‘O’er the tumult:’ Leslie Leyland Fields answers the call
English teacher and all, I’m something of a book snob, my choices driven by literary considerations – freshness of phrasing, depth of allusiveness, complexity and nuance of the author’s imaginative vision. Influenced by profs who were themselves influenced by 20th century New Criticism, I’ve been schooled to focus on the text. The author’s biographical data – nationality, gender, education, occupation – is less important than the aesthetic cohesion of the work itself.
Atypically, however, I picked up Leslie Leyland Fields’ Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt and the Seas. She is a remarkably multi-faceted woman. A full-time commercial fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska, even into her late fifties, Leyland Fields thrives in a dangerous and dirty occupation. Standing only 5’2”, she has navigated the ocean solo, hand-picked salmon from the freezing Pacific,and commanded crews with a skipper’s authority.
She’s the mother of six children. Her youngest son, born when she was 45, was the impetus for her book Surprise Child: Finding Hope in Unexpected Pregnancy. Her prize-winning poetry and essays have been published in both secular and Christian magazines. She’s been a Literature professor and radio personality. Currently, she offers spiritual retreats and writing workshops at her wilderness island home, featuring big name guests like Luci Shaw and Scot McKnight. And most recently, Crossing the Waters won Christianity Today’s 2017 Book of the Year Award in the Christian Living/Discipleship category.
In Crossing the Waters Leyland Fields compares her own Christian discipleship and fishing vocation with that of Jesus’s disciples in first century Palestine. She pilots her readers on a “giant float trip,” as she humorously puts it, navigating through wild Alaskan whitecaps to the Sea of Galilee. Traversing the “Gospel Trail,” she explores the profundity of Jesus’s “Follow me” call to the disciples, pondering its paradox: “He made their wildest, fishiest dreams come true. And then asked them to leave it.”
Leyland Fields’ voyage is the catalyst for novel insights into discipleship, insights drawn especially from her working life on the waves. Her visit to the Jordan River crystallizes the book’s theme: “What is the power of this water and this place? Who is this man Jesus?” She muses on what little she can really know: “I don’t know all that happened that day almost two thousand years ago when the much-loved Son burst from those waters, and a piece of heaven ripped wide, but I do know this from my own sea and from this river: Wherever there is water, the thirsty, the desperate, and the dirty are there. Once you go under the water, you’re never the same.”
I loved meeting this plucky woman, bravely putting her faith to the test alongside the disciples, measuring her own failures and successes against Jesus’s radical call. Her vulnerability is endearing when she confesses: “I have found over the years that the gospel does not always simplify my life or the lives of any of his followers. If we are listening well, it rends us first. It shatters us. This new life with the Holy Spirit within pummels my heart as much as it soothes it.”
Crossing the Waters is refreshing in its clarity, but spacious enough for evocative detail. Even the description of a homely kitchen task – “The bread dough feels good under my hands, fleshy and supple as a body” – quietly awakens us to the presence of Christ in our most ordinary moments. Sold, I immediately followed up with another of her books, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate, a forthright plumb of family relationships. Next? Out on the Deep Blue: Women, Men, and the Oceans They Fish. Clearly, Leslie Leyland Fields, real-life person, flesh-and-blood-sister-in-Christ, has much to teach me beyond my sketchy literary biases. Wisdom like this, for example: “When we follow Jesus and fall under the waters, we soon discover that faith doesn’t sweep us out of the world. We don’t escape the diapers and dirt; rather we get clean to get dirty again. We rise to immerse all the more in this dusty, mucked-up, beautiful world where love and bodies and sacrifice twine through every moment. Love calls us deep into the guts of the world.” I’m inspired by Leyland Fields to wade in and get wet.