Wednesday, July 21, 2021

what dark swimming lies within

One day last week, I was in the middle of the day in the middle of the block in the middle of downtown and smelled not the lake, but the sea. It was just a moment, like a hole had ripped in reality or geography and the lake, which has its own scent when the wind is right off it of fish and water and grass, but this was thick and salty--also fishy, but different. I looked around to see if there was a stray mermaid, or perhaps someone with lotion or shampoo that smelled like the ocean,  but no one was anywhere near me and while I've been decking myself in coconut bath goods and maybe smell a bit like a pina colada at times, I don't carry the sea on me. 

Oceans smell different. Parts of the ocean smell different.  The Gulf of Mexico looks and smells different in Mississippi and around St Petersburg's crazy clear depths.   Having been granted a half tuition scholarship, I almost went to U. of Miami my freshman year, who had a busting marine bio program and the benefit of being anywhere but the midwest I was struggling to escape from. In the end, it still would have been unnafordable. When Hurricane Andrew took a bite outta that area a few months later I was glad I'd wound up in North Carolina. There, the Atlantic was different from the Atlantic I'd visited in other Florida spots as a kid.  Rougher and more dangerous even while it was beautiful.

In a few years, after I was back in the midwest, another hurricane would whip across Wrightsville Beach and on the Weather Channel,  I'd watch it wreck the pier we spent so many nights at--eating fries from the snack bar and playing video games. I was so young and optimistic and always in love with the wrong person. But my hair would get sea-salty just from proximity. I'd go to class still smelling like the ocean.  They would rebuild the pier--nicer and more sturdy for future storms. Over a decade ago, I took a birthday trip to Myrtle Beach and took so many photos of the water with my camera, and felt again, the way the Atlantic makes you feel like the sand is moving and not the water. I imagine what it would have been like to stay--whether or not I'd become the biologist I intended at 18.  I was a poor scientist  and the coast was so far away from my family. But also, I'm not sure I could constantly live under threat of the sea, every August, possibly rising up to swallow you.  So I remained landlocked. I've been to Missssiippi, to Gulfport a couple times where Karina did swallow most of the town.   Where my aunt huddled in her closet while the wind and water ripped the house apart around her.  Where they built a 13 foot high memorial filled with objects of the dead. When I was in New Orleans, every resident began most statements with "Before Katrina--" and a sort of sad shrug. On the other coast, I  only saw bits of Puget Sound when I visited Seattle. And saw them mostly from the train before sucked into the whirl of AWP. The Pacific Northwest just felt sort of damp and chilly and smelled mostly like pine and, downtown, like weed.  

I am also not sure I could live in California where the ground regularly moves under you. There is a solidity to the midwest, despite it's weather highs and lows.  This lake, which sometimes looks and acts like a sea, is still just a lake.  And while the past few years she seemed intent on creeping and swelling beyond her banks, and when the wind was bad, also seemed intent to consume more, levels have been more normal this year, though still a little high. The NYT wrote an article a couple weeks back about global warming and the rising and falling levels of Lake Michigan and what might bode badly for the city in cases of extremes. In 20 years, I've seen highs and lows, but the highs seemed alarmingly high in 2019 and 2020.

Still, she's always more beautiful when she's angry. Sometimes, on my ride home in the summer, I'm dissapointed when it's calm and mirror like, and love it much more when it's choppy. I've seen Atlantic size waves crashing on the beaches sometimes--different shades of blue depending on the light, or grey when it's especially churning and muddy. I've seen a capsized boat in a storm ass up in the water near Ohio St. Another, tipped on its side after hitting one of the concealed breakwaters a couple summers back. Though not an ocean, the lake swallows a couple swimmers, a couple boats every year. A friend who lived a block closer than I do used to talk about the crazy, spooky sounds the ice made in winter as it cracked up. There are hundreds of shipwrecks in Lake Michigan, including one just off shore on the south side you can swim to that ran aground and sunk.

I've always felt an orientation to be near water, to navigate my world by it. I jokingly call it my mermaid inclinations (thus my twitter handle.). The rivers that skirted both neighborhoods I grew up in (the somewhat treacherous and deep Rock and the shallow, muddy Kishwaukee.) The many, many lakes to the north I practically lived in as a kid all summer long.  I did not become a marine scientist, but I did become a poet who writes endlessly about mermaids and water.   It not surprising that, the coasts not working out, I wound up here.

* the title is a bit from the last poem, "predictions"  in the fever almanac (which though it's out of print, you can read it in pdf form here.)