Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Spider, Kurt Vonnegut, and Life

I do not wax as eloquently as many other writers. The words do not slide from brain to fingertips, but require a forced effort that feels a bit painful at times. I’m slightly dyslexic, hate then and than, and find commas troubling.

A Kurt Vonnegut fan asked him to write down where he got his ideas. Very successful writers hear questions like this with what must be a tiring amount of regularity. I suppose wannabe writers hope to glean a thread of the mystery behind success, hoping it will appear in the response so they can then weave that thread through the tapestry of their lives and, therefore, succeed themselves.

Kurt Vonnegut normally replied with a humorous retort about how, as a young man, he quickly learned he was not good at anything else. I always enjoyed that answer, but once, if not more, he responded with what may’ve been closer to the heart of his need to write, because all true writers sit before a keyboard for one reason alone. They must write, or wither. It's an emotional drive with roots in places that surprises some people, and often ourselves too.

The response he wrote regarding his source of ideas, that I found terrific enough to have it hanging on the wall of my office is this:

“Where do I get my ideas from? You might have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music.

“I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

I agree, and I agree and write because I would rather not wither and die, because civilization depends on the words and ideas of those driven to express them in whatever way possible.

My wife and I have traveled through the last two plus years ducking and dodging life’s deadly assault. She attended six funerals since 2009, family and very close friends. I was with her for four of them. There would’ve been a seventh, but my dear uncle Louis Wilson died in Vermont during the middle of winter.

His death was brutal for me, made more so by the passing of my wonderful mother-in-law. Losing two souls like them was the same as having stars one depends on for life’s navigation suddenly, unexpectedly, extinguished. The loss left me stumbling around in a type of darkness hitherto unthinkable.

The day after my mother-in-law’s funeral, I sat on our ground floor open porch watching a creature my wife and I had nurtured and encouraged since she wove an eight foot web across the porch’s left side where it opens into the backyard.

I sat that day with a blank lined yellow pad and a pen hoping for some revelation to spring forth and save me from the pain choking my heart and mind. The golden spider, a silk weaver whose scientific name escapes me right now, stoically awaited the next insect to cross her path.

Beyond her, the sky darkened, meeting my emotions head on yet the pen remained capped and the yellow pad blank.

Long moments passed as I watched our spider wondering how she dealt with the short life bestowed on her at birth.

Then, the black sky opened and streaks of silver rain pummeled the earth. The cap came off the pen and words formed on the yellow pad.

However, it’s not the words I wrote then that I write about now. It’s the spider that needs a bit of tribute. After that terrible day, we watched and encouraged her. When she failed to get enough water because she wove her web far under the eave so rain did not reach it, we used a misting spray bottle to help her. Each time, her initial reaction was to pull back in a defensive position until she understood what we did. We talked to her before spraying and in time, it seemed, she understood that when she heard those sounds, it meant watering time. She drank greedily, using the water to carefully wash her legs and carapace. So like people in distress, fearful of outcome, longing for a comforting hug, but pulling back as if afraid the hug-giver might also clutch a knife. These are troubling times.

If the spider failed to get an insect for a day or two, we’d trap one and toss it into her web, and received the same defensive reaction from her. But she ate the insects and drank the water. Finally, she deposited eggs into an egg sack she wove. After, she looked shrunken and close to dying. We weren’t ready to lose her too, so resumed supplementing her diet and a few days later, she looked restored.

She left a total of four egg sacks, which we declared we would protect and defend after she was gone. I know that sounds ridiculous, but honestly who cares? At least, we felt, here is some life we can preserve, protect, and see develop. So unlike the people around us struggling against a machine that dissolves their freedom and independence.

The scientific community declares that animals and insects cannot understand or communicate with humans or even other animal and insect species. Yet, on what level do they understand intelligence? Human only. A catastrophic event ended the age of dinosaurs, they say, which made it possible for humans to evolve. This, to the scientific mind was a series of coincidences, not events planned by a force greater then the human mind as if no such force could exist only because the human mind declares it so. Such arrogance. Where did human thought originate?

But life, to me and what I’m writing about is not due to a series of coincidences, or the terminology of correctness such as the scientific name for the yellow garden spider. If you chose to rattle around in the cage of semantics you will miss the values of ordinary life expressed, most often, inarticulately by ordinary voices.

One morning the garden spider was gone. It was late autumn. Her life ended. We then began our daily vigilance, driving off nature’s carnivores when they approached the egg sacks. We succeeded and winter arrived, leaving the unborn to the mercy of cold weather.





Now, with the rebirth of spring, three of the four egg sacks produced dozens of tiny, and I do mean tiny, spiders. They wander around in clusters of ten to twenty, piling up at night when it is cold, and then the next day move further from their “womb”. Their goals are unknown, as is the way they seem to know what to do to reach them.

I suppose all of this has reaffirmed, for me, that life is about the living, not the dying. My father-in-law told a joke last night. It went like this:

A doctor checked on the baby he delivered earlier in the day. He leaned over the bassinet and said softly, “You’ll never escape this alive.”

We will not, not one of us. In time everything that occurs in our lifetimes will become forgotten footnotes to human history. Even the digital age will not, cannot prevent that from happening. But what each of us can do, if we chose, is live life each day with honor and dignity, care for those around us, the less fortunate, the disabled, the elderly.

The greed of the few who think they can determine our destinations should be ignored, and in time they’re squawking and maliciousness will turn to whispers and groveling under the downfall of hope’s life-affirming silver rain.

They speak and act without honor or dignity. And honestly, isn’t that just ridiculous? Like the garden spider, or Kurt Vonnegut’s dry wit, each of us should and must serve the purpose of common good -- life on Earth
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