Thursday, September 21, 2006

In defense of staying put

Permit me another entry in a similar vein to the last. Let me first tell you about the event that spurred this thought – another close encounter with the sea otters this morning. At the first sign of them, I was off my Rock, running to the water’s edge, my binoculars bouncing against my jacket. Three of them again – the same three? I realized what’s so eerie about them – every time they surface, they’re looking right at me. Seals turn their heads a lot, looking around in every direction, but the otters fixed me with their eyes, and seemed to express both an annoyance that I was there and a challenge or taunt for me to chase them. I followed them until they went under the bridge, and then, surprisingly, they sauntered out of the water onto the land under the bridge! I watched their silhouettes as they slunk around in the dark, secretly fearful that they’d run out and attack me. Then they slipped back into the water on the other side of the bridge, and I ran around to watch them for several more minutes. And get this – I did some research tonight, like the geek that I am, and I discovered that they are not sea otters! They are river otters, despite the fact that they hang out in the ocean. Sea otters live further out and rarely come on land, but river otters, which live in fresh and saltwater, spend 2/3 of their time on land. They can also hold their breath for eight minutes…

So for those of you I haven’t lost in my biological ravings, here’s the deep philosophical thought I’m getting to… part of me really doesn’t want to travel much. Part of me wants to stay put until I know a place. And how long does it take really know a place? Last year I sat on the same rock down at the beach just about every morning for seven months, which is about 210 days. This year I’ve returned the last 14 mornings, and in that short time I’ve seen three kinds of animals I didn’t see last year (including the river otters, and one tiny bird unfortunately called a bushtit… Chris has renamed them t-cups). The place I thought I knew is now surprising me again.

When will I know it? Every time I successfully make it down the steep and often slippery hill, I stand at the entrance to my “land” and survey it for a minute, forcing myself to notice the uniqueness of the scene every day. This place changes with the seasons, as the leaves change color and fall. I have never seen it in the summer. I saw it snow-covered only once. It looks different depending on the tide level. Sometimes I sit on the Rock and look out at a vast landscape of barnacle-covered rocks scattered with purple (ochre) starfish, and other mornings I have to jump on the Rock from behind because the ocean is covering the front of it, and all I see is water, and it slowly recedes as I sit there. The water holds the most secrets - I never know what will surface next - and it is also the biggest variable. Depending on the weather, it can be a gray, frothy mass or an expanse of still blue glass, or anything in between. The weather also changes the appearance of the mountains in the distance, and the strength of the wind affects how many seagulls are out and how many of the sailboat masts clink together.

I experience the place in a different way when I’m in a bad mood than when I’m afraid or when I’m at peace. I have yet to sit there for a long time with a friend. That would change things for sure. I have yet to bring a dog, like the majority of people who visit the beach. Maybe the dog would make me see it in a new way. And I have yet to sit there in the middle of the night. So I guess I don’t really know it. There is plenty left to sound the depths of, plenty of hidden parts to uncover and layers to peel back, things to experience there, things to delight in. Will God ever exhaust all ways of surprising me with joy there? And if I do ever really know it, will I get tired of it? Will I want to go somewhere new? Suddenly I feel like I’ve been talking about marriage…

And when do you own a place? When does it become yours? A lot of times I treat my Rock and surrounding area as my own. When people walk past me, I usually feel like I’m graciously allowing their passage through my territory, even though they don’t realize it’s mine. Why do I feel such a sense of ownership? It’s not a selfish ownership – I never lose the sense that it’s a gift to me, and a gift to be shared. But I get upset if there are beer bottles lying around. Sometimes I pick them up. And I feel that things I see were set up for my seeing. God speaks to me there. I guess I love it. I just remembered a passage in Brian McLaren’s book “A Generous Orthodoxy” that says it much more eloquently:

“I feel that I am carrying around this hilarious secret: that I actually own all things, that all things are mine – because I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, and God allows me to have things in the way that matters most. Not by having them in my legal possession (which has many downsides, including upkeep and taxes!) but by having them in my spiritual possession by gratefully seeing them, gratefully knowing and cherishing them. Those weren’t legally my goldfinches or my sycamore trees or my rocky-bottomed streams in the park that day, but did anyone on earth possess them as fully as me that day?”

Sometimes I’d rather think thoughts like this than study Hebrew, even though Hebrew can also be frustratingly beautiful. Which leads me to a closing quote by Bruce Cockburn (this one’s for you, Chris)…

“All these years of thinking ended up like this: in front of all this beauty, understanding nothing.”