The little fish who swam

There has been a sick fish in my son’s pond for months now. At one point, there were two of them, floating belly up, side by side, and sporting ugly ulcers. They were so ill that we had even been obliged to discuss the possibility of euthanasia, although that goes against all we have learned about the nature of hope over the past few years.

We even went as far as buying clove oil with which to anaesthetise the fish if their suffering seemed too much for them to bear….and the day we did so, they rallied. It seemed at the time as if, having accepted that responsibility, the need for action was removed.

We named the fish for their characteristics during their illness, to distinguish between them for the daily reports on their progress or lack of it. Once, grossly swollen and looking for all the world as if he would die of dropsy, a virtually incurable problem, we called Fat Fish. The other is now on his third name.

After a few weeks, Fat Fish made a truly remarkable recovery, against all odds and predictions. The other fish was not so lucky. At first, all he could do was flap feebly. Then we had a period where his recovery looked impossible… and the next day he would be swimming. We named him Trooper for his gallantry.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.

Trooper hid himself under the plants and no longer swam. He was not eating and became translucent, thin and weak. Every day, I twitched his blanket of plants when I arrived at my son’s home…at first, expecting the worst, then as the days went by, hoping for his release and knowing that by all logic, he should already be dead.

We were back to the big question again… how long could we leave him in this state? We had tried every medication and intervention by now and nothing was working. It was heartbreaking to watch.

Nick, however, was convinced the little fish would rally again. “He’ll be fine,” he said, over and over again and with utter conviction, every time I broached the subject. “He can do it.”

I had to wonder if my son’s unrealistic belief in the fish were a reflection of his own impossible recovery, rather than a hope based in reality. Nevertheless, we continued to watch and wait…and I continued with my own unreasonable hopes, and every day I expected to be preparing a grave.

Then, one morning, Trooper was gone. He was no longer beneath the plants… my heart sank. He had given up the ghost and I would have to remove his body if I could find it in the depths of the pond. I looked everywhere…the water is clear and yet I could not see him.  Until I caught sight of a fish with the distinctive black marks on his back that identified him as Trooper, swimming with the rest.

I held my breath, expecting the emaciated fish to float back under his plant. He didn’t. He sped around the pond, chasing his friends and doing laps. We had seen him rally briefly so many times, though, that I was not convinced. He hadn’t eaten for weeks, was so thin and pale you could almost see through him and his side had still not healed.

Told you he’d recover,” said my son. I was still expecting a relapse, but a week later, and the little fish is still swimming. His back, unless he chooses to submerge, doesn’t quite make it underwater. He is a little lopsided… but his side has now healed. He’s eating… and he is out-swimming every fish in the pond in terms of speed and energy. My son renamed him Super Trooper.

I cannot help wondering how much my son’s adamant belief in the little fish helped his recovery. I had enough knowledge to realise that my own hopes that the fish would pull through were not at all realistic. My son, with less knowledge, simply had faith in him and refused to believe there could be any other outcome.

That is a magical thing. The little fish’s recovery, given how ill he was, seems a minor miracle.  I have seen a good many troubled teenagers who just needed someone to have faith in them, trust them… believe they were worth something… and it changed their lives from a slippery slope to a steady climb. I held my son’s unconscious hand, willing him to health, despite the prognosis… surrounded by his friends and family who also believed he could shatter the predictions. And he did. Those who have believed in me when I could not do so drew me out of the shadows of my own life and into a place where I can believe in myself.

To believe, to trust… to have faith in someone… that is an expression of Love. It can move metaphorical mountains… it can change lives, and bring healing, both to the one who believes and the one in whom they have faith. I wonder how often we underestimate the power of such a simple act… and what we could achieve if we could bring our whole hearts to Love, hope and trust?


I came across an old post while I was rummaging through the files. It looked at the decades of an ordinary life…my life… and how the things that seem ordinary to you, while you are living them, can look very different to an observer. As I skimmed back through the paragraphs, I was watching the fish in the aquarium out of the corner of my eye. Two of the little loaches had ventured out to feed. They are shy creatures and I seldom see them, so I stopped to watch.

