Etch-a-Sketch, Baja, Echo. The tour guide on the whale watching boat knows these humpbacks by name. She recognizes them by their tail markings: the designs they were born with and the wounds they’ve sustained. She announces each whale as it levers its broad tail out of the water like the dark wings of an enormous seagull. To my eyes, this display is an anonymous flash of rubbery black and white on the sun-dazzled water, but our guide assures us that unique patterns decorate each one, the whale tail equivalent of human fingerprints.
My husband and I are on a whale watching tour boat off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At 115 feet long, the Hurricane II is billed as “the largest and fastest Massachusetts whale watching vessel north of Boston.” From that description I assume this is a boat of substantial size, but I don’t know much about such things. For all of my trips to the seashore and my love of the coast, this is the first time I’ve left land for open water. Taking this tour was the one thing that James insisted we do on our vacation. His eagerness surprised me, he who cannot swim and generally avoids being in water above his knees. But the idea of whales had caught his fancy, and now they’ve caught mine.
“Look for a fluorescent green glow in the water,” the guide says as the whales come closer. This is the telltale sign that a whale glides near the surface, the white patches of its skin reflecting back the otherwise invisible green of microscopic phytoplankton. I stare into the water alongside the boat, skeptical that I’ll be able to differentiate normal ocean green from special whale green. But then the water looks like a neon lamp has lit it up from below, and sure enough, I spy a pectoral fin beneath the glow. This first sighting fills me with hope; I may not be able to name the whales, but I can spot them.
We see humpback and minke (rhymes with pinkie) whales, mothers and their calves feeding in the cool October waters. Our guide tells us that these babies were conceived last winter in the warm Caribbean. She describes the humpbacks’ annual journey to the tropics to mate, and I chuckle at the similarities between humans and whales: give us a bit of sunshine and some sweet tropical water, and we’ll do the dance of love. Soon winter will settle over New England, and the whales will head south to continue their instinctive bacchanal of life. Whales have the luxury of following the warmth, something many human mammals wish they could do. I wouldn’t mind a summer home in Massachusetts and a winter roost in the Caribbean. Whales handle inclement weather by changing location. Those of us not fortunate enough to do the same have to makedo with central heating, snow tires, and hot soup to get us through the long winter. We’re each following our instincts, doing what we can to survive.
The whales swim around the boat, slapping the water with their tails and “pecs.” They trumpet-blow plumes of water into the air. The whales play their part and we tourists play ours, pointing and laughing, oohing and ahhing. We’re here for a fun vacation outing; the whales are here by instinct, feeding on the krill and fish that live in these waters. But maybe this is a fun outing for them, too. It’s hard to know which of their antics are meant as utilitarian communication maneuvers and which are frolicsome displays of playfulness, but I can’t watch them slap, surface, spin, and dive without believing there is some pure joy happening here.
Our guide keeps an eye on the ship’s underwater sonar equipment and announces when a whale slides below, directing us to one side of the boat or the other, in case it decides to surface. The Hurricane II feels sturdy in the water, but I get a small thrill every time a whale dives beneath us. What would happen if it decided to ram the hull, I wonder. Or leap up and then throw itself down upon the deck? Which of us would suffer the greater damage? The average adult humpback weighs nearly 40 tons and is about the size of a school bus. Our boat may be almost three times that length, but I have no idea how it would fare against a swimming school bus.
On land, I like to think that I have a good sense of perspective. But away from the slope of sand and the sound of breakers, I begin to understand the relativity of size in a new way. Atom, ant, human. Whale, ocean, sky. What is the breaking point between small and large? A planet, a solar system, a galaxy. How far can our imaginations shrink and stretch? From a molecule to a universe to a god, everything is a speck in something else’s eye. Where does it end?
