I tell people I’ve been fishing, but I think I’m lying.
When I was younger, my grandfather owned a lot by a man-made lake that had somehow come to sustainably host families of fish. One Saturday afternoon, he handed my sister and I fishing poles and took us out to the water’s murky edge.
I’m not going to pretend to know anything about fishing. I know nothing. My grandfather assembled my fishing pole, baited my hook, and then, instead of casting the line far out into the depths of the middle of the lake, he dipped it into the water near shore, and then handed the pole to me.
Almost instantly, I felt a tug. On the other end of the line, a fish was using everything it had—its entire being of muscles and fins and gills—to swim away. I pulled with two tiny hands and out it came. It was a small, ordinary thing, and yet its scales glinted in the sunlight.
The fish, suffocating out in the open air, struggled when I let it rest on the dock. My grandfather’s tanned, wrinkled hands held the fish and worked to set it free. My elementary-self watched in horror as he pulled on the hook, which had buried itself deeply into the fish’s flesh. Attempting to help—the fish, not my grandfather—I reached down but pulled away at the unfamiliarity of the scales, which looked smooth and soft but felt more like razors on my small fingers.
Finally, my grandfather freed the fish. Without looking at me, he cupped the fish in both hands and placed it gently back in the water.
My sister, my grandfather, and I left shortly after. Carrying only what we brought.
It was a short trip. Not far from home. Not far out in the water. I learned nothing about fishing—nothing about the lure, nothing about the patience of waiting, nothing about cleaning and gutting a catch. It was hardly an afternoon out in a boat on Lake Michigan or a deep-sea boat off the coast of Australia.
I’m not entirely sure if it counts.
Sometimes I wonder about my life in the same way.
I live in a constant state of doubt that I’m not living life as I should and that I’m missing out on valuable experiences and lessons. I’m twenty-four and should move somewhere far away and then move again once I’ve grown familiar enough to know exactly where to find packets of yeast in the store. I should learn how to use the metro in a big city. I should get a grunt job in a huge corporation or at least a good job in a small business to start a career.
Instead, I’m serving coffee and walking the streets of my hometown and, quite honesty, living the life of a secret third option that nobody—not my parents, not my teachers, not the authors of the books I read—told me existed: small fish, small pond.
Almost four years ago now, I spent a semester abroad in Ghana. It was my first time outside of the country, and so, naturally, I had a romanticized state of mind where Ghana seemed big and far away, and the landscape seemed more vibrant than the colors of West Michigan. (And it still does. In my memory, the grass in Ghana is always greener, the sky a bolder blue, the dirt red and ready to stain.) But I had a moment two months into the semester when I stood on a balcony after returning from the market and overlooked a game of soccer and thought that I could’ve been anywhere in the world and life would look exactly like this: a game of soccer, a loaf of bread, a blue sky meeting a horizon.
I learned nothing about fishing that Saturday afternoon when I was eight years old and standing on a dock by a man-made lake. Looking back, however, I must’ve learned something: fish scales are tough yet transparent; what it feels like to hold your breath while another living creature struggles to breathe; life—no matter where, no matter how small—is precious.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.