I went fishing yesterday with my old friend John and his yellow lab, Arno. They were easy company, and the three of us, each in our own way, were happy just to be on the river.
I could hear it in the timbre of John's voice when we were tying on flies. I could see it in Arno's endless energy, the way he splashed in the shallows with the unmistakable joy of a young dog off leash. We fished a bend in the river that we both knew well, a quiet ribbon of water in a wooded canyon that for about three weeks in spring holds a few thick-shouldered cutthroat trout.
Usually the trout have the decency to let us fool them once or twice, but yesterday the fish weren't interested in our offerings. John took Arno upriver where he fished beneath a stand of old cedars. I drifted a fly along a grassy cut-bank. I watched the insects. I studied the water. I scanned the riffles and tail-outs for signs of feeding fish. I made myself slow down and study everything as if it were all part of a riddle that, deciphered, would lead me to the reward of a landed trout.
When I'm wrapped up like that in a river, time compresses haiku-like into singular moments and I notice details that I probably wouldn't otherwise see—like the sliver of a second when John turned towards me and something about the angle and the softening light in the canyon made him look like his father, who years ago was also my friend until he was taken too soon by a capricious tumor in his brain.
"When I'm wrapped up like that in a river, time compresses haiku-like into singular moments and I notice details that I probably wouldn't otherwise see."
I first met John almost twenty years ago when he was a track coach and I was a teacher at a prep school in Spokane. John had long hair back then and I owned a blue jeep and we were both single and carefree and had a lot more time to go fishing.
In those days, my teaching days, one of my favorite stories to tell students was a Japanese parable about a man who was trying to become a Zen master. The man wanted so badly to grasp Zen that he climbed a mountain to visit a famous monk for advice. When he arrived, the monk poured the man a cup of tea, as was the custom, but filled the cup so full that tea spilled over the brim. "The cup is too full," the man said, unable to restrain himself. "There is no more room for tea!”
To this, the old monk replied: "You are like this cup, full to overflowing. You cannot master Zen until you empty your mind."
I told that story for years because I thought it was clever and worthwhile and enjoyable to talk about; I still occasionally think about it. I like what it says about making room for new ideas and letting go of pre-conceived notions. I like, too, what it says about people who foolishly believe that knowledge can be measured in direct proportion to memorized facts.
Now that I'm older, though, the part of that story that resonates most is the simplest part--the overflowing tea cup. The metaphor speaks to me now in a way that it couldn't when I was twenty-five and life was simpler and the idea of a full cup was only an idea in story, not a reality that I could grasp.
I also see now that it's no coincidence that wise monks in old stories always live in remote places--on mountains, in caves, near waterfalls, and alongside rivers. It's an obvious detail but an important one because it lays out a blueprint for a life lived right, which I can also now appreciate more than I once could.
John and I tried every trick we knew yesterday in hopes of teasing a trout out of the river, but eventually the clouds stacked up in the canyon and opened up into rain. We both understood the shift in weather as a clear signal that it was time to go home.
It was then, with the rain falling in sheets as we were heading back to the truck, that we finally saw our first trout rise. It rolled in a pool that now, with no sun above to illuminate its depth, looked ink-black and bottomless. We were cold and wet and the rain was coming down hard, but neither of us could resist a final cast.
When John hooked that trout, Arno pawed excitedly at the water, and I stood on the shore behind them soaked and happy and laughing. At that moment, the rain felt like a tonic and the river once again felt like a familiar friend.
"At that moment, the rain felt like a tonic and the river once again felt like a familiar friend."
After a quick photo, John eased his prize back into the river—a healthy west slope cutthroat, dappled and luminous in shades of green and yellow. It held for a moment in the soft water, and then, with a single fan of its tail, vanished into the dark pool to become part of the mystery once again.
If there is a takeaway it's this: I'm not a monk—far from it. I live in a house, not a mountain hut, and I have a job and a family and the usual responsibilities. I'm happy to attend to them all. But when a friend invites me to sneak away for a few hours of fishing—to empty the tea cup, you might say—it's the kind of thing I need to do. It's the kind of thing we all need to do.