Tag Archives: faith

How Living in a Jeep Changed me as a Person

DSC_0049 13I was reading this article by the tremendous people at Outside Magazine, about “How to live out of your car,”  (there are some great tips in there) and it got me thinking about the trip I took with Outdoor Life’s help in 2010, fishing my way across the country.

I did not, at the time… “plan” to live out of my vehicle when I left. I was working a great job that I was lucky to have, but couldn’t shake the feeling that… there’s an entire country out there of drop-dead gorgeous stuff that… I might never see. I was dealing with some problems that I’ll not get into, but suffice it to say… I felt an urge to move, go, escape, travel… anywhere.

With a bare-bones budget and nothing but a road map full of places that I’d been dreaming about for the better part of 20 years, I put everything that I owned in storage and headed for Maine in late May.

Now… I’d set up trip itinerary of places to fish, things to see and friends I’d had that I wanted to visit, but planning an itinerary for a cross-country road trip is like making a plan for what you’d do if your house caught on fire: It might ease some anxiety prior to the actual event… but rarely is it something you can execute in practice when the time comes.

I did see the things I’d hoped I would (Hemingway’s grave in Idaho, the Grand Canyon, The Pacific, the Florida Keys), I got the chance to fish with a rock star, and I even lived with a marine artist named Pasta for the better part of a month (it got to the point where he started saying: “I’ll see you ‘home’). I lost about 40 pounds and grew my hair out for the first time in my life.

Prior to that trip, I was a quiet, soft-spoken guy with a lot of anxieties about the little things in life (‘Did I wear this shirt already this week?’ ‘Am I coming down with a cold?’) and to some degree I still am.

But on that trip, more people helped me than I ever could have imagined would prior to undertaking it. Anglers from Maine down to Florida and out to California and up to Oregon had me stay at their houses, introduced me to their families, and took me fishing.

I’ve always been a religious person, although I’ve come up short of that definition more times than I can count… but I’ve always believed in God.

What that trip did, the way it changed me… was that it gave me a faith in other people that I’d not had before then. It also reassured me that you don’t need to know how something is going to work, you just need to keep trying everything and believe that it will. My idea of Divinity changed from some all-powerful master on high watching our every action… to a collection of souls down here on earth that, more often than not, want what is best for not only them… but for all of us as a group, together.

That’s what I brought back from the road, and I carry it with me wherever I go today. It has been a saving grace in the days that were to follow.

What I’ve Learned: Never Give Up

The sun sets on one of Florida's best bass lakes.
The sun sets on Rodman Reservoir.

Perhaps the greatest thing about fishing, as a sport we can get into while we’re young, is that our fortune or fate insofar as the fishing is concerned is always dependent upon, and only upon, ourselves.

If we get into basketball or baseball and are cut from the team, we can choose to blame a host of different factors. Maybe we can say “The coach was biased and kept his favorite kids,” or “I’m just not tall enough.”

In many other arenas in life we can choose to blame a variety of factors if we don’t have the success we’d hoped we might.

A pond or a lake, on a very calm, windless summer day, will almost look like a mirror from above. So when the results of our efforts don’t meet our expectations… the water’s there to remind us exactly what went wrong… which isn’t to say that we were doing anything wrong, per se.

Maybe we were, maybe we timed the bite wrong, were on the wrong part of the lake or the river, maybe we didn’t imitate the forage well enough or get up early enough in the morning.

But more likely than not, we just failed to spend the amount of time there that would have ultimately led to the result that we wanted. The answer, with all due respect to recent Nobel-Prize winner Bob Dylan, isn’t “blowing in the wind,” it’s in the water and in the time we have to devote to it.

And because I grew up as a fisherman, I learned not to take one unsuccessful outing to heart, not to absorb failure or hardship any more than might be necessary to glean a lesson from it.

I learned that if you spent a day on the water and didn’t catch, didn’t bring fish home, or perhaps didn’t even get a hit… it only meant one thing.

You had to go back. You had to try again. Maybe you’d try in a different way, during a different time of the day, or with a different approach…

But in fishing, and hopefully in the rest of life’s endeavors, failure or a lack of success is absolutely no reason to stop, only a reason to change, adapt and grow.