One of them was the original hitchhiking loach that had survived an almost waterless journey on a plant, the other was one of the juveniles I had procured to keep him company. The original loach has grown, losing the ‘vermisimilitude’ that had horrified me when I found him, and is looking far more like a fish, while the smaller of the two still looks very like a brightly coloured worm. In all other respects, they appear identical… time is the only difference between them.

Together, the fish and the article got me thinking about the process of growth. We never notice it happening, we only notice when it has happened. From child to adult, we grow…some of us more than others and each at our own pace. We notice when we have grown tall enough to do certain things, like reaching the pedals on that new racing bike you were given for your birthday. Or not, in my case; I never did grow into it. But we are not conscious of it actually happening while it happens.

We see ourselves in the mirror and wonder when we got old. Even though we knew the time was passing, the years were stacking up and things had begun to ache that never ached before, we are unaware of it occurring.  The process of growth, be it upwards, outwards or in age, happens behind our back; we are unaware of it, regardless of its known inevitability, until something brings the results of that process to our attention.

Equally, growth of a less positive kind can creep up on us too. The negative self image that is imposed or self-generated, the fears and fragilities we are bear, they seldom spring fully formed from the mists…they grow slowly, chpping away at our confidence and self-worth, until we are confronted by the ruin of what we once were and what we still could be. The process of healing such wounds takes far longer than it does for a careless word to cause them.

Change happens, whether we notice it or not. One day we will find that we can reach the cookie jar at last, or our jeans no longer fasten, or, in a land of wishful thinking, they are suddenly too big… We become conscious of change only when its effects are forced upon our notice, not as the process of change happens. We need milestones to measure the progress of process.

There are other growing processes that also need milestones to measure their progress. The acquisition of knowledge is measured by examinations or our ability to apply it to practical situations. A new skill is set against the completion of a project. But how can we measure the growth of more abstract qualities, like wisdom, understanding or compassion?

It serves little to listen to the words of others, be they complimentary or derogatory; for growth to have happened, we must be more than we were, and unless the other person has watched us grow, they cannot know what we used to be.

The loaches are twice as long as the tetras in the aquarium. The tetras are twice as fat as the threadfins and yet the pleco could eat the lot in one gulp. They are all fully grown, and it is simply how they are supposed to be. In the same way, our own nature, and the nature of our personal growth, cannot be measured against that of anyone else.

We are who we are and, whether or not we are aware of the process, we are in a state of constant growth and change. Each day adds something to the sum of our knowledge, each moment offers the chance of a new beginning and every experience may add to the store of wisdom and understanding.

Our physical growth may be finite… we may reach our full height before we reach the pedals of that bike, or end up towering above our parents, but our personal growth knows no such limits and we will always be works in progress. Our capacity for growth, like our ability to embrace change seems infinite, even when we do not notice the ongoing process, but only blink at the milestones.

Unbalanced scales…

“…so, we’ve being doing this for a while…”
“Twelve thousand, four hundred and ten days to be exact.”
“…and I still don’t really know.”
“Know what?”
“What flowers you would prefer for Mother’s Day.”
“Ones with roots.”
“For the garden?”
“Or you could have fish…”

…which is why we ended up at the local aquarium place and why, a little while later, we were watching the newly acclimatised fish settle into their new home.

It was fascinating to watch the little corydoras, with their long, trailing fins, as they excitedly explored their environment. Almost straight away, they were joined by another small fish, a phantom tetra who seemed to feel he belonged. Phantoms are shoaling fish and he is the last of his kind in my tank until I can replenish his shoal. Although no more than a tiny fish, he Is beautiful, with velvety black fins and an iridescent ‘eye’ on his flanks. He too has a long, trailing dorsal fin, set at a similar angle to that of the new arrivals. He has apparently decided that he is now a corydora and seldom wanders far from his friends. He is determined to become part of their shoal and ‘fit in’… even though he doesn’t.

While the young corys dash around and rummage through the substrate in a constant hunt for food, the little phantom follows them, yet looks at a loss. Phantoms are shy fish, preferring to hide, where the corys are gregarious and playful extroverts. They are bottom-feeders, while the phantom is not, yet they swim in the open and at all levels, while the phantom prefers to stay close to the bottom and safe hiding places in the plants. Nevertheless, little phantom fish is now doing a very good imitation of a corydora, so desperate is he to fit in with them.

