I learned to fly fish on a dirt road in Alaska. It was a slow night, the sun low on the horizon, and the kids and I were bored. I always wanted to learn to fly fish and I happen to be married to a passionate fly fisherman who started when he was 12 years old, besides the fact we were living in rainbow trout paradise for the summer. Greg tied a cigarette butt to the end of the line and threw a dozen perfect casts to a Frisbee laid in the dirt for a target, the line bellying forward in a balanced arc. “Back, pause. Back, pause, ” he intoned as he cast. It looked easy.
I whipped and snapped the line; the butt flew off, the line tangled. “PAUSE Nancy!“ he said in a voice used to make dogs heel. Whip snap tangle whip snap tangle. Greg offered more advice having to do with pausing and stopping to watch the line unfurl behind me. I yelled, “I AM pausing, I am PAUSING!” even knowing I wasn’t. The boys took turns after me and picked it up easily (“They are naturals,” Greg said admiringly, “See how they PAUSE?”).
Over the next week I practiced secretly out on the tundra behind our trailer. When we went out on the river I would make Greg think I was a natural too, but it was no good. I kept trying to force the line with brute strength, and fly-fishing is all about finesse. You are a mere instrument of arm and shoulder. A metronome cadence of back and pause. Fly-fishing is all process—reading the water for the place of lurking fish, matching the hatch with your fly, arcing a line invisibly, quietly, to land on the current like the real thing. Catching a fish is secondary to the beautiful cascade of movements in the flight of a transparent line, secondary to the process of being outdoors with your feet in cold water, the smell of wet rocks filling the air. If you catch a fish on a fly, you carefully remove the hook, hold it under the belly into the current, and you open your hands and release it back to the water.
That summer I landed my first rainbow on a flesh fly. It was 22” long and fat from feeding on the decaying flesh of spawning salmon. A juvenile grizzly bear rounded the bend of the stream just as I landed it. My first fish! I felt all thoughts slide to the dark reptilian basement of the brain where there is no hierarchy, no order, and I did everything you are never supposed to do with a grizzly: I made eye contact, I splashed toward him, and I roared in my mother of teens voice. He lumbered off looking over his shoulder in confusion. Fortunately the kids weren’t with me to witness the breach of backcountry rules. I took up the fish in trembling hands and kissed it. I had risked my life for a fish. I was hooked.
Like babies had hooked me, the learning curve of being a mother steep and treacherous at times. I would do the wrong thing, try too hard, believe that being a natural is something to fight towards instead of relying on the process of grace and intuition, of pausing. I had to learn that raising a child was all process; that the moments I thought would be important—the winning home run, the recitals, and the blue ribbon at a horse show—were pale against the steps taken to get there. What eclipsed the events were the backyard hours of throwing a ball with brothers, a boy practicing the guitar in the kitchen before dinner while I chopped and peeled, all the afternoons Jenna fell off that horse and climbed back on to get the blue ribbon, these were the moments that created the fabric of family experience. These were the big fish.
Our children are grown now with lives of their own. Jenna and her husband Nick have their own family. What would I tell them today as they struggle and celebrate raising Finn and Poppie?
We worry about the wrong things.
There is no rewind, follow your heart.
All of life is catch and release. When you land that beautiful child you raised through the years, bring her to your trembling lips, kiss her and let her go. Watch as she swims with the current or against it and understand she is not yours, she belongs to the river.