Fishing and Watering the Plants

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I.

Spending too much time thinking may have its downsides, but that is only if you subscribe to the notion that there is such thing as “spending too much time thinking.” Something that I have noticed  lately is the wide schism between the incredible people I have met and befriended as a result of thinking deeply and sharing openly and the situations I can scarcely fit into because I haven’t figured out how to act—in every sense of the word.

In the last few weeks, I have had some of my favorite conversations I have ever had and I have spent an equal amount of days and nights not saying much out loud other than “Can I get a coffee for here, please?” It is a surreal position to be in, drifting through the world with a combination of profound connections and absolute anonymity.

In a way, that is what everyone is doing, but, as is typical of a writer, I find myself doing it with more poignancy and less money. The whole point of writing, if there even is one, is to experience, to observe, and ultimately to share the things that nobody else stops to put into words. Because they are busy living, busy doing, busy working; busy loving, busy hating, busy drinking, busy being. I am not busy writing, and so I am in a great position to ‘be a writer.’ I drink a little too much coffee every day and occasionally work up the gumption to go to a bar or concert and order two drinks at once simply so that I do not have to return to the bar and lose my spot in the crowd. I notice what silence does to the psyche, and I get to fully think the thoughts that would otherwise be suppressed by a full schedule, only to slink in between the cracks in those rare moments of silence and stillness. I have befriended the uniquely human inner dialogue of solitude, and so I am not afraid of it. I nod with absolute understanding when people are saddened or bored by a single Saturday night without plans, then shrug because I have managed to string together many of these without feeling like an outright failure or a future mass murderer.

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I feel distinctly grateful for the gift of being under-stimulated, because it has allowed me to think in months what many people scarcely get to in a lifetime. The novel may not have a plot yet, but it certainly has themes. There may not be a vaguely placating Thursday night pizza party, but there are countless people who call or write from wherever they may be and ask hard questions or share big ideas.

II.

The Ozark Mountains are a perfect venue for this sort of rhythmic solitude. Less than fifty miles from town, one can be so utterly disoriented and alone that it feels less like a social inaptitude and more like a profound human condition. You are returned to animal, grizzled by the mist and caked in the dirt. The odd ramshackle cabin with tattered Confederate regalia flying proudly requires a certain resolve to bike past, the vicious fangs of the five indigenous species of tick offer a miniscule take on the existential threat posed to us by rejoining the natural order. It is not a macabre enemy like a cougar or bear, it is a nauseating one the size of an individual letter in this essay. Which one is more dangerous depends on the day.

The Ozarks do not tower impressively, they unfold dauntingly. It is difficult to capture their fading, ethereal nature in a photograph the same way one could perfectly frame an iPhone photo with any number of iconic Rocky Mountain Scenic Overlooks. This says something about what it feels like to be here, who is drawn to this place, and what getting out in the Ozarks does to the psyche. You do not get a Rocky Mountain High or sunshine and sand between your toes. You do not run into hundreds of chipper, like-minded outdoor enthusiasts clad in the latest technical apparel.

Instead, you see countless woodpeckers and woodchucks, deer and the odd elk, impressive smallmouth bass, unending trails and gravel roads. A two-fingered wave off the steering wheel, a kindly but stern nod from one of the few other humans out in this densely-wooded black hole. Interstates do not penetrate this region, most Americans “do not realize Arkansas looks like that,” there are precious few places to get a bite to eat on a Sunday evening. It is an ode to existence, a defiant rebellion against entertainment.

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III.

There is always a temptation to abandon the challenging in favor of the comfortable, to bury any feeling in concerted effort or noisy distraction or chemical escape. But you always have to lie down in bed, eventually. And when you do, you can no longer strive for some dangling carrot, nor drown the internal dialogue in the din of raucous bar conversation. You can be busy or face little resistance, but somewhere in the heart of your wrinkled brain, there is always a piece which knows it is all a ruse.

