Fishing The Marsh

Our boat left the dock early in the morning, destined for a Faulkner-esque expedition through the Louisiana marshes into Shell Island and Bastian Bay. My fever had mercifully broken three days previous, but I was still apprehensive about a fishing trip I was not quite sure I was physically ready to be a part of. As I pondered my decision, the curiosity swirling through my mind of the effects of the oil spill on the southern coasts of our sister state proved to be the over-riding incentive for me to take the voyage. So this is where the morning found me.

The trip had been planned, postponed, and then planned again many times during the previous two months, finally consummated in a phone call last Sunday night:

“Weather’s clear, we’re heading down to Sulphur tomorrow night. You coming down?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Fishing zones open?”
“Yes. All of our usual spots are available.”
“Catch and release, or do we get to keep ‘em?”
“You kiddin’ me? Cajuns can’t fathom that term.”
“Yesu anakupenda!” (Swahili for ‘Jesus Loves You!’)

A warm, humid breeze wafted in from the Gulf, and overhead the puffy cumulus clouds were threatening to calve into something sinister and foreboding before the morning sun had climbed to its zenith, if not sooner. We ended up fishing our boat in the surf, which though successful, was also most uncomfortable for one recently recovering from an illness. I made sure to constantly hydrate myself with water - by noon I had consumed six bottles total. At various times I stopped fishing long enough to take pictures with my camera, yet always returned promptly to the task at hand. Specks were abundant in the early hours, with Reds coming on strong as the sun burned the mists away, especially closer to the dense marsh grass. We limited out on the Reds, but we did not quite make it to that number with the Specks. All in all, it was a successful trip, and I’ll be frying fish over the weekend and experimenting with grilled redfish recipes I wrote down while interrogating the various guides as they cleaned our catch.

Although I enjoyed the trip, and sharing the fish in a family cook-out will mean even more to me, I’ll have to admit that one of my goals was to actually evaluate the coastline in that area to ascertain for myself how bad the oil spill damage is first hand. We were in an area very close to what could be considered ‘ground zero’ for oil coming ashore, more so than Gulf Shores, Pensacola, or even my beloved beaches of South Mississippi. I was expecting to see helicopters in a constant flight pattern above us, or at least a few hundred temporary BP employees in orange and yellow vests patrolling the shoreline. Most of all, I was expecting tar balls and dead marsh grass, oil soaked birds, and dead fish. These are the things I see on the evening news, reminding me daily that all is lost in the Gulf, both now and for several generations to come. I walked on a tiny sand island devoid of any vegetation (we’re talking seriously tiny) and we fished from our boats in the actual surf near Shell Island. I saw no tar balls. I saw no dead sea turtles or oil encrusted birds. Most importantly to me, I spent the morning pulling in a lot of fish; we all did. These are fish we will not be hesitant to consume later.

On the way back to the dock, in a bayou with dark water as smooth as liquid glass, I finally saw what I had expected to see from the beginning of my trip. Containment booms, massive lengths of them, were stretched taut as far as my eyes could see on both sides of the estuary. Although I still did not see oil within their confines, I know they had been placed there for a reason – a sort of dirty little secret hidden insidiously within an otherwise perfectly normal environment.

By most reports the leak will be permanently stopped within a few days or weeks, and clean up (corroborated by my own eye's witness) is being completed on schedule. There are the so-called plumes to contend with, I know, and things could suddenly get much worse than what I saw yesterday. Maybe not. Either way, there is a stigma of what we see on the evening news that has most of the world convinced the Gulf is dead and the Southern coastline is currently lying in a state of oil-stained ruin. My guide told me that despite the fishing we had experienced, and the fact that most of the zones had been reopened, his business was slow and almost nonexistent. That’s a shame. It shouldn’t be that way. The under-reported good should bear the same weight as the reported bad; at least that’s what I believe in my heart. But if you get the chance, take a trip down in the marsh. Visiting the small villages is a lot like stepping back in time, and of course, the fishing is excellent during this time of the year.

