Monday, January 6, 2020

Postcards From My Childhood Part 14: The Fish

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"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.

Visiting a big city aquarium, I raptly watched hundreds of fish swim around an enormous tank. As always, there was one dodgy fish. He was missing half a fin, and sported a few odd bite marks. He wasn't quite an entire fish, and I became obsessed with determining whether he knew.

Lazily paddling endless pointless circles in formation with his school, was he abashed? Or self-conscious? Was he grimacing? Did he feel like less than a fish? I studied his pursed fish lips, trying to catch him uttering a weary "fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck."

After a half hour of riveted observation, I was certain I knew the answer: He didn't feel diminished in the least. Nor did he have his back up, shoving his messed-up fin in the other fishes' faces and challenging them to be okay with it. He was simply doing his thing. Just being a fish, cool as a sea cucumber.

The fish really knew how to live. I decided to imprint my memory of him as a hero and role model.

Many of the postcards I sent forward from my childhood became constant guiding principles, but this one had a time delay. As I grew older, and maladies and issues compiled, I adopted the normal framing, grunting an increasingly aggrieved "Doh!!" upon each fresh injury. But just as I began to spin it all up into a sense of cumulative burden and decline, I suddenly recalled the fish.

Since then, I've lost my hair and received a cardiac stent, a hearing aid, and a wealth of daily pills, along with more challenging maladies than I can count. I launched Chowhound as a youthful-seeming 34 and left it at 44 so haggard and traumatized that I looked twenty years older (if people asked, I'd tell them I was 73, just to hear them marvel at my spryness). Having taken to heart the Zen injunction to "burn yourself completely", I’ve wound up looking like someone who'd been sleeping in a pile of ashes.

But that's just the external. Internally, I've been blithely me the whole time. I've lived straight through it all, treating it like a ride, come what may. I’m fresh as a daisy (or whatever the non-fruity version of that expression might be). 

This involves no cinematic display of chin-trembling bravery. It was more like how glasses, for me, are neither half-empty not half-full (if there's water I drink with gusto, and, if not, I find more water....or simply move on, like the monks and the coffee). Every moment thrusts forward a challenging card hand to play, and I do so exuberantly, without a shred of stoic resignation or self-actualized "positive thinking".

I am bemusedly responsive. Here I am. That's all, and that's sufficient. I'm proud to have grown up to be the fish!

"Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable." - Anthony de Mello

See "No Less a Fish", a short posting relating this insight to the aging process.

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