A Boy and a Sea Lion

by | Feb 14, 2018 | Blogs, Creation, Faith & Family, Spirituality

My friends and I found the sea lion exhibit down some stairs past a few enormous trees and between giant fake rock formations. It was a thick glass cross-section of a seashore, complete with jagged  outcroppings and deep diving waters. The air smelled like salt, and I could’ve sworn I heard seagulls overhead. The sea lions laid on rocks. They slept. They barked. They swam. But one had the spotlight.

In an instant I was gone, lost in an alternative universe, snatched from this reality à la what happens when you sink into a superb novel or fall into the dark of a cinema.

The beast was beautiful, a whiskered marvel perfectly sleek, some eight feet of smooth muscle slip and gliding with charming elegance. Its eyes were kind and wide, its mouth was almost smiling. It moved effortlessly through smooth waters.

But there was a boy there –  a skinny boy with a white t-shirt and short hair, pants with a blue belt.

So we stood back.

We watched for who knows how long, along with the boy’s parents, who we didn’t notice until later. Mom and dad were as invisible as the zoo landscape as we were, still and silent and watching.

The boy would stand before the glass, lock eyes with the animal as friends lock eyes,and then together, they would go. They would start running one direction, swooping wide left, the nose of the lion pairing the running red cloth in the hand of the boy. Each time they reached one end of the glass, I would gasp as both the boy quick-pivoted and the sea lion flipturned. Losing no time, they took off running back towards where they started, my heart still fluttering. A grand finale to each series, the boy flung his red hand high above his head, the lion flying twice as high, breaking the water’s surface with a flip back down to meet his boy’s eyes. I wanted to applaud and applaud after every move, but I couldn’t. I was paralyzed with something like awe.

So it went, the boy and the lion, side to side, flip-turning and leaping. So it went, my friends and I so mesmerized we could barely ooh and aah. Diving and chasing whatever pattern that somehow led their swings, I caught no breath as they smoothly slid from one sequence to the next. It was an awesome display of something like a symphony or the easy intimacy of old friends, the boy and the lion shared a playful power.

At some point, finally feeling our eyes, the boy stopped and turned to see us; both of them now looked our way. The boy smiled.

“We’ve been doing this together for eight years.” He held out his hand. “Do you want to try? I found that he responds best to the red cloth.”

The boy stepped out of the way and we stepped up to the glass. Silence. My friend stretched out her arm holding her yellow bag of Santita’s tortilla chips.Yellow seemed to work, too. The sea lion played along with our stiff movements until a toddler at the other end of the glass caught the beast’s eye. And, with one flip of the tail, the sea lion was there, spinning as if his nose were on an axle, looking over his whiskers into the child’s delighted eyes.


What if I called this love?

This openness, this playfulness, this willingness to say yes to whoever came to the glass to dance, to swing, to create. And not just the sea lion, but the boy who’s come for eight years for all the same reasons.

Valentine’s Day doesn’t have the category, but I’ve felt it before and even alone. When with a person or a place or a time there’s direct connection, a surge of “YES, we are here now!” In pauses after long conversations. On a changing wind while walking. With the oranging sky over snowy hills. Together, again, with my brothers on a holiday. A few sets of footprints swept under pulling waves. Some sort of awe, some sort of gratitude, some sort of togetherness. It makes me smile for no reason, even laugh out loud. It makes my back tingle and my skin goosebump, my heart flutter fast or slow, so calmly, down.

What if I called this love?

Their connection and his confidence, their play and his poise– this boy was something special, unusually attuned and exceptionally open, but it was clear this virtue wasn’t his alone. There was something else happening there, a dynamic relationship thriving on trust and willingness and playfulness, and I feel privileged to have been there to see it.

What if I called this love?

And what if I sought it more often, willing to be surprised and awed and open to whatever and whoever new comes next today, the evening commute or the stranger sitting next to me? Or harder yet, can I choose this love again in my same old routines and same old coworkers and same old brothers? What if I said yes more often to that simple question from the boy and his dear sea lion…

“Do you want to try?”


The cover image, from Flickr user Pedro Lozano, can be found here.


Garrett Gundlach, SJ

ggundlachsj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Garrett