How many times can you take a photo of the ocean?

How many times can you evoke tenderness?

That’s what this big Pacific Ocean brings up for me when it’s quiet and pond-like, waters whispering like massage.

Tenderness, ease, delight. Somehow they were never included in the wiring of my brain. You grow up on stories of hunger, concealment, and death, are told how lucky you are that you don’t have these things in your life, and suddenly problems like I have no friends or Someone said something very cruel to me or I don’t have a date for Saturday night seem pathetic and overindulgent. You’re not sick, you’re healthy, you’re smart, what’s the problem?

What I missed was tenderness. Being held, not just physically but emotionally. And I don’t blame anyone here, it’s hard to give what you ain’t got. But what you’re left with is a yearning for tenderness.

In the distance a sailboat cruises slowly away from us, toward the Channel Islands. In two months or so mama whales will take their babies north. I won’t see it, I’m leaving Santa Barbara in an hour, but I learned how to look for them when I lived here. Not their great leap, that’s a different thing entirely.

You look for a break in the surface of the water, a line that moves north rather than staying in place or coming to shore. At some point—and you have to be patient here–the water breaks a little more and you see an enormous shadow grazing just below the surface. Slowly and ponderously they travel north, living and letting live. Tenderness.

I told a friend this morning that for years Santa Barbara was not for me. Too easily beautiful, I told him. Of course there are divorces and deaths here, traffic accidents and poverty; there were terrible fires, homelessness, and mud slides. Still, I thought I had to be more at the edge of things, where life is raw and difficult, where even the small things will level you.

Here I find tenderness. A world that says you don’t have to do much, you’re not so important after all. Look west at the ocean and east at the Santa Ynez mountains, see the dolphins play and the dogs chase balls into the waves, all saying: When you go back East, don’t forget, there’s this too. This too.