On a 37-degree August morning, steam fog lingered above the clear water of Higgins Lake. The waning days of summer, always layered with the memories of those I have loved and lost, seem to pass too quickly in Northern Michigan. Steam fog rising above the water fascinates me because while it is of this earth, the nature of it seems so ghostly, a place where secrets float on water, a scene that will unfold only when the above ground temperature and the temperature of the lake water meet for the first time that day. Steam fog is like a blush on the face upon meeting someone for the first time, someone you may or may not spend the rest of your life with. Or the rubbing of a match against a hard surface, and the sudden glow of a flame before it settles into a flicker of light. Or the feeling of grief when it surrounds your head and your heart making you feel as if you might never break free of its grip. You wait for the blush to fade from your cheeks. You blow out the match once it has served its purpose for you. You slip in and out of ephemeral memories until your body and the earth seemingly collide and force you into action. You must tell stories about those you have loved and miss so much. This is the burn, and this is the fade.
I met my future husband in August one year, and we married the following year on August 26th. Two days later, we celebrated my father-in-law’s birthday on the 28th of August, but he died in 2004. My father died in 2012 on August 27th, and it seemed as if he had chosen this date. Those three days in August became a twisted nursery rhyme for me, and instead of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” by Eugene Field, one my mother used to read to me, these three days became “Anniversary, Death, Birth.” They say things come in threes, and depending on whom you believe, these can be three good things or three bad things. Stars, planets, and galaxies remind us of our smallness. Width, height, and depth are necessary measurements we use in order to understand the dimension of things. Red, yellow, and blue are primary colors that can be blended to create other colors. The three days of August that hold so much meaning for me create their own mix, a steam fog settling in and disrupting the tangled vines of memory running through my brain.
As fall approaches at Higgins Lake, I will likely awaken to more steam fog as the nights grow colder and the temperature of the water continues to drop until it begins to freeze. I know the hummingbirds that frequent my feeders are fattening up before they head south. On the first morning I wake up and realize they are gone until the spring, I will settle in with my cup of tea, and skim through all of the photographs I have taken of them over the spring and summer months. Will they return in the spring? Will I be here? That’s it, you know. We have to live each day to its fullest, because we never know what the future brings.
I was sorting through a problem a few days ago as I walked three miles. I wondered what advice my mother or father would give to me to handle a particular situation. Quite clearly, almost as if I could hear their voices in unison, I understood that I should let the problem go. In other words, it would resolve itself. Like steam fog slowly evaporating, and sunlight warming up the air, I realized the solution to my problem was as simple as one, two, three: Let it go. I thought of those last few moments with my father as he was taking his last few breaths in August of 2012, and how his eyes opened one last time, and he looked at me as if he understood something that I, too, would someday understand. The burn, the fade, and the remembering.
“Snow Blind Friend,” a song written by Hoyt Axton and made famous by Steppenwolf, is about a friend addicted to cocaine. As someone who lives in Northern Michigan, a feeling of being snow blind, sans drugs, is a typical February phenomenon. Recently, as I walked on the frozen lake past ice shanties with fishermen carefully tending their lines, snowmobiles occasionally buzzed across the lake. I spoke to no one. My boots made a path in the untouched snow, a reminder of where I had been. Thankfully, the sun lit up the blue sky like a promise instead of the flat gray I had grown accustomed to. Flat gray skies, the color of needles, had become a chromatic aberration trying to crash through my skull.
I imagined fish moving somewhere far below me, the ice and snow separating us from each other. During winter, their world below me, easily identifiable during spring, summer, and fall, becomes unknowable. Ennui settles in, so on my lake/ice/snow walks, I feel the loneliness of solitude, but I embrace the quiet. I need to feel the silence surround me. If I do not learn to listen when there is nothing to hear, then how will I know how to listen when there is something to hear?
On a recent walk, a small plane sliced through the sky, and the white wings blinded me as the sunshine refracted the light. The engine’s buzz disrupted the momentary silence. I thought of the sounds I missed the most: The voice of an old friend, my dog’s sharp bark when he wanted my attention, and my father saying “well, hello,” when I walked into his room. I remembered Axton’s words, “You say it was this morning when you last saw your good friend/ lying on the sidewalk with the misery on his brain.” Those last moments evolve into memories riddled with misery and longing.
I stopped for a moment, felt the sun’s warmth on my face, and turned around and saw my trail of solitude in the snow. I stepped smoothly into the unbroken snow and began the slow walk home, avoiding the path I had created earlier, remembered and listened.