Describe your first memorable experience exploring and spending time in nature. Were you in awe? Or were you not impressed? Would you rather spend time in the forest or the city?
For me, “nature” doesn’t mean forest or city; it means water.
My aunts bought The Seashell — as they named their beach house– when I was three years old, but family legend has it that they took my sisters and me to Lake Michigan on vacation even before that. Aunt Marian used to tell stories about having to drag me, kicking and screaming, out of the water long after everyone else had tired of swimming.
The Lake was a big playground for us. My aunts tried to teach us to respect it without fearing it, but I didn’t understand what they meant until the first time I went in the water when the Yellow Flag was up.
There were lifeguards on our beach back then, and they used a flag system to tell us how to treat the water every day. Green Flag meant the water was calm and smooth and safe, Yellow Flag meant there was a certain degree of danger due to strong currents and high waves, and a Red Flag meant no swimming. Stay out.
I was probably about six or seven years old. There were four aunts and three little girls, so we always had the full attention of at least one adult. At all times. In or out of the water. We had reached the age where the aunts let us go in the water without them, as long as they were watching from the shore, and as long as the flag was green. As the youngest, I still had to hold an adult’s hand in the water on Yellow Flag days.
On this particular Yellow Flag day, the aunts decided that I was ready to go in with just my sisters.
We were all just learning to bodysurf at that time, but hadn’t quite mastered the art of “reading” the water. We would wait for the biggest wave, fling ourselves facedown into it with arms stretched out above our heads, and ride the current as far toward shore as possible.
We thought the biggest waves were the strongest. Now I understand that a stong wave can be any size, but a wave that is muddy brown on top is a wave that is strong enough to gouge into the lake bottom and bring sand to the surface. In other words, strong enough to knock you on your ass.
Which is exactly what happened. Sort of.
The wave hit so hard that it drove my face into the bottom of the lake. My legs went up and over like a crazy little-girl-pinwheel. I came up for air and gulped down a faceful of the next wave as it crashed into me. Then I went down again, scraping skin off my shoulder as I bounced along the lake bottom once more.
One of my sisters–I don’t remember which one–hauled me up by my hair and snapped, “Don’t cry or they’ll make us all get out!”
I didn’t have time to cry. I had to catch the next wave. And the next.
There is nothing in my life that has ever matched the feeling of being pounded and tossed about by Lake Michigan in her frenzy. Helpless, disoriented, exhausted, waterlogged and almost afraid. And starved. I remember coming out of the water feeling like I could gnaw on some of my own extremities.
And I felt clean. Inside and out. Purged of all negativity. I was recharged, body and soul.
When I battled the waves, I touched God. And He touched me.
I’ll never bodysurf again because it’s just too risky with my neck injury. But I will always need to return to Lake Michigan when my spirit is aching or my soul is weak. And when the lake is in a frenzy of crashing waves and flying spray, I can almost hear Him speaking to me, telling me to lean on Him.
And then I go home, strong enough to face the world again.