Three beach stories and a city story

About a month ago, I started walking on the beach more often. I realized that I live 20 blocks from the ocean and I hardly ever went there. So now I have committed to going two, three, sometimes four times a week to walk "to the bluffs and back" on the beach after I drop Silas off at preschool, only five blocks from the ocean! My mile and a half in half an hour is not really enough exertion to count as serious physical exercise, but it has been an amazing mental health treatment. In sun and fog, it has been healing to have this half hour or so of silence. Well, it's listening to the surf and the gulls and the thoughts in my own head, but not music or talking to people. Except for my personal spiritual practice of saying "Good Morning" to strangers. It’s a chance to observe the daily changes in the tides, the sand, the coastline, the people, the birds, the surfing conditions. Like good sleep dreaming, it helps to sort out the cluttered mental files.

My best name for it is walking meditation. But I'm not making myself be disciplined about any particular meditation. Since this is a mental health treatment, if I want to stop and stare at the waves, or watch the shore birds, or the surfers, I let myself do it. It feels SOOOO good, it doesn't feel like a commitment, more like a luxury. I suspect that at some point, I will choose to jog at least part of the time, both to be able to go farther/see further as well as to burn more calories. But for now, it is just peaceful.


Last week, I found two green stones on the beach. I think they may both be serpentine, which is a locally common greenish rock. One is smooth and rounded – it has clearly been in the water for a while. The other is sharp and jagged, as if it had recently broken off of some larger rock. I brought them both home and set them on the ledge above my desk as a reminder: When I spend more time on the beach, I feel softer, more smooth and peaceful. When I get too caught up in doing other things, I feel ragged and broken. It’s almost a cliché, but it is still meaningful to me.


A couple of weeks ago, I saw a small leopard shark wash up on the beach. It was rolling over and over in the shallow surf, and finally came to rest at the edge of the water. I stopped and walked back to see what it really was and stared. It was beautiful, with its brown, black and white markings. From about six feet away, I could see its small shark eyes and, just barely, some of its sharp teeth.

I stood there for a while, not knowing what to do. Should I try to pick it up and throw it back in? I didn’t want to get bitten. Should I try to call the animal control or the Marine Mammal Center? Would they come? It’s not a mammal, after all. Should I go get one of the fisherman down the beach? Would they want it? Was it sick or already dying and that’s why it washed up? Should I just leave it to the natural course of events and the seagulls that were already starting to gather around in curiosity? Should I stay as a silent witness to what was happening?

So I just stood there, paralyzed and fascinated. A couple of people jogged by behind me, but didn’t stop. After a few minutes, a man walked up to me and asked, “Is it still alive?” I said, “I think so. It just washed up here a few minutes ago.” As the tip of each wave washed over it, it would flutter a bit with the intake of oxygen-rich water. The man walked up closer and nudged its tail with his heavy boot. It didn’t really move, but then another wave came over it and it shook itself a little bit. The man picked it up by the end of the tail and threw it a little deeper into the water. It wriggled more, but then the next wave knocked it sideways again. Then, as if to help, the waves rolled farther out to sea. The man picked up the shark again and walked as far out as he could on the wet sand and dropped the shark facing headfirst into the water. He and I watched for a moment, but it didn’t return. I said, “Thanks.” The man shrugged and walked on down the beach. I waited for a few more minutes and then continued on the other way. I kept looking back to see if it would wash up again, but it didn’t, at least in the ten more minutes I was there.

What I most remember, besides the beauty of the wild shark itself, was my paralysis in the face of need. How long would I have stood there, watching the shark die? How often do I see a need, know several options, and do nothing?


