On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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this morning, I got up early to clean the kitchen before I left for work. The sink was full of dirty dishes, and as I loaded the dishwasher, I noticed a spider on the sponge. I gave a yelp of fear and jumped back.
I have no particular reason to be afraid of spiders. I am not a timid person. I have been known to ward off large, slavering dogs with sticks, to rush nearly naked into the woods at night to save my cats from coyotes. But spiders go straight to the quivering heart of me. They look evil: the scuttling legs, the sinister stubble on the abdomen, the salute of oversized pincers.
As always when confronted with a spider in the kitchen, I have a decision to make: I can take the sprayer and wash the creature down the sink, or I can pick up the sponge — or whatever — and try to get it out the door before the spider crawls onto my fingers. If I wash it down the sink, I’ll be haunted all day by its struggle to hold out against all odds, gripping the metal rim of the drain. Sometimes it crawls back out, half dead, only to be beaten down with spray again. I rarely choose this option anymore. There is nothing so moving to me as the will to live in the face of overwhelming odds. Though I am depressive and have, on occasion, been suicidal, I suspect that if my life were actually threatened — if I were set upon by bandits or trapped in a burning car — I would crawl and twist and beg and strike out weakly with my last strength to live, just to live.
So I pinch one end of the sponge and rush to the door, where I hurl sponge, spider, and all out onto the deck. I watch the creature move away, bemused by its sudden change of scenery. I will not have a spider on my conscience today.
Everyday tasks become difficult when one constantly worries about the suffering of little things. There are times when I can’t mow the lawn because there are too many grasshoppers dancing about. The eggplants and peppers in my garden are riddled with holes because of my refusal to spray. Frogs on the road on a wet night pose a particular problem. Some nights, they are everywhere, jumping in the headlights. I try to swerve around them, to drive slowly, to ignore them. I have to shut my eyes each time I hit one. I imagine their frog souls leaping heavenward, their flattened bodies on the road, their bright intestines and perfect webbed feet. To compensate, I imagine a crow or a raccoon eating them. I imagine the frog cells traveling down the scavenger’s gullet, being broken down by stomach juices, emerging as an iridescent feather or a glint in an eye. Even so, this doesn’t help much. The frog wanted to live. It had its own agenda. The frog was not thinking, at its moment of death, about returning to the vast web of life.
Buddhism helps, temporarily. I can give myself a lecture on not dividing the world into light and dark, joy and pain, good and evil. I can tell myself that suffering is a gift, a tool that helps us go deeper in our efforts to understand pain. But when presented with the possibility of actual pain, I have a visceral need to try to prevent it, even if it’s part of the natural order.
My cat Maple recently had kittens. The kittens are now old enough to be weaned, and Maple is conscientiously bringing into the house small prey on which they can sharpen their hunting skills. Yesterday she must have found a mouse’s nest, because she kept bringing in baby mice. I would look up from my book or my cooking, and there would be another tiny, perfect gray mouse limping pathetically around under the table or lying on its back, fighting — yes, actually fighting — the kittens. Each time, I would bring the mouse outside and put it in the grass, knowing that it would soon be a snack for some other carnivore. But at least I wouldn’t have to watch. Maple also brought her kittens a frog, which I finally retrieved from under the vacuum cleaner and threw into the river. It floated on its back awhile, then disappeared.
Maple is the embodiment of devotion when it comes to this litter, her first. I swear when she licks them I can see something come across her eyes like a second lid: an expression that can only be called love. And then there’s the beatific look she gets when she flops on her side to reveal her swollen nipples, lifting her hind leg to make sure the kittens have enough room to nurse, fondly watching them jostle for a space. Why can’t I accept that it is with this same love that she brings them stunned, wounded creatures to eat?
I am not a perfectly moral person. I am vain, make fun of dumb people, am fickle in love, and have been known to act badly while drinking. I eat large, bloody steaks and skip through the hard parts in books like War and Peace. I am willing to live with these faults. I feel no urgent need to change them. My blind spot, it seems, is the suffering of little things. I have appointed myself their guardian, trying to impose on my acre by the river a system that, if implemented worldwide, would leave us all dead. Because the world requires that little things be killed constantly. If my New England ancestors had refused to kill, I would not be here. They killed the deer that ate their gardens, the wolves that ate their sheep, the raccoons that ate their corn. It is popular now to despise them for it, but this seems a narrow-minded stance to me.
I approach this dilemma as if I might find an answer. How prideful of me to presume that, in a morning, I might solve a problem that has bedeviled humans for centuries. The only answer I have is that I must get up. I must get dressed in clothes that, no doubt, caused suffering in the making, drink milk from cows that will go to the slaughterhouse the minute their production levels are down, drive a car that hits numerous flying insects, walk on grass where ants go about their business.
Driving to work, I hum along with some silly song on the radio, then decide that the song actually isn’t so silly, but rather mystical, with its refrain of “Kiss the rain.” I look to my left and see that a small spider has spun a web from my side mirror to the car and is dangling in the wind, hanging by a thread, trying heroically to crawl to a secure spot. What should I do? I slow down. When I get down to about ten miles an hour, the spider hauls itself to safety. The drivers behind me are not pleased.
“Kiss the rain,” I sing. And it occurs to me that this phrase might be transformed into a mantra for my problem. By changing the r to a p, a simple operation, I come up with “Kiss the pain.” Now I must spend the day deciding what this means. Does it mean that I should embrace suffering? Or does it mean that, like a mother who knows there is no magic, I should nevertheless continue to kiss the world where it hurts?
Sybil Smith had me on her side with “On the Suffering of Little Things” [June 2000] — until she began discussing her cat and kittens. She should be aware of the tremendous destruction her cat wreaks in the universe of small things. Smith could spend a lifetime crushing every spider she could hunt down, and it wouldn’t hold a candle to what one cat will instinctively destroy in a month.
Once she revealed herself to be a cat owner, the honesty of Smith’s writing was lost for me. No one who owns an outdoor cat (let alone allows it to breed indiscriminately) can really give a damn about the suffering of small things.