Saturday, July 13, 2019

Birthday Trout 7/13/19

I wrote the first part of this a day after my 68th birthday.  A few days later the conclusion revealed itself. This is the complete piece.  Shared on this blog now after my 73rd birthday. 7/13/19.
“I got to celebrate my birthday at our home in the Catskills, near the headwaters of the Beaverkill River. I like to say it is as close to heaven as I’ll probably get. My birthday day near heaven included helping my good friend Rudi Stahl cut up and remove a storm-damaged tree, putting mulch on blueberry bushes before fencing them in to help keep foraging creatures away, harvesting a banner onion crop from the garden, and turning over the beds in preparation for planting late-season lettuce and spinach.
“Later in the day, Margot invited all the Stahls to join us for an early evening drink on our porch. Nancy and Frederica drove over and joined us just as the Netherlands was finishing off Brazil in the World Cup consolation game. Rudi was on his way, having decided to take a hike on the trail that passes by both the Stahl’s house and ours.
“Rudi arrived with a story to tell (always a good sign yet another gathering will be enjoyable). He began with a wildlife report. On his way over he’d seen two deer, one turkey, one bear, and…could we guess…a trout! The deer and the turkey were unremarkable. The bear, one of several making more frequent appearances in the neighborhood, immediately invited discussion of other bear sightings, bear shooshing technique (including a stand-up demonstration by Nancy), and the reminder that the ripening blueberries at both homes will ensure more bear sightings, fencing or no.
“Then to the trout. Our homes sit on wooded hillside, pocketed with meadows, that slopes down to the Beaverkill. There are any number of rivulets, rills and little creeks that all lead down to the river. Some are natural, others man-made drainage to help keep trails from washing out. Many times they are dry and rock-filled. After a spring and summer of rain, sometimes heavy storms, they trickle and sing on their way downhill – feeding the Beaverkill and quickly turning it from a mountain stream to a river over the course of its 28-mile length. A river famous for its trout fishing.
“The trout. Rudi’s trout, he told us, was in a puddle; one couldn’t even call it a pool, in one of these tiny tributaries. A brook trout, nearly a foot long, splashing about in just enough water to survive, easily a quarter of a mile uphill from the river. Had it managed to somehow swim upstream (up rivulet) during flooding from one of our recent heavy thunderstorms? Miraculous, if so. Nonetheless, there was the trout undeniably stranded in its own tiny pool.
“Discussion on the trout’s fate ensued. Left alone it would expire with the inevitable drying out of the pool. Unless the thunderstorm that threatened our party on the porch and drove us inside briefly provided enough water for a partial stay of the fish’s demise. Would a bear find it and make a quick meal? Should we get it? Fresh mountainside trout for my birthday dinner? Brief speculation on how to best dispatch the fish once scooped from its modest confines in order to prepare it for dinner. Somehow my position as birthday boy gave me some deferential authority in our decision making. What did Bill want to do?
“None of us were really happy with human consumption as a resolution for the Brookie’s dilemma. Had he been properly fished out of the river, perhaps a different story. Scooped from a puddle? It didn’t seem right. Finally, it was agreed. We filled a 5-gallon bucket with water and the party followed Rudi down the trail to the spot where there was, undeniably and improbably, a trout. Finding the fish seemed about as likely as sighting a troll underneath the bridge just below us on the trail. We’ve always called it The Troll Bridge. But our party was prepared this time for trout, not trolls. We warmed to the task. Rudi set a large rock to dam one end of the puddle and bar a damaging escape attempt. He tried an Austrian one-hand grab, but this trout was far too wily for that technique. A second bucket was deployed. Dip and scoop yielded no better than Austrian hand grab. Finally, Rudi set the bucket at one end of the pool. The trout headed toward the other end. Frederica reported on the trout’s whereabouts. With an inattentive moment the fish headed to the other end of its tiny enclave, Rica gave the signal, Rudi scooped, and suddenly there was much flopping, cheering, and a trout newly arrived in a fresh bucket of water.
“An excited collection of fisher-people trooped back to the house and to our cars. The trout took what one might presume was its one and only car ride. Our two-vehicle caravan drove down to the river. We parked and went to the water’s edge. As Birthday Boy, I had the honor of spilling the lucky trout back into the river. A tip of the bucket and the brook trout was in its proper element, slicing upstream with reassuring speed that let us know it was happy and healthy, unaware of our celebratory clapping.