On a separate trip to Massachusetts, I flew to Nantucket to visit my friend Bee, an artist who lives on the island. Out there, the isolated island-dark allows you to gaze farther and deeper than you can on the mainland. One night, we looked up to see a shimmery haze banded across the star-filled black sky. “There’s the Milky Way,” said Bee. “Have you ever seen it?” I couldn’t recall glimpsing this stretch of gauzy sky-glitter before. I admitted, with embarrassment, that I’d never understood what it means to see the Milky Way. How can we see our own galaxy while we’re in it, I wondered. Isn’t that like asking if you can see your house from your living room? Bee explained that I was witnessing the concentration of stars along the outer rim of one side of our galaxy.
I felt like I should feel small. And I did. But more than the sight of the celestial heavens, it was the unknown dark of the trees pressing in around us on Bee’s front lawn that made me feel tiny and afraid. I understood that the Milky Way is an awesome sight, but I had trouble feeling impressed by something so vast and distant. Just as a streetlamp can block out the stars, what’s closest to us often has the greatest impact.
I imagined driving Bee’s Jeep down the dirt road to the beach, where miles of state-protected wetlands separate the ocean from civilization. I imagined stretching out on the sand under that clear sky. The ocean would sound just as it does during the day, but I knew it would feel bigger, louder, and nearer in the dark. I wish I were the kind of woman to visit a deserted beach alone late at night just for the beauty of it, but I’m not. I’m the kind who is afraid of the dark, even with a sea of stars lighting up the sky.
At dusk the night before, Bee and I had driven out to the far western tip of the island. Long after the sun had set, the sky still glowed a gentle blue and pink, as though it were illuminated softly from within, like a nightlight to the water and sand below. I stood facing the ocean, my back to the Jeep. Far down the beach, a scattering of bonfires flickered. In the drawn-out twilight, I could still make out the white of waves breaking six yards in front me.
I found myself chattering to Bee, who’d stayed in the Jeep. I wanted to be still and listen to the water, but the beach was both too loud and too sparse. I couldn’t stop myself; I talked to keep my bearings, to keep from slipping away into that watery night without a trace. I blurted out old worries I thought I’d overcome or left at home: fears about death, frustrations with life. The responsibilities of family that pile up after we hit thirty. The realization that getting older doesn’t mean you get all the answers. Bee, who is old enough to be my mother, listened through the open window of the driver’s side door, as through the screen of a confessional.
During a short lull in my babble, she said, “What was that?”
“What!” I jumped. I imagined a sea monster rising up from the shadowy waves.
She nodded out at the water. “Out there. A red flash.”
We watched in that direction until we saw another flash where the horizon would be. This one was white, as were several more that followed at regular one-minute intervals. A lighthouse? There are three of them on this fourteen-by-three-mile island, but none in the direction of the flashes. Maybe a lighthouse on the mainland? Would its beacon reach this far? Nantucket bobs alone thirty miles out to sea. What else could it be? Lightning? But when is lightning red? Lights on a boat? Surely there was a simple explanation, but the light felt mysterious, even menacing—as unnamed, faraway things often do.
We waited for another flash, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get back into the Jeep. The eerie feeling that had been creeping in broke over me. There was no thunderclap, no gust of wind, no surge of the waves. But I felt the atmosphere change. I felt terrifyingly small, smaller than I had under the gaze of the whole galaxy. I walked around to the passenger side and scurried in, trusting the safety of the metal frame and rubber tires to ground me. In the few seconds it took to climb inside and shut the door I felt something at my back, pushing and pulling at me like a tide. Bee started the engine without a word. The headlights illuminated the surf line, and I saw a flurry of jittery movement, what looked like thousands of pieces of colorless, opaque rice popping up and down along the wrack line. I twitched, suddenly itchy with the realization that they’d been there all along, hidden in the ambient moonlight. “What are those?” I asked.
“Oh, those are just beach hoppers. Little crustaceans that feed on the seaweed at night.”
“They’re not fleas? Was I being bitten up while I was out there?” I scratched my shins.
