Even as I prepare to write this story, I feel resistance to the parts that will sound religious to some. This is not a story about God or prayer or any kind of absolute pious fervor. This is a story about innocence, about hope and about One-ness.
There is a small skeptical part of me that still doesn’t believe my own experience. You can read this as fiction if it will help you immerse yourself in my tale. I want you to have had this encounter too. I want it for my children, my grandchildren. Actually, I want it for all of us…..before it’s too late.
For over twenty years, each Autumn I would head south from Washington State, to my old stomping (surfing) grounds in San Diego. My best friend and his family would stay in North County for eight weeks right on the beach, so I would join them.
When I started taking my yearly vacation with my adopted family, I established some lovely rituals for myself to maximize my time away from a booming Psychotherapy practice. Examples: assorted visits with friends and family, daily walks on the beach, shopping beach boutiques, the San Diego Zoo, favorite restaurants, beading, reading, and the dangerous, but no less addictive and strenuous activity of sunbathing…..this last, while my friend and his father would body surf out in front of our condo.
Many of these vacation customs were shared experiences, but there was one I kept completely to myself; Calling the Dolphins.
From the time I was a youngster in the seaside community of Pacific Beach, I had been absolutely in love with dolphins. My admiration for this amazing animal is not unique. Most people who have a spiritual bone in their bodies will never forget crossing paths with a dolphin, whether it is actual, in a movie, on a nature show, or in a book.
Being a very sensitive and deep thinking child, as well as being fairly dramatic in my expression, I elevated the dolphin to god-like status upon my very first meeting, at 9 years old, on a Marlin fishing trip with my neighbors. When I saw them at Sea World, I was only sixteen years old, and still pretty impressionable. I came away from that encounter believing that dolphins were magical messengers, with vital information somehow essential for the whole world.
They say intermittent positive re-enforcement is one of the most powerful ways to establish behavior change or to alter a belief, so over a span of years when I was still under the age of practical disbelief, I would stand in front of the vast Pacific Ocean, and “Call the Dolphins”. Two times, maybe three (out of a hundred) they showed up!
That’s all I needed. In my innocence (and maybe desperation to believe) I immediately took credit for these occurrences. It was proof that I was at one with all animals. They trusted me and readily flew, crawled or swam to me just like they would in a Disney movie; to Cinderella to help her dress for the ball, or to Snow White, joining her in song. I even confirmed my conviction with the occasional “summoned” butterfly, which would land on my arm, or once, on the tip of my nose.
As an adult, I have had the pleasure on many occasions to see Dolphins, in captivity, semi and literal, as well as in the wild. I also continued my lifelong practice of summoning these spectacular animals into my field of vision any time I was within sight of an ocean. Not surprisingly, I never successfully “called” them to me again. But hey, I am a believer, an optimist, so I keep up the custom, because, you just never know, right?
Anyway, it was a natural addition to my list of vacation traditions to “Call the Dolphins”.
Because we stayed in the same condo each year, it felt a lot like coming home every time I visited. Ours was right on the beach, the second of three stories, in the middle of three buildings, all looking out on the Pacific. Below the bottom story was a rock wall about eight feet high made of giant, stacked boulders…storm protectors, like those that are common in the many jetties and seawalls on the Southern California coastline.
Living in these rocks below our condo was a huge variety of critters…lizards, frogs, crabs, the occasional snake, rats, and, my personal favorite, this precious little creature that looked like a cross between a ground squirrel and a chipmunk. Spotting them was rare but each morning when they were most likely to appear, I parked myself on the sand close to the rocks and watched quietly…one or two would cautiously dart out of their rock formed caverns, and dash around, busily collecting food or nesting treasures.
Each year, after a few days of my morning presence, these cuties seemed to get used to me, and would venture closer and closer in their search for bits and pieces of whatever it was that sustained them. This delightfully confirmed my long forgotten magical belief of Snow White powers to call animals to me.
The locals thought I was nuts because for them, these sweet Disney-like critters were simply annoying rodents….fear of disease or scat exposure for their children I suppose. They would set traps and spray poisonous deterrents while I was more likely to share my breakfast with them just to get a closer look.
I knew there must be many living in this 400 foot long rock wall, but I never saw more than two at a time.
One year I showed up for my annual retreat, having left Seattle immediately on the heels of a painful tragedy. I had received the phone call, literally as I was climbing into my taxi for my vacation flight. My dear former clients were losing their baby.
I had “attended” high risk childbirths for more than 20 years but with this one, we expected nothing unusual. I had agreed to this be at this birth more in the role of Doula for my long-time former clients, who had since become like family.
My vacation was immediately delayed, and when I finally did arrive, it took me several more days of grieving in deep seclusion before I had the wherewithal to re-establish any of my familiar vacation routines.
On my very first morning venturing tentatively out of the condo to see if my rock critters were around, and maybe, to “Call the Dolphins”, the event came to pass that I hope my story captures.