Suicide Prevention Day

Blitzing Striped Bass
A nervous bird eyes a school of blitzing striped bass in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

It seems that every day, thanks to social media, now has some significance, and some are more serious than others.

Yesterday, I discussed “celebrating your weirdness,” but today seems to bring a more pressing and difficult issue to the forefront: suicide.

Whenever I think about loving the water, the outdoors and fishing, I can’t help but think that part of it, even if we don’t realize it, is that it connects us to something ancient, instinctual, and animal.

Thousands of years ago men pulled fish from the ocean, not for sport or recreation, but to survive. To survive.

That is at the heart of our love for the outdoors: An ingrained, ancient need for survival.

D.H. Lawrence wrote: “I have never seen a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.”

Lawrence, I think, was speaking in admiration of an animal’s singular focus on staying alive, no matter how it went about that process.

Human beings are more complicated. We explore deeper questions, asking “What is my purpose here? What am I meant to do, or be? Am I succeeding to that end?”

Lawrence’s bird, I think it’s fair to assume, never questioned its purpose. From the moment it was born, to the moment it took to the air, searched for its first meal, and right up until the moment it fell frozen from the branch, it knew, instinctively and without hesitation, what it was and for what it was meant.

We can posit that the bird never wished that it were a fish, or wondered why it weren’t a giraffe. We can guess that the bird, until its death, accepted its bird-ness and did its best to stay alive, care for its young, and, perhaps, if animals can be said to experience these things, it enjoyed soaring over some beautiful country.

My point is this: perhaps it merits consideration that you are not supposed to be anything that you’re not, you’re not supposed to want more than you have, you’re not supposed to be taller, smarter, richer, skinnier, bigger, more tan (certainly not), more popular, better looking, worse looking, you’re not supposed to be able to play two instruments, or speak three languages…

Perhaps is merits consideration, that you are supposed to be… exactly the way that you are, even if the reasons for that have yet to be revealed to you. Maybe, like the bird’s destiny to live its life as a bird…

Your destiny is to be you, and you are in the process of shaping that future.

I think it’s worth considering that all of the great and terrible, beautiful and difficult, wonderful and heartbreaking things that happen to us are supposed to happen so that we can be created to be, exactly who we’re meant to be.

And that you, through everything you’ve experienced, endured, suffered, enjoyed, loved, hated, and dreamt of…

Are meant to be… you. And that our most singular focus, our one job, mission or goal… should be to become that, stay that, embrace that and be grateful for that, even if we don’t always understand it.

And since the you that you are is here, reading my blog… I just want to say thank you, and please, keep being you.

The Unheralded Hero: Bonnie Bach

13173206_10103005628732776_2807476143193203519_oI’ve written extensively in this blog about my father, a man for whom there are not words: he was tough as nails, moral almost to a fault and funny to boot. I’ve sung the praises of my grandmother, who amazes me daily with her strength and optimism.

I don’t, I don’t think, give my mother the credit she deserves… if indeed anyone ever could. Maybe I’m afraid to try to put into words what an inspiration she’s been and how much joy and hope she’s brought into my life… fearing that I’ll come up short.

Were it just the case that she was an amazing woman, who worked her way out of poverty to build a beautiful home and life for her son, that would be almost amazing enough in itself.

But for almost three decades she has struggled with Bipolar Disorder. This is hard to write, and certainly I never would without her permission. And it’s easy to see how far we’ve come as a society when we’re talking about medical advances in cancer research or battling diseases like leukemia, but our understanding and treatment of mental illness is, I promise you, far, far behind.

The doctors and medications that have failed her, at times spectacularly, would bring me to tears to describe. So I won’t.

Her perseverance through those disappointments, those medical attempts to provide her the healthy and fulfilling life so many of us take for granted, is stunning to the point where it almost defies belief.

Anyone who knows anyone who has struggled with mental illness knows that the word ‘struggle’ here is not at all an exaggeration. She has battled it every day with a courage I cannot imagine.

The oldest of 8 before losing a sister to leukemia,  she has helped her sisters whenever she could, and has helped her mom, my grandmother, more than anyone could have imagined she might be able to when their family of 9 was living in a second-story walk-up, using a dresser drawer for a crib for the youngest daughter.