"He hath made every thing beautiful in His time: also He hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that G_d maketh from the beginning to the end." Ecclesiastes 3:11

It Was Enough

It’s a sinking feeling right now, at least that’s the only way to grasp what I’m feeling at the moment. Like maybe I need a long nap or something…

My struggles with the Epstein-Barr virus continue this morning, along with a low-grade fever now approaching twenty-nine days in duration and counting. I’m back at work, but to be honest I do not know how much progress I am making toward the grand schemes of the company I work for and its associated goals. But you have to start somewhere. Thus, here I am, piloting my paper-strewn desk on what otherwise will prove to be a perfectly sunny summer day.

I went back to the doctor yesterday, and in between pokes and prods he did his best to reassure me with phrases like these things take time and with a virus it is best to merely treat the symptoms. I did get a B-12 shot in the arm, but the effects appear to be negligible as of this writing. I like this doctor, I really do. We talk about everything from health care to future plans for a new hospital in the area. We discuss our children and our careers. It is not his fault that a cure for this virus still seems to be further down the road and not yet readily available for mankind at the present time.

I miss swimming in the pool when I get home in the evenings. I miss riding my motorcycle to work. I miss sitting on the porch with my guitar, pondering the future while the stars make their debut in the fading twilight of another softly passing day. Those things are on hold for now, replaced by my recliner and a weird desire to watch old Jeff Bridges movies from the early 1980’s. (I’ve watched Against All Odds and Cutter’s Way over the past two evenings, and in a surreal sort of way, I believe I enjoyed them.) My schedule these days appears to revolve around thermometers and intervals for Tylenol and Ibuprofen, along with reminders to squeeze in massive quantities of vitamin C and D supplements in a manner that does not obscenely rearrange my digestive track.

And so I complain. I pour my heart out to G_d with my prayers, begging him for a miracle as by this point it appears to be the only viable solution left to me. I think that would be important, too. I want to trust in Him, and not simply leave it as “I was sick, but after a certain amount of time passed by, my body developed immunity on its own and thereby solved the problem.” I believe He still heals because I know He has the power to do so. And so I pray…

But what if He chooses not to answer my prayer? What if I continue to struggle until the time my doctor warned me about passes and I am finally cured as such? Then I will know that He has his reasons and I should be seeking to learn something from the whole experience. Isaiah writes: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I’ve meditated upon these verses on many occasions in my life and it has been made unavoidably (crystal) clear to me that I do not, in fact, always understand His ways. My prayers are not always answered, at least not in the manner or style I hoped for at the particular time I prayed them. But I can honestly say, even so, it was enough. If G_d in His wisdom chooses to never answer another prayer for me, it will still be enough. In my heart I know He heard (and answered) the most important prayer I have ever prayed – the prayer that saved my soul and provided a place for me with Him in a not-too-distant eternity that awaits all of us. In the rankings of all things mortally important that are nestled within my heart, what more could I ask, expect, or hope for? Everything else I may desire, health, finances, you name it, fails miserably in comparison.

That one simple prayer, a prayer from a sincere heart that badly needed an answer –was answered. I do my best to always remember and hold to the truth that everything else in my life today revolves around the answer to that prayer so many years ago. It was enough. The blessings he has provided and the many, many other answers to prayer I’ve received since that day, although I am decidedly thankful and praise Him for all of them, are only gravy, as far as I’m concerned.

