Grandfather and the Fisherman
by Tom Brown Jr.
One of the stories I like telling the best is of Grandfather and the fisherman. The story was a very powerful teaching in my life and illustrates beautifully that awareness has to be a conscious choice. Living fully a life of rapture had to be a conscious, never-ending effort. The alternatives are a living death, and I believe that the story is worth retelling here, even reading aloud, to children, as an illustration of this point.
Sometimes we must look at old things anew, changing our perspective and vision, and abandon the old ruts of thinking and experiencing. Grandfather was my greatest teacher; he taught me lessons on every level. In every part of his life, I found so many lessons, many without words, reaching far beyond the physical realms. One day Grandfather taught me a powerful lesson by just being himself, going about his life as he always did. I don't suspect even he knew what a profound effect his actions had on my life. Sometimes teachers come when you least expect them, bearing precious gifts of knowledge that somehow tie everything together. These gifts can even sometimes come through failure or negativity, though there are no failures, or negatives, only teachings. So it was with me and an old fisherman. Unbeknownst to him, he became, also, one of my greatest teachers. In my life, these two events connect to each other and stand out above so many others. I call this story, "The Wisdom of Grandfather and the Fisherman."
The story of Grandfather and the fisherman is the story of two different worlds, a contrast of separate realities. The representation of one world has shown me the essence of the other, and they both have shown me how to live, one in very positive terms and the other in negative. Little did I know that the difference between each could be fused into my consciousness as one harmonious teaching. But that is the natural order of things, if one knows how to learn without prejudice and with purity, since it is only from this vantage point that associations and similarities arise unhampered, and connections emerge where there could be none before. Within the natural order a balancing of opposites occurs, one world compliments the other and produces a picture sharper for its depth than if each element is viewed separately. The teachings set forth in the following tale occurred at separate times, they illustrate for me the essence of living as taught jointly by two very different people.
I was sitting on an old cedar stump, watching the dawn advance across the swamp. The morning was thick with mist, especially near the stream that cut through the boggy cedar swamp. The trunks of the huge old cedar trees faded from sight as they reached to the pale skies, plunging through the dense sheet of mist that clung to their upper crowns. The cedar forest appeared as a mystical temple, something of vision or dream rather than reality. Its beauty was breathtaking; reverence for this place saturated my soul. Shafts of angled sunlight cut through the lower forest with a hazy yellow-orange light that cast shadows into strange shapes and mists into flowing apparitions. Dew clung to every leaf and furrowed trunk, dripping here and there, mingling with the symphony of awaking birds and the gentle surging flow of the stream. I felt as if I sat on the edge of some primordial forest at the dawn of creation.
I was deep in prayer, consciously and unconsciously, losing myself in meditation and in the deeper recesses of the misty shadows. I know of no one who could have sat in this place, at the edge of misty sun and shadowy forest, who would not have been in prayer, at peace with creation and flooded with unspeakable awe. This kind of morning always tears away all cares and duties, all fleshly wants, and bares the soul to the elements, to be washed and purified. The thrashings of the mind evaporate like the mists of dawn, and true thoughts come into ever-sharpening focus. Adding their own mystique to this magical morning, deer drift in and out of the mists, disappearing momentarily behind brush or fusing their color with that of distant trees. Everywhere animals move, their motion blending with the flow of forest.
Another flow entered this morning, Grandfather drifted slowly down the trail to the stream. I was excited to see him because he had been away in another part of the forest. I wanted to go to him but the intrigue of sitting there watching him held me in place. I am almost certain that he knew I was there, for there was little he missed in the woods and I am sure nuances and disturbances easily gave away my location. Whether he knew I was there or not, however, he showed no interest, and continued walking slowly toward the stream. He stood for a long time, gazing at the water. He glanced up and down the stream, leisurely yet methodically, as if searching for something. His eyes rested on the cathedral of cedars for a longing moment and caught the glisten of a tear on his cheek. To me, he appeared as if he was about to enter a temple, about to see God.
As I sat and watched, my mind took a strange turn, changing reality and shedding consciousness of the self. All analysis ceased and I began to look at Grandfather as if I were watching some stranger. It was a nebulous feeling, a thinking with no perimeters of consciousness of time or place. Watching him was like watching a surrealistic dance or play, with unnamed characters and dreamlike landscapes. The whole relationship between Grandfather and me seemed of a different time, a distant reality not of this place. I was fascinated and intrigued by his actions. I saw each move as if I had never seen it before.
Though I had known Grandfather for over eight years, his movements overwhelmed me now. Sometimes one gets so close to something or someone that one can only see it in parts, unconnected to the whole. Sometimes, too, one gets so familiar with something that it becomes commonplace; the awe that can and should be derived from the everyday fades from view. That is essentially what I had done to Grandfather, turned the power of his everyday teachings into a faded commonplace event.
As I sat there, Grandfather approached close to the water's edge and stood with his arms raised in an attitude of worship. Looking up and downstream as if searching, he paused at every glistening riff and misty hollow with his gaze. I could clearly see the streams of tears on his cheeks glistening in the sun and the contented smile on his face. He knelt down solemnly and touched the water, ever so gently, watching his own concentric rings ripple and mix with those of the water striders. He began to stroke the water as if it were a living being, looked deep into its color, to the mosaic of sand and pebbles at the bottom. He drew his face close to smell the water. Then he took a light sip. He sat back with the water in his mouth and swished it back and forth. His actions would have put the most experienced wine tasters to shame. Reaching deeper into the water with cupped hands, he raised the water to the Creator in thanksgiving. Then and only then did he drink. Standing erect, once again, he dropped his blanket, his sole garment, and entered the water. I could see his entire body trembling with excitement, and the smile on his face, as he lay back in the water, was one of total rapture.
