The incoming tide broke over Duxbury Reef, just north of where I sat with my feet dangling off the concrete wall that protects the house behind me from the ocean in front of me. I came to the beach in Bolinas to meditate at the end of a day of writing about Afghanistan in 1965. I came to meditate to get back to the present moment.
Meditation has become a daily practice, at last. It’s not always immediate that I ‘drop in’, but eventually I get there. I surrender. At the beach it can be more challenging. The sound of the surf tugs at my attention, but lately it’s where I want to be to connect with Nature. I turn inward, close my eyes and breathe.
The hyper-tiny town of Bolinas sits quietly in contrast to all that goes on just inches off its coastline. Two roads lead to the beach, but people still need signs to point out the obvious: yes, there is a beach, but where the hell is it? That way…
The ocean hides behind cottages and a movie set ‘downtown’ that is really just a handful of western styled buildings – one saloon, one restaurant, a few stores, a library, an art museum. The main road into town splits with Wharf heading along the channel that feeds the Bolinas Lagoon while Brighton curves to the right. Both end at the beach.
If the beach is there; the ocean reclaims it each day.
A few surfers arrived along with the tide. They surveyed the ocean to see how she was breaking before sliding on their boards and pedaling off. In the distance white caps crashed over Duxbury Reef. Soon it’s submerged.
The waves shushed me into a meditative state, a blend of awareness and stillness in body and thought. The vision of my lucid dream of the night before floated into my head. I was driving a cream colored convertible car down Highway 1, heading toward San Francisco. In the backseat were two adults, both male. The car had white leather seats and was so roomy it had to be from the 50s. It didn’t hug the curves like a modern day sports car, but floated and danced on the pavement as the road clung to the rugged cliffs that dropped straight to the sea.
I took a curve inland and the back of the car slid west, off the road. The rest of the car followed. In that single moment of hanging in air before plummeting to Earth like a character in a Looney Toons cartoon I thought, “Wow, I’m really going to experience this.” And then I yelled to the passengers, “Get real soft! Round your body. Stay loose. Don’t tense up. Don’t brace yourself!”
In other words, relax into the fall.
I had no fear. I knew intuitively that if we all relaxed into it we would be fine. I recall distinctly thinking, this is going to be one hell of a story to tell.
It took just shy of ten seconds to slowly fall, and I was conscious of each one. When we landed on the rocky beach it was as if we touched down on a cloud.
The final scene was at my house, although it wasn’t the cottage I now call home. I dusted off the sand while retelling the story to someone out of view. The last words I remember saying were, “It was actually really cool.”
I let the dream drift off and asked Why? Why that dream?
My head became too engaged in the query and my eyes popped open.
I looked south, toward Stinson and the foothills of Mt. Tam, still green despite the meager winter rains. The sun colored the clouds a hazey purple. A bank of fog slid down the horizon as if trying to go unnoticed. The winds picked up, excellerating its journey to shore. Closer to me, just a hundred yards down the beach, four people gathered in a cluster. One bent down and touched something. That something lifted its head up in an arc to rebuff the offer of affection.
It was a seal.
Oh, God. Not another seal, I thought.
They’ve been beaching themselves with regularity for reasons unknown, but since malnutrition is a consistent diagnosis, the consensus is that there isn’t enough food. Or the food is too far away. The Marine Mammal Center in the Marin headlands just down the coast has rescued more seals so far this year than all of last year, over 1100. And that’s the ones they can rescue. Others aren’t seen, never make it to shore or succumb before the rescuers arrive.
The four people split up and went their separate ways. I rose and left the concrete wall to meet the seal.
He was in distress. I called the Marine Mammal Center to request a rescue. I wasn’t prepared for their response. They couldn’t get there by nightfall. He was going to have to wait it out till morning.
He dragged himself up the beach a few inches at a time to escape the incoming tide.
I sat twenty feet from him, up on dry sand. He was just a baby. An elephant seal. A miniature version of the beautiful beast that swam along side me when I was 200 yards offshore in Marina del Ray. His body was covered in sandy-grey fur. Wrinkles like those on a full-grown Shar Pei folded one over the other around his abdomen. He should have looked like a stuffed sausage. His eyes were sunken in slits that struggled to open. He lifted a flipper to bring sand closer to his body.
Earlier that day I had inquired about bait fish at the market for when the salmon get closer to shore. They just got a batch in the day before. I set off on foot to town to ask if a feeding would benefit him on the overnight as we waited for a rescue.
Again, I received an answer I didn’t want to accept. He’s not to be fed. Leave it up to the trained experts.
So I guess taking him home is off the table, too.
I walked back to the beach trying to put even one thing on my list of things I could to make him more comfortable. My only offering was love.
I sat back in the same spot. He was a few inches closer. He opened his eyes once. His breathing was labored. A woman came by with her cell phone to her ear.
“I already called,” I said.
She sat next to me. “There’s nothing we can do.”
“I know.” I fought back tears.
“They said they’ll come in the morning.”
We exchanged cell numbers so I could let her know if he was still there. I thought about staying the night. Rain was in the forecast. And I had a full day of writing the next day. I had to sleep.
“I’ll come back at sunrise and hound them until they show up.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes and then she said, “Bye, animal angel.”
Angel…I have history with that word. History that makes me feel uncomfortable. I was my former spouse’s angel until the very moment I answered my cell phone and listened to him with his mistress.
I came back from the fleeting trip to days done with a smile. “Revel in the rain,” I replied.
She walked toward Brighton, and I turned to the seal.
His eyes were closed, his breathing calm.
Over the next two hours he picked his head up once and opened his eyes. He looked at me for a few moments and then put his head down, our noses pointed toward each other.
As the sky darkened I rose to say goodbye. Now, I know what you’re expecting. I cried my face off and slinked to the car in a catatonic state. Totally understandable; I’ve done that a whole lot these past three and a half years. Not this time. I stood over him and said something like this:
You are beautiful. I hope your life has been full of deep dives and body surfing and that your mama loved you up from the start. Every time I see a seal I will blow you a kiss. Thank you for providing me with a Choice Moment – to surrender to what is, as you are doing, or to cycle down into a state of sadness or berate myself for not being able to ‘fix’ you, or worse, get angry at the Mammal Center for not going to the mat to save you. I choose to celebrate you, you gorgeous furball. Go as you need to and know you are loved. I will never forget your face.
Just as I never forgot the face of the bird on Limantour Beach.
The next morning I rose at dawn and drove down Brighton. The rains came earlier, leaving the morning to arrive on a misty wind. A few early bird surfers were pulling on wetsuits as I walked to the ramp that leads to the beach. A silvery sea greeted me. The waves left a line of shells and driftwood and kelp snaked along the tide mark. The sand was smoothed by rushes of water. As always, it looked like a different beach from the last time I laid eyes on her.
He was gone.
Play with what is, Cleo. Play with what is. Surrender to what is. Get soft. Don't brace yourself for life.
I chose to not wonder what happened but to express gratitude for the sea. And for those precious three hours spent with a beautiful seal. In stillness he imparted his wisdom. I’ve felt his presence since. He helps to ground me and remind me that the constant nature of change gives me endless Choice Moments. And those are the seeds of my future planted in the fertile present.
I surrender, furball. With joy.
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PS: To adopt a seal please visit the Marine Mammal Center, an amazing organization. They do GREAT things.