A long-time friend who follows this blog has a vacation home on Lopez Island in Washington. He recently sent me a photo and note saying he had just seen a seal on a nearby beach:
He added this comment: “Steve, they call this catastrophic molting where the seal comes up on the beach for 26 days and tries to shed his winter fur. He doesn’t eat but he really stinks. He often looks very uncomfortable and scratches, I suppose like having a bad sunburn. That would be a good title for a Lenten sermon or for one of your Saturday blogs: catastrophic molting.”
I was inspired. I did some research and found this description from the Point Reyes National Park service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/elephant-seals-march-catastrophic-molt.htm
…let’s define molting: “Molting means the periodic shedding of feathers, hairs, horns, nails, shells, and skins – any outer layer. Molt is from the Latin mutare meaning ‘to change'” (Merriam Webster). When we brush our hair, for example, we consider it natural that some hair remains in the brush. We don’t usually shriek in horror, “I’m molting!”—even though we are! The elephant seal catastrophic molt (which simply means that their fur and top layer of skin comes off in large patches) is more dramatic than a few hairs in a hairbrush.
I assume everything I read is ultimately about me, so I thought about my own molting. I was born with a full head of hair. About 15 years ago, I realized a bald spot on the top of my head was spreading. The more it advanced, the more I tried to hide it. When I realized it was permanent, I wanted to lie on a beach and bellow operatically about my fate. I still do. At least the seal gets a new layer of fur and feels renewed. I never will. A catastrophe!
When I thanked my friend for the photo and idea, I included a link to a recent New York Times article about sea slugs: “Meet the Sea Slugs That Chop Off Their Heads and Grow New Bodies.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/08/science/decapitated-sea-slugs.html
Ms. Mitoh and her team monitored several groups of Elysia marginata and Elysia atroviridis over the course of the creatures’ lives. Not all the sea slugs they monitored decapitated themselves, but many did — one even did it twice. Bodies regenerated from the heads of both species, but the headless bodies stayed headless. However, those dumped bodies reacted to stimuli for as long as months, before decomposing…For most of the sea slugs, the regeneration process took less than three weeks to complete.
The sea slug story stirred envy in me. What would it be like to have this option as we age? Muscle aches, limited motion, dull pains, insomnia, pills arranged in daily reminder bins, skin turning to parchment…wouldn’t it be great to have the Sea Slug Procedure?
“Yup,” we announce to family and friends, “I’ve had enough. I’ve scheduled my auto-decapitation. I’ll have a new body in three weeks. And in the next few months, if you see my old body inching down the neighborhood sidewalk looking lost, ignore it…our relationship is over.”
But my friend in Washington had a more enlightened perspective after reading the article. In a video included in the article, the liberated head bumps into its old body. My friend wrote: He/she/it looks like it is kissing goodbye to that old body that served it so well. I am usually using strong language on my old body for the things it can no longer do or only do it with lots of aches and pains. I need to be more thankful like that sea slug.
And that led me to think about the mini-stroke I experienced in 2011.
It was on the first night of our summer vacation. We’d driven all day to begin a week-long yoga retreat near Mt. Shasta. About an hour after we went to bed, I arose to honor my biology. I realized my left leg was not responding and I was struggling to walk.
“Are you OK?” my wife asked.
“I feel kind of funky,” was what I meant to say, but my speech was garbled, and she couldn’t understand me. At that moment we realized I was having a stroke.
Volunteer EMTs transported me to the local 20-bed hospital. I was alone in my hospital room that night, pondering my future.
By midmorning the next day, my speech was returning, as was the use of my left side. After a series of tests, they consulted my primary care doctor back home. He advised me to continue our vacation at a careful pace and to see him for follow-up when we returned home.
Two days later, I decided to try a few poses in the morning yoga class. In one pose, you put your left leg out in front of you and extend your upper body over it. As I did this, I looked at my left leg. I realized it was once again obeying my command. I was overcome with gratitude. How many times in all my years has that leg done what I asked, day after day without fail? And have I ever noticed? Have I ever expressed my gratitude?
I found myself serenading my left leg with an old country song, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”
Maybe the day will come when a cure for “molting” is found, or we can trade-in our old bodies. Until then, I am going be grateful for all the infinite processes beyond my awareness that support my life day after day, year after year. Instead of lamenting my limitations, I want to always honor the miracle of being alive.