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White Lake

29 January 2021

White Lake, NY - the Adirondacks

Summers we spent with dad in upstate New York, where the air was heavy but not really hot, and the sun was brilliant but did not often burn. Average days during our summers were replete with romping in the yard, through the hedgerow, into the wilderness before it became a golf course, chasing bunnies in abandoned barns, and getting lost. Dad worked full time and could not give us his days; therefore, there was television, fighting with stepsiblings, painting the house’s exterior on scaffolding made of steel, pulling weeds at five cents apiece and stunning my stepmom that we could earn $100 doing so, running rampant over Nana and Grandpa’s five-acre lot, fishing in their manmade well-stocked pond, crafts and more crafts, stealing my stepbrother’s Legos and getting in trouble, puppies, tree forts, too-adult-for-me movies and more.

There are a lot of memories within these moments, and many of them are worth telling…but the memory I want to tell right now is White Lake. Every summer, somewhere amidst all of the hours of work, Dad would take some time off for vacation. This summer, that meant our family rented a rustic cottage on White Lake in the Adirondacks: it was Dad, my stepmom Peggy, my stepsister Emily, my sister BK, and me.

My memories of this trip are but snapshots; therefore, this will not truly be a story. It will be a sensory memory, so bear with me.

As we arrived, before seeking out our cottage on the water, we stopped in the local town at a shop. The hippie hazy new age tienda oozed lavender incense that enveloped like an embrace, making the entire shopping experience dream-like. Carved jade, stones, wind-spinners, wispy clothes; the store was replete with the whimsical – trinkets to tantalize the senses. My perceptions overwhelmed and delighted, I could have spent hours at the soaps, paintings, incense holders…but a small wood carving of a tall, lean woman sitting in Ardha Matsyendrasana caught my attention. The wood was velvety-soft, highly polished, simple, yet delicately whittled and would be easily broken if I did not take care. It was absolutely precious to me; I bought it for myself and have it still. Since that day, stores such as these have always held a magical sway over me…

Later at the cottage, after sunset, Emily, BK, and I made a humongous fuss about the taxidermy deer heads mounted on the walls: they were so creepy. There were two of them, and their beady black eyes stared down hollowly upon us while we prepared ourselves for bed. While Dad and Peggy hauled groceries from the truck into the kitchen, we raucously attempted to cover both with blankets, flinging the blankets up over the antlers, praying that they would catch and stay. When Dad entered the room, he scolded us soundly: we could have broken them or torn them out of the wall! Then they would’ve had to pay for damages. It turns out taxidermy is rather expensive. The blankets came down and the bucks glared down their noses at us, accusing and judging, until the lights went out.

The next day, my sister could not be convinced to join me for a swim in the lake because the water was frigid. What neither of us knew, however, was that your body adjusted to the cold with time. The temperature may have seemed insufferable within the first 20-30 seconds, but once you began moving, your nerves stopped singing at such a high pitch and settled into a state of placid tolerance.

…but first, a bit of background…

Swimming and water have always been a source of pleasure and comfort in my life (I love the word “source” here, as the Spanish equivalent is “fuente,” which is more akin to “spring” or “fountain,” carrying on that liquid theme…). As a child, my mother called me a fish, and I spent many long days with my best friend Katie at Connecticut Belair Swim Club pretending to be mermaids. It is entirely reasonable to believe we spent more time beneath the water’s surface than above it. Although my fundamental swim training was formal via swim team, most agreeable to me was informal swimming: that freedom from the (seemingly arbitrary and tyrannical) laws of gravity, space, sound, and time endowed a sense of invulnerability, liberty, power. What captivated me most during such play was the equilibrium malfunction that occurred when I suspended myself upside down in the water, feet toward the surface and head toward the gritty pool floor and watched the rippling clouds creep across the sky as though they were at the end of a watery tunnel a million miles away. The water had this ability to blot out all real sounds and replace them with faraway ones, like the splash of a diver off the board 25 yards away in “the well.” Or the metallic clink of a quarter thrown in for chasing as it connected with the bottom of the pool – after wafting down, down like a leaf from a tree in the autumn. Water allowed me to be in more than one place at once – omnipresent and omniscient – right here, but also watching that quarter 15 feet away, and at the same time watching the diver 25 yards away, all while witnessing the clouds skate at the end of that tunnel. Water slowed everything down, muted and amplified noises, warped space, and suspended objects. Water could make a person super-human. I’d often have dreams of suddenly realizing my ability to breathe underwater! If I could have done so, it’s likely I’d never have surfaced.

