Jennifer McGuiggan

The Sound is Its Own Thing

Floating in one of the southern fingers of Puget Sound, Harstine Island is like no other

place I’ve been. It looks like the woods, but it smells like the sea. I come from the

landlocked southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, all rolling hills and woodlands. I spent

childhood vacations breathing in the salt air of a New Jersey barrier island. Here on

Harstine, it’s as though the two landscapes of my youth have been smashed together into

one beautiful, interlacing juxtaposition.

I’ve come here to spend a long weekend with nine other women, most of us strangers to

one another. Our common thread is the woman who organized this gathering, an ex-pastor

who now ministers as a sort of freelance soulcare specialist. We came together to break

bread, to make art, to share stories. We came because we speak the same language of loss

and faith and creativity. A soulsisters' retreat, we’re calling it. Members of our old faith

communities would call us heretics. We’re a little tribe of lapsed Evangelical Christians,

recovering believers, spiritual seekers who had once been found, and now are more or less

lost. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I’m still not sure.

On Sunday morning I hold a faux church service for one: just me with a notebook, time to

think, and a view. From the patio of this vacation house, I can see boats anchored on the

saltwater lake. Of course this isn't a lake—it's a sound. No fresh water here, only salt. I have

to keep reminding myself of this fact. This is ocean water that filled these glacial crevices

and landlocked basins eons ago. Yes, it looks like the woods, but it smells like the sea.

From my perch a few hundred yards away, the marina below me appears motionless. The

stillness of the water makes me restless. I like water that moves. I crave crashing surf and a

stiff breeze. There are no real waves on this part of the sound, but there are tides, a fact

that surprised me. On my second morning here, I looked out the floor-to-vaulted-ceiling

windows and encountered an image in reverse, a photographic negative: land displacing

water. Where had that patch of black and brown earth come from, there where there should

be—and had been—water? I wondered if I were still dreaming, still locked in that other

world where the impossible happens as a matter of course. Through the night I'd dreamt of

being hunted by a giant serpent from which only my mother could save me. In dreams, of

course, we accept the impossible and the archetypal: solid water, liquid land, angels and

demons. In dreams, the strange is familiar, or at least plausible. In dreams we’ll believe

anything. It is only when I am awake that I ever wonder if I am dreaming.

But in the morning light, the cove's geography had altered so dramatically that I could not

decipher the scene before me. I cast around for an answer. I wondered fantastical things:

Had the house shifted location during the night? Did this island hold some old magic that

had seeped into my sleep and flung us into another dimension? But when I walked down to

the dock, I realized that it was only low tide. Only. As if the interplay of moon and water

were some small thing.

At low tide, plump orange starfish spattered the exposed dark sand and lurked in the

shallow edges of the opaque green water. I'd never seen so many starfish, despite annual

family pilgrimages to the seashore. Since childhood I'd gotten to know one or two little

plots of Atlantic beach, a myopic view of the sea that had led to false intimacy. The older I

get, the more of my own naiveté I uncover.

The soulsisters and I have been talking about shifting perspectives all weekend. Each of us

has a different version of a similar story. Mine goes like this: Three years ago, the religion

I’d chosen as a teenager stopped making sense. This thing that I loved and thought I knew

intimately turned me inside out with unknowing. The familiar became foreign, and I

grieved the loss. For three years I’ve struggled to make sense of this shift. It’s only here, on

the other side of the continent, at the pungent edge of the piney woods, with dozens of

grapefruit colored starfish at my feet, that I’m beginning to realize that I know as little

about the earth's oceans and her creatures as I do about their maker. All this time, I’ve been

looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Out on a sailboat yesterday, I spied a seal. Her dark, curved head and frisky whiskers

peeked up from the flat water as our boat motored by on the windless afternoon. The

captain swung around for a better look. The seal popped back up to peer at us for a

moment, and then she slipped under the surface again, gone from view. No, this is

definitely not a lake, I thought—and not really the ocean proper. This is something else

entirely. The Sound is its own thing.

I wanted the seal to come back. I wanted her in a primal, non-rational way. I wanted to

dream about her, to speak her seal language and learn her secrets, so she could teach me

the ways of fish and sunken leaves, of all the things that we humans overlook up here on

the surface. Then maybe I would know something of earth and water and the one who made

them all.

The Sunday morning sun rises higher behind these pines that are more telephone pole than

Christmas tree. It seems the birds wake up late around here. It's nearly ten o’clock now, and

I'm just beginning to hear little chirpings and the bossy call of crows. I have plenty of

sparrows and crows back home; what I want right now is a gull. After several days here on

the island, I still haven't seen or heard a single one. This seems strange to me, given the

seal and starfish to attest to this water's abundant sea life.

Back east, I've seen seagulls an hour inland in New Jersey rest stop parking lots, just over

the border from Philadelphia. When I was a child, seagulls were a symbol of hope and

promise for me, like saltwater doves of peace. After the five-hour drive across Pennsylvania,

seagulls became the answer to “Are we there yet?” Their appearance told us “Soon!” Soon

we’d cross the bridge over the bay and the marshes. Soon we’d roll down our windows and

breathe in the sweet smell of brine. Soon we’d walk the two blocks from the hotel to the

beach, up the ramp to the boardwalk, and there it would be: Ocean. Even as a child, I felt

different at the shore, calmer and more alive, more at home, more like myself.

So where are the seagulls on Puget Sound? Shouldn’t I be closer to the coast here than in a

western New Jersey rest stop? But no, a map shows me my error. I may be on an island in

the midst of seawater, but I am more than an hour inland from the open Pacific coast.