We are often guilty of projecting human behaviours and emotions onto other creatures, but I could not help but be struck by the little phantom’s illustration of something many of us do, or are expected to do, at some point in our lives. The only thing the phantom has in common with the corys… aside from them all being fish… is the shape of one fin. Yet he is prepared to set his own nature aside and conform to an alien model, copying the behaviour of others in order to be accepted. It is unnatural; he seems rather lost and confused, and his own beautiful being is subsumed by the need to belong. The sooner I can provide him with a shoal of his own kind, the better.

Later, I watched the fish in my son’s pond, and finally got a good look at our wonky fish. It happens every so often… some disease or other will twist a fish’s spine, leaving them otherwise quite healthy, but with a curvature that makes swimming more difficult. We have seen it before, and Bent-Tail proved to be a better teacher than his able-bodied counterparts until he flew away.

Wonky-fish is the worst case I have seen though; his spine bent almost perpendicular to his body and he is unable to swim properly at all. Like Bent-Tail, all my research does is throw up methods of euthanasia, and like Bent-Tail, that will not be happening. Wonky-fish is perfectly healthy apart from the twisted spine. He is, in fact, a beautiful mirror carp and has grown, in spite of his problem, to a foot in length. Being a dark coloured fish and preferring the depths, we did not see him until he had grown and by then it was far too late to try and effect a cure.

I watched him today as he played on the surface in the sun. He cannot swim in a straight line at all… the movement of his tail, because of his spine, sends him in circles. When he first showed up at the surface last year, it was heartbreaking as he seemed so frustrated, but he soon adapted.

He knows how to swim… there is a pond full of teachers demonstrating every technique. When he sought to conform, all he did was wear himself out and struggle to little avail.

Now, instead of desperately thrashing around, he has learned to ride the currents in the pond and use them to sail gently to where he wants to be. He has learned that it only takes a slight movement of his tail to carry his resting body effortlessly through the waters. He trusts me to throw food within his reach, yet he does not rely solely on me to feed him, he forages quietly for himself too. Instead of swimming with the crowd, he has made a home for himself beneath the irises, where the roots hold him steady and keep him safe from predators. And, by gently going his own way, instead of trying to be what he is not, he is better able to be part of the life of the pond, playing with the other fish in the sun.

Little Wonky-fish follows his own light, in spite or because of the difficulties he has faced. He does not swim with the shoal. He is one of a kind and, like his predecessor, a wonderful teacher.

The uncertainty of fish; random questions on the nature of existence…

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“Fish simply do not exist.”

My son, well used to the odd phrases that make it past my internal censors, merely grunts; his expression that of a man very well aware that to ask for elucidation would start a debate that could last for hours. This is good, it leaves me with the silence in which I can explore my thoughts.

We are watching his fish on TV. Not as silly as it might seem; although undoubtedly it is beautiful to stand in the sunshine gazing down at the water, the camera which brings the live video feed into the house is submerged, taking you right into their world. You see them from another angle completely, watching as they move in what appears to be a multitude of dimensions to which our bodies have no access. You do get up close and personal with the fish that appear on the screen.

Except… there aren’t any.

The huge screen is full of light and movement. Bubbles swirl like a billion stars in the night sky. But of the sixty or so fish in the pond, some of them as much as three feet long, there is not a sign.

It occurs to me that, right at this moment, there is no way I could actually say for certain whether such a thing as a fish exists… had, indeed, ever existed…

I remember fish, both in general terms and at a personal level. In my mind, I remember feeding them moments earlier. I can call up the image of the sturgeon we had rescued when the pump had died… of Simon, the bubble blowing character with the voracious appetite… of Bent-Tail fish, whose appearance had sparked a whole train of thought… I can, indeed, call up an image of most of the fish allegedly in the pond, right back to when they were fingerlings. And all the other fish I have seen, even caught and occasionally cooked.

But how can I, in the isolation of my own mind, be certain that all these memories are not just some figment of my imagination? Creatures dreamed and on an evolutionary par with, say, pink elephants?

