Sabbath at the Shrine, sea lions in the pews

The island of the Shrine of Saint Therese.

The island of the Shrine of Saint Therese.

Orcas guided me through elementary school. I dreamt of variations on a theme: friendships with orcas in unexpected places, such as a lake or a school swimming pool. Today, I watched that dream come to life — and swim away.

“The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky” by Ellen Meloy opens on the Colorado Plateau. The narrator is in her element – she knows not only every color to expect and when to expect it, but what scientific processes lead to each hue and shape. This is knowledge of a place borne of love, habit and obsession. She describes it as a mixture of sensory cues that create homesickness in their absence.

I understood this homesickness when I came upon Ben Huff’s photos of the Haul Road at the Alaska State Museum. My brain thinks “hills” when it sees the area north of Fairbanks, but after living in, studying and working in these hills, I know them. Or, at least, I know how their many parts fit together better than I understand the foreign mountains around me now. Huff described the Haul Road as horizontal, and Juneau as vertical, and the transition takes some getting used to.

I’ve been bitter toward Juneau and God’s timing because of an unshakeable mood since I moved here. Today, the second sunny day in a row after weeks of wind and rain and snow, was the perfect day to fix that. I wanted to see what others see in this rainy, lonely town.

Yesterday I started “Street Life” in a recent issue of the New Yorker. The late writer Joseph Mitchell seeks to know every street in New York. I have crisscrossed many streets in Downtown Juneau already, but the roads past Auke Bay remain untraveled. I headed north.

I ended up at the Shrine of St. Therese, a Catholic chapel atop a tiny tidal island.

Approaching the shrine.

Approaching the shrine.

An echo this side of the seascape.

An echo this side of the seascape.

The shrine was surrounded by familiar mosses, liverworts, squirrel middens and Christian art. The unfamiliar lay in the tidal zone, so down I climbed. A sign on the way in had warned me that we were in a mixing zone for treated cruise ship wastewater. I needed to avoid eating shellfish or even being in contact with the area. Well, I know better than to eat the shellfish in Juneau, but if sea life is expected to learn to thrive without heeding these warnings, I decided I could spend an afternoon here.

The rocks were covered first in yellow and white lichens, then in seaweed and shellfish. People filtered in and out of the lookout point above. I pulled out “Turquoise” and started reading, but presently the sea lions arrived.

I watched the sea lions until the passerby up at the shrine lookout started shouting. An orca — what I thought to be one, with that dorsal fin — breached once, twice, then swam away. I stopped fumbling with my phone’s camera. It is rare to face a dream, rarer still to catch it on tape.

I dropped “Turquoise” in a tide pool, so I fished it out and we basked in the sun. It was still cold enough that snot blocked my sense of smell and the light wind numbed my fingers.

Snowcapped mountains shone down on forested islets and the bay where I fancied a pod of orcas were hunting. I could see misty pillars as they rose to exhale.

Waves shimmered from there to here and dozens of crows effortlessly crossed the distance between my kin and me. The crows rested in cliffside trees surrounding the shrine.

Later they flew over me again, landing on the seaside boulders, cursing all the way. They ignored me and pecked at the seaweed and barnacles. One crow squeezed a writhing and glistening fish in its beak until something squirted into the sunlight. I no longer wonder which came first — McDonald’s wrappers and Cheetos or the corvid.

A preteen girl came with a big white hat and purple pants. The crows flew away before she arrived at their seaweed-slick rocks, but her approach sparked sea lion curiosity. They came closer, three sleek-yet-lutrine heads bobbing in tune with the waves. She was entranced, as I always was in my dreams and remain today on days like this.

Earlier today, I told my dad that Sabbath is easier for families — and much harder to enjoy when you are in a season of wanderlust. But on this rare sunny day in Juneau, the waves became a choir, the sea lions my brothers and the orca my pastor, teaching me to keep reaching toward a dream so distant yet closer than ever before.

The girl left, the tide came in and I climbed back into the woods, to the Shrine of St. Therese.

A tiny moss forest atop an old railing overlooks the ocean expanse.

A tiny moss forest atop an old railing overlooks the ocean expanse.

2 thoughts on “Sabbath at the Shrine, sea lions in the pews

  1. Carol Fitzgerald says:

    What an incredibly awe-inspiring, refreshing, day-that-dreams-are-made-of type of experience!!! It sounds like it was exactly what you really needed at this time. I really enjoyed this narrative and your writing.

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