What we want, more than to be entertained, is to be understood. To understand ourselves. To be ok alone, and to be in company we choose, not in company that is convenient. At times, it is easy to perceive this human experience as a hysterically mimetic exercise in procreation—with garnish—but that is only because we have resigned ourselves to hardwired impulses and neon signs and new restaurant openings, and then to home ownership and school district gerrymandering and more vacations.

It is a threat to this fragile ecosystem to point out its seedy underbelly or to question the order of operations, and so those who have a good point about alternatives are either pushed to the fringes or die trying to make a point. They are then promptly forgotten or celebrated, though exactly nothing changes.

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IV.

I recently got a new bicycle for riding pavement and gravel; it is the closest thing to the bike I was riding when I was hit by a car that I have been on since that day in 2016. The joy of riding a decent bike in the conditions I used to love is palpable and immediate.

I swore off road bikes for nearly two years because of a complicated cocktail of injuries, PTSD, dismay at the social component of the cycling community, and a general apathy towards one of my former passions which very nearly killed me. So I was stunned to rediscover a base joy at the act of pedaling hard, fast, and uninterrupted—it was akin to being reborn, and for the first time even a body with some age and hard knocks on it felt something other than ‘old before its time.’ There is something that road cycling does for me that literally nothing else can.

But this is not about me or about bikes. Instead it is about all of us and how easily we can give up on things we love if we take enough blows or convince ourselves that it is “smarter” to stop than to keep going. Historically, I have never been one to perceive some risk of injury or death as more threatening than ceasing to truly live. But the beatdown of injury and psychological trauma and the ensuing efforts to find solid ground again led me to do just that. That first week of riding was like snorting the world’s strongest antidepressant, without all of the awful side effects of feeling so “leveled out” all the time that I could no longer perceive lows or highs accurately.

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V.

It is incredible what happens when we allow ourselves to honestly pursue the things that give us life. Whatever risk it may entail, it is almost certainly lower than the risk of not doing the things we were made to.

The joy of riding again is most metaphorically a triumph over fear and sadness and a gnawing sense of loss. It is not about bicycles as much as it is about feeling the years tick backwards and the accrued residue of pain and fragility wash away, yielding to a time when innocence and naïve alacrity were stronger than knowledge and resignation. True as it may be that my body isn’t up for many more serious spills, it is truer still that I am not up for living the rest of my life avoiding them.

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VI.

Years later, I find the same fundamental truths that I have always known and loved about life on two wheels. Since the wreck, I’ve told a simple but not entirely true story about why I was no longer avid about bicycles. I am too good at creating believable stories that blur the line between how I actually feel and how I think I should feel. Most humans are.  This is undoubtedly a good survival mechanism, but it is a piss poor recipe for thriving.

In a system which rewards conformity, why shouldn’t you have a convincing reason why conforming is your honest preference?

VII.

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Because most often, people give up a day or a week too soon. The rain clouds stick around through two weekends and the whole place becomes unbearable, the dream job doesn’t call back in time so you take the first decent offer, one too many days go by without whatever it is “happening,” and we cave. It is natural and understandable, but it also causes us to miss out on so much great art and happiness and even entire lives.

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Patience is usually thought of as the ability to sit through a standardized test or to wait for months for some long-term project to unfold. It is less often perceived as the stubborn ability to outlast discomfort in pursuit of what matters; people usually insist that we should be comfortable and entertained first, and then possibly take on challenges “once everything is in order.”

Everything will never be in order. There will always be something more convenient or a genuinely good reason not to do it. We insist upon attitude adjustments as a sheer matter of will, independent of the necessary component that is the passage of time.

For me and Hank, there is no amount of temporary discomfort which will sway us from the end goal. I sincerely believe that if more people were empowered to think this way, more people would be profoundly happy even if the objective measurements were stacked against them.

VIII.