This particular morning was one that tourists to Southern California Beach Towns have no way of appreciating the way the locals can. These are the days when a certain quiet is observed by the natives…a kind of homage paid to those earliest morning hours, reverence shown in the silent, head-bowing greetings to each other on their beach walks. It highlights the natural peaceful atmosphere, even along this stretch of waterfront packed with condos, motels, and massive houses.
Maybe it’s because of a certain early-morning color of blue that happens only now and then. The locals, on their morning constitutions, or carrying their surfboards across the not yet warm sand, know it right away. It’s going to be one of those days…the kind of day they wish they could hide from the hordes of innocent trespassers seeking the climate perfection regularly available in San Diego’s North County.
On this morning, I am sitting in my usual “rodent” welcoming spot, feeling like I am the first person awake in Carlsbad today…not a soul in sight as far as I can see up the beach to the North, and way to the South of me, only a few, hard core, first-wave-of-the-day surfers, already patiently bobbing out beyond the shore break.
I am lost in dark thoughts of what I had just experienced in Seattle. As I sit, waiting for the squirrels to show….I assume they won’t.
This thought drags me next to a crushing realization. Maybe there really are no miracles after all. Maybe we aren’t really connected to all other living things.
I spend several quietly angry, silently sobbing minutes, allowing myself to feel the depth of my bitter disappointment at what seems like a viciously unfair trick for God to play.
I mean, seriously. Those parents had to be told their baby was dead already, but that first-time Mom had to go through labor anyway!
This raw loss of faith in all things, has me looking at all the lies I think God told me as a kid…like letting me believe I could actually “call dolphins” to me at will.
My heart is racing as I type now.
What happens next is simple.
Very close by, one of the chipmunk-y things comes out of rocks, and then another one from a few feet away. They are standing, at attention, but then there is another, and another, and another, and another, and another. I swear, they are lining up. They are silent. They are all slightly angled north, but still facing the ocean.
Startled out of my negative reverie, and remaining as motionless as possible, I do a quick count of these oddly behaving animals. There are 31 of them.
All of a sudden, they are making a noise I can only describe as a cross between the chirping sounds I have heard Meercats make and the low chatter you sometimes hear from crows.
As stunned as I am by their strange actions, I can’t stop myself from turning away from them to see what they are looking at. The surf has come up quite a bit…the waves long and high. Is that it?
These whacked out “squirrels” are vocalizing almost in unison now and I look way up the coastline to the north, out past the breakers, and see the familiar signs of a school of dolphins. Not unusual as they pass by here every morning, way out to sea, moving south parallel to the shore and then they head back to the north in the evening…..but barely visible to the unpracticed eye. My twice-daily view of them is usually through binoculars.
This large school is off course though, swimming at a definite south-eastern angle.
They appear to be aimed in my direction.
The crazy chipmunk chorus continues.
As the dolphin’s destination is becoming unmistakably clear, I see them sounding, joyfully leaping all the way out of the water, landing with a splash twice their own size, and there are many, many more than I had originally thought. Hundreds!!
The next thing I know they are riding the surf directly in front of my grieving spot on the sand.
And the squirrels have gone eerily silent.
A large, evenly breaking wave that is back lit by a late-in-the-day the setting sun will silhouette any solid objects in that wave….seaweed, fish, a dolphin, etc.
But this morning, the rising sun, still low in the Eastern sky, is shining directly on the face of the waves, revealing their contents with a spectacular clarity…like looking through clear, blown glass.
These dolphins are now right in front of me, and I am mesmerized. The waves are moving in extreme, TV-nature-show slow motion, and these sensuous, silky, silver mammals are performing a beautiful, playful ballet. There is no one else on the beach.
Is this just for me?
I can’t count them. There are way too many, and besides I can’t make numbers work in my head right now.
Groups of dolphins are suspended in the wave breaking closest to me, riding almost to shore. And now, their strange and miraculous detour completed, they are suddenly veering back out to sea at a perfect southwestern angle, eventually, their long lines, slowly disappearing from sight way down to the south of me.
It is a graceful, smooth, unbroken performance, cluster after cluster of dolphins, angling in, riding the wave in front of me and then angling back out to sea.
Barely in my awareness, and still silent, my squirrel friends, having completed something, are slipping back into their invisible hiding places in the rock wall.
At some point in this amazing experience, I remember having the fleeting thought that no one will ever believe this. Later, in a welcome validation of my reality, my best friend told me he had wandered out on our condo balcony just in time to see the tail end of this performance.
And, those early morning surfers I had seen earlier? They talked about this for days.
But I had already decided that the whole event had happened just for me.
Though it had come in the form my grief stricken, silent wail, maybe with some help from my chattering rodent friends, the Dolphins had heard my call……and they had, in fact, come to me.
Or maybe God is a chipmunk.