I went fishing again this morning. It’s Sunday and I should have gone to church, I know this. But honestly, my Spiritual life seems a little flat these days. Life is busy, and I hear so many voices in the course of a day that I need to get alone so I can –hopefully- hear God’s voice.
I would love to tell you that God met me there, and we had a deep conversation, and things got straightened out, but that’s not how it happened. God showed up, alright. He is everywhere at once and that includes fifteen miles upstream on the James River, with the sun just breaking over the tree tops. He was there just as much as He was with the worshippers in early meeting.
I didn’t talk to Him right away. I was busy fishing. I pulled out my Bible in the car just before getting my waders on and I read a Psalm. Then I caught myself feeling ridiculous, like I was fooling God at all with my tacit, dutiful reading of one Psalm. I figured He wasn’t buying it, and He already knew my heart anyway, so I headed off for the river.
I picked out a new spot this week, different from where I’d been fishing the last two times out.
I had to hike down about a quarter mile trail to get to the new spot. Just before I reached the river I had to cross some train tracks. I paused to look up the tracks and down, not because I was worried about a train approaching, I would have seen that. But there is something about train tracks. Something endless. Something that signifies wandering and restlessness. They seem to not have beginning or end, they just go on into the horizon or around a bend. You can’t see the end and maybe…there is none.
I paused and thought about all the trains that have run down these particular tracks. Where they were going and what they were hauling? I thought about the men who worked those rails and hauled those loads. I love trains. Since I was a little boy I have loved trains. Most boys do.
I walked to the river and began fishing. I am so happy that I’ve reconnected to this lifelong passion of mine. I’m so thankful to live a short drive from someplace as beautiful as the upper James River. I walked out onto some big boulders that jutted out about twenty feet into the stream and found my place. I didn’t cast my line immediately. I drank it in again. The sound of the current as it whisks past me. The croak of the giant Blue Herons that had stirred from their roost and were heading out for some fishing of their own. The call of the birds in the trees. I could have sat there without dropping my line even once. I could have listened and watched and meditated. The river holds promise every time I go there. Each cast might be the one. Each lure might be the right combination that draws in that one lunker waiting in his lair. With fishing, success is possible in every moment, and failure is not really failure…it’s just practice in between successes.
I watched the sun coming up, and listened to the world awakening, and didn’t catch anything at all. I didn’t have the right color combinations with me, or I was presenting wrong, or the fish just weren’t biting yet. Whatever. Catching fish is only half the reason I come here. The other is to get away. To return to something primal inside me. Something better. Something battered by years and hidden by age. I guess I come to be a little boy again.
I sat down on the big boulders after a while. I wanted to make a pious pronouncement somehow and reconcile my being here in the river when my sense of responsibility told me I should be in church. I tried to pray, but the only thing that came out was a plaintive discussion with Jesus. “You liked fishermen,” I thought, “I bet you’d like this place.” Then of course, the thought hit me, “Of course He’d like it…He created it.” I do that to myself a lot. I think I should have stayed in that whimsical moment and just gone ahead and wondered at the surroundings with Jesus as my companion but I out-thought myself and ruined it. The fact that He created it and it is breathtaking is not lost on the human side of Jesus. I should know this.
But this was not a spiritual retreat, I was here to fish. I cast my lures absentmindedly and thought, far more than I fished. I thought about life. Fishing is a great place to do that. The cell phone gets no service, the highway is too far away to lend it’s thrumming. The only sound is the gurgle of the current as it sweeps around the rocks, and the life all around me.
I sat there fishing and thinking and suddenly I heard, in the distance, the sound of steel wheels on the tracks, thirty yards from where I was. A train was coming.
I’m 51. I am a dad. I have seen hundreds of trains in my lifetime. Yet whenever one approaches, I have to watch. It’s part of the wiring that makes us men. Trains are large. They are powerful. They are overwhelming. They can be frightening in scale and awesome in force. They are everything a boy and a man love.
But they also represent something else. In literature, a train is often used to signify the slow, constant, unstoppable passing of time.
Heading somewhere specific. Not moving overly quickly but not slowing down for any reason.
