Saturday, July 31, 2010


A keeper! A keeper! He caught a keeper!

All the kids rush the pier and crowd around the hero fisherman who pulled in the gigantic bass. I'm the only one who doesn't move. I can see it fine from here, and that's as close as I want to get to the silvery green body, arcing in the air, flailing against death.

I love the lake and the waves and the breeze and the boat. But I don't like fishing – grabbing monsters by the mouth and hauling them up into the light where I'd have to deal with the weight of whatever was hooked. Better to let those things swim unseen in the underwater underworld where they belong. Silent in the murky water, snaking through forests of weeds, trapped in a finite space by a see-through Pandora's lid.

Yes, I'm afraid of fish. The kids think this is funny but I explain that the way I feel in close proximity to a fish – the unpredictable flopping, the beady black eyes, the mouth that isn't used for breathing – is the same way they feel about the spiders they shriek for me to sweep away or the shadows they fear on the bedroom wall. For some people, fish are beautiful. They're food, they're sport, they're a fascinating link in the circle of life. I can agree with all that from behind aquarium glass or through the pages of a book. But dangle a fish near me or put a pole in my hands or throw me in the lake to swim – and watch me squirm. Maybe even scream.

Like the time I plunged into the ocean wearing a snorkel mask, convinced I could breathe through my fear and find some bravery. I was with my Americorps team in the Florida Keys, and when would I be back there again? I followed my teammates off the ladder and treaded water for a minute to get my bearings. Then I submerged my face and what I saw nearly drowned me. Fish. Everywhere. Bright colored and beautiful – but only a body's length below me. I forgot how to breathe and what the snorkel was for. Sputtering, gasping, I lifted my face and floated on fear. I only lasted a few more minutes before I retreated to the boat. Everyone else was disappointed by the cloudy water quality, but the few fish I saw were experience enough for me. When the group went out again on a clearer day, I opted to canoe in the mangroves instead. A good choice because they could talk of nothing but the five barracudas they saw…

It's a silly, irrational fear. I know. But harmless enough. As far as phobias go, this one isn't debilitating or even particularly limiting.

But fishing presents an interesting parallel, a metaphor I must unwrap.

Let's talk about surfaces and depths and dragging things into the light that we don't want to see. Things that we'd rather leave alone, let swim in the deeps where they're unseen and easily forgotten. Moments we're not proud of. Thoughts that bubble up no matter how firmly we push them down. Ugly faces we parade in front of the people we love.

When I cast my line into the deep parts of myself, there are a number of big ones I could reel in. Monsters that have been growing hungrily my whole life and could stand to be pulled out and clubbed over the head.

Like the way I'm sorry always sticks in my throat, caught and choking on being right. The way I respond to criticism like it's a full blown, spear thrown attack. The way I wear my bad moods like a rain cloud, drenching and growling at those in my closest circle. The way I let my self confidence drain out with the bath water and sit there naked and shivering. The way I cradle self pity. The way I judge.

There are others, I'm sure. Ones I can't even see clearly enough to name.

But they're not all ugly. There are some brilliant colors down there, too. Like creativity and kindness and crystal clear intentions. Grace and gratitude and gifts I've yet to give. And love. Love pulsing through everything. There are angelfish swimming alongside my muskies.

And here's the really cool part of this metaphor: I'm not just looking at these fish – all these dark and light parts of myself – swimming around in some glass bowl. No, they exist in the unique ecosystem that is me and stuff is evolving all the time. So when I cast into myself – you know, do a little soul searching – I always catch and release. I toss the pretty ones back to grow more and populate my waters. And the scary ones? I'm figuring out ways to scrape off some of the gross scales and replace them with bits of iridescent blues and brilliant pinks, hoping to transform my ugliest faults into breathtaking creatures of the deeps.