…but back to White Lake…

Unfazed by BK’s refusal to swim with me, already dressed in my bathing suit, I snagged my goggles from the bedpost, whipped the towel off the bed, and ran down the grassy yard to the old, weather-beaten dock. If you were not careful to pick up your feet as you walked (or ran) the dock, you would get splinters. You did not shuffle, or you would regret it. My feet carried me with care to the end, and I peered into the water. Many of the lakes in the Adirondacks are surrounded by deciduous trees. The leaves that fall into the water each autumn slowly churn and disintegrate, forming a tea, of sorts. Looking directly into the water from above, it appeared such a dark, inky, murky brown that you’d have thought it was polluted. It was not polluted, but the darkness of the water made it nearly impenetrable by sunlight; thus, the light reflected more than absorbed, giving the water’s surface a silver shimmer when viewed from a lower angle. As my eyes scanned further out, this shimmer danced and hypnotized – and beckoned.

I’m not so sure what I expected, diving in that first time…darkness? Black? Maybe monstrous Loch Ness-style sea creatures? Eels? My mind momentarily flashed back to wading knee-deep in Lake Ontario one Fourth of July, when we were warned that eels might nip our toes – a terror thrilled up my spine.

Instead, as my body sliced into that chasm of obscurity, along with the anticipated explosion of frosty fingers creeping along my skin came – green. Overwhelming green. Everywhere – green. Nothing but green. Looking up, bright, crystalline green. Looking down, obscure, mysterious green – enticing green. My green eyes flashed: they were home.

My lungs inadvertently released most of their contents as I squealed in surprise. I then surfaced and caught my breath, swam back to the dock, hauled myself out, turned back around, and dove in again. This time, I dove down, down into the unknown – into the tree broth – to see how deep it went and was startled that the lakebed rose up to meet me as quickly as it did. I blinked at it. Wisps of seaweed poked here-and-there through the dark, leafy soil, and within a foot of the ground, everything became visible. My legs pumped, propelling me forward so that my body ran parallel, horizontally, along the floor. The ground fell away as the lake became deeper, and I kicked along with it, down, down, until my breath began to fail. At this point, I spun to face the sky from under my green sea, then gently released a few bubbles from my lungs. They danced dreamily up toward the watery blue sky, and slowly, painfully patiently, I followed them.

The water separated for me just as it did for my bubbles as I burst through the surface. Without hesitation, my arms hauled me, freestyle, back to the dock and out into the cool air. Diving from the dock was the ideal way to inspect the lake floor; quick descent allowed more leftover lung capacity for exploration. I turned back and dove in yet again. This time, I knew how deep the ground would be, so there was no wasted energy; I flung my body into the dive at an angle that would allow me to meet the floor with leftover momentum to carry me along and further out than before.

As my body sliced through the water a foot above the leafy, mucky lakebed, something white and half-buried caught my attention. Pulling my arms out beside me, palms forward, elbows bent, and kicking my heels up behind my knees and outward, I stopped myself dead in the water: what was that? My hand shot down to touch the glowing white. It was rough, hard, sharp at the edge, and partially submerged in the dirt but gave no resistance when pulled. I dug it out, held it quite close to my face in the murk, and inspected it. A freshwater clam! What fantastic surprise is this? My wide eyes turned immediately back to the lake floor. Where there was one, there would be others!

Sure enough, the bottom of White Lake was littered with thousands upon thousands of freshwater clams. Live clams. That day, I became a clam-digger, frightening fish, seeking that ever-elusive king of all mollusks. The biggest one. After my body was thoroughly chilled, I transported the few beautiful empty shells worth keeping up to my shared bedroom and hid them in the drawer of my bedside table. They would come home with me – along with my Ardha Matsyendrasana carving – as mementos of a joy-filled holiday.

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