How do I describe a summer night bonfire on the small dunes of a sandy beach on Lake Michigan on the Northern-Western shore of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan?
First, it has been warm all day. You spent the day swimming at the beach so your skin still feels the warmth of the sun. Your hair still smells like lake-water and it’s still a little damp. The sound of the waves lapping the shore – the musical accompaniment to your day – still washes through you. And now that night has come, you feel a little sleepy. Someone – probably your mother -- helps you into someone else’s sweatshirt – probably your sister’s or your brother’s. It’s too big on you. All at once, you feel warm and cozy and tiny and snuggly and incredibly loved. You are too young to care or wonder why you feel this way. You just do. And the adults all around you are drinking beer and telling jokes and laughing and smiling. You run after one of your cousins. One of your brother’s chases you, tickles you until you scream, lets you go. You run through the sand in the way children run through sand – as if you can’t tell that it is supposed to be slowing you down. Your legs feel long and strong and endlessly capable – but, again, you don’t even think about that. You just run. You laugh easily. You can’t stop smiling. People arrive one by one or in little groups. The men shake hands. The women hug. Everyone has brought cans or bottles of something. At least a few people have brought food. Hot dogs & hot dog buns. Graham Crackers. Hershey’s chocolate. Marshmallows. The adults talk about their day. Most of them have been working at one thing or another. Their conversation becomes another kind of music – scattered with a warm, even laughter that fills you with the desire to laugh too, the desire to know what they are laughing about. They swear because they don’t think or don’t care that you are listening. Their swearing, along with their laughter, feels fun, adds to the thrill of being on the beach at night when you would normally be in bed, in your home, where you actually feel less safe that this circle. Eventually, everyone is sitting in the circle. All around is the blue-black-purple of the night sky glittered here and there with stars. The red-orange fire lights everyone’s faces so they are an extension of that warmth, that glow. At first you are in your mother’s lap, even though you’re too old and too big to be. Eventually, you sit on the cooling sand between your parents, who like the rest of the adults, are sitting on huge lengths of driftwood. The sound of their laughing, their talking, their jokes – none of which you fully understand – is magical. It weaves a spell over this circle. Everyone feels safe. Everything seems well. Everyone sounds happy. And the smell of the fire! The smoke chasing everyone around the circle. The warmth from the flames. You will smell that fire in your clothes tomorrow morning. You will smell it in your hair. Suntan lotion. Lake Water. Bonfire. These smells combine to create the most intoxicating perfume. Someone hands you a stick with a marshmallow on it. You are inpatient and burn it. Your mother always eats the burnt ones. Someone else – with more patience – makes you a perfectly browned marshmallow and your mother makes it into a perfect smore. And then, the voluptuousness of the night is complete. Each of your senses is pleased beyond comprehension.
That’s a little bit like how it was.
And on one of these nights, my dad convinced me to go swimming with him – or else, I convinced HIM to let me tag along. I was probably six or seven years old. It was the first time I would go swimming in an open body of water in the dark and I wouldn’t attempt it again until I was 28-years-old (This is not necessarily because what happened next was so terrifying but just because the opportunity to swim at night, in open bodies of water, rarely presented itself to me. I swam in plenty of pools in the dark. Another great pleasure).
On some edges of Lake Michigan, the waves carve uneven holes in the sand or they erode the sand in huge gouges and suddenly the water can be much deeper than you expected. One minute I was running behind my dad, the next I was over my head and panicking and swallowing water.
My father was a swimmer. He didn’t play in the water like most people. He swam. As soon as he hit the water, he would start swimming, straight, into the horizon. So, it was lucky maybe – or maybe because he was aware that this might be too much for me – that he wasn’t too far out yet. And, he came back immediately. And though, the truth is, my struggle probably only lasted seconds, I truly felt like I was drowning and it was really really scary. But there he was, lifting me up, while I cried and howled and spit water and held onto him tight. And before he finished his swim, he carried me back to the fire where my mother wrapped me in a towel and popped an oversized sweatshirt back over my head. And the rest of us got back to the pleasures of the party.
I wished I could be out there with him so bad. I thought it was kind of miraculous that he was a strong enough swimmer – and fearless enough! -- to just jump into a lake – in the dark! – and swim straight out to the moon. I still think it’s kind of miraculous.
My father worked so hard all of his life. When I think of who he was during and after a swim – how happy, how relaxed – it makes me wish he would’ve been able to work less and swim much more.
My father raised me to work hard. To pay my bills. To take care of myself. I know how to do this. I have always known. I have never – not since I was 17-years-old -- needed anyone to take care of me financially. As long as I can work, I never will. But, my father didn’t teach me how to be happy. And here I am, in the middle of my life… learning how to be happy… and realizing that my father didn’t get enough of what made him happy. He told himself that providing for his family was the thing that made him happiest of all – and I believe that this was absolutely true for him, from a philosophical perspective. Hard Work and Providing for His Family were his philosophies of life. To him, in his generation, these were noble philosophies – I can’t help but think that they still are. But physiologically, mentally, spiritually… these philosophies left much of him unfulfilled and…. unhappy.
I chose work – I put myself through several levels and layers of education – to get work that would make me happy, fulfill me. I applied my father’s hard work principles to my inherent belief that there’s got to be more to life than just work. I saw both of my parents work jobs they didn’t really care that much about; jobs that were paychecks. I didn’t want just that. I had been getting a paycheck since I was fourteen. Paychecks were easy to come by as long as I was willing to work, to do anything for work. I wanted more than that. Whether that’s working out for me or not is the subject of a completely different kind of post – and too far away from where I was going with this one – and, honestly, more than I can handle thinking or writing about at this moment.
I’ve been thinking so much lately about Lake Michigan. Mostly, because I want to write about the final stop on my QueenPrincess’ Great Lakes Mermaid Tour this summer. And I will, eventually. But for the time being, I’ve really gotten caught up in the fact that Lake Michigan is my home and all of the memories of how it came to be that way. This is one. Bonfires on Elberta Beach. My father swimming in the dark. Almost drowning – but in truth, probably never being as far out of my father’s reach as it seemed to me then. My mother’s singing voice.
Oh! I didn’t mention the singing! Eventually, there would be singing at these bonfires! We would sing mostly children’s songs and then, every once in a while, an adult would throw an adults-only song into the mix. I didn’t get them – but they were supposed to be funny. They made the adults laugh and smile and that made me happy. My mother loved to sing as much as my father loved to swim. And she seemed filled with light when she sang.
I wonder what our lives would’ve been like if my mother sang more and my father swam more. Then again, in the busy life of a family with six children and two working adults, I think my mother sang and my father swam every chance they could get. Which – it occurs to me -- is EXACTLY why I am up at 3:30am, writing.
So, maybe this IS happiness. And, maybe they DID teach me how to be happy. Work hard. Provide for your family. Party a little bit. And as often as you can, do something you love just because you love it.
And know how to make a really amazing smore, around a really amazing fire.
Namaste & Vaya Con Dios