Photo thanks to Haris Lakisic at Grunion.org
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With a pickup load of high school friends I traveled to a beach designated a likely site for a grunion run. Grunion are silvery fish that come ashore at this time of year along the Southern California coastline to lay and fertilize thousands of eggs (per couple!) in the sand before they catch the next wave out to sea.
Hundreds of people were gathered on that beach that night, excitedly awaiting the spectacle. Many had buckets for our catches, as I recall, though I’m not sure we intended to do anything with the fish afterward. But the grunion never showed. Maybe the noise and campfires of the partiers signaled them this was not a good place for their mating ritual.
Another group did catch one lonely grunion, however, and generously turned it over to our group so we didn’t go home empty-handed. We all piled into the back of our old pickup for the return home, not entirely disappointed, as the whole point was to spend time together as friends on the beach under a starry night.
Flash forward more than a decade. Back in California after seminary in New Haven and a campus ministry internship in Philadelphia, I was serving a ministry that challenged the church’s long held grudge against LGBT people.
Given the earnest nature of my work, I was held in balance for a while by a very funny boyfriend. Bob Barnes had joined the migration of would-be comics from the Midwest (Ohio, specifically) to try his luck at onstage improv comedy. He could make me LOL before that was a texting cliché.
For example, watching on television the flamboyant and lisping evangelist Ernest Angley lay hands on followers who announced their particular need of healing, one approached wearing a loud red plaid blazer with neon green pants. “Oh God, give me taste,” Bob mocked. Once, receiving Communion, the priest eyed him suspiciously. “You Catholic?” he questioned. “From cradle to grave,” Bob quipped without missing a beat. Bob’s friends, also comics, referred to me as “the Pope” because of his upbringing.
Bob also had a romantic side. We had dinner one evening at a popular seafood restaurant beside the beach on the southern end of Malibu. Afterward we walked alone along the shore as the waves crashed at our feet. We began noticing silver flashes, which at first I speculated to be plankton in the sand, a phenomenon I’d experienced before in which I could kick the sand with my foot and see phosphorescent sparks, reminiscent of Disney animation of fairy dust from a wand.
Then we realized it was grunion coming ashore, a few at first, and then by the hundreds. The crashing waves were full of them and then the beach was covered with writhing, copulating grunion as far as we could see in the moonlit night. Bob and I shared a look of absolute delight as we stood there, transfixed by this natural wonder that neither of us had ever seen and would never see again.
The last time I saw Bob was when I spoke on a college campus in Ohio, where he had returned, now living with AIDS. For our visit, he had put together an elaborate platter with a variety of cheeses and roasted vegetables, my first time eating roasted garlic. We had a wonderful visit, his easy smile and laughter, as always, uplifting my spirit. After his death I would learn from his partner that they had spent his final days in a treatment facility along the shore where they could hold each other watching the sun set over Lake Erie.
When I decided to write this post after reading a recent article on grunion, I intended to suggest that Bob and I had an experience of grace that night serendipitously happening onto grunion running ashore, contrasting it with the unsuccessful effort with my high school friends to witness such a miracle.
But as I finish this post, I realize everything mentioned was an experience of grace: my friends in youth gathered in anticipation; my opportunities participating in ministry and in a movement; the smiles and laughter that Bob gave freely and prompted easily; the remembered glowing sparks of plankton in sand; our dinner and walk and conversation along the shore as well as the silver flashes of flopping grunion; our last visit and the platter Bob so painstakingly prepared; the lover that held Bob in his final days and the sunsets they shared; and now, my memories of all of these.
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