Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine as part of a compilation of essays centered around the theme of Northern Michigan water, this essay written by Jaimien Delp describes her “love affair” with water and the Northern Michigan outdoors.
I’m learning about breath. Or more specifically, Ujjayi Pranayama, a way of breathing in and out through the nose while constricting the back of the throat—as if you were whispering—to release what is old or stale, and be filled again with what is new and fresh. Oxygen. This is during hot vinyassa yoga (my latest obsession), where I’m reminded, at least four times a week, that this is a breathing class. Even as the temperature spikes past 100, even as my legs stretch toward the ceiling and my hands press into my mat slick with sweat and Lorde throbs over the dim evening light of the studio, I’m told, return to your breath. Downward poses breathe out, upward poses, in. Be wholly and completely filled.
Be wholly and completely filled. That means one thing to me, and one thing only, and it has little to do with oxygen. It’s water that I lust after. It’s waves and currents that I visualize, dipping below an incoming whitecap off the coast of Lake Michigan during the exhale, coming up wet into the sky on the inhale. It’s Boardman and Au Sable River currents that run through my chest during Shavasana (rest pose), it’s rivulets along the backs of my eyelids and lips, it’s one unfathomably clear, turquoise curl and spray after another that I move with—as if I were purely water, too—to wash away the drudgery of everyday existence and come again into awe, into some sensual, watery place where love and liberation become interchangeable. Because really, isn’t that what it means, to be wholly, and completely filled?
So then, yes, this becomes a love story; my love affair with lakes and rivers and oceans and occasionally, when I was misplaced on the globe (Manhattan, for example), even bathtubs, showers, a long, slow rain. Just enough to get by until I could return to Northern Michigan and blend my skin with flowing water once again.
I’ve often wondered where this impulse was born, how it grew so strong and absolute, when the birth of our interior landscapes begin to take shape. Perhaps it’s in the blood, passed down by the ancients, or in this case, most directly from my father, a master lover of rivers, large and small. Or possibly it began even before my memory of it, a story from my very early childhood about jumping into a pool and sitting on the bottom, and after a swift rescue, when asked what I was doing down there I replied, I was thinking. Even then, well before I had experienced any true pain, I must have sensed that where there is water, there is clarity. Where there is water, my mind will release whatever is not needed, shed it like an old skin, a wave bound for elsewhere, and come into clear spaces. I can recall leaving a party and wading into a lake one night in a silk dress, heels cast off on shore, and floating perfectly under a Michigan sky. I can recall shedding shoes and shirts and pants to be carried downstream in the Boardman on summer nights. I’ve jumped off boats in bluejeans, gone for long, hot July runs, and dove right into Lake Wahbekanetta afterwards, sneakers and all, to feel that cool rush, fast. I’ve cried in water, kissed in water, crashed my fists into the current, used saltwater to scrub off the touch of people or places I desperately wished extinguished, gone. I’ve exhausted my spirit in the deep haul of growing up and arrived at the shores near empty, little to offer those quiet pools, and every time, every time, I’ve been invited in, allowed to float effortlessly, as if some beautiful finned creature swam beneath me, its rainbow back pressed to mine, buoying me up.
And then I’ve come to the water as a woman, changed—the way, if we’re lucky, we grow back into the spirit of our childhood selves, that we then learn to dress and protect in the wake of an adult world—and the water has continued to make space. Now I know enough to stay close to the coasts and river banks, and to choose my company carefully (“Oh, you need to be on the water today? Float the river? Lie on the shore with your head in the waves? You’re going to buy a wetsuit because you’d like to try surfing Lake Michigan in the fall? Why, of course.”). Now, I come to water as a form of worship, a way of praising beauty and change. This kind of worship requires no words, no formative thoughts, no logic or reason; just dipping below the surface, and coming up again.
On summer nights, just after dusk, I take my paddleboard down to the water. I slip under first—I want the lake dripping all around me—and then, I shove off. For an hour or so, it’s just me, pressed to a body so smooth and clear it reflects me right back.