What with summer activities and chores and the myriad details associated with the launch of my memoir Mango Rash, I confess I haven’t been doing much new writing lately. I was inspired to make an exception, though, when I received a compelling request earlier in the summer from one of my favorite Michigan authors, Anne-Marie Oomen.
She was appealing to writers in her circle to join in an undertaking she called the Lake-love Letters Project. The idea was simple: write a love letter—no more than 400 words—to the Great Lakes or a specific lake. Not a huge investment of time and energy, but an important one, as Anne-Marie’s cover letter made clear.
I love our waters: lakes, rivers, wetlands, little sinking ponds, remote swamps. If it’s wet, I’ll probably like it. And of course, I’m worried about all of them, as I know many of you are. I often wonder what I can do. I’m not a scientist, politician, lawyer, not even a very good journalist. I often feel inadequate, a “fish out of water” when it comes to this work. This year, a question I asked myself: how might I use my small gifts a literary artist (creative writer) to do something for our beloved waters.
She went on to relate that just as she was considering how she might make a difference, she received a letter from Liz Kirkwood, director of the regional water organization For Love of Water (FLOW). The letter explained that in July, the International Joint Commission of the Great Lakes would meet in Traverse City. Liz wanted to enliven what might otherwise be a dry discussion (subject matter notwithstanding) by involving artists who are passionate about our water.
As Anne-Marie described it in her letter,
She had a vision: at the final meeting with the commissioners, could we showcase our love of water in a way that would involve the arts, particularly the writers. She spoke of the arts as one heart behind all the science and legal work. I was so grateful for her rare understanding. And she offered an idea that I could run with. Could we writers and artists do something with love letters to our waters. Love letters? Yes!
I usually take my time responding to requests that ask me to write, edit, or critique something. I like to consider what else is on my to-do-list and how interested I am in adding to that ever-expanding list. This time I didn’t hesitate. As soon as I found a sliver of writing time, I drafted my love letter. After a few revisions, I sent it off to Anne-Marie.
Here’s what I wrote:
Dear Lake Michigan,
You’re not like the others—the ones I grew up with. In that flat and dusty land, those pretenders to the title were mere puddles. Knowing no better, we suited up, dived in, toweled off, sat on shore with sandwiches, staring out across their dense, red-silted expanses, thinking, “Well, this is nice.”
Then I met you, and I had to expand my vocabulary. I’ll admit it: you dazzled me, spangled like a rock star, necklaced with villages whose very names enchant: Empire, Pentwater, Saugatuck.
The only time I didn’t love you as much as I wanted to was on that blustery September day I ferried across your liquid skin. Your ups and downs! How they unsettled me. Betrayed, I sulked until I reached the other shore and looked back at your troubled face, your spectrum of shades.
You, too, carry burdens, I realized in that moment. And also this: I may have loved you since we first met, but I haven’t really known you. Let me know you now.
Just before the commission meeting, Anne-Marie reported that nearly 100 letters submitted to the project would be presented in book form to each of the commissioners. In addition, she extracted sentences from some letters and shaped them into a ten-minute script to be read as part of the presentation to the commission. “Your words made a beautiful praise song to the lakes—thank you!” she wrote to contributors.
So often, writing feels like a solitary, inwardly-directed pursuit. It was gratifying to take part in this project, and it made me think about other ways I might merge my passion for writing with the issues I care about.
How can you apply your talents to something you care about?
FLOW’s video of the entire Traverse City meeting can be viewed here. The Lake-love Letters Project portion begins around minute 14 and continues to minute 28. FLOW and the commission also plan to post the entire collection of Lake-love Letters on their websites.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.