My Life as a Whale--a True Story

One regret dear world, that I am determined not to have when I am lying on my deathbed is that I did not kiss you enough.    --Hafiz

Life is scary. And that is an understatement.

Life is terrifying. It will tear you limb from limb, metaphorically speaking, or sometimes actually speaking. I never knew this until I went to live in West Africa at age 25. I was working with an aid organization, trying to stop the bleeding from the war in Sierra Leone. I was too naive then to know that the bleeding couldn't be stopped. We were a drop in a bucket--no--in an ocean whose currents we were powerless to alter.

I began to understand the extent of my uselessness when I went out to the refugee camps to take stock of the situation so that I could write about it to our potential donors. We needed money to fund the programs we were running: education, job training for women, hygiene, food distribution, rehabilitating child soldiers. All of these I could, and did, throw my heart into. All of them came to a screaming halt whenever the refugees tried to repatriate and then were attacked and driven back across the border, more ragged and wounded and torn apart than before. Many had had their arms chopped off at the elbow, or at the shoulder; or had their eyes put out with battery acid; or seen their families brutally murdered--dismembered--in front of them.

And after awhile I began to go numb. After so long of trying and failing, trying and failing, it seemed easiest to just stop feeling. Substances helped numb the pain: alcohol, hash, whatever was on offer. I tried that for awhile but it didn't sit well with me. The people I'd come to "help"--I couldn't imagine what they possibly did to dull the pain. Something extreme, no doubt, and god bless them for it. And I'm sure there was a lot of that--but there was something else, something I couldn't grasp, that kept people buoyant.

There is one day that stands out in my mind. I was headed to the marketplace in downtown Conakry, Guinea's capital, to do some shopping in one of our battered old Land Cruisers. The windows were down so all the sights and smells and sounds of market day assailed our senses. I loved this; though it was hot, and humid and dusty, I loved being inundated by the sensory overload of an African marketplace. I was looking around, absorbing it all, while we were stuck in traffic, when I heard the sound of singing. The voices were beautiful and strong, but disembodied; I couldn't see the singers anywhere. I looked all over--but nowhere in the crowd pressing around us could I see anyone singing. Then I thought to look down. Craning my neck out the window, I glanced down by the side of the road, and found two women there, crawling in the dust. They were crippled, their legs useless; but they were moving at a steady pace, pulling themselves along with their powerful arms. They wore flip-flops on their hands to protect them from the rocky soil, and they carried heavy baskets of goods on their heads, bound for the market. Their mouths were open and their heads held high, and the music bellowed up out of their throats hot enough to give Aretha Franklin a run for her money. Did they think for one second that they had it rough, walking on their hands in the red African dust? Did they feel sorry for hauling a load on their heads that I couldn't have borne in my arms without stumbling? Probably they did. Maybe that was bitter music howling out of their mouths. You wouldn't have known. For me it was pure joy--nevermind the guilt I felt sitting high up in that stupid vehicle--to hear it. And it threw me straight out of my crazy Western mind and into an altogether different realm.

I made a decision in that moment. I didn't know I'd made it, but it was made. My mind changed quietly, unnoticed, and after that I was never the same, from that day to this. I can look back on that day and say that I became a different creature. No longer quite human, and yet more compassionate--braver, more reckless, more prone to wildness.

Where I grew up, I was privileged to see and sometimes venture close to humpback whales and other baleen whales of that sort. They are the giants of the planet. Native Alaskans (and others of us who observe them up close) believe them to be wise, sentient, incredibly forbearing beings who, despite their massive size and potential ferocity, refrain from killing small, bothersome creatures (i.e. humans) who often intrude far into their comfort zone. I've always been intrigued by the way humpbacks go about getting food. It takes a lot--a LOT--of calories to sustain their massive bodies. Basically they do it by swimming through the ocean with their mouths wide open, sucking in everything in their path--mainly krill, but also herring and plankton and whatever else happens to be around. Baleen whales aren't like toothed whales. They don't confront and attack their prey; they just open wide and figure, "fuck it--I've got this enormous mouth, if I open it wide enough, everything in the entire ocean is gonna swim in." And then, once the mouth is full (one whale can consume about 5,500 lbs of food per day), it can filter out anything it doesn't want in there. So if there's a stray shark or something, out it goes (that doesn't happen, ok, but it could). Primitive system, but it works--obviously it's working for the whales. They've been doing this for thousands of years.

So that's what I did. From that moment on--the women in the market--I became a humpback whale. I decided there were good things in Africa that I needed to experience. There were awful things, too; painful, excruciating, horrible things--but if I kept those out, I would miss the beauty. I would miss the singing. I would miss the bravery and the incredible shining moments in the midst of the horror; and I couldn't deny myself that. So I would swim through it all and take in every single thing, and I would just filter it out later. And I just dove in, mouth agape, eyes wide, soul completely open to every possibility, and said Yes to it all. Yes this is painful. Yes this is beautiful. Yes this is strange. Yes this is terrible. Yes this hurts immeasurably.

And then I kept on doing it, when I came back to the cooler, measured, sterilized, Western world. I stayed open. I said Yes to writing a book. Yes to falling in love. Yes to getting hurt. Yes to moving across the country, and Yes to going home to Alaska. Yes to making mistakes. Yes to learning from them. It's invariably painful, and invariably rewarding. I have grown bigger as a person. On the outside, I'm a human being; no different from anybody else. On the inside, I'm huge. A whale. A world. A galaxy. A cosmos of experiences. So many lives lived in this one lifetime.

I went to Hawaii last year, and the biggest and best pleasure of it all was diving under the waves and hearing them sing. The humpbacks. The same whales who travel thousands of miles from my home state to the warm, clear waters of Maui to mate and give birth. Then back over those thousands of miles to fatten themselves in the summer--mouths agape, inhaling it all, leaping and thrashing and singing for joy. I count myself in their numbers. I know what it's like to take it all in. Then sing, from the deepest parts of myself, of the mystery and the horror and the goodness that is life on this planet. Dear god let me never stop being brave enough to give myself this: the singular pleasure of Yes.


  1. Not only provocative, KB, but profound. Beautiful progression of thoughts and startlingly apt metaphor. I hope many, many people read this. I've shared it.


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