I thought, after the flurry of resentful and angry letters all hot over the question of religion, something cool would be soothing to the fevered brows of the local heirs of Torquemada.
The Zen of ice fishing
Crossing the spiritual divide one tip-up at a time
This week, as we’re engaged in the heat of political battles, I thought I'd talk about something more important than why three of the school board candidates identified themselves as creationists, or why one of the candidates for District 3 has his house up for sale; something more important to our survival as a community, as a culture, as a people.
I thought I’d say something about a religious sensibility uniting us in Wisconsin rather than about the divisiveness of ideologically driven politics that, more and more, fracture our communities.
And what religious practice is it that unites us in Wisconsin? Catholics, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Wisconsin, Missouri and ELCA Lutherans, and even Zen Buddhists? Ice fishing. Of course.
I was walking our year-old Rottweiler Lab mix along the Milwaukee River late last Sunday morning under an impossibly blue dome of winter sky. The air was icy crisp, like it was made of crystal, like it would break when the church bells at St. Mary's started to ring.
My dog was up on his toes and his ears were up too, taking it all in, bouncing along in front of me, aware of every sparrow and every stray twig and, I suddenly noticed, having a much better time than I was. My mind was chomping on the useless cud of current events: snippets from the NY Times Week In Review opinion columns, the Sunday morning news shows, the logical syntax in some of the previous week's letters to the editor in the Daily News endorsing School Board candidates I don’t endorse, one written by a friend of mine, the swirling rush of fallacious and almost wrathful reasoning that constitutes political discourse online, and 10,000 other meaningless and time-consuming shards of things I d been exposed to in the past week. The shards were banging together like out-of-tune wind chimes.
Coming to myself, I thought,
"This is an inappropriate mental content for a Sunday morning."
As if to reinforce this discovery, a redtailed hawk sitting on a tree beside the river drew my attention to the ice above the Barton Dam and there, sitting on a bucket, was an answer to the question of what constitutes appropriate Sunday content: quiet reflection through prayerful attention to something one loves — in the form of a lone ice fisherman. He was bobbing over his hole a bit and almost looked like he was working a set of rosary beads. I’d like to think he was.
Ice fishing marks off people in Wisconsin as serious-minded and deeply spiritual.
Note: they don't have ice fishing in California. Or Texas.
Ice fishing is often compared to a kind of Zen. Consider the process: attention to an empty hole down which you drop the thinnest line of intention and from which you draw forth, after patience and long practice, nourishment — but not just for the body, since I can’t imagine anyone eats much of what they pull out of the Milwaukee River and because, frankly, in ice fishing it can’t be the fish that matters. No. That empty hole in the ice provides nourishment for the soul, something rarely mentioned in the endless list of ice fishing jokes. (Favorite ice fishing joke punch line: Keep your worms warm.)
When I got home I tossed all of this at my friend Andrew, a one-time Wisconsin ice fisherman, who is now practicing Zen out in Oregon.
I asked, What’s up with Zen and ice fishing?
He sent me this: A Wisconsin version of a poem originally by Sensu Tokujo (Chinese, Chuanzi Decheng)
Letting down the line ten thousand feet,
A single break in the thick ice makes ten thousand cracks.
At night, under the shanty the cold fish won't bite.
An empty Ski-doo filled with moonlight returns.
He reminded me that Henry David Thoreau, a Zen master if ever there was one, once observed: Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
And, finally, I began to wonder whether running for office was like fishing.
Now that’s the appropriate content for a Sunday.
[The house in District 3 belongs to Ed Duquaine, currently running for alderman in that district -- but he didn't return calls about this either from me or from the newspaper so I did not mention his name in print.]