The lake looks angry, my Dad said as he parked the car, then hopped in the back seat to wait with the baby.
My husband and I crossed the parking lot and headed lakeward, under the hill whose big white house had hosted our wedding reception. We hopscotched between water-slick stone and mud paths, trying to stay dry, trudging toward the pier where we had once stood smiling in shiny new clothes as the photographer snapped, the sun set.
We looked down the length of the pier. Water thrashed against the rocks, spilling over the walkway. The wind was fierce. Maybe we shouldn’t go, he said, but I went. Angry or not, I couldn’t say, but the lake was most definitely alive.
This had been the spring and summer when Lake Ontario erupted, rose two and three feet higher than last year’s norms. Voluminous rains and runoff, coupled with increased inflow from the Niagara River (which ports water from Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes) were responsible for the flooding. When I came home for a family party this spring I found that I couldn’t walk this pier at all, for all the carnage the lake had rent on cement, shores and handrails. Tree trunks barred the walk; the pebble beach was under water. Elsewhere in lakeside counties bars, restaurants and fishing piers were waterlogged, and remained so through early fall.
There was public outcry, a demand for help; many who had lost property complained that flooding was a result of too little water released from the Moses-Saunders Dam, which lets out from Ontario into the St. Lawrence River. Analyses suggest that flooding would have occurred even had more water been released; doing so, meanwhile, would have adversely affected both downriver communities and the ecology of sensitive marshes.
As happens far too often, the complications of rising waters here served to divide, rather than unite communities suffering on neighboring shores. Science took a backseat to politics. And in case we had forgotten, we learned again the sheer power, influence, and importance of our own Great Lake.
Watching this spring as the lake I learned North by climbed up and over its banks, I remembered Venice: one perfect lugubrious day with my husband-to-be in that city of bathtub bookstores. As those waters rose and we scrambled for smarter ground, we came across this poignant graffito:
On an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, four months and a week ago, my daughter was born. I remember the warmth of her wet kitten body as they pulled her out and onto me. I’m no closer now to eloquence than I was in that prone and harried moment, but what I felt most clearly in that instant of ineffable emergence was: yes. A declaration of acceptance to the divinator of miracle babies: yes, I said, I will take this one, will take on all the grief and adventure and laughter she’ll bring us. I’ll even take on that crushing, ripping beast called “time,” knowing that from now on she will only grow up, out, away from us. I’ll take it, I thought. We will. Sign us up.
But I felt, at the same time, a surge of restraint. I realized that if I were to allow myself to feel with any constancy the full beauty and mystery of her, my heart would explode.
As a mom you really need to hold back sometimes, my aunt had warned me, and as a parent I weigh these poles every day: when should I step in and cuddle away that cry? Can I let her finger-suck-soothe it on her own?
And I weigh these poles as a writer, advocate, human: when do we restrain, guide, and control, and when do we surrender? Not the white-flag, tired-of-fighting kind of surrender, but rather, the dive-right-in, take-the-long-view, let-yourself-be-washed-by-the-waters kind of surrender, the transformative kind whereby we concede to powers, expertises, knowledges, forces, timelines vaster than our own.
I live closer now to the ocean than I ever have, or ever will again. In the summer, as a rule, we bathe. This June was no exception: mightily pregnant, bikinied, I waded into the waves with my husband at Rockaway Beach, ballasted my balloon-belly with the sway and roll of the water. Over, under, through and through, we resisted the pull of each wave then surrendered, rising and tumbling with it as it crested. We wondered: could our baby feel the rhythm?
Venice belongs to the water, not to you. The lake rises. The tide turns.