catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 4 :: 2013.02.15 — 2013.02.28


In search of mishigami

Ten years old, I am looking for the small spot that was my father, scanning the line where the horizon meets Lake Michigan. 

It is late summer, and my family has driven an hour to the beach by Norton Shores.  Without hurry or irritation, my father has carried the cooler, the beach towels and the floating toys down the short path through dune forest to our spot on the sand.  He’s made sure my mother had sunscreen and unwrapped a peanut butter sandwich for my always-hungry brother. 

Only once he has settled us in does he shift, in an instant, from contented and helpful father into something wild with a calling to run out of his shoes and shirt and into his home, the lake.  I watch him run past me, whooping while his brown legs kick up tan sand, then leaping over waves in a straight line toward the heart of the lake.  Once deep enough he throws his body down, knowing the water will catch him. He starts with a fast crawl stroke until he finds his pacing, and then a leaping butterfly stroke into the horizon, smaller and smaller until he passes a certain point and I can no longer see him. 

I walk over to my mother, working hard not to rush my words or tug on her shirt, as little kids do.  “Are you, um, concerned that we can’t see Dad?”  She looks out toward the horizon, too, and then returns to blowing up our big floating banana. 

“He does this.  He’ll be back.”

I will only know later, as an adult, how the lake whispers to my father as it soaks his skin, as his body moves toward its center, his mouth arching out to breathe the layer of air above the surface.

The lake whispers of the glaciers that came from the north — how in their retreat they left her behind.

She whispers of the Ojibwe that named her great water, mishigami.  How the Ojibwe lived among the forests she fed, ate the wild rice that grew in her shallows, and drifted over her in their birch bark canoes.  How they knew her in the driven salmon, the white-tailed deer, the secretive cougar, the bullfrog, the nodding wild onion, the dune-building marram grass, the maple and white oak and white pine.

It was the white settlers who came later…they had different ways of seeing.  Mishigami whispers that the settlers laid her children down in planks and trucked them away.

My father continues in his steady freestyle stroke, the one his father taught him, easy and light so as not to struggle among the waves.  He does not know he is listening — he believes he is thinking.  He knows that the lake makes our lives in west Michigan unique.  We have mild summers because the lake soaks up the blistering heat from Lakota country.  Fall and winter are warmer because that’s when the lake releases that heat to the land.  These seasons make our area perfect for growing fruit: grapes for wine, our famous apples of all sorts, cherries and peaches as well.  He is wondering if he is as formed by mishigami as the apples grown here, if his life has a taste from being soaked in her water.

The lake whispers that she has formed not just him but his father, his daughter, his marriage.  None of us will escape the taste for great water.

He is thinking that his father, Glen, has sailed for hours and days over this lake in his sailboat.  It is no accident that at that moment a wave catches my father in the face, and he has to stop, tread water and cough.

It was two years later when Grandpa came out as an alcoholic. He was a small round man with thin white hair, and I had always known him with a glass of Scotch in his hand as he turned his charming smile to me, his Polish princess.  I didn’t yet know of his drive to lose himself in a place where the edges were blurred and dreamy.  The only thing I noticed to be different when he was sober was his regret. 

He regretted taking his money from the car dealership he’d built in West Michigan and losing it in the Florida real estate market.  He regretted driving fast and relying on luck.  He regretted that when his boys were young, he was gone on long business trips where drinking with clients was expected and the affairs were only whispered about.  

Post-recovery, my grandfather would sit in the small living room of their latest neatly-kept apartment, a cup of Sanka in his hand, and remember the close calls he’d had while driving, the risky investments that had seemed safe at the time.  What I knew from those quiet evenings was that he wanted those years back.  He wanted to prove he could make his way more carefully, with his feet on the ground.  He wished he could have provided — for his wife and his sons, his business partners and their families — the smart, methodical, devout man he could be when he wasn’t listening for the water’s seductive whispers to float him away.

My grandfather took his need to drift in big water and returned to the Catholic church.  He attended Mass daily, drinking grape juice for Communion instead of wine, humming in his tuneless voice, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”   He also read and re-read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  He would talk about it passionately with anybody who would listen.  The vastness of the universe, the spinning of the galaxies in weightless space, became as much a part of his religion as the Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be…. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.  He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.   He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

“Our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise.… Humans have evolved to wonder, our understanding is a joy, our knowledge is prerequisite to survival.”

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”

“We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people…. Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”

This became my grandfather’s mishigami.  Amen.

When my father swam into his lake and away from us, I have no doubt that he was searching for the same release that his father searched for in alcohol, religion and the cosmos.  He did come back to us that day, more slowly than he swam out.  Relaxing on his back, his confidence that the waves would take him to shore was complete. 

After he was fully returned to us, we all swam together as a family.  My brother and I rode his back, falling into the water off his slippery wet layers of skin.  His skin smelled of dune-grass.  We would still have him for a couple of years before he was running again toward the great water, this time divorcing my mother and moving away, leaving us behind.  A social worker might say that he lived like the child of an alcoholic, but we give our nod to mishigami.

Thirty years later, my children are used to finding me sitting in my rocking chair, buoyed gently back and forth, my mouth half open as I drift through the rolling thoughts: how the bedroom door closes so slowly, as if through sand; whether the green blouse makes my stomach look Rubenesque or worse; how my babies’ eyes opened in surprise when they were first bathed; how sad that Alan Alda is so aged now.  “Is your mom alright?” a visiting friend might ask.

She does this.  She’ll be back. 

And because they believe this, I make sure of it.  I always come back. 

I put my great water need in my writing, not in my glass.  Coming from a family of addicts, I know my own signs — how something inside of me crouches, ready to fling myself away.

I watch mishigami roll in with the great spring thunderstorms, storms that make me want to scream into the wind, matching my power with hers.  I keep a close eye on her when she sweetly blankets the area with white in the winter, causing my hibernation in which I knit up grand and risky plans. 

Always I love her, and always I pour her out of my inner cup after just one beautiful life-sustaining sip.  I know she is here, around me, as I play with children and make soup and take out the trash.

I know she is here, and that I must keep my feet on the ground, and breathe the air above the surface.

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