Skirting finality

Recently, while hiking, I spied a stout seal languishing in a narrow stretch of water separating a small island from the trail where I stood. The seal lolled about leisurely in the shallows, gently rolling, pirouetting without concern for its audience. What was the seal doing, I wondered? What was its purpose?

Could the seal be pregnant and looking for a safe place to give birth? Was the seal dying? It wasn’t the right season for birthing, but you never knew, and dying, of course, publishes no schedule. Both prospects disturbed me, and I landed on a more pleasant alternative; maybe, in its own way, the seal appreciated the moment, fully engaged in the mystery-miracle of animation, as it simply watched nature’s creation unfold.

I shrugged, left the seal, and resumed my walk, bypassing the well-groomed path back to the parking lot. Instead, I opted for a narrow trail along the cliff face that I knew would test me. Fifteen minutes and one wrong turn after seeing the seal, I found myself stranded at the water’s edge with only one way out, back up the steep embankment. I suppose I had gotten what I asked for.

I started back up. Scrambling for fingerholds among the barely anchored tree roots, progress was slow, with each step forward slinging clods of loosened mud into the air as I fought to maintain balance. I tried not to look down at the jagged rocks below.

My lungs heaved in exertion. I paused to rest and took a deep breath, visualizing how I must look: a guy in the shadow of 60, limbs flailing, with a dopey grin as unstable as the traverse he was attempting. I started laughing.

It was a memorable hike, first trying to guess why the seal was acting strangely in the shallows, followed by a legitimate challenge during the return to my car.

Choosing a more difficult path guarantees nothing but discomfort and a new experience (and maybe a few moss-stained bruises). But it might just also hold that desperately sought nugget of treasure that earns us the resilience to walk the fine line between living and dying, to feel engaged and “in life,” while skirting the apparent finality of death.

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