I sat there and watched the twin locomotives roll past me. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the engineers in the cabin but the windows were darkened. What if they had been open? What if the engineer was riding along, with his arm bent and resting on the window frame, enjoying the beauty of the scenery as he rolled past it? I guess I would have waved, and hoped he waved back.
Trains make old men into boys again. I’m not old yet, But I’m closer than I was when I was fishing all the time with my friends, that’s for sure.
The train rolled past and disappeared. I returned to my line. And I returned to my childhood. To places like Nonesuch Creek, and the A-Bridge, and The Dikes in Delaware City, and Smalley’s Dam, and Lum’s Pond and Lake Como. Lake Como is where my best friend and I fished on Sunday afternoons. He lived nearby the lake, and I would sometimes go home with his family after church and we’d walk to Como and fish until time to leave for evening service.
My best friend’s name was Mark. He was closer than a brother to me when we were kids. All through High School. We were inseparable. We hunted, we fished, we cruised Newark, Delaware in my car. We played sports together in school. He was our ace pitcher and I was the catcher. Me and Mark. The best battery in the league.
We dreamed of living near each other someday. Near some place where we could hunt and fish and raise our families and remain friends. We would talk about stuff like this while we fished.
This morning, after the train went by and after I waited to see the engineer and maybe wave…I started to think about Mark. I haven’t seen him in ten years now. Since his dad died. We didn’t have a fight. We didn’t come to some crossroads. We just fell out of touch. And before I knew it, ten years had passed. This morning, sitting in the breathtaking beauty of the James River, I was thinking of my best friend and the trains, and the days that have rolled past…slowly, methodically, relentlessly. I started to cry.
That train became a metaphor for those years. Where did they come from…where were they heading? What lies ahead, around that curve in the track? Maybe I was the engineer, and hoped to get a wave as some recognition that I am still, somehow driving this train. Maybe he represented Mark, and the wave was some sort of sign that he still thinks of me and sees me down the bank from those tracks, fishing, like when we were boys.
Maybe the engineer is God, relentlessly, methodically guiding the train of our lives down a track toward a destination that only He knows.
Maybe all of these.
I cried. I said it out loud. “I miss Mark.” I missed being fifteen and fishing Lake Como with my best friend and talking about the future. The future got here and we aren’t talking about it together anymore.
I sat there and finally had the ability to pray. I poured my heart out. I talked to Jesus about the years that have passed and the ones that remain. I prayed for Mark. I prayed for my daughter, as she is really just beginning to get on board that mystical train.
I prayed for me.
I have fallen many times in life and always gotten up. The last seven years were painful but they did bear fruit. I’ve rattled off that list enough in the past. But the one best thing that came out of all that desert walking, was my writing. I love to write. I love to write. I see moments in the day and they become stories. Like this one did. I sat there with tears in my eyes and the face of my best friend etched in my mind and I thought about how I was going to come home and write this article. And even if nobody reads it, I was still going to write it and be happy that I did so. I found who I am out there, in the darkness when I was homeless and broken. I found the thing I love. I prayed this morning that doors would open and I can, somehow, find that niche. That group of people who like what I have to say. Because a writer, ultimately, needs to be read.
I prayed. I thought about all the fishing I have done through the years. I thought about my best friend and how awful it is that we blinked and ten years have gone by since we last talked.
Like that train.
My thoughts were interrupted by another train. A mile and a half of coal cars, loaded to the top, and beyond. Two massive locomotives, pulling in tandem. Heading who-knows-where. Riding on tracks laid out by someone with a Master Plan.
Just like our lives.
It was time to go. It was still early, but my reel broke, and honestly…I was ready to get home and get this soul full of emotions on paper.
The little boy in me came out again today. Once again it was a river, and a fishing rod that drew him from his hiding place. He was safe behind a wall of memories of friends, and fishing, and laughter and dreams. Back when the future was off in the distance. Like that train. Not here, where the future we dreamed of then, was what was supposed to have happened twenty years ago. Where we watch the train of life as it rolls along, wondering where it is heading, and how many cars it is made of, and what lies around that curve in the tracks.