Boardman Review: Letters to Lake Michigan

Mae Stier.Lake Michigan-009.jpg

Essay, along with a handful of poems, was originally published in Issue 05 of The Boardman Review. You can purchase a copy here.

It is Monday morning, the sky is grey and the Lake is blue. The beach parking lot is nearly empty, save for a few cars in the north lot, early for Swim Club. Most days in the summer and fall I am at the village beach in Empire before the crowds, drinking coffee and jumping in the Lake alone at nine in the morning. On Mondays, I have begun inviting others to join me, and for over a month I have started each week by sharing my ritual with friends and strangers, the Lake serving as our meeting point.

This day in September is a gathering of my family and new friends, a mix of locals and visitors to the area. We get to know each other over mugs of coffee before getting up the courage to jump in the cold water. The Lake has changed temperature a number of times this season, and today it is cooler than the morning air. We dip hesitant toes into shallow water, then plod carefully over the rocky bottom until we are up to our waists in the Lake. Taking a deep breath and smiling to those around us for support, we jump under. Silence takes over for a moment, and cool water hugs me tight before I emerge, laughing at this perfect way to start the day. We all splash around until our limbs begin to go slightly numb, then retreat back to our towels and coffee. By the end of the morning, phone numbers have been exchanged and plans made for future swims, the Lake making introductions that would not have happened otherwise.

When I first meet someone and they find out I only recently moved to Leelanau County, that I chose to uproot my life to move to Empire despite not being from the area, their first question is often what brought me here. I always smile at this question, the implication that a person or maybe a career change drew me here, and either their surprise or understanding at the real reason helps me to learn something about them immediately. “Lake Michigan,” I beam and I can feel my eyes twinkle with the feeling that I am letting them in on some sort of secret. The secret, however, is not mine alone and often I hear them admit “That's why I moved, too.”

There is something about this place––something about the way the Lake kisses the sand dunes, the way the treeline turns from green to gold in late September and the whole world slows down through the quiet months of winter––that makes it worth giving up everything to be here. There is magic in the water. It is calming, it is healing, it unites people to one another and to nature. I had noticed that many of the people I met in the area lived for the breaks on hot summer days when they could run down to the Lake and splash around in the water. Swim Club grew out of the desire to share this magic with others, to let it bring us together.

After a few weeks of living here, I began to notice that there were those far away from Lake Michigan who craved more frequent interactions with Her. Because I was spending so much time on the shore, I began sharing photos and videos of the Lake on my social media, and before long people were asking for more. For some, the sight of the Lake provided a moment of quiet in their hectic days, for others it provided a sense of nostalgia for cherished memories. As I shared photos I also began to share my words, sentences that bubbled out of me during my morning swims, poems that came to life as I walked the shore picking up stones on a rainy fall morning. Soon I was writing what felt like love letters to this body of water, and I couldn't seem to stop. Lake Michigan became not just a place to visit but a Being to commune with, one that was teaching me more about myself and my life than I could have expected.

From those words and from the connection that had drawn me to the Lake, I started a poetry project. It began with the intention that I would further my writing practice by micro-publishing an original short poem every day. It quickly morphed into something that was not only about the words, but about connection and about sharing the magic of Lake Michigan with others. Words so often do that, transport us to other places, connect us more deeply to the world and people around us. My postcards went to Tennessee and California, and as far away as Ukraine, all to people who felt some pull to this great body of water.

What started as a way for me to further explore the ways that Lake Michigan has become home for me has grown into a way to share that sense of home with others. A way to share a bit of the magic. Of course it belongs to no one, and most people who have touched their toes on the wet sand of the shoreline have felt a small part of themselves coming home in the process. I have been humbled by the power of Lake Michigan, by the way She crosses the boundaries of states and oceans to settle into the hearts of those who crave Her presence. What an honor it has been to be a vessel for Her magic, to have the opportunity to put words to paper and stamps to postcards and send a little bit of Lake Michigan into the world for others to enjoy.

LTLM, AboutMae StierComment