“Neither the Bookie nor I know what the next year will bring. I doubt the fish has thought about it very much. I, not much more. But for each of us, the first day was glorious. I stood next to Nancy as we lingered at river’s edge, looking upstream. It is a beautiful spot. Early evening, the water shimmering as it cascades over rocks, providing proper hiding pools for a fish and reminding me that indeed, our home in the Beaverkill Valley may well be as close to heaven as I’ll ever get. If I do get closer, it’s hard to imagine it being any better.”
But for a few days of sharing, I figured I was done with my story. I moved on, engaged in David Sheff’s elegant, evocative, and cautionary memoir, Beautiful Boy, about his son Nic’s battle with addiction. It had taken me a year and a half to work up to reading Beautiful Boy, having lost our own beautiful boy, William, to a heroin overdose that ended his struggle with addiction at barely twenty-four. The painful parallels are not easy to absorb.
I continued country chores, re-fencing the garden, weeding, mowing – the kind of work that allows my mind to wander. I wandered back to Beautiful Boy. I drifted off to two similar discussions, the first with a lawyer, the next with a theater director, about the powerful benefit of having time to reflect on an issue or a problem. Time, which affords the opportunity for ideas to percolate through our system and by the peculiar alchemy that relaxation and inattention provide, can provide insight, a solution, or even wisdom at some later date.
I find country chores and time combine to make an excellent medium for my dreaming. So it was, that several days later I suddenly realized how the trout had actually arrived in its puddle pool. This was no miracle trout, the hero of a nature documentary, fighting its way upstream and uphill during a violent thunderstorm. Rather, the storm had had its way, washing the fish out the overflow of a neighbor’s uphill pond. Swept along downstream and downhill by the flood it had finally been able to fight the current in a small pool in the drainage ditch. It can’t have been a pleasant trip, tossed by rough water and bouncing off rocks all along the way. Now the pool grew smaller daily and as the runoff from the storm let up, its water supply shriveled. Pool dried to puddle, imperiling our trout. Our neighbor had even told me he’d stocked the pond with a few fish to help control the frog population. Perhaps this fish had done his job in that regard, helping to explain why he was large as brook trout grow. How had I not remembered that stocking? How had the misconception of the fish battling the current upstream been so compelling?
Time and chores were not done with me. Nor was the mystery of nighttime dreams. Very shortly after my epiphany regarding the trout’s origin, I had a dream. It was a dream wherein I deconstructed my own story. The trout was William, my addict son, washed by the storm of his addiction out of his “home pond”. He’d been found, suffering and struggling, but alive. In real life, he’d actually been hospitalized during Hurricane Sandy. Our deliberations on the porch were like so many deliberations about addiction. Let him hit bottom. Let him make it on his own. For me, the answer was a five-gallon bucket of fresh water. Detox. Rehab. I literally rushed to get William the trout to proper treatment. In the real world, there would be those who would call me an enabler. Carrying the water. Doing the work for him. I’ve never encountered a trout that can carry his own water. And few addicts for that matter. They need help and compassion: from me, from Rudi, from Nancy, from Frederica, from Margot, from all of us.
Somehow over a few days time, I had concocted a wish dream. With the help of friends, I’d rescued my son and set him free, from muddy pool, to rehab bucket, to restoration in life’s river in a place I call heaven.
I’m an acting teacher. I am constantly reminding my students to ask the question, “What compels a character to tell a story?” What is it that makes what they say and what they do so vitally important to them? My young students have got to get below the surface to understand why and how someone speaks. I wrote a story about salvation without knowing why. Like David Sheff, like so many parents whose children have struggled with addiction, there are burning deep pools in my psyche, spouting up geyser-like, to speak when I least expect it, in ways I don’t even recognize. To mourn, to remember, to celebrate my beautiful William. I am compelled to speak in ways I cannot even fathom.

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