When the world is too much with me and too much to bear, I go to the lake that opens like a silver hand toward the the Emerald City and sit or walk or swim for a while. Afterwards I am lighter, wetter, and clearer in mind.
I love few things as I love this lake. This past year I have seen Saturn and Jupiter in conjunction over its waters, as well as a two-tailed comet, and on many evenings the oriflamme of sunset calling the clouds to battle. I have reported the lake’s depth to a citizen scientists’ tracker. I have dug up white clams from the ooze with my toes and let them go. The lake is a teacher, if I listen and am quiet. (The lake would also feed me, if only I could learn the habits of the two-foot-long bass I’ve seen in the shallows. So far, Texas-rigged orange plastic worms are not working.)
On one such walk, the thought rose unbidden that one could fling stone after stone into the lake, and very briefly a ripple would form and unform, and then there would be no sign of the stone’s effect. The lake is very large, and even dropping a boulder into it, or a highway bridge (this happened, thirty years ago), would be insufficient to change its level. The lake would barely notice. The lake is deep and preoccupied with nourishing life, whether pikelike and biting or thin and weedy; with reflecting the broad blue brow of the sky; with drowning those who are careless or don’t fear its power, calm though the waters often are.
That is not a bad model for a life, I thought: one could be so busy with nourishing life, reflecting beauty, and on rare occasions dealing with those who go too far or dare too much, that the flung stones of daily life and thoughtless passers-by leave only the briefest of signs before vanishing.
The lake has its moods, of course. Sometimes it is lower and emptier; sometimes it’s full. Sometimes it is sick, at which times signs go up along the beaches, warning people not to wade in until the toxic bloom dies down. Decades ago, the north end used to freeze over in winter. A stone might leave a spiderweb of cracks at that time. And those marks would melt and vanish by spring.
The week before last, I observed steely waves rolling in to shore, rough and sharp. I thought about how beautiful the water was when smooth and silken, oily with the colors of dusk, and how the water was also beautiful when turbulent and in motion, though in a different, fiercer way. And the turbulence of my own mind, which I had thought only beautiful when quiet and reflective, became beautiful to me as well.
Buried in the mud of the lake’s edge are soda cans, buckets, a bundle of wood tied with a black plastic bag. Among the many items buried in my mind’s shore were that week’s publication of my novel and all the complicated logistics thereof, the tricky combination of freight and East Coast snowstorms, as well as the essay I turned in for Locus, to be published soon, that is likely to invite at least a few stones.
I am not a lake, though I am mostly water. I am made of electric nerves crackling under the thin insulation of skin, wound through a lacework of blood upon bone. A real stone, flung, will leave a bruise.
But when I need to, I can walk down to the lake and pour my mind into the shape of the generous, indifferent waters, full of fish eating each other and spawning more fish, and the slow annular accretion of years on freshwater mollusks, and the twice-a-year turnover of hot and cold layers.
From above, the depths are mystery. From below, the sky is quicksilver.
I am of no particular importance to the lake. When I swim in the summer, long curling stalks of Eurasian milfoil, rough as sandpaper, wrap my limbs and try to sink me. Right where I like to swim in long folded lines, the sand drops away steeply, and my feet cannot feel the bottom. While swimming, I think of the yearly drownings, of boat accidents, of invasive pike and ten-foot-long sturgeon. The lake and the world around it are indifferent to my existence, arbitrary in their beneficience and cruelty, with a detached interest in the nutrients that would be released into the ecosystem after my death. But I live, breathe, and move through the snarl of weeds by the grace and love of God; I am supported on His open palms. I did not always know this. I do now.
My limbs write energetic lines in the surface, quickly smoothed to nothingness. Two hundred years ago, in February 1821, Keats died of tuberculosis, drowning on land, and was buried under the epitaph “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in water.” I think he understood very well the fragile effort that is Art—how we bring our teaspoonful to the lake and pour it in, over and over. How little this seems to matter, particularly when it rains, or the winds blow. And yet we continue to do so, day after day, in devotion, in faith, in a peculiar madness, trusting that our small teaspoonful matters, that Someone sees us and understands.