Yesterday, another fly fishing casting practice in the park, where there is no lake (it is only practice!). The late-afternoon golden light filtered through the branches of trees, surrounding a field of neon cones in a structured grid, which acted as targets for casting. And a crowd stood under the trees to assemble rods, until we struck out to the field to lift lines overhead. We, in the crowd, walked out to the cones, but my instructor and I walked past them out into the park.
I am still bad at casting, so my instructor and I spent the next hour testing out different configurations of my grip. We tried roll-casting, we tried closing my eyes to feel the rod as if it were an extension of my arm, we tried overhead casting, we tried enunciating the word “zap” each time I stopped the rod to propel the line. And so the lesson went; my instructor and I stood beyond the grid of cones, trying new techniques to gain some type of orientation towards what I was doing. What changed when I moved my thumb? What changed when I loosened my grip? What changed when accelerated the rod quickly? How, effectively, was I in control of I was doing?
I took a break and put down the rod, then picked up the rod again, and my instructor noticed that I cast well for the first few movements, but “got sloppy” for the next few. He asked me, “what do you do to focus?” and I stood there confused, because all I need to do to focus is focus, with a clear object of my focus. “I just sit there and do it,” I said, “but I am not really sure what I’m supposed to be focusing on. There are so many things to think of, and as soon as I get one technique down, I try to be conscientious of everything that I’m doing.” My instructor understood this as a problem, although the awareness was good, and talked about how the goal was to embed the abundance of knowledge into my body as muscle-memory.
So we took another break, while I looked back at all the other people casting onto the field of cones. We talked about religious fundamentalism, and good critical thinking and inter-religious dialogue—things that were not fly fishing—and I told him a bit about people who think that logic is always limited, always reducing experience to language or reasoning. “There might be something beyond thinking and beyond language. But what we have is almost a grid of reasoning, or conventions of thought that determine the targets of our conversations. And we rely on this structure to help us decipher what is meaningful, or what is even an object of our thought. But there is stuff beyond that—stuff that does not correspond to the grid, stuff that we could focus on if we were given the right grid or framework.” And I shrugged, the instructor shrugged too, and we got back to practicing.
We never went back to the field of cones. The instructor simply asked, “What do you want to do? It’s up to you to choose.” Out of all the things, all the stuff to be conscious of, I chose overhead casting, and began reeling the line in. My instructor stopped me to ask, “how long do you think the line is?” I looked at the crumpled line, “about that long,” pointing.
“It’s not rhetorical.” My instructor measured the line. “About sixteen feet. You don’t want much more than that, otherwise the line will cross currents in a river. You see, a river does not flow downward uniformly. Several currents flow in different directions, varying in pace.” I thought of how “fluid” would be a good word for a river, against a static and linear conception of a river—it seemed so ironic because it seemed so obvious. “So if you cast your line too far out, usually beyond this sixteen feet here, the fish will see the fly coming at them sideways. It’s unnatural. The fish won’t know what is coming at them, certainly they won’t think it’s a fly, and will lose interest. It looks unnatural. So do not cross currents, you do not need more line than you can handle.” Here: limitation and precision caught fish, in a river stewing around with currents switching directions, with more fish than I could catch in one cast with one line. Do not focus too far, only use the line that you need. But this is all idea, because we stood in a park casting to the grass.
So here my fly fishing instructor stood, beyond the cones, telling me not to cast too far out, not to cast further than what seemed “natural,” which was further than what the fish could expect, because, then, the casting would not correspond to what the fish knew; they would not perceive it as a fly. And I wondered what we were doing standing beyond the cones in the first place, outside of the targets of practice, the objects of focus. And now I realize, unlike the fish who were trapped in their grid of "natural," I was learning how to perceive, how to rely not on the cones but on the feeling of the rod. Fish, sadly, cannot learn to perceive (maybe I am not being so charitable to fish), but I could learn how to focus, to vary casting techniques and understand their control—choose one technique at a time and understand it. And although I still do not know what I am doing, maybe I can stand patiently outside of this single grid with a capacity to learn.
What is required is patience and focus: thumb here, finger here, arm up, elbow down, enunciate “zap,” and learn to dimly perceive what resides beyond the grid, out of my immediate capacity to perceive. Focus grows from this, focus to aim for the proper spot in the fluctuating current, focus fixed in a world unstable: no grid, no cones. And it is patience in disorientation, in a fluid current, in that unknown that demands awareness, beyond language or thinking that sits as a disembodied idea; it is that patience that grows the focus to understand how much line you need, which techniques to hold onto, and how to learn what is meaningful and important, so that I do not need to cast beyond sixteen feet to perform what, now, only seems natural.