Christmas is almost here. I hope your holiday bears space for you to slow down, to find your still point, to see wonder and sacred within your life. Personally, I like to believe any season could be about that—that the sacred is always in season. I discovered that in San Francisco many years ago.
San Francisco was my home in 2002. My newlywed wife and I had an apartment on La Playa Avenue in the Sunset neighborhood, the foggy, cold, western neighborhood that edged the Pacific. We had moved there so that I could study Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese Philosophy in graduate school. No, I didn’t have a clear idea where it was leading. Not surprisingly, we struggled. The distance from loved ones, the finances, my partner’s depression, and my own guilt and anxiety about what I was putting us through made things difficult. We were together and in it together, but felt utterly alone at the same time.
I often walked the beach. Sometimes I would just sit and stare. The immensity of the water was unlike anything I had ever known. Even when it was overcast, you could sense the mass and greatness of it all. One’s smallness was always palpable. The scene—the whirring wind in my ear, the rank smell of seaweed that had washed up on the beach, the surfers in wetsuits chasing the swells—usually soothed me or cleared my head.
One day, this scene held an argument. I found myself walking on the beach—steps from the water—venting about my life. I don’t remember what I said, but habit would suggest I was feeling persecuted by God or the universe for not having an easier life. Likely, I was avoiding taking any responsibility for how I had ended up on that beach or what I different life I might create when I got off of it. I was an angry hot mess.
Mid rant, I saw something in the water out of my peripheral vision. When I turned to look at it, I saw nothing. Just as my head turned back ahead, the image returned. I stopped, turned my head back, and found 2 eyes looking at me. Maybe 20, 25 feet away. A wave was cresting, so they were only there for a second. They came back, and I could see they were on the dark face of an animal. And then another wave crested, and it was gone. It took a few swells before I figured out that I was staring at a sea lion and he/she was staring back at me.
I had seen these animals before, but never up close and never one that seemed to have an interested in me. We stared for a minute or two, and then I turned from the water. It was as if a stop light had halted my walking rant. Brief pause until the light turned green. Then, the walk and inner noise resumed.
At some point, I realized I had just walked away from something pretty unique. Something I had never seen before and might not see again. So, I turned back and strained my eyes if I might spot the animal at a distance. Impossible. And the longer I looked, the more idiotic and angry I became with myself for what I had lost. When I gave up—when I turned so that I might resume my walk down the beach—I found him. Still 20, 25 feet away. Still looking right at me.
This time, I stopped. And the maddening noise inside my head stopped, too. I took it in and everything else fell away. For some time, the breeze, the air temperature, the smells, and the people, all stopped existing for me on any conscious level. And the anger about my lot—which I had chosen—that anger went away too. Eventually, external noises crept back in. The first thing that I connected with were the conversations of people passing behind me. And as they flitted in and out of consciousness, it was clear to me that they were missing the same thing I had first missed. The sea lion.
And, so I became something of a marine life evangelist.. It began with some simple pointing and “Look!” and it culminated with interrupting mothers and small children who were peacefully tucked back by the sand dunes on blankets to make sure they didn’t miss it. How many I spoke to, how it was received, whether anyone cared—I don’t know. It’s all really foggy now.
I do know that I eventually went back to the apartment. None of the particular challenges I was facing—clarity on my future work; a strong, local support network; more money; better understanding of depression; more forgiveness for my actions—not a single wish I had had been granted on that beach. And yet, something had shifted. I felt a little less alone and a little less overwhelmed. I began feeling like God was with me and us and might always have been. I began thinking I just needed to slow down and open my eyes.
I live in Minnesota now. There’s no sea nearby and no sea lions. And yet, I believe something about this translates. The Israelites, the story goes, wandered but they also found water in the rock and food on the dessert floor. Maybe we’re all supposed to wander from time to time. Maybe there’s grace bubbling up in around lives that can be witnessed and absorbed. Maybe you’ll experience some of that this season.