Home is where the loon is

Another all-too-common day appeared to be in the works. As usual, a protracted job search was my unwelcome breakfast companion. A hefty serving of added concern joined us at the table: Should I leave San Francisco, my home (or some would say, my "vacation") of 22 years and return to my native New England?

The reasons for considering a move were numerous, not the least of which was the job situation and a glance toward my future. I felt like a smorgasbord - too much on my plate, not knowing where to start.

Fortunately, there was one immediate step I could take. Out the door of my apartment to a mind-clearing hike from the Golden Gate Bridge to the edge of San Francisco Bay at Chrissy Field. The Marin Headlands to the north had already turned a February emerald green. The bay sparkled ahead. It was a brisk, blue-sky, postcard-perfect day complete with bird song and blooming orange California poppies.

I arrived at the bay's edge and crashed a nature lunch party in progress. White dots of birds on the water's surface punctuated the southeast side of The Golden Gate Bridge. Western gulls congregated in fishy places, and unidentified diving winged creatures were showing up for the buffet near the surging surf. I felt the corners of my mouth begin to rise tentatively in the direction of a smile, reversing the earlier downward trend.

A fellow view-appreciator walked by, looked at me, and remarked, "Life is good!"

I replied, "Yes, it is. Especially here!"

Then I heard a strange noise. I quickly scanned the bay and saw a familiar, yet out-of-place form that looked like, could it be - a loon?

I couldn't believe my eyes. Loons are my very favorite waterfowl. My love for them and joy in their presence was nurtured during family summer vacations on a Maine lake. The resident loon family often was the center of conversation on the beach and the nightly nature lullaby. When I first came to San Francisco and felt homesick, I'd play the soundtrack of "On Golden Pond" just to hear the loon calls. It always made me cry, but I'd feel better, too.

But real loons in San Francisco? And I don't mean the obvious looniness that the city is infamous for. I just never expected to see a loon of the waterfowl variety in salty San Francisco Bay on the cusp of spring. I thought they were a summer, freshwater-lake phenomenon.

I dashed into the bookstore cafe nearby and asked if they had binoculars I could borrow. They did, and before I went back out, I flipped through a few bird books. It might be a common loon - the Maine lake kind, or some others I'd never known existed - a Pacific loon or a red-throated loon. Or maybe it was an off-track Arctic loon?

The few minutes I'd planned to watch the loon turned into the rest of the afternoon. I was so excited to see the loon dive its familiar dive and disappear for what seemed to be forever, only to resurface, eat its lunch and, from time to time, gracefully spread its long wings, as it lifted itself up out of the water to stretch, and dropped back down again. It looked like a principal dancer warming up for a ballet, some scenes of which had imprinted themselves on my life from childhood. I was in awe and oddly comforted in a way that was, at first, indescribable.

I finally figured out that what I was seeing was probably a Pacific or common loon on its migration north along the Pacific Flyway to its summer lake residence. A park ranger at the bookstore told me that I had probably spotted a common loon, the kind I knew so well from Maine, but in slightly different, muted, seasonal garb. What a thrill!

But this wasn't simply a delightful cultural event on water, or a bird sighting to be verified oh-so-clinically in a bird book. Laugh if you will, but for me, it was like having a surprise visit from a cherished extended family member I hadn't seen for ages, reminding me that what I love, like the loon and all it represents to me, is really always wherever I am and will be wherever I go. It just might be in a slightly different get-up, and I need to be on the lookout for it, instead of assuming I am bereft of something I cherish.

That doesn't mean I won't move back east for the people and things I love, or that I will not stay in San Francisco for the same. It was a lesson about love and how it can reach you when you least expect it, and most need it, even in the most unexpected way.

It was also an experience rife with unapologetic clich├ęs: a sight for sore eyes, a hug from nature, a gift from the universe, and a wink from a Norman Rockwell painting at a time when Norman Rockwell scenes are often flanked by Coast Guard helicopters patrolling for terrorists, and a once easygoing City by the Bay is braced for danger.

I walked away from that scene feeling inexplicably reassured. The impact of that afternoon also somehow took the agony out of the decisionmaking process and made me feel that I would find the answer, in due time, to the question of a move and the dilemma of finding a job.

I know deep down, though, that the enduring, clear message from that almost-spring afternoon with the visiting common loon is what will continue to echo in my mind as I need to hear it.

Like the call of the loon on a summer's night: Life is good, life is good! And wherever you are, east or west, whatever you are doing, there is absolutely nothing common about it.

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