06/09/2010 02:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shining in the Dark: Finding Some Good in the Tragedy of the Oil Spill

The week the oil spill slimed Pensacola beaches, I flew to Florida to celebrate my niece's graduation. It was not lost on me that my airplane trip from Seattle to Florida was guzzling oil; and that as we descended over the Gulf of Mexico that same oil was gushing a black death for wildlife, the water column, and all of us who make our livelihoods from the sea.

In Sarasota, everyone braced for the oil to reach pristine, sugar-white beaches and turquoise waters. The Sarasota Herald Tribune's headline read: "Florida's Worst Fear: First Oil Hits Shores" and "Arrival of oily blobs in the Panhandle stirs a sense of foreboding." This was the "first time a spill of this magnitude has scarred Florida."

A storefront display in the 7-11 had a "Save-Our-Seabirds, Inc." (S.O.S.) rack of Dawn detergent, black work gloves, paper towels, and notebooks for cleaning oiled feathers.

A local contractor told the Herald Tribune, "It's like we're on a death watch here."

Against this grim backdrop, it seemed almost a sin to go swimming and take pleasure in these serene waves. But my traveling companion, Sarah, a New Yorker who has spent ten summers with her husband and daughter enjoying these Sarasota beaches was our undaunted tour guide.

"We must go into these waters," she said softly. "It may be the last time they're clear."

We bought sale-rack bathing suits from a grateful boutique owner. "People are so spooked by the oil spill that tourists are abandoning us," the shop-owner said. "It's a double hit."

The beach was unbelievably beautiful -- calm and warm waters, an expanse of turquoise waves with surf so mild it seemed contemplative. As we floated in buoyant salt waters, I suggested we say prayers for these holy waters in a hopeful attempt to keep the oil spill away. What else could we do?

So Sarah began a Buddhist prayer:

May All Beings be Safe
May All Beings be Happy
May All Beings be Healthy
May All Beings be Free of Pain
May All Beings Live in Ease

Though it was just a simple blessing of the waters, though we floated on vulnerable waves, the prayer seemed exactly right. Brown pelicans skimmed low, their large beaks still somehow comic even in the face of tragedy; delicate ibis and snowy egrets skittered on beach sand, and a white heron stood as sentry on an old wharf post.

All seemed well with this world.

So well that at the graduation the next day, we could all clap and cry at the "Pomp and Circumstance" prelude as graduates strode confidently to receive their diplomas. We could still face the future with hope and self-assurance and creativity. A teacher quoted one of my favorite Robert Frost poems: "Choose Something like a Star."

Addressing the star, Frost writes "dark is what brings out your light." Certainly the darkness of this Gulf oil spill calls from us some light, some illumination, some change. Frost says of the star that "It asks a little of us here/ It asks of us a certain height."

As the graduates hurled their gold-tasseled caps high in the air, I wondered how can we hope, how can we find such height in ourselves when we are stained to the very depths of our oceans?

One of my nieces, who has worked as a dolphin researcher in Florida waters, told me, "I feel hopeless about this oil spill. It makes me just want to become a recluse."

We all understand this protective impulse. But a therapist friend of mine who works with clients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder taught me a mental technique for facing tragedy: Imagine a screen. Split that screen. On one side see the terrible images: a holocaust of marine life, oil-soiled dolphins, birds, turtles; fishermen weeping and raging over their lost livelihoods, a steadily growing black poison in fragile seas.

Now, on the other side of that mental screen call up imagines of vibrant, healthy waters, soaring pelicans and dolphins at play. Fishermen hauling in abundant shrimp and oysters for our suppers. Hear the shush of an endless and clean surf and clear seas as far as the horizon. Families swimming together.

If we can witness the worst, we can also search for the best. After the graduation, my whole family returned to that Sarasota beach. We held hands in the wind-whipped waves and laughed, full of joy that we were together and these waters were still safe, nourishing.

We made plans to get together again on these beaches in late summer and fall - even if they are oil-soaked, even if the greasy slick now pooling off Tampa on World Oceans Day comes ashore.

We can come here to again say prayers for these waters; we can support the tourist businesses that need our help. We can do one thing every day -- wherever we live -- to connect to the Gulf of Mexico. For me, I joined Save the Manatee as they continue protecting Florida's gentle marine mammals.

When facing fear and tragedy we can make a plan. We can make a difference. Because what the poet and the star -- and this oil spill -- are asking of us, is to rise up to a certain height, to witness and keep watch, to shine in the dark.

Brenda Peterson is the co-author of Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond (Sierra Club) and the new memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. More at