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  • Chica Jo

A Terrible Place - Part 2 - Out of the Blue


As another sunset approached our anchorage at super-wild Isla San Pedro Mártir, and the birds began to return to their roosts for the night, and the sea lions rousted themselves to go hunting, I got my star-gazing cushions all set up. I knew that with the moon one day past full I’d get a half hour of decent darkness before that bare, lunar lightbulb rose opposite Mártir’s bird-spangled cliff wall. I reclined with Gizmo beside me. Then, of course, he began to bark over towards the hunger-quickening slinkos (our word for sea lions) and the young ones responded by eagerly barking back and swoop-swimming over to us. I decided this time to adopt my public-school-art-teacher survival strategy - I just accepted the noise. Soon, my emotional vision changed focus, and I began to see clearly what I’d been missing before when I was trying to control Gizmo and keep him from barking. The young slinkos and Gizmo had figured out how to play together! The peek-a-boo/tag game they invented went like this (in the words of the slinkos):

You bark at us from the weird, non-moving, whale-like thing you and your awkward, two-legged friends live on and in. We bark back and swim over. You run toward us. We pop up closer to you. You jump and wag your tail and bark more. We do some leaps out of the water. You bark and wag your tail even more. We suddenly all drop-down-disappear and swim to some distant corner of the boat. We pop up there and you run and leap over to us. Sometimes you guess where we’ll pop up and that surprises us, and we bark more and leap more. Sometimes we pop up behind you and that surprises you and you bark and jump more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And repeat some more! (I failed to get video of the game full-on, but this clip is a hint of the fun.)

Once I realized what was going on I joined in as a sort of spontaneous sports commentator with a hyper-excited, Appalachian/British accent (I grew up in the ‘70’s Shenandoah Valley without cable and watched a LOT of BBC). Oh, the fun we had! Sometimes the slinkos would disappear for longer and Gizmo would look to me all forlorn. Then, I’d call in a sing-song falsetto, “Siiiiiiiiiinkooos! Come play with Giiiizmo!”, and they’d usually pop up in sight! I tossed them a couple sand-dollars to see if they'd play with them.

My enthusiastic reactions to their leaps and Gizmo’s jumps got them all leaping and jumping even more rambunctiously. It got them all barking more too, but Gizmo’s barks, I now realized, were clearly more playful instead of neurotic and fearful once his play was reinforced by my own. The whole thing reminded me of the wild sound/feel of my childhood home when my dad would crazy-rough-house-play in the basement, monster-chasing around my two squealing nieces. Paul came out of Triplefin's salon and just cracked up at our whole kinetic, joyful, inter-species play. Suddenly, it was star-dark with the moon just peeking up over the sea, but I was so engaged in the fun I hadn’t even noticed until the slinkos disappeared to go hunting. Gizmo sat and caught his breath with me in the now-bright moonlight but he kept looking expectantly at me to call for his friends to return.

It was at that point that something else changed. Paul had left the entangled-sea lion-spotting binoculars out beside me. I trained them on the moonlit cliff wall and WOW! Thanks to that moon I’m always cursing, it was like looking at a cross-sectioned, multistoried apartment complex with the slinkos cavorting in the garage floor, pelicans and seagulls segregated at ground level, and then floor upon floor of private, multi-species bird apartments with parents giving supper to and washing up their chicks for bed. Think of a stacked, cross-sectioned, dollhouse-like, Wes Anderson movie set with birds and sea lions as the compartmentalized characters, each going about the private realities of their lives. I (Yes, spastic, anxious me!) could have sat there all night watching in awe. The sounds alone kept me enraptured once I settled in and accepted them instead of trying to escape from them. Below this noisy video is a drawing of Martir's soundscape I did that night.

See if you can guess which marks represent bird sounds, bull sea lions, mother sea lions, young sea lions, the water lapping at our hulls, the wind gusting over the water, our sail rigging ringing, and Gizmo’s growl-ruffled, play-bark flying out and mingling with the sea lions’ echoing barks and textured grunt-groans:

The moon was getting high, Gizmo had given up on his pinniped friends returning to play, and I was just about to call it a night when something else even more AWEsome happened. The young band of slinkos did come back, appearing out of the blue at the lowest part of the boat, and we three went out to greet them. In the moonlight we could see something else, small and silvery, in the water with them. A couple of them were nose-pushing it towards Gizmo. I swear to dog . . . They brought him a fish!!! She was perfectly dog-bowl sized and quite fresh - still a wee bit alive, actually. I yelled for Paul (hoping he’d be too sleep-groggy to refuse) to jump down into the kayak and retrieve the poor thing. Gizmo wagged his approval. No way could we refuse such a thoughtful and generous gift! I’m sad to report that just as the sleepy hero was about to grab the fish she managed to sink/swim down out of reach. But we three went back to bed abuzz with good feeling. I did close the door so Gizmo wouldn’t be up all night, but that’s all I closed. This second night I left my windows wide open to the sounds of the wind, waves, birds, and the operatic barking of our slinko friends from shore. Now, you’d think all that was enough, but, oh no. More awe was in store . . . .

