There is a spot in northern Michigan where a creek that has been meandering through the forest rushes into a great lake. I won’t tell you where it is, because I would be giving away a secret gifted to me by locals – friends who, on my first visit to the place, ran with me full-throttle downstream and into the lake under midnight stars. The surrounding beach is unmarked, unpatrolled, and unblemished but for fire charcoal and sandcastles that wash out with each tide.
On my second visit, solo this time, I stood for nearly an hour at the spot where the creek poured out into the lake. The warm creek pushed out steadily at my calves, while the lake’s colder waves pushed my shins back toward the shoreline. A setting sun chalked the horizon into colors that have no match in my art box. I had been trying for most of a busy summer to pause, to feel things fully before assigning the name or metaphor. But in this thin spot, where I felt weightless in beats as each wave lifted me afloat, pushing back against meaning was like fighting gravity.
I am spending my summer between lakes, so it is worth a pause to consider water. Water is the source, ebb, and flow of life for every organism on our planet. It is over 80% of our blood, and over 70% of the earth’s surface. It is both constant and temporary: the ocean stretching beyond our vision from a rocky shore and the brief rain shower that speckles the pavement with patterns, all at once. Water flattens the horizon and pours from sources we do not see. It reminds us that we are both infinite like the flatness reflecting the sunset, and infinitesimal like the platelets in our blood.
At the mouth of that Michigan stream, the pressure of the water in both directions against my legs was as constant as my worry. Questions flowed in, questions pushed out, and I was caught in the middle, weightless. I could have stayed with my feet planted in the soft lakebed sand forever, each wave and each worry pushing against the gravity that keeps me anchored to earth.
“Awe occurs when we can’t measure certain distances, while our mouths open, as if to challenge with our own immensity,” writes my friend Brandon Som in his poem Sugimoto. Yesterday morning, I walked in sand parallel to a lake horizon. I could not begin to measure the distance across that water, so I did not try. Today I walked on pavement through morning rain. I opened my mouth to catch the raindrops,and was reminded of how often I neglect awe.
Water floats us in immensity, and reminds us that pressure and horizons and raindrops really all come from the same place. The only quality that shifts in the same substance is time. The time it takes for a stream to fill a lake, or the time it takes for rainwater to fill my cupped hand? The time it has taken for the lake tides to crush the sand into fine, soft crystals, or the seconds it takes my breath to condense into mist on a chilly morning run? The time I spend dwelling on a tiny, impossible decision, or the time it takes to amass enough experience to make that choice wisely? All of it is the same, constant and temporary.
Back in the dusty, muddy world of the studio, the clay needs water to move. A bucket of water slowly turns to mud as a potter drips clay over the centered lump, the opening, and the walls. Under pressure and with time, soft stoneware in one’s hand begins to crack. The only way to reinvigorate dry clay is with water, but it takes sensitivity to learn how much to use. Too little water, the cracks grow. The water is seductive – it smooths, blends, flows, cleans. But use too much, and the clay will flop and collapse. This is a tough lesson for beginners to learn. I watch my students fumble with sponges, oversoak their clay, spill their buckets. Failure is inevitable in clay, but the water helps them – and me – to try again. My medium is a better teacher than I will ever be. So is time.
As the weeks pass during my Michigan summers, I share the spot between the stream and the lake with old and new friends. I share the studio, too, and my students and I learn how the water works together. Water heals the cracks of stress and concern, but if I spend too much time here – if I use too much of the energy that comes from summers of idealism – I worry that I am headed for my own collapse when it is over. (If history holds true, this flop is less than a month away.)
We cannot own water. It shifts into too many forms and takes up too much of our physical and atmospheric space. There is nothing to do but wade in together, catch the raindrops, and learn from the cracks and collapses. Maybe you can join me at the lake.