A few weeks before that, a Friend of mine was walking home after meeting for worship with a relatively new Attender. The Attender has been a bit awkward for our meeting. He’s not quite at ease in our relatively quiet, middle-class-ish, overly-polite company. He’s a little too likely to have an emotional outburst, to point out the gaps between our profession of Quakerism and our practice. Mostly, he talks too long and too forcefully and some folks are a little afraid of him. And he knows all this. He tries to fit in better and some of us try to practice welcoming him and hearing his Truth, and not avoiding him. So anyway, these two men were walking down Market Street, one of the main thoroughfares in our city for vehicles and pedestrians. On some corner, they came across a man who was obviously coming down off of a bad drug trip. My Friend quietly and politely prepared to walk aroud him, trying not to be judgmental and not to bother him. However, our friend, the Attender, walked straight up to the guy and asked him, “Hey, man, are you okay?” and stayed to listen to the sad story of whatever had happened. As this went along, eventually the guy asked them, “Can you help me out with some money?” Our Attender said, “No, man, I’m not going to give you money, but I can buy you something to eat. Do you want to come?” And so the three of them went into a nearby coffeshop and got the guy a sandwich or something. At this point, my Friend said at least he could pay for the food, feeling fully ashamed that he had been ready to just walk on by. And after they ate, the guy asked them for bus fare again, and the Attender gave it to him. After the guy walked away, the Attender said to my Friend, “I hate to give these guys money because he’s probably going to use it to buy drugs, but what’re you gonna do?” My Friend could only nod and agree. “Yeah. What’re you gonna do?”

As he reflected on this later while telling the story, he has to think more now about what he is going to do. And he has to process the immense amount of respect he gained for our Attender, who regularly shows us ways of going beyond the polite response and how to walk straight up to the Truth and the Christ-like thing to do.

Which is not to stand there paralyzed with fear and indecision.

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Blogger Peggy Senger Morrison said...


5/23/2006 5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Attender always describes himself as a hillbilly. That's pretty accurate.

And is it fair to call him "fairly new" by now, after a year and a half or so?

Some day I will have to tell the story of asking him to come back to meeting when he had a complete breakdown/breakthrough during worship, and had to leave....

5/24/2006 12:03 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

I have been taking a needed blog break, but I'm always glad I stop in to see what's up your way.

I take my walks along the river, around the Big Pond down the road, and through the side streets of little Cambridge. It's such a delight to listen and wonder. It is indeed walking meditation. Things become so much more clear during my walks, and sooner or later, I hope to spend a bit more time getting pen to paper about them.

Ah, I'm rambling. Thanks for writing.

5/24/2006 1:09 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Sullivan said...


i love to go on those walks to see what happens to everyone. I love to go to Woolman or out in woods of special places and go for walks and see what comes to me. it sounds like this is what you do for yourself along the beach.


5/25/2006 12:35 AM  
Blogger Larry Clayton said...

The moral of your story to me is that non Quakers have one hell of a lot to teach us if we open ourselves to them a bit.

6/07/2006 5:55 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Peggy, you know, I thought of you when I wrote this.

Chris, sometimes I still feel new. So a year or two? Still fairly new.

Rob, one of the best things about the last couple of months has been the time in my life to go for a walk and then come home and write. Very important to me.

Rebecca, just this morning, as I was walking, I started thinking about a Big Important Question, but I didn't know why. I asked God, why am I thinking about this today? And then it came to me that I needed to be prepared in my own mind to answer a call for help from a Friend that came in a few days ago, but that I didn't know how or why exactly I could do anything. But by the end of my walk I knew what I should do. I could hardly wait to get home and do something about it.

Larry, I'm sure you're right and it works the other way around as well.

Thanks everybody!

6/08/2006 2:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Robin,
I liked how you put the shark and city stories together. They certainly got me thinking. My first thought is: don't be so hard on yourself. You stopped for the stranded shark while others passed by. Just being aware enough to stop counts for a lot. You probably even drew the notice of your big-booted-fellow beachgoer who kindly took the shark to deeper waters. Even if he had noticed, who knows if he would have helped without your presence and support? My second thought is: you got me, and obviously some others, thinking. Not too bad for a walk on the beach. In peace, Steve (stevenvpatrick@yahoo.com)

7/19/2006 4:28 PM  

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