Sometime after midnight I woke to what sounded like giant bubbles popping under my butt. No, my bean-rich diet had not come calling. There were actually giant bubbles being blown under my butt which was mattress-cushioned just on the inside of one of our hulls. As I got my wits about me it sounded and felt like several slinkos were taking turns swimming the full length of the hull directly underneath me and emitting big bubbles to pop-burst open on the bottom of the hull as they went. I loudly uttered something surprised and inquiring to them through the wood and fiberglass. This caused them to move out to the side of my hull and begin slapping it repeatedly. Were those rascally pinnipeds trying to get me up and out on deck? Seriously?

Out I went and, well, the moon was just about to concede her light to the island’s giant, bald godhead, but there was still enough lunar light for me to see the slinkos delivering what I’m pretty sure was a darn big fish. A tuna or maybe a jack? It was silvery grey, almost a meter long and this time, fully dead. I just glimpsed where one of the long pectoral fins was almost severed from the body. (Were the slinkos starting to understand just what incompetent fisherfolk we are?) I yelled for Paul who was already hitting the deck to grab the net. I’m generally vegan but I’m not going to refuse free, truly-wild-caught sushi! Can you believe that gift drifted away before we could net her?! There was an incoming tide made swift by the pull of that fat moon. Sigh. But . . .

Here’s the weirdest thing: When I was trying to get a better look at the fish while Paul was wrangling with the net, I swear it looked like a dead sea lion pup. Was it just my imagination connecting the starry dots of my guilty conscience for having to leave the next day with that sea lion youngster still horribly entangled? I will never know, but the possibility and all the questions it raises will haunt me for a long time. After that event I needed a few calming moments with the stars before attempting to re-enter slumber. I was still hoping the view of the universe might give me some answer, some anchor to remind me in the day-to-day-normal to always be here/now instead of emotionally kidnapped by my own past losses and fears of future ones. Something to remind me to set aside my fear-based, regimented self-control and just . . . play. I sat down to be still. I looked up.

The moon was obscured and the mighty, hunting Orion and his obeying dog were on the war march again. That’s when I saw it. Do you remember the optical game where you look at a drawing of a vase but can switch your brain so that instead of the vase you see two faces looking at each other?

Well, at that moment, I began to see Orion and his dangling, life-taking sword mirror-flip into a peaceful, be-skirted woman with a softly glowing, star-birthing nebulae below her jeweled belt. She was swirling a long, dolphin-attracting scarf over her shoulder and tossing interstellar sand-dollars, while dancing across the galaxy with her wild, bright-nosed dog just for the sheer joy of being alive!

And, best of all, she wasn’t representative of some unattainably perfect, heavenly goddess but, to me, she was a beautifully ordinary, middle-aged woman gaining and sharing wisdom and grace across the heavens through play. I hereby re-name the constellation “Danzante” (Spanish for “dancer”) who will now serve as my nightly reminder to open the hatches and engage with the world and all its joys and its sorrows instead of trying to run away from them. I hope it works. Isla San Pedro Mártir taught me that my perspective - HOW, in any given moment, I choose to see, smell, taste, hear, feel things, even supposedly terrible things and places - does indeed alter my experience of them. I see now how my perspective has echo effects extending to others in my life – my son, Paul, and even our dog. Through play, Gizmo’s perspective on slinkos inverted from foes to friends. So, what was my experience of the following morning, our last one there?

I woke to the sound of slinkos and Gizmo playing beside me. I DID put on my sports bra and athletic shoes but instead of a marching warrior’s workout routine I just freely play-danced however I felt like it on deck with Gizmo and the slinkos (sounds like a ‘60’s band) joining in the fun! I twirled my favorite scarf but was out of sand dollars to toss. But guess what? A couple of them surfaced and came closer with the sand dollars I had thrown the night before and I just squealed with delighted surprise!:

Lifting the anchor to leave Mártir, I discovered that I had not forgotten the entangled sea lion who couldn’t join the fun. But instead of feeling guilty for cavorting with her cohorts while she suffered alone, I realized that creating joy in the midst of suffering is essential to sustain the doing of emotionally difficult work. And such joy shared, Mártir taught me, is the only way to escape the hopeless island of despair . . . . the only truly terrible place to drop anchor..

Look out y'all! I'm a middle-aged limpet on the move flipping the universe upside-down. What could possibly go wrong? (Illustrations were mine. Thanks to Paul for his tolerance, photos, and videos.)



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