I could turn to my son and asked his opinion of their existence. I could call my younger son, ostensibly intent on catching a few carp today… but folie à deux or even trois is a recognised disorder… a shared believe in the existence of fish is no guarantee that we are not all affected by the same delusion.

I could simply get up and go outside, lean over the pond and verify their existence for myself. Or could I? Who is to say that what I see is real? I could, at best, only be assured that I perceive something I choose to refer to as fish, swimming in a perception I call water….

But anyway, that isn’t my focus right at that moment. It is simple… if I cannot see fish, I can only believe that they exist. I cannot know for sure.

Through personal experience I can say that I have had empirical proof of their existence. Except that, in fact, right at this moment, I can’t do more than say that I believe I recall having experiential evidence of their existence. I can look at circumstantial evidence… we are sitting on the sofa watching a screen full of bubbles in the stated hope that fish will appear. The camera was specifically installed for this purpose, to compensate for my son’s damaged vision. So he could watch fish. Would we have gone to all that trouble had we no proof that fish exist? Would we, in fact, have even dug the huge pond and purchased fish were we not certain of their existence?

Yet, unless I can see them… and right at this moment I cannot… how on earth can I be certain of anything? The bubbles on the screen swish and swirl, changing direction with the passage of something. I can only believe that they must be fish.

Whether or not fish exist, I know that my belief in them has changed the world and continues to change it each day. I am, in a very real sense, in service to fish… each day I tend their environment, offer them food and learn their ways. Work has been done, things crafted, built, made beautiful, because of a belief in fish. I have risen above my phobia of wet worms to serve their needs, finding courage because of their existence and my love for the beauty they bring to life.

Even though I cannot see them, I sit here watching the shadows of their passage, seeing them move the bubbles, themselves unseen, and feeling the effects of their invisible presence as my body relaxes, my mind lets go of care and I watch expectantly for a golden glimpse of beauty.

Their presence is, to my subjective view, the only plausible explanation for the effects I see, and feel, their existence to have caused. It does not matter if my perception of fish is flawed, that perception serves them, changes my world… and changes me for the better. It does not matter if my perception of fish is not the same as, say, your perception. I can’t change that for either of us… can’t even be certain of the clarity of my own vision in any provable way… All I can do is hope that your experience of fish is joyful. As for me? I choose to believe… I have faith in the existence of fish.

Flying high

There was a heron in the garden when I arrived at my son’s home a little before eight o’clock. It stood on the deck, almost as tall as me, and looked me in the eye. For a moment there was a feeling of wordless communication… a kind of mute yet mutual acknowledgement of presence… then, not releasing my gaze, it spread the great wings and took to the air.

The pond is fairly heron-proof. They come in occasionally and perch on the handrails that surround the water some five feet above its surface. The accessible area is just too narrow to be a comfortable landing space for anything with a wingspan so vast and there are few places to stand, even if a heron should gain ingress. The water is deep and the fish alert to danger. The only resident at risk is little bent-tail fish.

Bent-tail has caused us much concern over the past two years. Every visitor is likely to stop at the pond on the way to the front door and almost all comment that we have a dead or sick fish in there. Bent-tail’s position of choice is a shallow corner, on the surface. Whatever caused the bending of the tail also affected his ability to remain submerged for long and he spent the winter at the surface. We didn’t expect him to survive and had several heart-wrenching days where he was upside down for most of the time.

Resilient as always, bent-tail recovered and you could see him take pleasure in the slight warming of the waters as the spring sunlight brought its comfort to the shallows. He still managed to zip around the pond and play with the other fish. My first job, every morning, has been to check on his well being.

My son has felt a sense of kinship with the little orfe. Both he and the fish have overcome seemingly insurmountable problems and defied predictions. I too am fond of the valiant little creature. So my first thought was for bent-tail when the heron flew off.

There was not a fish in sight. Not one of the forty or so in the pond. They had all retreated to the depths… which suggested that the heron had somehow been able to land and give them a scare. There was no sign of bent-tail… but as all the fish were missing, no more than gilded shadows deep below the water, I was not unduly concerned.