Geography and belief are tricky this way; you can pin them down on the page, but neither

holds its shape in the physical, three-dimensional space of the world. Maybe the gulls are

like me, preferring the endless horizon and the white noise of waves to this placid salt


In a few days I’ll travel southwest to the Oregon coast to meet another friend. I want to go

now. I want to follow the Sound out to the open sea, wind my way along the coves and

channels to the big water. I want to slip into the cool water and swim forever, my feet

hidden under layers of shimmering blue-green. I want to feel at home in the dark water,

like the seal, no fear of things that brush against my skin. I want to swim past the edge of

the land and beyond the breakers, past the point where I can imagine touching bottom. I

want to be at home in the dark depths. But I am not brave enough for such an adventure.

There are things slippery and sharp beneath the surface: seaweed and shells, jellyfish and

snakes. What's worse, I wonder: Touching something slimy on the bottom, or not being able

to touch bottom at all? Is it better to brush up against what we fear, or to stay safe in the

shallows? Honestly, either one puts me out of my depth.

I started swimming in the deep-end of religion when I was 16. I grew up in a lukewarm

Methodist family. By the time I hit my early teens, we’d stopped attending regular services

because no one but my mother wanted to go. Then in my sophomore year of high school, I

set out on a self-directed adolescent quest to find the meaning of life. Around that same

time, I became friends with the new kid at school who carried his Bible everywhere. He told

me about Jesus in a more urgent and exciting way than I’d heard from the Methodists. Then

he took me to his Charismatic, non-denominational church, which was a world away from

the traditional neighborhood chapel I was used to. Instead of wooden pews and hymns

played on an old upright piano, his church had a modern sanctuary filled with rows of

chairs, a worship band with drums and electric guitars, people singing and speaking in

tongues, and a beguiling atmosphere of mystery and merriment. I was sold. When my

friend asked me if I wanted to say the “sinner’s prayer” and accept Jesus as my Lord and

Savior, I eagerly signed on the dotted line.

So there I was: A 16-year-old Born Again Christian, seemingly in possession of the meaning

of life and the secrets of the universe. It was relatively smooth sailing for the next 14 years.

I attendee a Christian college, spent a year doing volunteer missionary work overseas, had a

Christian wedding, and started my adult life as a true believer. Sure, some tiny questions

niggled at me from time to time. But that’s what faith is for: It’s a roadmap through the


And then I lost the map.

Some time around age 30, things changed. It felt as though I’d woken up one day and found

my spiritual topography transformed, faith and doubt reversing roles overnight. I can see

now that the change had seeped in like a deep, slow-moving tide. In the beginning, I felt

like I had fallen asleep in a boat and woken up lost at sea. For a year I rowed that boat with

mock purpose, pretending everything was just fine. No one seemed to notice I'd gone

missing, so I decided to steer back to port and return to my previous ways, none the wiser

or worse for wear. But it soon became clear that I could not go back. In fact, that was the

only clear thing. My trusty compass had stopped working. I looked to the dark heavens for

guidance, but the stars dotted themselves into strange constellations. I could not find true


To complicate matters, I still believed in God. I just didn’t know exactly what I believed

about Him. (Her? It? Them? Even pronouns became complicated in this post-apocalyptic

spiritual wasteland.) In some ways, I think it would have been easier to walk away and forge

a new path if I could have pointed to a singular break with religion, some trauma that made

me stop believing in anything beyond myself. But that didn’t happen. My theology ebbed

away, but my spirituality remained.

I’d thought that my spiritual journey had culminated with my teenage conversion. Now I

understand that to journey means to keep moving. You have to keep going even if you crash

on a strange shore filled with unfamiliar light and shadow. I have no idea where to go next,

but being here with the soulsisters reassures me that there are others in the same boat.

The house behind me is quiet. I stare out through the trees. The clock and the sun are

closing in on high noon, but there is still little activity out in the cove. Surely the seal and

starfish are stirring under the water. I hear a rustling in the underbrush beside me, a

squirrel or bird, I tell myself, though I wonder if it could be a snake. I let my eyes drop to

the water. Again, my eyes and ears tell me: lake. Only my nose and memory tell me: sound.

All of this—I still believe—is the handiwork of some power I can no longer name. Nature is

what convinced me of a divine existence in the first place. As a teenager, I’d looked at the

world around me and the sky above, and I didn’t have the faith to deny a god. Even now, I

just can’t believe that everything is merely science-friendly happenstance rather than the

work of some unseen creative genius. Whatever else has been difficult about my spiritual

path, believing in God has never been hard.

It’s past noon now. I’m ready for lunch—and to pack up for the next leg of my trip. I’ve

enjoyed this weekend, but I’m tired of talking about belief, tired of this waveless salt lake.

I’m ready to meet-up with my friend who is more or less an easy-going agnostic and hit a

proper beach with proper waves. Just before I go inside, something in the air catches my

eye. Out above the water, a white bird tipped with black flaps her boomerang wings and

glides. I don't believe my eyes until I hear her cry. This twangy birdsong after so much

silence: like someone I love calling my name. This sound makes me feel closer to the sea

than the water before me. Soon, I tell the gull silently. Soon I will see your cousins

wheeling out over the noisy waves, frolicking in the boom and calm of the surf.

Even as I watch the gull, I can’t quite make sense of this place. The Pacific Northwest both

confounds and comforts me, its seals and starfish sharing space with crows and pine trees. I

love that the ocean, woods, and mountains have woven themselves into a blue-green-brown

tapestry in the upper left corner of this patchwork country. I’m still anxious to see the open

coastline and hear the crashing surf, but perhaps Puget Sound can be an oasis in my mad

wilderness between heresy and enlightenment. I keep watching that solitary gull until she

disappears behind the trees.

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