On some days, I’ll either call or stop by the house and I’ll be telling or listening to a story, sharing a memory or a laugh, or talking about my crazy dream of building you a magazine… and I’ll just stop. A wave of realization washes over me about what this woman has been through, overcome, and what she continues to battle every day.

I don’t say it as often as perhaps I should, but not a day goes by when I don’t think: “That’s my mom, damn straight… and thank God she is.”

Don’t Give Yourself a Choice

One of the hard parts of going through a difficult part of life is the feeling, especially in today’s social-media driven culture, that we always have to present a positive face to the world. Whenever I see someone on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram mourning the loss of a loved one, or being honest about a difficult time, I’m always amazed by that courage. My tendency, and I’m sure many of ours, is to “grin and bear it,” and keep that smiling face regardless.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe playing Irish Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock. In one scene, Braddock’s wife, played by Renee Zellweger, goes to visit Crowe’s (Braddock’s) manager, played by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti opens the door to their apartment to reveal that they’ve sold everything that wasn’t nailed down (the movie takes place during the Great Depression). Sometimes glancing past a Facebook feed I wonder how many of us are, like Giamatti’s character was, “keeping up appearances.”

I read an article this morning by one of my favorite outdoor writers, Bill Heavey. Heavey is an absolute master with words, and this piece will break your heart.

It reminded me that we have one true obligation as writers, and that’s honesty, even when it’s not easy.

I was outside of a Boston classroom when I got a phone call from my mother in 2013, saying “You’d better come now.” That was November 18th. I booked a flight out of Logan, caught a cab to the airport the next morning, flew to Syracuse, got a ride from a relative home, and held my father’s hand. Whether it was the drugs to keep him comfortable, or the disease, he could no longer speak. He squeezed my hand, though… that I do know. I knew he’d want me to be back for class the next night, so I made arrangements to return on a morning train. On the train between Utica and Boston I got the call that he was gone. I don’t remember much about that class, just sitting through it, kind of numb, ordering train tickets back during break on my phone, and because I love words… starting to think about a eulogy.

I’ll never forget the friends, Anthony Malta, Curt Dircks and Andrew Fillipponi, who stopped everything and traveled great distances to be at the funeral. I’ll never forget how full the church was. Standing room, only.

A few years prior I’d asked my grandmother a simple question: “How did you survive the times you must have gone through?” Marilyn Jones was a mother to eight children, before losing a daughter to leukemia before she was even a teenager. She scraped for enough to support her family by running a yarn shop and then a daycare where I’d meet some people who’d turn out to be lifelong friends.  She’d later lose her husband, a grandfather that I never knew.

“How did you get through it?” That’s what I asked. “I had no choice,” she said. I’ll remember that forever. Of course she had a choice. We all have a choice, every day. I don’t think I that could even remotely understand what she was talking about until 2013. I don’t know how I bought those train tickets, plane tickets, or made it to that class. I suppose I didn’t give myself a choice.

When I thought about a project to raise money for melanoma research through fishing, by soliciting sponsors, and when I think about getting your input to help me start a beautiful magazine that I hope you’ll read and love, many times the question has and does pop into my head: “But how will you do it?”

And then her answer, always her answer…

“Don’t give yourself a choice.”

You Can Take it with You: Places we Save

DSC_0111 9
The Rapidan River in Virginia is as beautiful a place as it gets. I tried to fool a few wary trout with a Tenkara rod in 2010. 

If you get the chance to travel and see the American landscape while you’re young, especially in today’s social-media driven, share-everything culture, you’ll have one beautiful difficulty. I can almost guarantee it. And if you’ve aspired to wrap words around ideas, places, or experiences to keep the heat on, this will become especially vexing.

Because for some places… There are not words.

I could rattle off a few just sitting here: The Florida Keys, The Grand Canyon, the Montana landscape, the Maine Coast, the Outer Banks… but there are too many to list in a blog, a Facebook post or any online list that you’ll read, if we’re being honest.

And what happens when you stand before these natural monuments is something that’s hard to describe, but I’ll try. With most every other experience in life, no matter how far-fetched or absurd, we experience it by sharing it. If we are crossing the street and a car runs a red light and nearly hits us… we share this story, others recognize its absurdity and agree. We get it out, we see our estimation of it mirrored in the reaction of others, and we move on.

