As a teen-aged girl, awkward and shy, unable to find clothes that fit because I was neither a girl nor a woman, I often felt out of place in the strange small town where I lived from seventh grade through high school. Like most teen-aged girls, I saw life through the lens of drama and angst, and I was sure I would never belong anywhere. During that time, I found refuge in a small lake at the edge of town, where I first discovered my love of nature and its power to heal. In the evenings after dinner, I took long walks and almost always ended up there, sometimes with friends but more often alone. There, I poured out my sadness in poetry. Sometimes we made little boats from punkwood and paper towels from the restrooms, complete with a pop top as a rudder, and watched as the little boat edged away from us.
In the winter, people played ice hockey out on the lake, and as I grew older, some of us explored the area in snowmobiles, never getting too close to the Illinois River that met the lake, but close enough to feel a sense of adventure and excitement, of being on the edge.
In late summer, the lake transformed into a three-day carnival as the boat races arrived. We had to get up early to get good seats, as thousands stood at the edge of the lake, caught up in the roar of the boats as they circled around. We hung out, rode the rides, ate cotton candy, and got plenty sunburned. We didn’t care. Back in those days, we didn’t worry about skin cancer or aging. A burn meant a tan would follow–at least we hoped so.
I learned how to skip stones at that lake, though I can’t say I gained any real expertise. I witnessed a spectacular Fourth of July fireworks display there, though it wasn’t intended to be quite that intense–because of an accident, all the fireworks went off at once, creating a memorable, albeit brief, experience of the holiday. And I learned, as I churned out my poetry and reflections, that I loved writing. Here, at Lake DePue, a part of me was born.
Even then, the lake was silting over. We lived every day with the smell of sulfur from the local chemical plant that the town was built around. We took it for granted that some days, you just had to stay inside. We wrote letters to the Illinois government, asking for help to clean up the lake and the community. As often happens, we were caught in the push and pull of commerce versus safety. The plant gave us revenues to keep the town alive, gave people jobs, allowed a tiny town its place in the Illinois Valley.
Today, more than 30 years after I first sat lakeside, the land and lake are decimated. After all this time, the area has not been cleaned up. People I knew, people I cared about, developed odd diseases, most notable of which was a cluster of cases of multiple sclerosis. One of my favorite teachers, Bob Machek, lost his battle at age 61 after decades of the disease. Others died more quickly. We sometimes wonder if my long struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was somehow influenced by my years there, exposed to the damaging fumes.
One may ask, what does it matter, one little lake in one little town? Yet these people, who I once saw as strangers, are a hardy stock who don’t give up. These are the people who helped teach me a deep-seated work ethic and solid, small-town Midwestern values. They understand, as I do, that the lake is a place of memories and magic, where a confused young girl can find her way, where kites can fly, where kids can play, and, God willing, where people should be able to fish safely. The lake provides life for some of nature’s most beautiful creatures, as well as a shimmering sunset for those who stay to look. It matters because it represents all of our lives, for each of us has a touchstone in our past, a touchstone that connects us to our humanity and to each other, that reminds us how connected we all are.
Why am I writing about this now? The other day, while searching for something else, I ran across a video about the lake, which I am sharing via link with anyone who reads this. I invite you to take a look at it, knowing that you are seeing our heartland at its best. So much of what I am today springs from this place, and perhaps it will awaken in each of you a memory of someplace special, someplace like this, someplace worthy of survival.