Up On The Stage

Saturday night in a bar aptly named Touché located down by the waterfront in Chalmette. It was late spring/early summer in the year of 1982. The place was packed as the time came for the band to begin playing their third set of the evening, which by now had been extended into the early morning hours. I cradled my guitar against my chest in the stifling, backstage heat; a vintage 1965 Fender Telecaster. It had been a long night, but it had been a successful one depending on how you measured it. Following the second set, we had been paid for the evening and after the various costs we accrued in travelling from Picayune had been accounted for, the members of the band still pocketed over two hundred dollars each – big money for college kids back then and for only a few hours of work if you wanted to call it that. As I stepped up to the microphone to belt out a song, probably “Rocky Mountain Way” or “Jenny, Jenny (8675309)”, the night began to take its toll on me and the luster of the spotlight as well as the crowd had faded; replaced by only an emptiness inside of me that neither my voice nor the vapid lyrics seemed to fill.

I had begun playing in various bands back in high school, from the garage variety all the way up to established bands replete with their own cult-followings at the time. My current stint with this group had lasted well over a year, and though a recording contract was never offered nor anticipated, it paid the bills for us as we each attended college. The early gigs in town, in clubs with names like “Chester’s” or “The Attic” had allowed us to branch out to larger venues in New Orleans and Hattiesburg as we honed our craft of playing rock-n-roll music. We played covers almost exclusively; the thought of writing our own songs seemingly never crossed our minds in those days. That’s probably a good thing too, I believe, as I look back through the rear-view mirror of many years having gone by since that time. Sophomoric lyrics written from the heart and recorded for posterity can come back to haunt you later in life, especially when you have children of your own that are apt to stumble upon them in some forgotten notebook hidden away in the attic, as an example.

It started out as a lot of fun and I enjoyed the attention of being up on the stage in front of the swaying crowds. I’ve also always loved music, which made it an easy road for me to follow. As a side note, I can honestly say that although we were playing in bars I never drank – I was nineteen years old and temptations with alcohol would knock on my door later. It was strictly about playing the music and meeting girls; making a little money in the process was merely lagniappe. At least it started out that way. By the time I was on stage in Chalmette as mentioned earlier, we were going to school and practicing two or three nights a week. On weekend afternoons, we would load up the equipment in a rented truck, travel to wherever we were to play that evening, unload the truck and set up, play three or four one-hour sets, reload the equipment in the truck, drive back to town, and unload the equipment in time to get the truck back to the rental agency by 8 AM. By that point it was all about the money; the love of the music as well as the fun had long since been discarded somewhere along the way.

I had also been thinking a lot that night of a heated conversation I’d shared with my father earlier the day before. He was the music director at the Baptist church I had literally grown up in, and to say he was against my foray into playing rock music in bars naturally would be an understatement. As a Christian, what I was doing was wrong, but apparently I had found a way to justify it in my heart. Sure, I had felt a lot of guilt when we first began playing the clubs, but over time (and spending the money I made) I guess you could say I had gotten used to the guilt and was living within a means I had found of getting around it. Denial can be a strong sedative, I’ve learned.

Daddy finally told me with not a little exasperation in his voice that I could not sing/play in bars on Saturday night and then get up and sing in his choir on Sunday mornings. Those words stung; puncturing me in a secret place deep enough and to a point where they stayed on my mind throughout that night while I was on stage. As a Christian, where can you draw the line, and then what happens when you cross it? I justified things in my heart by the aforementioned point of not drinking, and besides, we were only having fun and making good money – money I needed for my education. It was rock music, sure, but it wasn’t the hard stuff anyway, and the crowd really liked me even when they were sober!

During that last set, a question came to my mind, one I found I could no longer honestly answer. The question from my heart was who are you? My father’s ultimatum on reaping and sowing proved to be the answer I needed. I was not meant for this, and this is not what G_d wanted me to do with my life.

I’d like to say that I never went back on stage after that epiphany in Chalmette, but it took a few more weeks before I actually quit the band. I had to weather an extended bout with denial before I could get my heart resolved to do what I knew all along was right. Those things do not come easily to a nineteen-year-old who is caught up in the things of the world. I was enjoying the music, the crowds, the girls, and the money – face it, who doesn’t want to be a rock star?

James writes: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” No amount of rationalization or the associated guilt that comes from living a lie can ever change what you already know in your heart to be right.