It took a while for the fish to regain their confidence and come to the surface for breakfast. There was no sign of bent-tail, but it is a big pond with many places to hide and not all the fish were calm yet.

An hour later and all the fish are playing in the sun. Except bent-tail.

Another hour of constant checking and there was still no sign. My son called me to the gym where he was playing music and working out. Whether the little fish had slipped away quietly in the night and thus been an easy meal, or whether the heron had come in the guise of the Reaper, we would have to accept it, bent-tail was gone.

“It’s sort of alright, you know, he died a natural death.” said my son. “His wasn’t a meaningless life.” Bent-tail was different… a small creature with a good deal to teach. According to the fish forums and advice pages, we should have euthanized him long ago. But as he seemed perfectly happy apart from that episode over the winter, and seeing the parallels with my son’s own situation, we couldn’t have done so. The little fish had a resilient gallantry that kept him swimming and playing, regardless of his problems. We learned a lot from little bent-tail and his valiant determination… and love can take any form.

“Some things just come into your life when they are needed,” said my son. “He served a purpose other than his own.” It seems odd that, at the very moment when my son’s own attitude has taken a very positive stance and he has turned a personal corner, bent-tail should depart. Just when the lessons he has taught have been learned, the little fish is allowed to re-join the cycle of nature, feeding beauty with his life, instead of dying a long, debilitating and increasingly painful death from whatever illness had bent his golden body.

The mysteries of life and death are playing a large part in our lives at the moment; not surprising, perhaps, when we are exploring just those themes for the upcoming workshop. The little fish was raised to the great Fish Pond in the Sky by a gloriously beautiful winged being. It seemed appropriate somehow. Life began in the waters before it crawled onto land and grew wings, just as our own lives begin in the waters before we walk the earth or soar with the stars; a symbolic evolution for our small angel with scales.

My son’s ‘hardcore’ music seemed an incongruous accompaniment for such thoughts, until one phrase of the lyrics was repeated over and over…

“Flying high, flying up to the sky…”

Fly well, little fish. And thank you.

What price life?

The fish seem to have noticed that it is spring. The little male gourami needs floating plants in which to build a bubble nest before his mate will take his advances seriously. As they have, quite inconsiderately, eaten all the floating plants I had provided for them in which to build the aforementioned nest, a trip to the pet store was required.

All well and good. Except, the pet-store had no floating plants in stock. After a discussion with the very helpful young man there, we managed to improvise. I replenished the supply of algae wafers for the big pleco and headed for the checkout. The mistake was passing in front of the tanks…

I’ve lost a few fish to old age lately and, while I may sigh at the beauty of some of the fish on display, I know the big pleco comes first. She…don’t ask me why, but I think she is a she… needs a fair  bit of space in which to swim, so the bigger, more spectacular fish are out of the question until I can replace the tank for a more spacious affair. But the little glowlight tetras were on special offer… which struck me as odd in itself. How can you have a special offer on life?

As soon as I got home, I switched off the aquarium lights and opened the  lid. You have to float the plastic bag to acclimatise the fish before letting the tank water in, little by little. It takes a while. A little neon had died while I was out… they are all reaching the end of their lifespan, so there was a certain sad inevitability to its end. Removing the tiny body from the water, I was faced with the same dilemma I always face at these times. How do you dispose of the remains of a life? The traditional method of flushing the little corpse down the toilet seems wrong, on all sorts of levels. The garbage does not feel right either. I almost felt it would be better to leave him to the other fish… but settled, instead, for digging the smallest of graves.

By the time that was done and the dog convinced she need not dig him up again, the new fish were ready for release. I watched for a while as they explored their new home. I saw them being checked out by the resident ‘owners’ of the tank, the small but feisty Buenos Aries tetras, asserting their right of precedence…and watched the little glowlights run for cover in the plants before tentatively trying again.

The conditions for new life were created for the little gourami, one life had been lost, and six purchased. And that’s weird. I own lives… technically, at least! They are, as far as I can tell, happy in their environment. They are all tank-bred, not wild, but even so, were they released into the rivers and lakes whence their ancestors came, would they come back through choice? I think not.

