My grandfather often complained that he never got any fishing done.
On Wednesdays when businesses closed, he’d carry my grandmother to the family pond to fish. And that’s exactly what happened. My grandmother fished. Granddaddy said all he had time for was baiting her hook and removing the catch.
The pond was a mile or two around. Well-stocked. I remembered him cleaning the fish, scraping the knife backward across the scales, how they flew off, glinting in the light.
Nowadays my mother stays at a facility called Hidden Lake. According to Mama, the reason the lake is hidden is that it’s actually a pond. If you’re looking for a lake, you’re going to be looking a while. Hidden Lake is only a lake if you think your recirculating water feature is a pond.
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The lure of fishing crosses all kinds of lines. An imprisoned friend wrote that his grandmother fished off bridges and piers. In public lakes and private ponds. She’d stand quietly, awaiting inspiration. Sensing her spot, she’d set out six rods and poles, bait the hooks, and start hauling in fish. Her grandson said beneath the muddy water, fish just lined up, patiently waiting their turn to throw themselves at her hook. No one else caught a thing.
One memorable expedition his mother called, “Mama, don’t git so close to that water.” But Grandma didn’t need no advice.
“Mama, you too close to that bank!” his mother insisted.
A pause. Then, “MAAAMA!!!”
Grandma’s feet lifted off the ground, bicycling in the open air, her arms flailing wildly. KER-SPLASH!
My friend was in stitches. His mother yelled for him to stop laughing at her mother, but by then he was rolling on the ground.
Fortunately, when Grandma managed to stand, the water was only knee-high. Still, she was drenched and spitting pond scum. The crowning insult, though, was she’d lost her wig. Into the pond waded the uncles, searching for the missing hairpiece.
My mother is a connoisseur of slapstick. We’re lucky she didn’t fall out of her Hidden Lake chair at the image of the uncles fishing out that wig.
Readers sometimes say these stories help humanize the prisoners. The muddy waters of their lived realities are opaque to us. But so are ours to them.
Recently, one man mentioned how childhood was overrated; he didn’t remember anything positive under all that dirt. Another gently insisted they shouldn’t blame circumstances for their choices. As young teens they chose to start selling drugs. No one forced them.
The idea of “choice” has such allure. We want to claim control over our lives. But when I asked my children how they’d have gone about selling drugs at the end of middle school, they considered a while then finally recalled a girl who claimed to have smoked a joint. My children wouldn’t have “chosen” to sell drugs because first, there was no need: we had a home, heat, clothes, food and second, they’d have no idea where or how to begin.
When one man said he didn’t get started with drugs till late, he meant 13. At 13, my children were surrounded by ice skating, baseball and violins. He was surrounded by guns, drugs, and an immediate need for rent money. Are we seriously trying to convince ourselves that a 13-year-old child sentenced to life in prison, which means sentenced to die in prison, had the same choices as my kids?
Not to judge
I remember the story of Bass, a mythic figure. The men called him a living testimony. Over and over, he encouraged his fellow prisoners not to judge. He reminded them that every day was worth celebrating if you were alive to see it.
How many of us embody such grace amidst our wildly fortunate lives?
The twinned notion of free choice/personal responsibility benefits those with the most benefits. It enables us to wash our hands of our responsibility to fix what’s broken. It allows those of us who have fish lining up to feel justified in not sharing the shoreline.
Bream, bass, wig; what’s troubling the waters is justice. But what does justice mean when the scales are flaking and the blindfold is one we willingly wear?
I don’t think at 13 anyone has much free choice. I think what we have are our given circumstances. These children, now prisoners, were caught in a net not of their making. When I listen to their stories, one thought rises over and over: it’s a wonder any survive. That some survive with hearts intact is my Christmas miracle.
We don’t need to humanize these men. We need to humanize ourselves. We need to muddy the waters of our certainty that those of us gifted with childhoods where we didn’t witness murders, need to sell drugs for rent, or have parents incarcerated aren’t indebted to those who did. We are. And we need to recirculate our unearned good fortune in the form of tangible compassionate active love.
If justice rolls like a river, it’s a water that raises all boats. Not a hidden lake, but a gleaming one where all children are wading in the water and the shoreline is immeasurably immense.
Lynden Harris is the founder of Hidden Voices and lives in Cedar Grove in northern Orange County. You can reach her at email@example.com