Lightning In A Bottle

“So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.” Ephesians 5:28

When we are together, you make all the difference in the world to me. When we are apart, I still count the hours, minutes, and even seconds until I can see you again. Despite the passing of twenty-something years in our history, the sum of which we wrote together, the song remains the same in my heart as well as it does in all that I am.

My thoughts revolved around these facts the other day while we waited in the hospital, and the simple thought of you by my side throughout the ordeal stirred those memories while jogging a portion of my consciousness that has always been there simmering beneath the surface. I do my best to suppress that consciousness, as I know that to allow it to flow uninhibited in a sea of emotion could quite possibly consume me. After a while, too, it might lose its meaning and become something frivolous or taken for granted if I chose to do so. Probably not, but like the fleeting summer days that fade unnoticed into autumn, I would never take the chance of allowing those same feelings to softly slip through my hands.

What I feel for you is eternal. I can change it no more than a leopard can change the pattern of its spots merely because, well, because it is so. Determined by a higher power against seemingly egregious odds; we are. Despite uncertain times and an unclear future, I choose to believe we always will be. My hopes, my dreams, my wishes, and my desires remain interwoven by golden threads spun upon the endless magnitude of what you mean to me.

I’m watching the years slide by like water now, our memories accrue as events are added, and yet you look the same to me as you did on that very first day we spent together so long ago. A timelessly beautiful girl in a refined and elegant sort of way - that’s what I see. So long ago was only yesterday or at least just the day before in my mind - and I like that, I really do. Because of you, I wake up each morning in 1988, frozen in time and space, but still a lot wiser and much more spiritual in nature at the same time. How can this be? I cannot understand it, but to place the thoughts of my heart into words miserably fails in my feeble mind’s attempt this morning at doing so.

You have made mistakes, as have I, but it seems as though we’ve usually made our mistakes together and paid for them together. A lot of people can never honestly say that because they cannot understand what it means to do so. But we do, and that just might be the key to what we are – two imperfect people made perfect by what we share together as two imperfect people. Not only can I deal with that in my soul, but I have grown to bask in the glow of it.

Today, I watch as my children grow into their adult lives and my very being aches for them. I worry, I stress, but I also pray that somehow and in some way they will find a love like this. Not merely a normal love, mind you, but a huge, magnificent love that burns brightly despite time and the worldly forces that seemingly array themselves against it. For my progeny to find this treasure on their own will be the true mark of success in their lives and I hope they understand it even as I have achieved the power to now fully comprehend it. In many ways, it is much akin to capturing lightning in a bottle when you do so. Yet at the same time, through my own experience the impossible has therefore become altogether and in a uniquely divine way possible.

On Being Still

Summer colds are the worst, especially when you discover via a doctor’s diagnosis that what you have is not really a summer cold at all. Let me explain…

Two weeks ago, my current odyssey into the world of modern medicine began with what appeared to be a simple sore throat issue. It was more of a nuisance than anything else, and I merely waited for it to ‘go away’ on its own accord. Besides, what can you really do for a sore throat anyway? The weekend came and I had previously obligated myself to help a group from my church paint an elderly man’s house, and although I knew the hot-and-humid-South-Mississippi-mid-summer-day would not be in the best interests of my (let alone anyone else’s) health, I graciously arrived early that morning as promised. The morning sun beat down upon us as only it can do in the South, and by the time we completed the job around lunch-thirty, it had turned out to be a sweltering June day. My sore throat acquired new symptoms in a team effort; now I had a wicked cough and a nose pouring as profusely as a wedding cake fountain. By the time I arrived back home, I was dizzy and light-headed, and to my horror I began to see blood in the phlegmy things my lungs were hacking up. That will scare anyone, and in my case it made me contemplate my own earth-bound mortality.