Sitting outside a coffee shop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. A woman in her mid-sixties expertly threads the needle, parking her Ford F-150 in the last available space, which is naturally the narrowest one in the lot. I complement her, and she talks about parking big rig trucks.

A few minutes later, while sitting here writing this, she comes outside and assertively takes a seat at the table with me and Hank.

“What’s your sweet pup’s name?”

“Hank!”

“He is a very good one. I love animals. People always tell me, ‘My dog is never like that with anyone!’ but they always love me the most.”

“I believe that! Animals can tell when you truly appreciate and love them.”

“I love animals more than people, you know that?” She reaches down to pet Hank more vigorously, revealing a sleeve of intricately designed tattoos beneath her sweater.

“I do, too. He’s my best buddy.”

“Well, I have Asperger’s.” She winks and nods. “There’s something about them. I have four cats.”

This is what we are here for, both in a cosmic and a geographic sense. The sun is finally shining, and what seemed an endless string of grey days has yielded to a few of the best in a long time. The mountains rise in every direction, the dogwoods are green and blooming, and the red-headed woodpeckers swoop from tree to tree in town and the woods alike.

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IX.

I have spent a lot of time fishing lately, in spite of weather and river conditions which don’t exactly promise knockout days on the water. It is a meditation which defies logic; even on the worst day, even the sloppiest cast, you never know when you might present the right fly to a large and hungry fish. Being quiet and constantly alert are imperative. So, I have gone to Richland Creek and the White River and the Little Red, and I have stood waist-deep in frigid waters, traipsed through knee-high grass and yanked ticks off my calves, and talked to the men and women who share this primal hope.

To fish well, you have to believe that any cast might net a river monster and accept that every cast will likely end in nothing at all. Especially if you go when the conditions are not perfect and there is no promising “fishing report” online.

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Much like living, one cannot expect that life will offer up a state record every time you try something different. Yet, you must always be open to the possibility. Sometimes I strive for a sort of ascetic indifference, so that I cannot be swayed by marketing campaigns or brief yearnings of the capitalistic soul. Without expecting a big catch, you can be satisfied with an empty net and another night of breakfast tacos for one.

But I fight to remain ever expectant and never wanting, lest I miss the sort of smile that transforms a thoughtful woman’s face and shatters something deep inside my soul. It may be the trout of a lifetime or just another average one using the current to its advantage, but there is only one way to find out.

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X.

The cactus in the living room may bloom, or it may remain an expensive and staid piece of living décor in a home that is not quite finished yet subtly becoming my own. The mysterious ways of plants add the same sort of hopeful uncertainty to life as fishing or creating art. They do not ask for much, but the things they do need are absolutely imperative. They deepen their roots and rely on us for water and pruning, and they silently insist that we not be gone for too long without checking in. To plant a garden is to hope in tomorrow, and it is also to commit to not being gone for too long.

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After writing most of this, I went to Texas for a whirlwind long weekend. It was good to hear the most familiar timbre and cadence, to see faces from my past and places which made me who I am. It was helpful to be oppressed by traffic and restaurant waits in Austin, to read the postscript and feel satisfied with the ending. But it was even better to see the cacti and the sword plants standing expectantly in my living room, to pedal the meandering gravel roads of the Ozarks after a torrential rain, and to know that should I ever need to leave for long, I can think of a few people who would water the plants.

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3 Comments

  1. So beautiful john! I’m a big fan of the mystics: Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, Therese of Avila etc…. you remind me of them! Perhaps a more modern version, using words that are a little more current and relatable:). Thank you for sharing your gifts and insights. They are as refreshing as an Arkansas breeze!!! Much Love, Tyler Kuelbs

  2. Well thought, and well written. Thank you for sharing. You left out one thing though – how is Hank? How is his recovery going?

  3. I loved this, especially the part about biking. I haven’t biked in about a month until this week and I enjoyed it. I asked myself why did I stop biking again? I need to get a house plant for myself too.

    How is Hank?

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