pay more attention than I was prone to doing elsewhere. What is it about nature that has a tendency to do that? I walked barefoot in the sand and would feel the way it pressed up between my toes. I smelled the opening lilacs in the spring and suddenly noticed the whole world opening. I was opening too. To myself. To the life I really wanted. I started writing every day, mostly to Lake Michigan, and mostly as an expression of the sense of home I had found. I had searched all over the country to find it, had spent years trying to create it in relationships, and here it was the same stretch of shoreline where I visited during my childhood summers: home.
I am just thirty miles from where my Grandparents lived when I was young, from where we sat on the beach and looked for stones and made s'mores around a fire that was licked by the shallow waters of the Lake. There are new memories being made in a smaller house a few more steps from the beach. They look differently and the breadth of what I experienced between my first Lake Michigan memories until now has changed the way that I interact with this magic place. But even with all of the travel and heartache and life that has been lived, Lake Michigan still calls me, as always. The Lake still begs me in to experience the crashing waves, to pick up stones from along the edge. To find myself on this shoreline that is changing and unchanged all at once, in much the same way I am.