My wife drove me to the Urgi-Care facility in town, (I’m getting to know that place really well these days) and I was diagnosed with bronchitis; fairly common and seldom life-threatening. A pack of steroids was issued along with prescription antibiotics, cough syrup, and a stern warning to stay out of the heat. Funny thing about those steroids - by Tuesday I was feeling exceptionally better and apparently well on my way to curedom.

Then I did something stupid.

Once a year we have a rail-scale calibration at work and it requires perfect timing as it entails getting the USDA, the MS State Department of Weights and Measures, a certified scale technician, and the railroad all together at one time and on the same page to perform the task. It just so happened that Wednesday was the slated day, despite a downpour of Biblical proportions. Despite my recent illness, I had no real choice other than to be there as my company’s representative and a shepherd for the various muckity-mucks assembled during the festivities. In a matter of moments I was drenched, soaked to the bone, and once the scale certification was complete, I returned to my office – to the air conditioning that awaited me there. I had no jacket, and no spare clothes to change into, so I toughed it out as I am prone to do, shivering and shaking down in my bones like you do when you ride a motorcycle to work on a frigid December morning. I shoulda worn a raincoat. I coulda went home and changed clothes. I woulda turned down the A/C had I thought about it. Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda; the mantra of hindsighters everywhere, I tell you.

My condition deteriorated as the week continued, of course. Throw in mowing and weed-eating the yard in the aforementioned summer heat on Friday, and by Saturday I had allowed a fever to join in the healthcare follies I now found myself experiencing. By the July the Fourth bar-b-cue I was in terrible shape, and I know I was because I merely picked at the food on my plate. It only became worse and by Wednesday I was sitting in my regular doctor’s office, describing to him my symptoms and begging him for a cure. (There’s no cure for stupid, son.) Advice on vitamins, a suggestion for cough syrup remedies, yet another antibacterial prescription, and I was on my way home for the rest of the week. The trouble was, I did not seem to improve any, and by Sunday morning my wife drove me, (again) this time to the ER in Slidell, Louisiana.

Needles were poked, IVs were started, x-rays were taken, and CAT-scans were ordered. Yes, I had a cough. Sure, at one time I had bronchitis. My sinus cavity displayed a pattern of chronic problems over the years. But none of these were at the crux of my physical ailments. I was not getting better because my health issues were not related to a bacterial infection; there was a virus behind the scenes providing the impetus for my sickness. The doctor told me it was related to an Epstein-Barr ‘type’ virus. I responded by asking him weakly, and with emotion, “Tell me how bad is it, Doc? How long do I have?” Shrugging off my pitiful (though heart-felt, I assure you) plea, he explained to me that it was closely related to mono, but since it was a virus, the only solution was to treat the symptoms – the antibiotics I had been taking were useless in this fight.

Ah healthcare, you gotta love it. And it’s going to get worse I’m assured. Because of Obamacare? No, silly, because I am getting older. I have many more sicknesses and diseases to look forward to as I fast-forward myself through middle age and into the awaiting senior years on my radar.

With a virus, I have learned you have to have patience. You have to be willing to treat the symptoms and trust in your body to heal on its own. Not only that, but you have to put your faith in G_d to provide a cure, especially when all of the wonders of modern medicine can no longer help you. Maybe I should have been in this mindset all along, you know, trusting in Him and waiting for His healing from the get go. The Psalmist writes: “Be still, and know that I am G_d: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” Both my praise and my honor go out to the Great Physician this morning. I am going to do my best to merely be still and always remember His power in my many moments of weakness, both physical and spiritual.

Especially as I get older…

Intemperate Thoughts

The latest events across the country and dare I say, across the world, can serve to wash each of us in a veritable sea of hopelessness once we consider the situation as it appears to be. First and foremost, we have a terminal oil spill in the Gulf. I do not use the term ‘terminal’ lightly here as that is what it appears to foretell for the future of the coast. Not in the very least the beaches that I grew up around and have loved for so long. I’ve spent time working and fishing in Grand Isle, and I’ve lived in Panama City Beach. I’ve vacationed in all points in between at various times in my life. My earliest memories of the Gulf are picnics when I was too small to remember much else except the fact they occurred amid the sugary sands of Henderson Point on the Mississippi Sound. Many of my carefree, teenage summer days were spent taking the ferry from Gulfport out to Ship Island, and it is something I still try in vain to describe to others who have never made that trip. Looking back, was there any reason not for me to join the Coast Guard when I made the decision to serve my country?

