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That Fishy Learning Curve

Two and a half years ago, David and I began building a garden. This was a symbolic thing for us because we are beyond the stage where, as a newlywed couple, we’d start a family and bring new life (children) into the world. Mutual history and life experiences are what  plant deep roots in a couple’s history and over time, this vested interest makes it worthwhile to stay together when things aren’t perfect. The garden was our first unique creation as a team, and while the creativity of the project was fun, the planning, budgeting, and learning to work together and problem solving together was the real gift.

David broke ground to establish the basic design, determining that the primary focus of the garden was going to be a pond in the center. With the help of a bulldozer, he dug  a huge hole in the middle of our grassy stretch of lawn, and then he added a liner, rocks, plants, a waterfall and a hand engineered filter system. After a few months of letting the water rest and the plants get established, we invested 450 dollars (which felt like a fortune) on 7 hand picked, mature fish – one for each Chakra since our garden was going to be designed to celebrate the energetic body. I had a great time picking those fish out of hundreds on display, and when David got home from work that day, we sat outside pointing out the varied differences of each fish – both in color and personality. The fish adjusted well and lived happily – proof that we were on the right track and knew what we were doing.

Every morning, we took our coffee out into the garden to inspect how all our new, smallish plants were growing in to fill in each chakra area. We brainstormed ideas – arbors, or Chakra mosaic stones, to keep the garden evolving.  But no matter what new plantings we set out to inspect each day, we always began our  morning visit standing on the bridge that David made, feeding our koi. We loved how they would come to the surface to eat, showing off their brilliant color. A few short months after introducing our new fish to the pond, we noticed a few baby koi too. Now our fish acquisition exceeded the actual number of energy centers, but we considered these surprise fish to be the minor chakras since these fish were smaller anyway. We looked for the new fish each morning, marveling at how quickly they grew. Once in a great while, a heron would manage to spike a koi from the sidelines, and we’d find one of our beloved fish on the gravel next to the pond, dead. It was always frustrating since the fish were way too big for a bird to consume -the death was a waste, but that is the way of nature.

Koi are notoriously dirty fish, and as the months progressed, the pond got cloudier and dirty. David changed the design of his filter more than once. We hired someone to come and clean the pond last spring.  An expensive proposition, but a fair investment since we so love this pond and our symbolic fish. Even with a professional cleaning, the water never got as clean as it once was, and the koi became all but invisible to visitors – except us, who got to see them in that early morning time when they came to the surface to feed.

So, I began complaining. I wanted everyone to see and enjoy our huge, colorful fish. David tried changing the koi food, and tampering with the filters. He even started designing a unique and original koi pond cleaner that would run all the time, like a pool cleaner. He talked about  patenting the concept and design and manufacturing the product when and if he ever had a workable model.

As this spring approached, the dirty pond seemed all that much dirtier juxtapositioned next to the great blooms erupting everywhere. With filled yoga trainings, people are out there, enjoying the garden constantly,  so I amped up my complaints about the state of the pond water. It has been murky for over a year now, and I fully expect my brilliant, engineering husband to figure a way to get it back in balance.

So this week, David (always devoted to my happiness) decided to take some time to clean out that pond once and for all and to redesign the filter again to keep the pond clear.

He thought on the task awhile, then decided to siphon the water from the bottom where all the gunk is, and put new water on top, thus maintaining the level. This was similar to what the fellow did who specializes on cleaning koi ponds, only that guy took a full day to do the job. David considers himself far more economical with time and resources, so he figured a way to do the same work in only a few hours.

So he set up the system and went to Home depot to get some supplies for another job he had in mind to do. I was in the garden taking pictures and I noticed all the fish started hanging around the surface (pictures above). That looked “fishy” to me, so I called him and said that perhaps the koi were struggling to breathe, and he should reconsider his pond cleaning strategy. David insisted that things were fine, he was only doing what the pond specialist did, and he would be back in a little while to finish the job. Trusting that David usually has a grip on the science of any project, I went back to work on my computer and forgot about the fish.

Within two hours, David came home only to find all of our koi – 14 gorgeous, decorative fish (some two feet in length) floating belly up. Goners. David flipped out and quickly used a net to transfer the huge fish to another pond we have, where he hoped the natural balanced water might revive those fish who still were moving slightly. But this just meant they said goodbye to the world in a slightly bigger body of water, because in the morning they were all floating belly up on the surface, their brilliant color glistening in the sun.

David really expect them to survive by the move, but he couldn’t see a live creature struggle and do nothing. He couldn’t sleep all night, wrestling with guilt and wanting to kick himself for his mistake.  Of course, the fact that I called him with the warning and voiced concern made it worse. David also felt badly that he had brushed off my practical concerns. For me, the call just meant I was absolved of guilt and could shrug and say, “Well…. I told you it didn’t look right…”.

I told David that losing the fish was sad, but they are, after all, only fish and that I’ve done worse. I once cooked 58 baby chicks in an attempt to set up an incubator light to keep them cozy….(a chapter from my “new, soon to be released” book for anyone who wants the nitty gritty on this admirable moment in Ginny history). David pointed out that they may be just fish, but they were symbolic, expensive fish, and important to us.

But if there is one thing living 57 years and studying yoga has taught me, it’s that the only meaning anything has is the meaning we assign. I’m certainly sorry all our koi are dead. But at the same time, I have the opportunity to see the symbolism differently. I do not have to mourn or suffer the “what if” or “if only…” that tortures us when things don’t go our way. I don’t need to feed a personal drama or use this moment to tell my husband he should listen to me more. I can accept what has happened gracefully and apply what we’ve learned to my personal wisdom.

Yes, we loved our fish and each day the responsibility of feeding them gave David and I a joint activity that connected us to the garden and each other. But making mistakes is a part being a couple too, and accepting that rituals and daily habits come and go as life throws us curve balls is a sign that we adapt – and how nice it has been to see we don’t turn on each other with “I told ya so’s” or “you should’a’s”  when we are disappointed. As such, the death of the fish is almost as symbolic as their surviving had been. The fish don’t mater half as much as how we, as a couple, deal with their life, death, and impact on the story that makes up our history.

So what now? David is studying pond filters, and we have time to drain the pond and start over. And when we feel ready, we will start again with some new fish – economical smaller koi since I now know that they grow over a foot a year here. There can be meaning in how we revisit the problem this time around too if I look hard enough.

On the night the koi died, David opened a beer, signed and said (kiddingly), “I suppose my murdering the fish will be a nice chapter in your next book. The world will know how thick I am in regards to the fish learning curve…”

A chapter in my next memoir – hummmm – I doubt it,  but this fish tale certainly will make it into a blog. After all, death, mistakes, good intentions and the lessons we learn from daily life is the stuff worth examining- doing so is how we plants roots.

About Ginny East Shaddock

Director of Heartwood Retreat Center, Ginny is also a writer. This is her personal blog with essay form writing about life and reflection. My entries are often lengthy and random, because I'm not here to promote or sell anything. I'm not expecting followers - just find this format a good place to think with the pen.

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