Life at the Center: The Fish that Changed my Life / Vol. 57, April 2018
Letter from the Director
Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion, is often pictured accompanied by a carp. She’s the one whose statue graces our lobby at Still & Moving Center. Her selfless credo, a bodhisattvic pledge, has always inspired me:
Never shall I seek nor receive private, individual salvation; never shall I enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere shall I live and strive for the redemption of every creature from the bonds of conditioned existence.
A bodhisattva is a Christ-like being who has gained enlightenment, yet remains on the edge of final liberation to help and teach all others who have not yet progressed so far – even if it means living another thousand lives and dying another thousand deaths.
I’ve been musing on Kwan Yin more than usual. A leadership training I attended last month includes painting as a technique to gain insight. Our presenter, Amber Bonnici, asked us to consult with and paint our inner wise woman. A friend at the training looked at my picture and told me that I had painted Kwan Yin. I shrugged. Maybe. I didn’t know, and I brought my painting home unnamed.
Back home we have a koi pond with fish Cliff selected from Kodama Koi Farm a couple years ago. They are like swimming jewels, so beautiful. I had been immediately taken by the presence of the largest koi, a golden colored female. Kwan Yin is traditionally pictured with a great carp. Knowing that koi are a form of carp, I instantly named our golden fish Kwan Yin.
We enjoyed watching the koi grow accustomed to their new home. Cliff has especially loved Kwan Yin, the clear leader of the group, gaining enough of her trust for her to eat from his hand. The pond of koi has given him great joy.
Shortly after I return home with my painting, Cliff devotes a day to draining and cleaning the pond to get the filtration system again functioning optimally.
He carefully scoops out each fish with a big net, placing them in a large inflatable child’s pool filled with pond water. Keeping an eye on the koi as he does his cleaning, Cliff notices that they are not acting in a normal way. In fact some are bleeding out their gills, a sign of stress, according to Kodama’s koi book.
Alarmed, Cliff cuts short his cleaning operation and uses his fire hose to quickly fill the pond with City water. He returns the fish to their home, hoping the chlorine of the water wouldn’t be too hard on them, but, much to his distress, two of them die in the process. He’s really sad.
A couple days later, it’s time to clean up the muddy lanai and yard all around the pond. He uses a pressure washer to efficiently hose everything down. The din is really annoying in the house, and Marta and I are having trouble hearing each other as we work.
We never think about how it might be affecting the fish. Doesn’t cross our minds.
Nearing the end of his task, Cliff moves the pressure washer to the low concrete bridge over the pond evidently causing a tremendous reverberation through the water below. That does it. Kwan Yin swims out from under the bridge to a narrow gap between the bridge and the stone end of the pond. Cliff’s beloved fish leaps straight up, vertical, a full third of her body beyond the surface of the water, right in front of him, fixing her angry gaze upon Cliff, as if to say, “Stop! You’ve already killed two of my kind.” And he immediately turns off the washer, shaken.
The next morning Kwan Yin isn’t swimming well. Her tail is bruised, as if she has hit it on something coming back down into the water from her leap. Cliff is leaving the island on a trip and I need to drive to work. We aren’t able to reach Taro, president of the koi farm, for advice, so we herd Kwan Yin over to the waterfall end of the pond with the most oxygenated water and hope for the best.
When I arrive home late afternoon, I find Kwan Yin, head down, tail up out of the water. I manage to reach Taro and show him the fish over my phone screen. “That is NOT a good sign,” he tells me with a worried voice. “I’ll be over right away.” In preparation, Marta and I bucket 300 gallons of pond water into the inflatable pool.
When Taro arrives, a short, compact man with kind eyes, he goes immediately to Kwan Yin, whose tail is still bobbing weakly above the water. He kneels and tenderly lifts the large fish in his arms, carefully laying her into the inflatable pool. Her bruised tail is an inflamed red where it connects with her body, and he determines that it is infected.
For a long time, he squats over her, holding her down with both hands, keeping her tail submerged under water. He is deeply engaged, fish-whispering.
Under Taro’s direction, we add antibiotic and salt to the water. When a fish is stressed, it takes in more water than it can expel, and the salt makes it easier for the fish to release water taken in. We add a double bubbler that Taro has brought to oxygenate her water.
Next Taro asks for iodine. We apply the iodine with a cotton swab to her tail and each of her fins. I find a way to weight her tail with a soft tube, fish line and fish weights, to keep it under the water.
It’s been a couple hours now, and Taro has done all that he can. Kwan Yin’s right side keeps floating about the water’s surface, so Taro asks that we wet it once in a while through the night. He advises us to call on her strong spirit to pull her through the night, and telephone him the next morning.
Night has fallen long ago, so I set up a cot adjacent to the shallow pool where I can simply lie down and rest my outstretched hand on her side to keep it under the water. And so we pass the night.
Taro has taught me how to sense her breathing by placing my hand near her gills in the dark, so I know she’s still with us. A couple times I feel her energy ebbing and I call her to rally and come back to us.
At some point, her side-floating body begins to right itself, and now my hand that had been on her flank side begins to feel her dorsal fin. I’m startled to the core. That fin is the most amazing thing I’ve ever touched in my life. It is completely sentient. There the fish is taking in information and expressing its own being outwards. It’s giving me something like a galactic light show, but in a way that I can feel/sense, not see. For a brief moment I experience through her a window into the universe that I have never had before.
We’re now nearing the end of the night and she gives a couple shudders, giving me hope that she’s going to make it through the night.
I must have fallen asleep just before dawn. When my eyes open, it’s light and I look out on her golden body shimmering in the pool. She looks perfect and beautiful. ‘She’s healed!’ I rejoice. But then the bubbles covering the water over her clear away, and it was just a brief illusion: her bruise and infection have actually spread further up her body. I move my hand from her side to her gills, and they are no longer moving. We’ve lost her.
Marta and I bury her, in front of a buddha statue with a golden heliconia flower above the grave. I thank her for sacrificing her life to save the rest of her kin.
I still haven’t cried. I’m still so overwhelmed by the awe of the experience I had with her through the night. It filled me with such a sense of mystery, that a fish could show me so much about the universe we live in.
When I go upstairs for my morning meditation, there is the painting I brought back from the retreat. Her golden amber eyes are looking at me, and I realize that I have indeed painted a version of Kwan Yin. It dawns on me that in some incomprehensible way, the self-sacrificing nature of her being is teaching me – through a fish named in her honor – about our interconnectedness with all beings. And I begin to weep, in gratitude.
Dancing in joy and resting in stillness with you,
And you, dear reader?
Email me – I always love hearing from you.