Thursday, December 06, 2007


The other day I went into a supermarket and, after some deliberation, I picked out a film-wrapped slice of fresh salmon. It was a hearty chunk of fish, and it would make a fine meal. When I took my selection to the cash register the checkout person—a pleasant-faced young woman—inspected it solemnly.

“What is it?” she asked.

What is it? I wondered if she was presenting a koan, but I responded graciously. “It’s a fish,” I said. “A salmon fish.”

“But where are its eyes?” she wanted to know.

Her direct question threw me off. “I mean it’s a salmon fish steak.”

She looked puzzled.

“You’ve never tasted salmon?” I asked, wondering if she had recently wandered out of the Ozarks hills after having been weaned on chitlins and redeye gravy. I leaned over the counter to see if she was wearing shoes.

“Salmon is delicious,” I said. “It’s a salt water fish.”

She looked at me intently. “Are you a sailor?” she asked.

Another straightforward question.

Fish . . . water . . . sailor. I presumed she was making some sort of association. Or maybe she was posing a spiritual problem. Perhaps she was demonstrating truth directly, without recourse to logic or reason. I reflected on her words.

“Not just now,” I said. “But I have been.”

Fish in hand, she gazed at me and I readied myself to launch into a collection of salty yarns from my days before the mast.

“Well, you look like one,” she said. I assumed she meant sailor, not fish.

As Pogo Possum used to say, reason reeled. I was wearing black shorts and a green T-shirt. I wondered what sort of seafaring books she’d been reading.

The nymph and I stood there for a long moment, both of us calmly regarding the salmon steak. After a while she rang up my purchase, slipped it into a plastic bag, and handed it to me.

“Well, have a nice day sailing,” she said.

I thanked her.

“And enjoy your whatever,” she added.

Rationalism had fled. “Maple tree in the garden,” I answered.

Intellect and logic had been blown out of the water. Was I having a spasm of awakening? I remembered a Zen story.

Once a fish asked another fish, “I’ve always heard of ocean, but what is ocean?”

The other fish answered, “You are surrounded by ocean. You move, live, and have your being in ocean. Ocean is all around you. Ocean is within you.”

The first fish looked confused, so the other fish went on.

“You are ocean.”

“Huh?” the first fish said.

“You originated in ocean, and you will end in ocean. You and ocean are one.”

Now the first fish was really bewildered.

“You’ve given me no answer at all,” it said. “I’ll have to go somewhere else for an answer.”

The other fish said, “The only real answer is the one you find in yourself.”

I carried my fish to the car and sat there for a few minutes, trying to find a real answer in myself. All I came up with was another question.

Why, I wondered, do I attract such weird moments?

After a while the world settled into place, so I headed for home.

That night I broiled the whatever with dill butter and served it with a baked potato and a side of corn pudding.

The meal was delicious, and I became one with it.


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