“A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.” – Pablo Neruda
Almost eight years have passed since I last packed my fishing gear and headed down to the river. Back then, I fished often. It wasn’t a passion, that is a special word that I like to reserve for those experiences which hold me in their grasp and never let go. And I have let go of fishing, for both situational and personal reasons, at least for the time being.
Fishing was a pastime, a place where I could venture out into the world and relish the environment around me. Not just a casual pursuit, mind you, but one that oftentimes required discipline. Where others may go and sit on a dock and throw an idle line in, I searched, I explored. I walked up and down rivers looking for likely solitary spots. During the fall and winter steelhead run, I awoke before dawn in order to arrive at the water during feeding time. Standing waist deep in the flow of the river, watching small chunks of ice drift past, rugged up firmly against the blistering cold, I played in nature.
It wasn’t always pleasant. There were times when I could not feel my fingers due to the numbing cold, times when I had to place tip of the rod into my mouth to thaw the wayward water brought up by the line that iced the tip and stopped the line from feeding, times when I slipped and fell – waterlogged, times when I would go back to the house shivering.
And yet, I kept going back – this was the child in me that wanted to play. I scouted every possible place the fish might be, constantly changing up the presentation to them. Never a user of live bait, I would fill my little bag with lures I had made from craft supplies I’d bought at the local dollar stores and odds and ends I’d find lying around the house. String, strips of balloon, tiny pompoms, pieces of yarn, and beads, all attached to a barbless hook, found their way into the mouth of a fish at one time or another.
As the weather warmed, as the species of fish inhabiting the river changed, the flavour of the pastime shifted. This was a time that was more relaxed, far less brutally honest. This was when children would come down and sit on the bank and toss a lure in and then crank it casually through the increasingly weedy water. This was the time when families would drive to the river bank, set up a blanket, line it with treats, toss in a worm tipped line or two and wait. But even here, even in these times when carp and catfish had made the river their summer home, there was something special to be found. In the depths of summer, late at night with the light of the moon bouncing off the languid water, when the sounds of the day had surrendered to the dark, a line cast in and gently retrieved, tug, tug, tug, would explode, the scream of the real piercing the stillness that existed.
Yesterday, I was walking along a river bank with our eleven-year old son John, and to mind came the words of a friend speaking of her father’s fishing trips. I turned to John.
Do you think you would like to try fishing John?
Yes I would, he replied.
With this, we returned back to the house, and we unpacked all the gear that had been sitting idle for all of these years. We rummaged through the boxes holding the reels and the tackle, all the while with him asking about this thing and that thing. And as we set up his own rod and reel, a deeply familiar faraway voice spoke through me, gently guiding him, supporting him, helping him learn the first steps of what might capture him. His excitement, plainly visible, mounted as we tied the final weight onto the end of the line. Snip, snip went the scissors in his hand as he trimmed the tag end of the line, and then whoosh. Rod in hand out into the yard to cast and retrieve, time and time again.
Are we going to go fishing tomorrow? came the masked plea.
Of course we are! I promised him.
And we did. Today, for the first time in his life, he stood on the bank of a river and cast a line into the water. Three hours we spent together, moving from one spot to another, walking around the nesting Canadian geese, listening to the plop of the lure hitting liquid, and changing his offering to the fish over and over.
And the questions came. Can you show me how to tie knots, please? Do you think I could ride my bike down here alone? Can we come again tomorrow after school? Do you think the fish will be biting here later?
But it wasn’t just this, as important as it was, that made an impact on me. For, you see, his eyes and ears were everywhere, sensing all that was around him: the birds, the boats, the sounds of water, the warmth of the sun, the direction of the wind. He was noticing, and he was smiling.
He didn’t catch any fish, not even a bite, but that doesn’t matter. And whether this does become a passion or a pastime, or perhaps just even an occasional “thing” for him doesn’t matter.
The faraway voice spoke again, this time in my mind alone. What does matter, is that, today, he was out in the world, and maybe, without even realising it, experienced something he could never do within the confines of what he had known up until now.
This child is playing, the voice breathed, and with this, so are you.
For this, I am extremely grateful.