When we experience love in the way of marriage, there’s a church full of onlookers to share in our excitement and gratitude and congratulate us. When we experience loss, there’s a church full of loved ones to console us.

These experiences are defined by our sharing them, describing them, and having some type of community around us to verify and reflect their worth and value. If a man lived and died alone in a forest, would he have ever “lived,” in any real sense? Would his death be a “loss,” in the way we typically understand a death to be? It’s hard to say.

But when we stand in front of the Pacific crashing on the beaches of Cape Flattery, Wash., or see the ocean lapping on the shores of Islamorada, Florida, or see the sun light up the sky in the Outer Banks in North Carolina a thousand shades of fluorescent orange, that’s not necessarily an experience that’s defined through sharing, but rather internalizing.

Sure, in today’s social-media driven culture we’re bound to photograph, hashtag, and post images of these places and landscapes… but truthfully we could just as easily sit in an apartment, download a .JPG, and upload it to our timeline. Sharing the experience doesn’t define it, but absorbing it does.

When you see these places that defy description, you can’t help but absorb them. Somehow that beauty that could only exist in nature, could only be manifested by some divinely inspired creator, becomes part of us when we witness it. “We are what we eat,” has become a cultural slogan, but a more realistic and accurate one might be: “We are what we’ve witnessed. We are what we’ve seen.”

Because when this life’s done and we ultimately leave this place for another, we’ll take only the things that we can hold onto, and fortunately material things don’t fall into that category. “You can’t take it with you,” is right. Except for the waves crashing on beaches, the sunrises over forests, the last shades of silver on the clouds from a setting moon, or the afternoon shadows playing on a meandering river. Those, when we absorb, we keep. And we carry. For today, tomorrow and forever.

 

The Best Part about Being an Angler

Hip-Deep in the Fall Run
Taking a breaker in the chest while fishing the Montauk surf.

I have a vivid memory of my first time fishing the Montauk surf in a wetsuit. I remember, vividly, because I was fishing with a guy named Mike Coppola, who is about the most extreme surf fisherman you’ll ever meet (‘extreme’ here meaning crazy in a way that yields incredible results) and I was trying to follow Coppola out into the surf in a borrowed wetsuit.

He’d climbed up on a boulder off the beach, and was casting, when a wave caught me, picked me up, and pounded me on the Montauk sand hard enough to rattle a few ribs.

But I got up. I kept fishing. I share this story not to brag about some intense fishing experience, because truthfully I was pretty terrified, but because I think it demonstrates one of the most important things we learn as anglers from almost the first time we pick up a rod.

Fishing demands of us, more than anything else, that we be self-sufficient, resilient, that we bounce back. It’s very rare for any angler to catch a fish on his first cast, but even if he does, his ratio of casts-to-fish, even if he’s good, will be about 1,000-to-1 after that if he keeps at the sport for the rest of his life.

And more likely than not he’ll get pounded on the beach, fall through the ice (2003), get swept off a sandbar (2001, 2004, 2007, 20… you get the picture), lose his footing in a river (2004), get stuck in an electric storm (2010) and be closer to a hurricane than any human being without a death-wish would ever want to be (2012).

Which is to say that if you’re older than 12 and still love to fish, you’ve probably been battered around, soaked, frozen and exhausted.

And the reason these experiences are so valuable to anyone navigating this ‘life,’ thing we’re all stuck in, is because they’re demonstrative of a greater truth: No one, anywhere, attains anything worth pursuing without a little punishment or sacrifice.

And as fishermen we come to understand this fairly quickly and that truth becomes ingrained in us. So when we… say, apply for a job, ask out a girl (or guy), try out for a team or try something like… raising money to find a cure for cancer... we do not expect, at first, that we will be successful by any measure any more than we might expect to hook a fish on a first cast.

We understand, in fact we’re certain, that consistency, resilience, and faith are absolutely necessary in any endeavor we undertake.

And if that means picking ourselves up off the beach, getting a few ‘No’s, or even ‘no thank yous,’  being passed over, turned down or ignored, we understand that that’s no more personal than a fish passing on a lure, it’s just life. What’s more important, we understand that the reward after the effort is almost always worth it, and then some.

And we make another cast, effort or attempt. And then another.