“No, they’re harmless. They don’t bite people.” I trusted Bee on this. She’s a naturalist who gathers organic materials for her artwork. All during my stay she pointed out the island’s flora and fauna, naming the world around me. But she couldn’t identify those red and white flashes. Did that mean they were man-made? Supernatural? She maneuvered a quick three-point turn and headed back toward the nighttime picnickers with their bonfires, back to the inner acres of the island where you know you’re surrounded by water even though you can’t see it. I wondered if she had felt the change on the beach, too, something barometric to send us inland. I decided not to ask. Perhaps no one’s perspective is as clear as I’d like to think.
Out on the Hurricane II, the world has become water and sky, with only the whales, some seabirds, and a couple of tour boats in the distance to break up the blue panorama. Such a stunning setting makes me think about God, but then, I’m always thinking about God. It’s a habit I picked up at age fifteen when I became a born-again Christian, and it’s still a habit now in my thirties when I’ve entered a seemingly never-ending existential crisis about faith and theology. I haven’t stopped believing in some higher power, but the doctrine of my youth no longer appeals or makes sense. So I wonder: where is God in all of this? Is he or she the overarching genius that created everything, or the invisible energy that animates it all? Lately I’ve begun to articulate the question that I’ve suspected—and avoided—for years: could both the monotheists and the pantheists be right? More and more, I think the answer is yes. The divine swims with these whales under our boat and jitterbugs in the wrack line with the beach hoppers. It glistens in the white hot galaxy and flashes mysterious beacons across the water. More and more, whether on a boat, on an island, or standing in my own landlocked Pennsylvania house, I see that God is both too big and too small for me to measure or name.
In contrast, these whales have names and have been well-measured. Our guide seems to know everything a human can know about them, but how much is that, really? We identify, categorize, and name these creatures, but can we pretend to know them? When Etch-a-Sketch moans her whale song in the deep, what does she say? What do the whales call each other? Is there a whale word for “One-with-gashed-right-fin?” A sound that means “She-who-swims-fastest?” Or would the whales’ names for one another go deeper than their surface, physical attributes? What qualities of being does a whale value? Speed, strength, valor? Kindness? Sense of humor? Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing too much. My old-time religion didn’t talk much about the existence of souls in non-human animals, but I can’t watch these whales without believing that they possess personality, self-awareness, and the spark of life. What else to call this but soul?
The naming of things (to borrow from T. S. Eliot) is a difficult matter; it isn’t just one of your holiday games, to be sure. What we call things matters. Religions, mythologies, and fairy tales from around the world whisper of the sacred magic of true names: names that express and embody the true nature of an object or being. A true name transcends language to contain the essence of the thing itself. Saying another’s true name is said to give you power over him or her, like the fairytale queen who saved her child from the clutches of Rumpelstiltskin by discovering—and speaking—the goblin’s name. Is such a power possible? As a writer who trades in words, I’d like to think so.
Some animists believe that true names themselves have souls or spirits, a notion that spins my head around with its spiraling meta-ness and essentialism. My more familiar Judeo-Christian tradition also teaches that words have weight. The Bible is full of stories of the power embedded in names and language. In Genesis, God spoke the universe into existence. The book of First John opens with one of the few Bible verses that I still love wholeheartedly: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” This “Word” is the English translation of the Greek Logos, which was considered to be the controlling principle of the universe. In Christianity, Logos is understood to be Jesus, whom, we’re told, God exalted to the highest place and gave the name that is above every other name. In this sense, the Christian Logos is the ultimate true name: the source of all life and life itself. I just like the idea that language can create and animate the world.
All of this exaltation of Jesus as the Word is said to be for the glory of a God who knows us so intimately that the hairs on our heads are numbered. I think of the tour guides who have mapped the whales’ tail-markings: Do they know how many hairs cover a whale’s body? Jesus taught that God knows when a sparrow falls to the ground. I imagine the Creator dreaming up trillions and trillions of little bird names for all the sparrows in all the lands throughout all of time, each one precious and individual. What is a sparrow’s true name? One-who-hops-with-joy? Eater-of-seeds-and-small-insects? What does God call the whales Etch-a-Sketch, Baja, and Echo? What does God call me?
