The Whales Go By

Blue sky, sparkling sea, marine mammals.

Bright Sunday.  The Pacific is calm after days of high winds, whitecaps, pounding waves.  Yesterday a storm swept through, and shore birds were restless.  

Today there's a feeling of excitement and peace.  The birds seem more settled.  The ocean surface is calm enough to see dolphins swimming by, black blacks and dorsal fins glistening in sunlight, making their slow way along the coast.  The sea lions continue barking--the sound is haunting at night, or in the fog, but somehow joyful during this brilliant day.

Most exciting for me: the sight of spouts a few hundred yards out.  The whales go by, gray whales on their annual migration north.  A few years back I had the unimaginable pleasure of spending time with the whales in their winter grounds, Laguna San Ignacio--beautiful, pristine, unspoiled, thanks to the efforts of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The Whales Go By," by Fred Phleger, an oceanographer at WHOI and later Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was one of my favorite books of childhood.  Perhaps my lifelong love of whales began in those pages.  One of the best Christmas presents I've ever gotten was this now vintage and out of print book...lovingly searched out and given to me by a good friend I'd told of its deep meaning to me.

Books and stories can change the lives of young readers--and old readers, too.  Today I read a friend's essay on friendship and fishing, and feel transformed.

Back to marine mammals: aside from the whales swimming by, I have an orca in my bathtub.   Katie Jones, cetacean researcher and friend of J-pod in the San Juan Islands, tells me it's a transient.


I'm spending a little time in California. There's a place I love to stay, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  I write to the sound of the waves; fall asleep to them, too. When I think back on all my novels, so many (including my forthcoming The Silver Boat)  have long sections written in this hotel--in fact, in this very room.  It makes me happy to be here.  

Writing as a moveable feast.  Do the ideas come differently in far-away places?  I think so, a little.  I like to write in different rooms.  There's no place like home, but I love to dig in here, without everything around me being quite so familiar.  I show up in the lobby every morning, and write as I watch the world go by.  Friends visit for tea, or to write together.  

(with Audrey Loggia and Saffron Burrows.)

By day, it's right for writing; at night, it's quite a different scene...  Exciting, filled with music and conversation.  Very cozy, all through the seasons, to sit by one of the two fireplaces and dream.

It feels like my home away from home.  (It's possible to have more than one of those...)  Every day I see dolphins swimming past.  The beach is wide; I walk along the tide line every day.  Yesterday I found a sand dollar.  I could watch the shorebirds for hours.  

Sometimes I do.

P.S. My home away from home is Shutters on the Beach...

The Shutters Lobby

The lobby at Shutters on the Beach is a wonderful place. I have written chapters of novels there, a screenplay with a friend--we sat on one of the couches five days straight and wrote until we had a draft--several essays, and many letters.  I stay there so often they call my favorite room the Luanne Rice room.

The hotel is at the foot of Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica; it has amazing views of the Pacific Ocean.  Many celebrities pass through the lobby.  Much rarer is the occasional legend--such as the one you see on my lap in the photo above.  The lovely, brilliant E.  She visited with her father, Johnny Walker, and after reading the New York Times, discussed the review of a new biography of Diaghilev.  E has much to say about the Ballet Russes.

Ben Affleck was across the lobby, but he didn't sit on my lap.

Pacific dreams

I swim in the Pacific.  The tide is out, and the waves roll long and frothily into shore.  I ride them in again and again.  Then I lie on my back and float staring up at the clear blue sky.  Getting here... I'd left New York early, in the rain.  Took off through gray clouds.  We rose through mist and strata.   Thicker round shaped dark clouds ranging from oyster to deep gray.  Ground still visible, then the Atlantic.  We banked, glimpsed the Verrazano Narrows and bridge, Manhattan invisible.   I'll be flying sea-to-sea.

We climbed through stages.  Into cloud then out, a momentarily bright and clear middle-zone with a dark ceiling above us and a thick gray-white layer below.  Gaining altitude into the blue.  Sharp true-blue endless blue.  Rigpa.  The cloud valley below mostly silver-white but with sharky patches of long pointed brown shadows.

Mid-country the clouds are gone.  We fly over plains and crop circles and patchwork farms.  Now we are over rocky terrain--garnet red rocks, deeply scored canyons and ridges, mountains with roads snaking up to the top in diminishing circles.

Hours go by.  I reread Peter Matthiessen's Blue Meridian.  Beginning our descent.  White lacy cobwebby cloud above, high desert below.  Landscape looks bleached into tones of white, cream, pale peach, pale green.  Then the coast mountains begin.  Dark, bone, mystery peaks, several long sapphire lakes.

I love these long flights across the country.  I literally rise into blue.  My heart and mind are at ease.  Things of the earth matter less in the sky.  We begin our descent and I already know I will swim this afternoon.

There are the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles.  The Hollywood sign just a little above and behind them.  The Getty Center, white and sprawling in the hills above Sunset.  I used the sign and the Getty as landmarks; my friends live there, and there.

We land.  I get a ride to Santa Monica.  I enter my home away from home and am so glad to see everyone.  We hug and catch up; I haven't been away so long this time, but still every one has news.  It's wonderful to have more than one place to live.  Some real, on earth, others in your imagination.  This, for me, falls directly in between.  They carry my bags to the Luanne Rice room.  How funny and how lucky I feel.

I hurry down to the beach.  The sand is hot.  Happy voices drift over from the Pier, shrieks from the roller coaster and Ferris wheel.  Shorebirds skitter along the tide line.  There's a sign: surf to the left, swim to the right.  I set down my towel, and before even sitting down, go down to the water's edge on the swim side.  The waves are the same.  They tug my ankles.  I let them draw me in.

I dive in the and come up for air and I am looking up into the blue sky from which I'd just emerged, and I am in the Pacific.