Friday, January 14, 2011

All the Saints

You want to whisper here. The ocean roar and clash of waves on sand seem to bracket deep silence, set it off. You look up and down the beach. White sand, water shining green at the edge of the beach then dropping off to blue-black. The Peligroso sign shows a pictogram of a person tumbled in the trough, beaten down by wave after wave.

White sand, water, footprints, but no people. Miles in either direction, and no human beings aside from you.

A geyser of water shoots up, then disappears. You look and look, your eyes awake, your whole self looking, and there it is again. Now you see the blow hole, a great round mouth in the water, the whale sighing and huffing, its shining back sliding just above the surface. Then the tail, unmistakable. Distances and sizes difficult to judge. The tail may be as wide as I am tall.

It's this easy: wade in the surf, lie in the sun, watch the whales who like to play in the deep waters just off this beach.

A few days ago, off a different beach. A boat full of people, music playing, people in polo shirts who are paid to make us jolly. Someone sights the first spout, shouting, leaning over the railing, finger pointing toward blank water. Another spout, another, and the boat gives chase, the volume turned up on Beyonce, Celine Dion. Another tourist boat beside us, several smaller ones. Ahead of us a ridiculous pirate ship, "sails" furled and unmoving, its motor gunned.

A polo-shirted boy tells us to pose and smile, and we do, bemused. He works his way through the crowd, switching English to Spanish, pumping his fists to What a Wonderful World.

More spouts and a tail, and then a leap. The great mammal is up and out of the water just off our prow, showing us his belly, polo shirts cheering and cameras clicking.

We keep up the chase but it's all anticlimax after that. The bartender stands ready but we're all here in recompense for sitting through a time share presentation only to say no. We don't want anything that isn't free.

Back to shore and disembarking, a polo shirt tries to sell us the photo of the breaching whale, already printed and glossy, instant postcard.

The time share salesman told us over breakfast how the whales used to come in closer to shore, but we chased them out to sea. Now the boats find them in their breeding grounds and how long before we've chased them away from there as well? He shrugs and swallows his coffee, and when he stands he's all sales, beckoning us to follow as he trots through the resort.

Nobody chases them here. Here I want to whisper, it's so quiet, the sound of the ocean dropping away when I am up and over the dune. It's afternoon and a few people appear. A family, mom and kids watching from the dune, dad playing out his fishing line along the beach. A wakeboarder and his friends, the body of a young god. I think about Death in Venice while he runs with taut attention for a wave. It doesn't matter that he's not all that good, one long arm reaching to catch himself in a fall.

We turn and clamber up the tiny mountain path and through the break in the fence, balancing on rocks and then it's dirt roads and chickens and dogs and kids playing video games under a blue tarp and men moving a boulder, one looking up as we pass and he laughs, inviting us to laugh with him.

At lunch I point out the nativity scene at the other end of the restaurant. We've seen a few Christmas trees still lingering. J. says he doesn't think it's a nativity scene, rather a prayer altar for all the saints, each one meaning something to someone here. I wonder if I should thank the saints for this place, for the quiet that makes me want to whisper, even after I'm home.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


Lillian H- was ancient, to my kid brain. Her hair was floss white. She sang in the church choir, her old lady vibrato inspiring endless imitation from my brothers.

I was confused about last names at the time. Her brother lived in the neighborhood, and I took the fact that his last name was different from hers as evidence that she had never married. Her brother was married and had a family and held ice cream socials in his back yard, with homemade ice cream. I never knew if she had been divorced or widowed, but there had been a husband at one time. Mr. H-.

She barely existed for me. Old people seemed hardly human, except for those who fell into the Likes Children category.

Lillian H- did not. To me she was just Old Lady, with old lady vibrato and old lady hair and old lady clothes.

Until she wasn't anymore. I might have been walking home from school, when I saw Lillian H- running down the street. It was autumn.

Apple Avenue ran steeply up the side of the mountain. It was a hard slog to walk up, but you could let gravity take you on the way down, and run. Run to keep up with your feet, run for the fun of it.

Lillian H- was running. This was when I realized she was tall and slender. Not stooped, like so many other elderly women. She was tall and straight. She wore jeans, and her long legs carried her down the hill, her dark gray poncho swirling out behind her. As she passed me, she pulled a leaf from a tree, the branch bouncing back.

Lillian H- was smiling. As though there was nothing better she could imagine than this moment, this run down a steep hill, this leaf in her hand.

In that instant, she was no longer Old Lady to me. It was like a whole room in my head opened up, and I thought: Yes. This is a picture of age I'd never considered before, never knew was possible.

But when my hair is white and I don't exist for anyone under thirty, I won't forget how it feels to run down a steep hill. Lillian H- showed the way.