My parents named me Jennifer, the most popular name for American girls of my generation. My mother claims she didn’t realize its popularity at the time, but she did recognize it as a safe, sensible name. She had wanted to call me Nettie after her own middle name, but she decided against it to spare me the mockery she’d faced as a child. Now that I’m an adult, she says, “If I’d known how strong you’d be, I’d have given you that name. You could have handled it.” I can’t quite see myself as a Nettie, but I’ve often wished for a more unique name.
Throughout my life I’ve been called Jennie, Jenn, Jenna, and even “Der,” which was my baby brother’s best approximation of the last syllable in Jennifer. From kindergarten through college, each of my classrooms contained at least one other Jennifer, sometimes many more. Instead of making me feel like part of a popular club, my all-too-common name made me despair of being an individual. I felt like a common sparrow, just one little jenny among many. I figured that tricks of spelling were my only hope to escape banality, so in elementary school I insisted on an ie in Jennie, no y. In high school I made Jen more palatable by adding an extra n. In college I secretly wanted to rebrand myself as Jenna, but I didn’t have the courage to make it stick until my early thirties. By then, so many other things about my identity had begun to shift that a newish name didn’t seem so radical. I couldn’t call myself a Christian in good faith anymore, plus I’d begun to take myself seriously as a writer. A year before the whale watching tour, I attended an art retreat in New Hampshire where no one knew me. “Hi,” I said to people. “My name is Jenna. I’m a writer.” Here’s the miracle: Everyone believed me, and nobody asked me what I believed about anything else. So I kept naming myself until I believed it. I’m Jenna. I’m a writer. I’m Jenna. I’m a writer. Who knew that one little vowel could make such a difference?
But all of this Jennie-Jenn-Jenna business skims the surface. What is my true name beyond my parents’ preference and the fashion of my generation? If I could delve into my core, beneath all of my external markings, would I find a deeper name? What does God call me when counting the hairs on my head? When I think of the “I” who is me, what is her name? I used to have one overarching, clear identity for myself: Christian. If anything, that was my true name for half of my life. God was my Father; his Son Jesus was my Lord and Savior. Spiritual names and relationships were easy to define. Now these labels shrink in the widening arc of my expanding faith, like giant whales who seem small in the immense ocean.
I don’t know what to call God these days. What name can I possibly give to the Logos of the Universe? The mystical branch of Judaism known as Kabbalah holds that God has seventy-two names, and that each of these is simply a different facet and description of the real thing, like mirrors reflecting an object at slightly different angles. As I understand them, the seventy-two names are titles, not true names. God is called Adonai (master) and Avinu (our Father), just as I am Writer or Daughter. Supreme among these is something called the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name YHWH, which is the English transliteration of a Hebrew word that is thought to be God’s real name. But even this is unknowable, since the exact spelling and pronunciation are disputed or considered lost. In the time of the Old Testament, Jewish law forbade anyone from pronouncing it because only the High Priest could safely speak it, and then only on the Day of Atonement in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. But the Temple was destroyed nearly two thousand years ago, so who can speak it now? In Christianity, YHWH became “Yahweh” or “Jehovah,” which my old pastors batted around like nicknames or terms of endearment, not the sacred source of all power. In my old ways of knowing God, everything was spelled out for me. But more and more, I’m realizing what I should have known all along: God is ineffable.