I own the dog too, in principle. In reality, she owns me… but that is a different story. On the odd occasion when she has illicitly taken herself for a walk, she has always chosen to return, so there is no sense of ownership, just friendship…and responsibility.

In truth, I own no life but my own. Neither the fish nor the dog belong to me… they belong to themselves; they are simply in my care and it is my responsibility to ensure their wellbeing. I have children… created within my body and brought into life…yet although they are ‘my’ children, they too belong only to themselves. The ‘ownership’ here is not about possession, but denotes a duty and, more importantly, a privileged responsibility to the lives that pass into our care.

It is a strange thing, when you think about it, that we use terms of possession when we speak of those we love; the highest form of love is selfless and every day we see examples of people giving, not seeking to possess, simply because they care. Such a ‘duty’ is not an onerous task, but a joy.

There is only one life we can truly call our own, yet we do not always lavish the care upon ourselves that we would on a pet. We let things slide that would ring alarm bells with an animal in our care. We may pay less attention to our own true needs than we do to that of the cat or dog…or even the fish. We know the signs of stress in our pets better than we do in ourselves and move faster to help. Because we acknowledge responsibility… and because we love them.

I keep reading about how we are supposed to love ourselves first…and because of the way it is phrased, it gives the impression that we should put ourselves first, which seems an awfully selfish way to live. If, on the other hand, we looked at the way we love those lives in our care, taking responsibility for their wellbeing, perhaps ‘loving yourself’ might take on a whole new meaning.

We are responsible for all the lives in our care…including our own. While we may feed, water and excercise our bodies, we do not always nourish or care for our minds as well as we could…and many pay even less attention to spiritual needs.

Today I bought six lives for the price of a single capuccino and was immediately reminded of their fragility and impermanence. We have a precious and priceless gift, and too often we let it fade into grey. There are no ‘two for the price of one’ offers on life…we owe it to ourselves to live the one we have as fully and as vividly as we can.

Fit for purpose


I’ve been watching the fish again. The aquarium is next to my desk and where I would once stare into space, waiting for inspiration, I now watch the fish and find my mind swimming with them. Just as the fish can move up and down as easily as forward and back, a mind moves in more dimensions than mere surface thoughts, tracing patterns from apparently unconnected threads.

I keep daydreaming about a new home for them. The monster plecostomus is getting so big now that it will soon be a necessity… either in a bigger tank or with another fish-lover. And as I’m quite fond of the strange, prehistoric-looking creature who watches me through the glass with more intelligence than you would expect from a fish, I know which solution I would prefer. Oddly enough, the tank I would like, though it is much bigger and much more spacious for the fish, would also take up far less floor space in my little room. Getting the perfect form for both our needs would make it fit… perfectly.

Mind you, if and when I manage to find a new tank, it isn’t just a case of swapping them over. Little did I know when I adopted the fish that I would have to gain a knowledge of the nitrogen cycle, the chemical components of water, before and after fish, and an acceptance that I have to actively encourage the breeding of bacteria to maintain the tank’s health. That goes against every housewifely instinct. And it takes time, work and patience. Yet, in order to be fit for purpose, it has to fit the needs of that purpose, not my preconceptions.trees-fish-dog-009

For some reason, that idea called to mind a passage from Dion Fortune’s Moon Magic, one of the best works of magical fiction ever written, in my opinion, giving a glimpse behind the veil that has always shrouded ritual magic. The passage I was thinking of tells of when Lilith, a priestess of Isis, enters her new home and sees the moonlight streaming in through the windows. She realises that she is ‘on her contacts’. The author explains that many people feel that they must invoke the goddess first, then build the temple, but that, in fact, it must be the other way round; the temple must be prepared and the deity will indwell it when the time is right.

It has always made sense to me, that passage. You would not attempt to drink wine without some kind of vessel to contain it. You could use a paper cup or a crystal goblet, or even drink straight from the bottle…the appearance of the vessel matters little, only its fitness for purpose determines whether or not it can be used. You may think the wine more beautiful in the goblet, but that is only because both outer and inner forms combine to create something that is neither one nor the other, but has become more than the sum of its parts.

trees-fish-dog-020Either way, the vessel has to come before the wine is poured. Just like a new fish tank has to be cycled before the fish can call it home. Any cutting of corners, and the wine will be spilled and lost… or the fish will sicken and die.