I’m no Jimmy Buffett, I’m just saying.

There is a lot of emphasis on the news these days on the spill, with the assorted blame game played out daily between the White House and BP. In fact, so much of the coast is under the microscope that you have to look hard to see the other ‘things going on’ that are interesting and viable. Venezuela took over our oil rigs on their coastline, in effect nationalizing them, without a peep from our government in response. Iran is closer each day to joining the nuclear club. The economy continues to totter on the brink of collapse. Wars continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the Argentineans are stirring up a new debate over control of the Falkland Islands; the same islands for which a war was fought back in the 1980’s. There are many more things happening out there and I could go on and on. Truly these are the times that try men’s souls.

What is next for our country? What lurks behind the closet door or beneath the bed, merely waiting for the right moment to jump out and scare us out of our remaining sanity? Is this the end, or merely the beginning of the end, in a manner of speaking? Yes, things are bad now, but even so, what will they be like down the road in my own eleven-year-old son’s lifetime? What will he face in his future or will we even make it that far?

Ah, gloom and doom, Shannon. Cut it out. But it’s Thursday and I can be gloomy if I want. I’m off tomorrow, getting a fast start on the whole July the Fourth weekend thing and I deserve it this year. We celebrate our Nation’s anniversary annually on this date, and it is worth celebrating. We have a great Nation, and one we should still be proud of despite the evening news or our recent faults and failures. I’m going to burn up some meat and spend some time in the sun. It will be good for me, I tell you.

I know the answers (but no one is asking me, I know) to all of the problems we seem to be encumbered with these days. I don’t blame the President, totally. I don’t put the onus for catastrophe on the Congress or the Supreme Court, either. At least not all of it. But it is easy to point the finger of blame in their direction - it makes it easier on all of us. After all, we get the government we deserve, eh?

Most of our problems we face are the sum of our fixation on the economy, but that in itself is a result of how it affects all of us. We have to have jobs and we have to pay bills. And taxes are always going to be an issue either way. It’s a tough row to hoe when you are forced to watch your tax dollars being frittered away on handouts, bailouts, and other frivolous schemes emanating from inside the Beltway. It might make you become political and join a Tea Party or otherwise become involved, and that’s not always a bad thing. But it is not the crux of the matter and all that ails our society cannot be encircled within the realm of ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.

Our problem is morals, or the lack of them, and it started a very long time ago. With good moral laws and codes, the kind laid out for us in the Bible, the economy would take care of itself. No one would be embezzling their company’s retirement funds and heading to Mexico, no one would be slacking off and taking handouts from the government unless they truly needed them, and wages would be paid on a scale based upon knowledge and talent instead of via policy. The harder you worked to attain that knowledge and develop your talents would show results, as it used to do. Honesty would prevail in the marketplace without any needed coercion from the powers that be. Schools would prosper as students (and parents) realized knowledge was key, and extracurricular activities would simply become extracurricular once again. The societal burdens we face with crime, drug use, and even illegal immigration would become taboo instead of being glorified in songs, movies, and various other media forms.

I’m speaking of a Nirvana that has never existed, I know. But by the same token, our country seems to have gone completely in a diametrically-opposed direction until it is no longer a semblance of what it was even fifty years ago. I fear we may never get back what we have lost in the process.

Solomon writes in Proverbs, “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” And I think he knew what he was talking about when he wrote this. I’d much rather see my Country exalted on the world stage instead of becoming a reproach on this earth. But on this Fourth of July, I find myself pondering: where do we go from here?