Just Below the Surface

There is a river out there, in me and in you too, connecting us with narrowing feeder branches extending far upstream into dank cedar crowded valleys where little waters flow, connecting us like neurons in both synapse and spirit, adhering who we are with who we have been. Where the water gets skinny and cold is where our story began, where our kind was joined to the aquatic leaving our hydrophilic hands pruny for a better grip like felt on rock.  Way up at the source of it all lies a mossy little amphitheater filled to capacity with spring peepers, watercress, and one old brown trout lying belly down in the percolating sand who is thankful to have a divine purpose and a full house to watch his play but who longs, like Rachard Bach’s reluctant Messiah, to be out in the torrent with the commons, hunting the Yellowstone for rainbow smolt and ambushing size 2 olive sex dungeons.

I don’t really understand this water I sit in front of as much as I claim to. It’s touch and face I see and recognize like the one’s whose hands I held close to my heart late at night, but whose character and current remain a mystery.  I study the surface of the river looking for depth and structure that to me is only visible in riffle, run, rapid and roil where the undercurrent casts my eye unseen. Those surface effects are the signs of life moving through us, only to show on the surface we wear and that is read by others; superficial ripples born from stirrings hidden deep underwater.

What I see is often not all there is though, and if life has taught me well we should be on guard for unexpected upwellings of emotion and current at times when we least expect it. It reminds of a day a mess of years back when myself and two friends were canoeing on the Mississippi River between Cairo, Illinois and Memphis, Tennessee. That afternoon was calm and cheery warm for November in Missouri and best of all we had yet to almost die that day; a river which presented our group with fast and easy travel and at least one near death experience daily. Out of what seemed to be a perfect moment, as we floated eating peanut butter, honey and raisin sandwiches with our two canoes lashed into one mutant vessel came a flicker of white water reaching from one bank to the other with no breaks that told of a river- wide low head dam. Unable to get to either shore we picked a decent looking downstream ‘V’ and paddled for what was as close to dear life as I have come in 36 years. Crashing over a drop of 4 feet we were soon past the worst of that moment of life but it left us a bit shaken at what had just transpired. A similar moment occurred last month with a person this time instead of a river, emotion instead of a low head dam, and an abrupt goodbye instead of a downstream ‘V’, but the shock was no less jolting and left me no less confused, blindsided and wondering how I had not seen that waterfall until I was in the outwash scratching my head and drifting downriver without a paddle, picking up bits of my life strewn yard sale style on the shore, and inscribing lazy circles in the eddies and pools below the cataract. Enough of that metaphor.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that steelhead I lost, or that itself saved, in my last blog post Let Go?. No, it doesn’t swim through my dreams like some Jezebel painted anadramous white whale or freestone marlin hell bent on dragging me around the Caribbean in a drift boat. I am not haunted by the memory of it the way I have been haunted by tough days on a certain spring creek out west. When I close my eyes I don’t see snapped tippet or empty line, I see the glowing faces of girls I knew when we were young and stupid, my hastily drawn up lesson plans for tomorrow’s class, swinging axes barely missing unsuspecting toes, and stretches of rivers that I have fished but that have started to roll back into little blue lines on the map. I don’t see that rainbow, I don’t recount the whole scene or the whole beautiful day, but there is a lingering feeling in my smoldering reptile brain that something of importance lies in those 4 minutes of my life, a short capsule of time that holds just out of sight, below the murky dysphotic zone, finning in the dark water, and only coming out at night to feed on mice and my sleep. I don’t expect there will be any philosophical line records broken by this elusive lesson, but even a 6” brookie can take you for a ride if you’re not ready.

In the movie “Rounders” Matt Damon’s character quotes author Jack King who said “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.” Fear and failure are binary troubles locked in gravitational orbit, each one increasing the speed and power of the other forcing us fisherman and I assume card players also to slink away sometimes into the far reaches of the cold universe to reconcile the tough beat we took or the fish we lost, maybe to break something you’ll instantly regret breaking or swear out loud in your car, and to find a place to lick our wounds and regain ourselves so we may go back and repeat the process again. Here and now I name it sanctuary, that shadowy fish in the maw, that piece of my cerebral puzzle hiding in the depth. Statistics and success are sanctuary to the card player the same as the promise of reward and redemption are sanctuary to the sinner and fly fisherman alike.

Herman Hesse said “Trees are sanctuaries, whoever knows how to speak to them…can learn the truth.” While I don’t think Hesse was picturing a rainbow fair hooked on a size 12 rubber legged hare’s ear and while I doubly doubt that sore mouthed rainbow has ever read “Wandering,” I see a synaptic gulf that needs connecting. When that rainbow felt the pressure from my distant hand he dove for the trees, for the truth of salvation, for some hidden aquatic obstacle throwing eddies on the river surface, and to give me a pair of deuces; “I’m done with you” he said and like that was gone, concealed in his safe place, his sanctuary.  What that moment has been trying to teach me these past few weeks is that we all need a place to go to fend off life, to snap the leader pulling us around and to scrape up a few bucks to get back to the table.

Fight or flight, what’s your spirit animal? Imagine picking up an apple from under an apple tree, logical place right? Suppose that upon first bite you felt an unnatural pull towards the nearby river. This would probably initially illicit momentary confusion, I mean, it was just an apple, how could an apple be so strong to pull you so forcefully someplace you had no intention on going? And why to the river, doesn’t the apple know you can’t breath underwater? Panic, I can’t breath underwater! Run! Run you fool your brain demands of your feet, then your legs and finally lets your conscious bits in on the plan. So you pull for your life, right? Maybe not, maybe you attack like a cornered dog, ready to sink red claw and fang into whatever this devil is that is plying you into the river. Maybe you’d just lay there like a bovine, content to sit and re- chew breakfast or get pulled into the water, either way is cool. Learn how you react and there’s your spirit animal. For me, I’m with the fish, at the first sign that things aren’t right I’d head for the snag just like the steelhead did and wait there until I could sort out just what the hell is going on, then I’d probably sulk there until I felt my point was proven.

Head for the trees, that was sanctuary for Pippin and Merry, Mai in Totoro, and for the Buddha. Hurling in a hyper speed helix though space, our galaxy is home to it’s share of chaos and demands of us a good hiding spot.  Put that hiding spot indoors and you get a sanctuarium, a place of religious alters and buried legends, a place safe from inquisition and intrusion. Fill that place full of beasts and you get an animal sanctuary, a place safe from extermination and home to rehabilitation. Let that place reside in you and you either get sanctity or if you let it out too much you become sanctimonious. We all seek refuge from our fears and failures, find out what yours is and keep it close, you never know when a peaceful pond will start to boil and burst over it’s canyon keep  or when a tasty apple may turn out not be an apple at all.


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