I got a late start as I walked out onto the Dungeness Spit, so rather than try for the 9 mile hike to the lighthouse and back, I wandered slowly, looking mostly at the water, remembering my recent insight that the oceans don’t separate me in the Pacific Northwest from my family in Northern Europe and Southern Africa. The oceans are contiguous, and it is the same salty water that laps on the beaches of Cape Town, Oslo, and the Dungeness Spit. A comforting thought after family connections loosened when my daughters left the nest, followed by the recent death of my father.
As I walked, a shiny black sea lion head appeared in the water a little bit ahead of me. Others had noticed, too, and we watched together. The sea lion seemed headed out along the Spit too, swimming just a little bit faster than I was walking. My mind was busy with thoughts, there was a phone call and a couple of texts that disturbed my peace, and I knew I wasn’t savoring the Spit as much as I could have been. The sea lion head bobbed up and down, gradually drawing ahead of me.
I sat down on a huge driftwood log away from the water, hoping I could let distractions float away on the wind, so I could focus on the warmth, the sand, the unusually gentle waves, the mountains of Vancouver Island appearing in soft blue, above the dreamy, milky pale purple mist, and darker blue sea.
When I felt ready to continue, I walked back down towards the waves, and a black shiny sea lion head appeared in the water. Much closer in this time, hugging the shore, and headed towards the lighthouse end of the Spit. Had it waited for me while I gathered my thoughts? It was an amusing thought as I walked on. Again, the sea lion was swimming just a little bit faster than I was walking, almost as if leading the way.
A passing couple told me I was almost halfway to the lighthouse, and after checking the time and looking at the sea lion, I thought, yes, I can do it, and set off again. A couple of people noticed the sea lion as well, but as we continued, it seemed that its head would pop up when there were fewer walkers or their heads were turned the other way. My own private sea lion, I mused. It started to seem funny and then silly that it would be funny. I laughed out loud with joy at the sea lion’s existence, my good fortune in seeing it, and my own superstition.
I lost sight of the sea lion soon after the lighthouse came into view. The seeming companionship of the sea lion made me happy, and I indulged myself with the joyful fantasy that the sea lion was one of my ancestors, come from South Africa or Norway. Maybe even my father, from the other side of the veil? I realized I no longer needed the sea lion to guide my way. I had been set upon the path, and the way was clear. Literally and figuratively.
After eating my fruit and nuts at the lighthouse, draining my water bottle and refilling it, I turned back toward the mainland. I missed my sea lion a bit, I realized, I had enjoyed its company as it led me along. A bird bobbed on the water, and the gracefully curved slender black shape of its neck appeared in a moment so elegant and poignant in beauty that it brought tears to my eyes. Are you an ancestor, too? I wondered. And it did seem as though a kind but mischievous companion bird was now present to me. Its joy and mischief combined with a sense of my own silliness, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
My feet were getting pretty sore, and I was beginning to feel tired as I approached a flock of seagulls, some facing into the wind like weather vanes, most of them scattered about on the beach in front of me. Haha, a re-enactment of Hitchcock’s birds, I wondered with amusement. But no, as the birds moved to accommodate me, they too seemed like reassuring presences. Wait, are you my ancestors, too, I wondered?
My delight was giving way to tiredness and aches as I continued what now seemed like a hard slog. I picked up a seagull feather for strength and found the spreading branches of a piece of seaweed that spoke to me of connection.
“Great, the sea and the seagulls and all connect South Africa, Norway and Washington state, but what about my childhood home, Botswana?”, I asked. Landlocked. Hundreds of miles from any ocean. How could I connect to Botswana, I wondered.
Pula – rain! It suddenly hit me that no people I’ve known revere water as much as the Batswana. No-one understands rain, water’s value like people who are desert dwellers. Desert. Sand. Beach. Water. The connection was made. All my worlds connected, the past, the present, the future, joined in the timeline. Grumpily, painfully now, I embraced the oneness of it all. No separation. Death doesn’t separate. Distance doesn’t separate. Life form doesn’t separate. A seagull can stand in for a cormorant, who can stand in for a sea lion, who is there as my father.
I sensed all boundaries dissolve and disappear, even as pain made the finiteness of my body abundantly clear. I dropped the feather and seaweed I had been carrying, realizing I don’t need any reminders of people, places, times, and connections. There is no separation.
In what had now become an endurance challenge, I had stopped noticing my surroundings. Then I lifted my head and and turned toward the ocean.
And there it was. The shiny black sea lion head. I shook my head in disbelief. Squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again. No, it couldn’t be, I told myself. But it turned away from me, and now I could see its head in profile. Yes. A sea lion. I started laughing, a deep belly laugh, and I laughed harder and more authentically than I could remember laughing in a very long time. The sea lion ducked its head under water and swam in the direction of the lighthouse, its head popped up another time or two, and then it was gone.
I ached and laughed and groaned and chuckled as I stumbled on towards the car park.