WHEN I WAS A CHILD, we lived for a time in an apartment right on the beach. Every morning I walked along the beach, pocketing shells and showing up for fifth grade salty and wind-struck. After school I collected shark’s teeth and butterfly wings and beach glass. Every day, I played by the sea and I dreamed. I pretended I could see England. I imagined traveling the world, becoming a writer or a mermaid. The sea was so vast, so loud, so welcoming and terrifying — just like the future. But all that water was like hope itself, too — mysterious, ever-present, calming my soul even when the waves were churning and immense.
My family life was extraordinarily difficult; I avoided going home because I had to. Growing up right next to a large body of endless water, I found, in the sea, more than friendship — I found a kind of salvation. Its steady presence quieted me, rocked me, held me. The drama of weather that played out on that great ocean/sky canvas put my own emotions and difficulties into perspective.
When I say I was parented, in part, by the sea, I’m not exaggerating.
Flash forward: February in Michigan. I’m on a grueling two-day job interview in a frozen little town on the shore of Lake Michigan. My Florida coat seems, all of a sudden, thin, pointless. Wet snow leaks through my boots, which now seem like decorative apparel, the mere suggestion of boots. Leaving Lubbers Hall, I fall, hard, on the ice. Get me out of here!
I count the hours until I can get back home to the Southern paradise I know and love. I could never live in this dinky little town…in the Midwest! I was anxiously awaiting my ride to the airport, when my interviewer-host, a poet, said, “Before you go, you have to see the lake.”
I looked up at the grey thick sky. It looked like a head cold. I didn’t want to see any more of Michigan. Lake? What for? But it was a job interview. I had to say yes.
The gentle poet drove me out to a little red lighthouse, a cheerful box on an ice cream landscape. We got out of the car. I stood on the beach and looked out into the world, as though for the first time. The great lake took my breath away. I saw an ocean. It looked like home only…more benign. The great waves were frozen solid, like beautiful lace skirts along the beach. Snow on the dunes, a sky filled with light, in every color, creating complex murals. I stood there, humbled, speechless.
The poet leaned against his car. “Take your time,” he said. “Take your time.” He waved towards the water, and tucked into his coat.
I walked across the hard sand, clambered up the bank of frozen wave, and felt an ancient joy and calm and hope and promise I hadn’t felt since I was a girl. I saw my upcoming summer. I saw, in a whole new light, the rest of my life. Alongside an ocean in the Midwest!
Loving the lake in winter is like speaking a foreign language — difficult at first, but so immensely rewarding, summer seems almost too easy at first. After a life of humidity, hard sun, salt-stung skin, jellyfish rashes, sting-rays, and shark alarms, summer Lake Michigan is a perfect glass of ice water: Healing, soothing, sweet. My childhood body of water, perfected.
The lake in summer is busy and festive. The silky rustle of aspen leaves hums in counterpoint to the bass lull of the waves. My friends — hard-bitten locals — complain about the tourists, but for me, coming from Florida, where cars drove on the beach, and hordes clotted every inch of sand, the long stretches of curving lakeshore are vast enough to hold us all, with room to spare.
On cool summer days, I choose a hilly walk through the dunes. I hike for an hour or so. Then, I climb a path up a high dune, working hard for my vista, working up a sweat. The lake unfurls. I take in the blue, green, turquoise, and purple bands of water, and the pastels of the sky. Grand and yet so calming, vibrant, overwhelming, and yet somehow wise and quiet. The great lake. My old friend and mentor.
I lay back on the sand among old trees, along a banquette of juniper, and feel as I did when I was a child. That I can bring any problem here, and hand it over to the lake. That I can feel the joy of being alive amplified, thanks to the lake. For me, the lake is a cathedral, and whether I swim or not, the water is a sacred blessing. I return home renewed, my restlessness re-organized. I feel more thoughtful, and kinder.
The lake is a god, a friend, a parent, a mystery.
In August, on the hottest summer days, the beach is dotted with parti-colored umbrellas and towels and toys. Little kids shout at the waves, the teens drift out past the sandbar, hollering no no no, but they mean yes, yes, yes: Yes let me fall off this raft; yes throw me again; yes I want to fall in love with you, I really do! From my cool secret bower under the sassafras trees, I feel like I’m watching a religious rite. We come to the lake to heal, to connect to something larger. We duck underwater, come up renewed, cleansed, more whole.
I watch couples who were crabbing at each other in the parking lot (“You were supposed to bring the camera!” “You were!”) calmed by the presence of the lake, now holding hands, literally walking off into the sunset together. Often, in summer, there’s a wedding on the beach, dogs barking and bounding around a barefoot bride like unruly groomsmen. I re-enter that childhood feeling that summer will never end.
How could it?
After that job interview in February, I talked the whole way back to the airport. How much of the coastline was accessible? How far was the college, where I would work, from the closest shore? Mentally, I’d already moved my furniture and books and nature guides, my swim suit, hiking boots, and sunglasses. To the lake.
I took the job because of the lake. The lake that gives us each a way to re-visit childhood, a way to reinvent and renew our adult selves, a way to be blessed. Living next to Lake Michigan, I’m taught, every year, a little more of how I want to be.
Heather Sellers is an award-winning author and a professor of English at Hope College in Holland.