I had instructed everyone on the crew to alert me with any and all whale sightings, no matter what time of day or night. I was a ship’s cook aboard the Corwith Cramer in those days, slinging chow in exchange for my dream of seeing Europe for the first time from the sea. I was mid – bread knead when I got the call. I flung the gooey mound onto the stainless steel counter and dragged my sticky hands down the length of my apron before flying up the ladder.
I landed on deck and was immediately pulled into her orbit.
My first whale.
She was so close that she appeared to be part of the wake our sailboat was chewing up in the salty Meditteranean sea beside her. Her size begged the invention of a new word – nothing before or since had ever been so simultaneously graceful and colossal. What could I call her? Nothing before or since has ever appeared so simultaneously fierce and benevolent. I felt wild and untethered, trying not to forget a second of this experience. I looked around at my excited but somewhat nonchalant crewmates and felt invisible in my manic joy.
Do you ever feel like you are the only one really seeing something?
As I took inventory of her, she also seemed to see me. Rather, she looked through my skin and bones and past the tissues, gliding deeply into my soul from her inky, eternal eye which had by then absorbed me completely. I felt her presence lighting up my cells and infusing me with a kind of understanding. I can’t remember a single thought going through my brain and I have no idea how long we stayed connected this way – a minute? Five years? Some new form of light seemed to pulse through me and I felt much calmer than the ballistic bouncy ball who had come up on deck moments before.
Simply as she came, she released me from this moment. I watched her melt away as if she’d never been swimming alongside this giant sailboat, delighting every person onboard. I didn’t need to search the waves to know she’d gone and was not coming back.
Sometimes when you see something you’ve always wished to see, it can be disorienting, like when you run into your teacher at the grocery store. It can even feel disappointing, like when someone you thought you might be friends with says “60 degrees in December? If this is global warming, I’ll TAKE IT!”
Nope. But there was none of that. This whale was so much more than I ever imagined. The experience was all light, all joy, all love. Kind of… religious?
It crept up on me quietly, this idea. That I had seen God. Or had a spiritual experience.
I don’t generally talk about my religious ideas or beliefs because they are more or less an evolving patchwork of traditions I’ve been inspired by, like the solemnity of a candlelit midnight mass on Christmas, or the heart-lifting, soul-quenching depth of gospel music, which I am thoroughly investigating. I witnessed the colorful joy of Hinduism at my best friend’s wedding and learned Buddhist teachings at a meditation center in Lumbini. I have learned from the stories of my friends of other faiths, and I pluck the things which resonate with me and go on my way, always searching.
It’s a work in progress because, for me, I think religion has always been nature.
Since I was a kid and my parents threw us on the back of their bikes just to ride, I have found my sanctuary outside walls and away from large groups of people. They took us everywhere – to have picnics or go mud sliding on the gloopy banks of the Sugar River during a rainstorm. I learned to think on nature walks around age 6. I learned to be in solitude there and the importance of quiet. I touched trees gently, convinced that they could communicate with me. I learned to really breathe.
My time in nature has always had a sacred feeling, a connection to something bigger both within and outside myself. It has made me reflect on the sanctity of the smallest creatures who I take care not to squish, to the largest who I revere.
On this note, I am not surprised to have possibly seen god in a whale.
I love whales. Deeply. I have dreamed of seeing one up close for years, despite living most of my life in the decidedly non-ocean-adjacent state of Illinois. In a world full of flashy sharks and shrewd octopi, of curmudgeonly crabs and charming dolphins, I think of whales as the steady old souls who hold the ocean together beneath the waves. Whales are known to be deeply sentient, showing empathy and care for themselves and other species. Whales can see with sound. Imagine a creature who has been evolving for some 50 million years floating alongside me, a tiny human who thinks about how much she has changed in a piddly few decades. Whenever I need to feel humbled, I call up this moment for reference.
This particular whale embodied the qualities I most respect- she was fully present, fully awake and made everyone around her rise up and be a little bit better. There was no doubt that she was capable of great strength but I imagined that she would never need to use it. She floated along, observing and connecting, seemingly bringing out the best in everyone she crossed paths with if my beaming crewmates were any indication.
After I saw the whale, I almost didn’t know what to do. It was a bit awkward standing around, not sure what to talk about after having what might have been a religious experience. After a few minutes of coming down from the high, I shrugged and went back down to the galley, where my assistant Nina and I halfheartedly formed the bread dough we’d made into little balls. Everything was still the same but I was a million miles away. Looking back on this two years later allows me to see that things started changing after that.
I started to accept the fact that a life at sea was not for me. I was heavily medicated to stop me from vomiting as I cooked below deck and was so nauseous that I couldn’t write, which is something that gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s my favorite thing, really. In this sick state, I started drawing little figures and characters to try and express ideas. I realized I loved that, too. Toward the end of the trip, I was lashing down bins of potatoes with a crewmate and sharing dreams when I said out loud that I wanted to write and illustrate books and I wanted these books to help people somehow. Once I heard it, I believed it. I couldn’t go back. Plus I still didn’t know all my knots after almost 3 years of sailing. It was time.
We docked in Barcelona and I hung up my apron for good. I had learned a couple lifetime’s worth of lessons working on ships, that’s for sure. A big one was if my job makes me vomit, maybe it’s not the one for me. There were some incredible moments at sea- things I have only begun to start processing now that I am back on solid ground. But the main lesson was the one a sea-deity taught me through her graceful example of inspiring awe simply by gliding through the water.. don’t force your life. We know when we do this, right? Sticking with someone or something because it seems like what we should want.
Ever since then, I have only tried to do things which come naturally and feel right, like teaching ESL, writing, and joining activist causes. Even though I may not have all that figured out, the whale reminded me I had everything I needed- I just had to move easily in the direction I naturally knew how to go. I choose to think of spirituality and religion as guidelines for living a meaningful life and doing my part to create a more just and gentle world.
I share this now, in the wake of a new year and all the promises we make ourselves. I hope among those is the promise to take care of yourself, our fellow human beings and this planet we call home. A lot of wise whales are counting on it.
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