Off the coast of Massachusetts, I am looking in the wrong direction when the whale calf does a full breach alongside our boat. I swing my head around just in time to catch the big splash as the baby flops back into the water. I’m dismayed to have missed it, but instantly my mind cobbles together an image of what just happened, convincing me that I did see it—not just the final splash, but the entire breach. It’s as if my psyche has dipped into the collective consciousness of my fellow passengers and stitched together their experiences with scenes I’ve seen on television nature shows. In my made-up memory, the calf’s body rises headfirst out of the water as though propelled by a gymnast’s springboard. It twists and arcs its dense, blubbered body, reaching for the sky. Its mottled black and white skin gleams in the sunlight as a million water droplets magnify the effect. I catch a glimpse of the grooves lining the underside of its massive chin and the knobby tubercles edging its jaw. As it lands on its left side, its giant right flipper stays visible for a half second longer. Humpbacks have the largest flippers of all whales and belong to the genus Megaptera, which means “huge wings.” I imagine this calf taking flight into the sky like a living, winged blimp.
A moment later the little whale gives us another breach, this one partial, plunging its upper body above the water before it slaps back down again. This time I’m ready with my camera. I snap the digital shutter as quickly as I can, but I’m too slow. All the megapixels catch is the post-breach splash. And even though I was looking right at it this time, I feel like I didn’t see anything at all. If I had pushed the button a millisecond earlier and frozen the whale calf in action, would that make it mean anything more? In my attempt to capture the moment, I lose the experience itself. This is too often the way with me.
My husband, on the other hand, sees both breaches fully. James has a history of seeing things I miss. He was the first person to call me Jenna. He’d also arrived at a more forgiving and broad-minded view of God long before I started chucking my narrow Evangelical doctrine overboard to bail out my sinking sense of spirituality. And he knew we were a good fit for each other ten years before I realized it with a mix of sheepish bewilderment and reluctant head-over-heels acquiescence.
We planned this trip to Massachusetts to celebrate our seven-year wedding anniversary. One of my favorite photos from our wedding day is a close-up of James’s face as he watches me walk down the aisle. He is all soft brown eyes and a private smile. I cherish that photo because it shows me how he sees me—and because I nearly forgot to look at him before I reached the altar. I was so preoccupied with the rows of smiling faces staring at me as my father and I processed (left foot-pause-right foot-pause) that I nearly forgot my destination. About halfway down the aisle I remembered why I was there and looked up for James. My memory of his face melds with the moment the photographer caught on camera. In the remembering, it’s the photograph I see. Where does the moment end and the memory begin? Maybe a photo can capture a true image, the visual equivalent of a true name. What is the essence of any phrase or photograph? Words and images serve as icons, pointing the way to what has happened, to what is.
For most of my life I’ve struggled with feeling detached, even during intense experiences. Even as I’m a participant in my own life scenes, I’m an observer, too, the way you can be in dreams. Do I do this because I’m a writer? Or is it this idiosyncrasy that compels me to write? Whichever it is, other writers know what I’m talking about: the little corner of our minds constantly recording events, moment by moment, symbol by symbol, translating lived experience into written language as it’s happening, as though we’re striving to stand in, see, describe, and be the galaxy all at once. I’m spinning stories even when I’m out in the middle of the ocean on a whale watching tour.
Only I’m not in the middle of the ocean. I’m sitting at my desk in landlocked Pennsylvania, writing in present tense about a trip that happened years ago. I’ve been playing with words, collaging together a verbal photo album of memories and reflections. I’m trying to bring you along on this journey with me, trying to make you believe you saw the whale calf do its full breach. I want you to remember what it’s like to stand in Bee’s front yard under the black and silver Milky Way. I want you to look out from the deck of the Hurricane II with the holiest blue all around. I want you to see the miniature jumping crustaceans, that mysterious flashing light, the glow just beneath the surface. This is just one perspective, but maybe we can make sense of such things. Let’s look at these images together and name them. Let’s speak true names aloud.
Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan’s work has appeared in Flycatcher, New World Writing, Connotation Press, The Manifest Station, TAB, and on the websites of Prairie Schooner and Brevity. Her essays have been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology from Sundress Publications and been named as finalists in contests from Orison Books, Prime Number Magazine, and Hunger Mountain. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches writing for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation and elsewhere. Find her online in The Word Cellar (www.thewordcellar.com).