It is the same thing with a lot of the modern spiritual practices, especially those that are for sale.  They promise the earth and their adherents raise their eyes to whatever version of heaven they are taught to see. They read the book or take the short course and are told that they have only to call upon the divine and it will come. And then they are disappointed when it doesn’t.

You have to make the vessel before the wine is poured…and we ourselves are the vessel that must be fit for purpose. We do not have to be sparkling crystal goblets… we can be rough cups of clay and still hold the light. How much we can hold depends on how deep the cup may be and how wide its brim… but that is up to us. The vessel we craft is never finished… we are always works in progress.

The tale of a fish

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I’ve inherited an aquarium, for the second time. The first time it was a gift when a friend’s husband passed away…she needed to re-home the fish and, knowing my younger son had a keen interest in them, she gave the tank to me. My son however, had unexpectedly acquired a lovely little flat and moved out. Which left me with a huge aquarium of which the dog did not approve.

The dog too was a recent acquisition at that time. My elder son had decided an assistance dog might be a good idea, so Ani had come into our lives. He too had found a lovely home and moved out, but the small dog had remained with me. You may detect a pattern developing here. My younger son, rather liking the tank and in the interests of appeasing the confused canine (who thought it her duty to protect me from the fish) adopted the aquarium and took it home, leaving me fishless. Meanwhile, my elder son created a huge pond for me to clean enjoy at his new home.

It should, then, have come as no surprise that when I finally moved out of the old place and into my younger son’s little flat, while he and his family went on to pastures new, the aquarium remained behind. Five years on, and although there are a number of fish in the tank, most of its original occupants have departed for celestial seas; only two of them are still with us. One is a small sucker fish whose presence I am aware of but who I have never really seen, the other is Mad Fish.

Mad Fish was a bit of a mystery. My son thought he might be some kind of tetra, but was not at all sure. There had been two, but one had died, leaving the other fish on his own. He was referred to as Mad Fish not as some vague insult, but because his behaviour was very, very strange; he spent almost all his time swimming in circles with his nose to the glass, particularly at night. “I think he’s lonely,” my son had said. “Missing his mate.” I watched him for a couple of weeks while, at the same time, learning about the various fish, how to look after them and trying to identify Mad Fish’s species. I learned a bit about fish behaviour and, when I finally found out what Mad Fish was, I began to think my son was right.


He’s a Buenos Aires Tetra… which meant nothing to me, so I looked them up. They swim in shoals… maybe Mad Fish was trying to be a shoal with his reflection? Was he lonely? And was that just instinct… or emotion? Do fish have emotions? My relationship with the fish in the pond certainly makes me think so… but I looked up the science of if too.

Until very recently, we didn’t even know for certain whether fish felt pain, let alone had emotions.  It was discovered that they had a nervous system equipped to feel pain. Then came the next question… in order to suffer from pain, rather than simply react to it from self-preservation, there would need to be a level of consciousness. They experimented some more and found that fish could learn. Well, I could have told them that… Simon, the bubble blowing koi and his cohorts, have learned exactly how to get me to feed them whenever they choose. And anyway, it’s on Youtube… just look up ‘fish playing football’.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for the scientists, so they had to go for the labyrinth solving techniques…and found that fish can solve complex tasks, plan, co-operate and use faculties human beings don’t begin to develop until they are four years old.  Which, according to the scientists’ criteria, means they have not only a level of intelligence, but also of self-awareness… consciousness.  And science has a hard time explaining the essence of human consciouness, let alone that of creatures we have, for so long considered the epitome of mindlessness.

Consciousness and the ability to be aware…of joy and suffering, of pain and belonging… it is something we share with so many creatures in this world, many of whom were considered ‘dumb animals’ until so recently. Science does not know where consciousness comes from, nor how it arises…nor how far consciousness may extend into the natural world. We do not have the language to communicate with most of our world, we can only observe. Lives that are so very different from our own may well be showing levels of consciousness we simply cannot see or understand, but we cannot dismiss, simply because we do not see.

