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Inspired by a conversation I had with a friend, I am reading a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, The Fish, and I am thinking about the appealing and yet strange concept of freedom.

The question I see being asked and answered in the poem constitutes not what defines freedom but how it is achieved.

The speaker in the poem talks about the life experience of the tremendous fish, he/she is holding after catching, written on the fish itself:

five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.

The painfully long and descriptive narrative makes me stop and draws me so closely to the examined fish that I eventually identify myself with the strange experience written on the mouth of the fish.

And I remember being four years old.

I am running down the hill with a stick, as tall as me, I had found in the garden.  I get to the front steps of my house and as I place the stick on the first step, I lean forward fast and the sharp end of the stick enters my skin exactly where my left eyebrow ends.  Blood fills my eye and I can’t see anything but it doesn’t scare me as much as the scream of my mother.

My father picks me up and runs to the street  to catch a car that will take us to the hospital.  My favorite yellow skirt with the comfortable elastic band is stained and I don’t like it.  The car that takes us to the hospital is black and it’s dashboard is adored with tiny plastic flowers behind a tiny fence.

I don’t remember the first hospital visit but I am scared to go there for the removal of the stitches.  And I remember that visit vividly.

There are two doctors in the room.  My mom, who is wearing a nice gray suit and high heels, is asked to leave the room.  I scream.  Her face is filled with sorrow.  I know she doesn’t want to leave but the doctors are in charge.  I am scared.  I scream again.  Somehow I end up on a table, high above the floor, and the doctors ask me to lie down.  I say, no!  They put me down by force and I scream again.  And then I fight them with all my force.  They give up.  One of them leaves the room.  I sit up but can’t get down because the table is too high.

The doors open and four men enter the room.  They force me to lie down.  I fight for a brief moment.  And then I see the bright ceiling and I can’t move.  Four men are holding me down and the fifth one is hovering above me, touching my forehead.  In the last moment of my fight against all odds I scream: “Gentlemen, please, let go of me!  I have something very interesting I need to tell you!”  They all laugh and let go of me.

My mom enters the room and I run to her.  I don’t remember the moment my stitches were removed. All I remember is the fight — my body turning into a tight string under the unbearable pressure, blinding lights on the ceiling, my mom’s face, and the roaring laughs.

The fish in the poem made me see myself in a different perspective.  It made me remember the hook I carry exactly where the left eyebrow ends, six little indentations left by the stitches.

The speaker in the poem sees himself/herself as well:

Here and there
his brown skin hung like strips
like ancient wall-paper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wall-paper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.

I read “brown skin” and I see liver spots.  I read “ancient wall-paper” and I see skin wrinkled with time.  I read “full-blown roses stained” and I see white hair.  I read “lost through age” and I see something lost and gained through age.

The fish in the poem certainly is not an object of beauty but a symbol of strength, gained through life experience, and surrender (the fish doesn’t fight) in the moment of being caught.

In the end, the fish is being released. It’s a beautiful testimony to freedom achieved by strength, throughout its life, and surrender, letting go, in the last moments.

When I imagine the spaciousness of the waters the fish was returned to (for the sixth time), I think of the appealing aspects of freedom — the lack of boundaries and the plentiful of choices.   When I think of how his/her freedom was achieved through a long life and painful experiences, I know nothing is free.

And when I think of the speaker in the poem releasing the fish and the doctors that had released me I know that sometimes freedom is simply offered.  How strange, I want to say.  Sometimes, freedom doesn’t depend on our actions but simply comes to us as a gift.

3 Responses to “On the nature of freedom: holding on to your scars and yet letting go”

  1. marcys says:

    I had such a similar experience as a child–fell down a flight of stairs, and my eyebrow collided with the corner of a steel box. Needed 6 stitches. When I screamed, the doctor smacked me across the face. But my mother was there and she let him. I felt so betrayed. I like the idea of holding onto the scar (it’s still there) and yet letting go. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Ian Campbell says:

    Your stories remind me a little of William Carlos William’s “The Use of Force.” Wherein a family physician engages in a battle, first of wills then of force, with a young patient in order to determine if she has diphtheria. The child fights for her freedom, and her right to privacy and secrets, while the doctor fights for (what he believes) is best. In the end, even with her diagnosis, and presumed future, secured the child is not grateful but rather “now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father’s lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.”

    I wonder if it is the same with the fish and the fisherman, the fish wants only its freedom, its dignity, and its food, but the fisherman perceives that the fish’s life will be more fulfilled if it is seen, as apparently five fisherman before have as well believed.

    Is the fish grateful to be released, to have freedom granted? I think not. What is freedom? Is it something that can be bought through struggles on the table, on the chair, the hook, thrashing and screaming to be freed? Can freedom be gained through clever words, a final defeated lunge, or a swirling stroke down into deep waters to hide our scars? Or were the orderlies right to laugh? Is freedom something more gossamer, something infinitely precious and fragile, something already lost when a child thought to earn a moments reprieve with a distraction, something important to say perhaps? Was the fish’s freedom snatched with the first hook before even the water’s surface was breached, was there anything more to be taken by the setting of the sixth hook? Can we hide our scars deep beneath mirrored waters, or do they lie plain to be seen just beyond the end of our eyebrows?

    Or is freedom a choice, a state of mind? The reservation of our own actions, and council, regardless of the twists of the world maze? Which then is more honest, the fight or the calm resolution? We can fight the world, but how so our memories?