Christmas is a time of great expectations, and most of us set the bar far too high. At this time of year I always think of grunion.
For those of you in the dark about grunion, they are a small slender fish that ride the waves onto Southern California beaches in April and May to lay their eggs in the sand. Their arrival is usually as predictable as clockwork and they arrive in the thousands, shimmering in the moonlight like puddles of liquid mercury. They make good eating, I’m told, but by law they can only be caught by hand, and if you have a fishing license. They’re slippery as Jell-O and tend to wiggle through your fingers.
Years ago Mrs. Chatterbox and I were living on the beach in Oxnard, California. (Check out my Sept. 12th archived post “If Looks Could Kill.) I heard on the radio that the grunion would be running that evening between ten and midnight. Until then I’d never heard of these fish, but it didn’t take long for my enthusiasm to build. By sunset I was sitting in a folding chair waiting for an inspiring spectacle of nature, along with a few hundred other people.
It was too brisk for Mrs. Chatterbox to venture out but I enjoyed the carnival-like atmosphere of other Grunion Greeters, as we called ourselves. Beer and wine flowed freely as we waited…and waited…and waited. At midnight the crowd unleashed a torrent of hoots and boos and it began to sink in that the grunion were going to be a no-show. The crowd dispersed. I was made of sterner stuff and decided to hang around for awhile. I was a believer, and like a kid struggling to stay up for a glimpse of Santa I wrapped my arms around myself, snuggled deep in my folding chair and waited.
At one a.m. Mrs. Chatterbox woke me with a tap on my shoulder. “It’s time to come
inside,” she said. “The grunion aren’t coming tonight.”
“I’m not willing to give up,” I said. “I’ll give them another hour.”
“Suit yourself, but you’re on your own. I’m going back to bed.”
I watched as her silhouette grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared.
I promptly fell asleep again, and dreamt about waves of grunion riding into shore for their reproductive orgy, their glinting bodies painting the sand the color of mercury. I woke aching from sitting for so long. My watch read three a.m. It was time to go home to my bed. I stood and stretched. It was a beautiful night and I inhaled the salty air one last time before heading inside. That was when I saw it. Something shiny in the water.
The wave deposited it onto the shore where it flipped about like a Mexican jumping bean. It was a grunion. Just one. It reflected the glow of the moon and was as beautiful as a custom-crafted piece of Mexican jewelry. I crouched down to get a closer look and watched as it burrowed into the sand to lay its eggs. It was hard to imagine a brain, probably no bigger than a grain of rice, compelling this exhausting action. Time and again the surf washed over that grunion until she freed herself from the sand and allowed the waves to pull her back into the sea.
I was left alone to contemplate the beauty of what I’d just seen. It seemed to me that I’d received a special gift, and I couldn’t help wondering if this experience would have felt as intense had it been shared with thousands of these fish, and witnessed by hundreds of bystanders instead of just me. I doubt it, and tend to think this experience was for me and me alone.
On Christmas I think about that greatest of all expectations—the arrival of a warrior
Messiah who was supposed to lead an invincible army. This Messiah was going to paint the ground red with enemy blood, liberate his brethren and make them a great people. Well, that Messiah never came; what we got was a baby born in a stable because there was nowhere else to go, a single life as insignificant as a single grunion, flailing in the surf to bring forth the promise of new life. And salvation.
At Christmas I’m reminded not to set the bar too high. The season doesn’t need to make us leap from our chairs as if Handel’s Messiah were being played for the first time. It’s often the tiny miracles that have the best chance of spawning in the human heart.