Do fish have feelings? If they are self-aware, then it would seem possible and must make us begin to question our attitude towards them and their treatment at our hands. After watching Mad Fish today, I, for one, am in no doubt.

I managed to find a local supplier of Buenos Aires Tetra and introduced a tiny shoal to the tank. I’m not ashamed to say I cried watching Mad Fish’s reaction. He stopped, mid dash… then dived across the tank, swimming in figures of eight through the shoal, over and over again at top speed. They followed him around the tank for a couple of hours, nose to tail. He is definitely  the top fish… and a happy one. Now, they are a shoal… and he hasn’t swum in circles or looked at his reflection once. He is not alone, he belongs… and it has changed his behaviour completely. I wonder how many people suffer that kind of emotional isolation…and what would happen if we all felt  that sense of kinship and that we truly belonged to the human family…and the greater family of Life.

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Still waters

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The surface of the pond was empty… not a fish in sight… yet by the time I had taken the last few steps across the deck, forty of them were waiting to be fed, with several of them, taking a leaf from Simon’s book and sticking their faces out of the water, looking hopefully… and confidently… in my direction. They know the footsteps that herald food.

Not for the first time I wonder about that. Small though I am in the eyes of the world, I am such a vast being in comparison to them. They cannot see me when they dart about their business in the water, only when they raise their eyes towards the heavens from whence all care comes; either in the form of fresh water and oxygen or as manna falling from the skies. Sometimes our eyes meet and there is a sense of wordless understanding. A promise, perhaps, that I will always do what is best for them. I wonder if they realise.

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I have, in the past, removed them from their pond to treat their maladies in medicated buckets. When water levels have brought near disaster, I and others of my kind have worked to put things right and ease their suffering. They have not seen as they gasped and struggled, only felt the fresh inflowing of clean water. Sometimes there is a muddied pool where all seems dark, dull and the visibility is poor. The fish cannot know that this is when the pump at the bottom of the garden is being cleaned or the stream dredged for their benefit, yet they will play in the crystal waters that such murkiness precedes.

Meeting the eyes of a fish whose language and mode of living is so different from mine is a strange feeling. They move through different dimensions, up and down, with a freedom mirrored by the birds in the air. It is odd to realise that this creature must see us as both alien and, in our own terms, godlike, when it has a freedom in movement we cannot know unless we enter its domain and mimic its movements.

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Yet it is a freedom confined, bounded by the banks of the pond… a limited environment which provides them with everything they need. Being a complete ecosystem, they do not even need the food I give them in order to survive, yet the falling flakes are welcome, giving a sustenance that allows them to live and grow in a way beyond what their own environment alone could supply.

Although so much comes from an ‘above’ to which they look for care, they cannot live in my world. The air that sustains my life is both too much and not enough for them to breathe… their evolution has been different from mine, yet, of course, the waters in which they swim are the same as those which brought my ultimate ancestor into being, and in which my own reflection is backed by the heavens to which I, in my own turn, look for a sustenance beyond need.

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My body and theirs share the same substance, and even their environment is a large part of the vehicle in which I move through the world. Water is so much a common thread that both fish and human could not survive without it. Yet we use it in different ways; were I to breathe water it would be just as lethal to me as a goldfish breathing air. Yet there is water in the air I breathe, just as there is oxygen in the water that passes through their gills. We are poles apart… opposites in so many ways… yet so closely linked that our kinship is unmistakable.

I watch them swim through reflected trees; the clouds above my own head mirrored in the water. I wonder if the life below the surface mirrors my own more closely that I might at first think. I too look up to the heavens, trusting that the murky waters that sometimes trouble my life flow from a greater good I may not see. I know that it is from another and higher realm that I draw the sustenance that makes the difference between surviving and living. And I wonder if the freedom of movement we call free will is as confined by the limits of our existence as the swimming of fish by the banks of their pond.

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Perhaps, too, there is a greater kinship with that which I call the One than may at first be perceived, for if I and the fish share the substance of being, perhaps that too is mirrored, and adds understanding to a phrase much loved by those who serve in the Mysteries. “There is no part of me that is not of the gods.”