Rapture is something I rarely see in the modern world; it exists as a word, not an emotion. Society does not seem to know what rapture is, far less what it feels like. To society, water is something to guzzle, put here for its use or misuse, and never given a second thought. To Grandfather, water was earth mother's blood, a precious gift for all things living and growing, not just for humans.
My mind raced back over the events of what I'd seen, searching for meaning. I should not have been shocked at all, for Grandfather had done nothing new. He always approached the water that way - solemnly, in reverence, like a child. Even though he had swum in thousands of different waters, stood at the foot of the most magnificent waterfalls, and drunk the purest waters of the earth, all his life he still entered water this way. No, it should not have shocked me, for this the way he was with everything -- the whole of creation. That day I had backed away, broadened my perspective, and seen for the first time what had always been there.
Grandfather savored everything in life as he savored the water, fully and with all his senses, to a state of utter rapture. He would walk through the forests, fondling leaves, touching flowers, hugging trees, and lifting loam in cupped hands to smell. He would observe even the most common things for long periods of time, extracting every nuance from them. Life was always new and fresh to him, an adventure packed with excitement. He was a child, endlessly curious, always at play, always searching, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing the world and life to its fullest. To him, every entity of earth was an object of worship, his life a constant prayer of thanksgiving, and his quest always for rapture. In watching him live that day, I learned how to live, and why. But then there was the fisherman, who taught me how not to live.
Many years after Grandfather's physical death, I was on another beach, awaiting the sunrise. The ocean was still black, the waves accented by the pale glow of first dawn. The silhouettes of gulls appeared at the edge of the darkness. Lonely cries of gulls, the soft wind moving the sand in a gentle hissing, and the light clap of waves created soothing music for the soul. Prayers seemed to reach to the skies, penetrating the scant cloud cover, now etched in the liquid gold of dawn. The beach was deserted except for a lone fisherman who sat on a beach chair a dozen yards from me.
He was gray and weathered, his skin showed overexposure to the sun and surf, and his clothes were of styles long forgotten. He stared intently at the tip of his rod, watching it bob and shift with the rise and fall of the wave and wind. He seemed to concentrate solely on that rod tip, looking away only to his watch, probably out of habit.
In time, I moved closer to him, the sun now fully breaking the horizon. It had grown warm. Gull voices increased, and the old fisherman and I slipped into a light conversation. We talked of fishing and tides, weather and fishing beaches, but mostly about him. He said that he had been fishing these beaches for over thirty years and since his retirement a few years ago, he'd bought a house near the beach. Now he fished everyday without fail. The only time he said he didn't was when the beaches were crowded, on cold winter days, or when storms made it impossible.
Our conversation soon trailed off. I went back to my sunrise and he to his rod tip.
As my thoughts drifted with the tides, I unconsciously picked up a handful of beach sand and began studying its texture and color. I smelled it awhile, then held it up to the sunlight, watching it sparkle and change color. I've always loved beach sand and how it changes its size, color, shape, and texture with each new beach. I guess I was so caught up in what I was doing that I didn't notice the fisherman staring at me. He must of thought I was holding some kind of shell when a asked me, "What you got there?" Taken back somewhat at his question, I answered matter-of-fatly, "Beach sand!" "It's all the same, white and gray; sticks to everything," he responded. I wouldn't have paid this statement even a second thought except that it had been uttered mockingly. "White and gray?" I asked. "Old man, please pick up some beach sand and look". He grumbled something and went back to watching his pole.
I got up and had walked a few steps away when some feeding terns caught my eye and I sat back down to watch. While I was watching them hovering and diving near the edge of the jetty I happened to glance back at the fisherman. In his weathered hand he had a handful of beach sand, stirring it around with his finger, and holding it close to his face. I heard him talking, half out loud and half to himself. "My God," he exclaimed, his voice bitter and breaking, "My God, I never realized." As I left the area I glanced back at the old man to wave good-bye but he wasn't watching me. In his outstretched hands he held a bluefish to the sun. I could see the color glistening in the sun and I could see the tears on the old man's cheeks. His hands trembled. Dropping the fish he hunched over, sobbing silently to himself. I wanted to go to him, but I knew there was nothing I could do.
The horror, I thought. Here was a man who had spent the better part of his lifetime fishing these
beaches but who did not know what beach sand looked like. Here was a old man, who in the twilight of his life had seen a bluefish for the first time. A fish he loved so much to catch but never really knew. The words of Marcus Aurelius thundered in my brain. "It is not dying that a man should fear, but a man should fear never having lived at all." This is what had brought the old fisherman to tears: realizing that at this late time in life all the things he had missed, all the things he would never see, all the wasted time; time that has been spent, never to be made up; the horror of it all, the absolute senseless waste of life, the living dead. I learned from that man more than he could ever know. I learned not to waste my life, living to die, but rather live a life of rapture and wonderment.
I never saw that old man again, though I have been back to that beach many times. He will always be with me, however, and I think of him often. I carry him in my heart as one of my greatest teachers, and I wonder how many more people are out there just like him, people who will never really see a sunrise or sunset, who will never know the sands or the sparkle of bluefish. How many will never know how to savor water, touch, really touch someone they love, or know the rapture of life? I wonder how many people are rushing through life blindly, never really sensing what living is all about. Every day, several times, I ask myself: am I being Grandfather or am I being the fisherman? The choice is always up to me. Everyone has to make that choice, sooner or later; hopefully, not so late in life as the fisherman.
From In the Tracks of the Tracker magazine, Fall 1993
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