I have two handwritten quotes on two small pieces of yellow legal paper taped to the wall next to my desk. Each given to me by friends at points in my life when I really needed them. The friends and the quotes.
The first is by John Buchan, a Scottish author: “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive, but attainable. A perpetual series of occasions for hope.”
And the second, by John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
As a freelance writer, fly fisherman, father, and veteran, both quotes have offered some much needed perspective at various times since they were gifted to me. Especially when it comes to my time spent outdoors and it’s value in my life. While it’s true for me of pretty much any wild place, I’ve come to see that rivers have a special way about them. They take what we give them and return our selves to us. They press and push and keep us off balance until we learn how to stand in seemingly equal measure.
The river is spiritual. Healing. Holistic, and wholly powerful. But what we give the river is only what we’re willing to let go of. And sometimes the river is not enough to loosen the grip we keep on that weight. Or loosen the weight’s grip on us. Rivers can never be too full of our sins and pain. Our fears. Doubt, guilt, anger, sadness. But sometimes simply finding our balance, whether figurative or literal, takes more than finding our small station in the constant rush to larger and larger water.
Through it all we need to lean on the ebb and flow of hope. If we didn’t have hope, there would be no reason to try, for anything, in the first place. And that, for me, is the draw of fly fishing, and the reason Project Healing Waters exists and serves our veterans. The hope of reaching out and having our efforts connect with another living thing—be it fish, or human being—and the healing that happens as a result.
There is an inherent danger in hope, however. Hope disappoints. Hope ends up far below expectation more often than not, if at all. It sets you up for failure. But our combat veterans are cut from different cloth than most. Even in the darkest hours, they manage to find the slightest, dusty ray of light. They hold on in spite of disappointment because that’s what keeps them in forward motion. Without hope, without some thread of belief, they would lose their edge, their passion, their empathy. Their fight would leave them and fear would take its place. It takes courage to be hopeful.
Our veterans live with the hope of finding some normalcy again. Hope of finding a respite from their pain—be it physical or mental. They hope to return home in every sense of the word. Imagine feeling as though you’re caught between two realities that are as different as oil and water. Imagine living with a constant reminder of the worst in this world, even in the best, most beautiful situations, and not knowing how to let go of that weight.
To see our combat veterans at the vise in the evening, intent on tying a fly that could catch them their first steelhead or brown or salmon at first light. To see them opening up, letting their guard down, and talking and laughing with mentors, guides, and volunteers—many of whom are veterans themselves. To see them wade with growing confidence into the river with those mentors and guides, the morning coming to life right in front of their eyes, the river alive with the possibility of huge fish willing to eat. To see them find their balance, holding onto the hope that any and every cast could be the one that will connect. Their mentor or guide standing close with the same hope. This is why we serve those who have served so selflessly for us.
Ultimately, one hope brings the other to fruition. The hope that comes with their focus on something as small and deliberate as a tying a fly. The hope that comes with finding their own strength in the power of the river, and finally reaching out, connecting, and holding their glorious, finned hallelujah with both hands. Each of these answer our veterans’ larger hope for normalcy and returning home. The camaraderie and glorious unquiet-quiet and life of the river loosens their grip on the weight they’re carrying, and loosens the grip of combat and all the shit that it has imposed on them. Ultimately, it’s a gift of presence, and greater courage. On the water and in life. Elusive, yes. But attainable. And absolutely worth saddling up for.
(fp note: this post was written to commemorate the Project Healing Waters event held on the Salmon River (NY) earlier this past November, hosted by the Ft. Drum and Syracuse Chapters of Project Healing Waters. I am honored to have again been a part of this event, and the fantastic work that PHWFF does for our veterans. Thank you to Dan Morgan, Ira Strouse, Fran Verdoliva from the NYSDEC, and all the guides and volunteers who made the weekend a success.)