Saturday, March 16, 2013

Survival of the Fittest

March 16, 2013 – Survival of the Fittest

“Ben, Amanda, come here!” Phinehas calls in through the open back door. I leave off what I’m doing and follow Ben outside. Phinehas is crouched down in the dark peering under the truck bed at something large and shadowy on the cement. “Check out this moth!”

This is no ordinary moth. It’s the size of a small bird or a bat. Its wingspan is the length of my brother’s hand. We crowd down near the tailgate and gaze. It’s impressive. Wings fluttering and antennae sniffing the air it seems lost, or perhaps it’s testing out the feel of the place to see about moving in.

Vulture Eggs
I give it an appreciative amount of attention and then get back to what I was working on. Distractions are endless here. There are always interesting things to see; vultures flying overhead, doodlebugs multi-legging it under the cover of rocks, lizards scurrying over tree trunks or across fence rails, squirrels taunting the dogs, airplanes, trucks, rocks, snails, sticks. We’re all caught up in a little girl’s world and have child-sized eyes fixed on over our adult lenses.

In the morning we discover that the moth has moved away from the truck and found a new spot under one of the rocking chairs. While I’m dumping fresh grains in the French Press and boiling water, and Ben’s gone off to work, Phinehas and Marie show the moth to Shea and tell her to be careful, to not touch, to only look, to leave it alone. “Moff,” she says.

I bring my cup and a book outside. Phin and I are enjoying the sunshine while watching Shea, the dogs, and the moth. Marie has gone to get her coffee and to check her email. I’m sipping up some caffeine and contemplating life when Phinehas says, “It’s a giant silk moth.” A Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) to be exact. He continues on, reading from his phone, “One of our native giant silk moths. Has no working mouth parts as an adult moth, instead it lives about a week on stored body fat it obtained as a caterpillar.”

“A giant silk moth,” I repeat looking down at the winged giant. 

“Mom knows a butterfly guy,” he explains. Phinehas, knowing my mom loves butterflies and moths, had sent her a picture the night before. She’s got connections in the nature realm and had immediately forwarded the picture along with an email that said: My son in Austin found this in their yard. Wingspan about the size of his hand. Do you recognize it?

I follow Shea’s movement as she runs after Phinehas’s dog Loca and think, It’s all about who you know. Loca plops down next to the car and Shea sits by her and puts an arm around her. Puppy and little girl. It’s a precious picture that neither Phinehas nor I are quick enough to capture by camera. The yard gets back into motion, Shea chasing Loca, Loca chasing squirrels, Phinehas and I, at times, chasing Shea. “Marie is going to love that it’s going to die,” Phinehas says, knowing Marie’s love of the morbid. He goes inside to tell her the moth news update and I hear the excited chatter coming down the hall. They’re already talking about mounting it on a board and framing it once it’s dead.

While we yet live, I think. Suddenly I’m consumed with grief. Everything dies. Life is hard. Nothing is the way it should be. You’re a caterpillar dreaming of being a butterfly. You’re ready to fly. You think these glorious butterfly thoughts. Yeah, you go ahead and make that transformation only to find that once you’ve shed everything, left it all behind and there’s no going back you don’t have a fucking mouth. Butterfly glory is short lived and full of hunger.

Anger flashes through me. I’m mad at this world, at the harshness of nature, at the things that just don’t seem fair. Of course, to be honest, this has less to do with the moth than it does with me. I’ve had a rough month. I want to fly. And with the freedom I thought that came with being a butterfly, I’ve discovered that I don’t have a mouth.

That I’m just a giant silk moth living off the nutrients I acquired in my life as a caterpillar and there’s not a lot left to feed off of.

Since autumn, my hands have been getting worse. I’d woken up several nights in a row feeling as if my joints were burning from the inside out. Pushing the bedcovers off my shoulders hurt, turning a door knob took effort, lifting a dinner plate took the strength of both fragile wrists. Knowing the dangers of letting this arthritis get out of control and not wanting to go back down that way of pain, I left off my usual avoidance of drugs and went to a clinic and got cortisone injections in both wrist joints. I spent every dime I’d earned and put in my Canada fund for this. Although the benefits of waking up free of pain are worth every last penny, I’m distraught at having to start all over with saving, upset by the irregularity of a life with a two year old, by the needs I have--and try hard to suppress--to be solitary, of the impotent feeling that comes with not bringing in a steady income, not being able to contribute to the grocery bill, or not having the freedom to get up and go anywhere in the world I want to go at any moment I wish.

The self-pity is bad enough. With it so strong in my mind I can hardly stand my own thoughts or my own company. I pull myself in for the proverbial Come To Jesus Meetin’. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, I say, Knock it off. Get to work. Quit your whining. Nobody likes it, least of all me. Besides, what’s wrong with you anyways? You have a roof over your head. You have food to eat. You have family who loves you and is kind enough to open up their home to you as a friend. Get your act together. Change your attitude. Be happy.

It sounds easy enough and I should be this Zen. I want to be this Zen. But I’m not.

And yet, the cortisone shots do their magic and with the easing of my physical pain, my mental angst eases as well. For the first time in months I find myself humming.

Is happiness as simple as living with less pain?

Maybe it is.

Before the moth arrived, I’d had plenty of time, too much time, to think about what’s been bothering me, and I realized that my real worry is in the thought that I’ll become a Has Been and stop being an Am Being. I want to live forward. I want to be in charge of my own fate. I don’t want my life to only be stories about what has happened in my past. I want to do more than survive. I want to do more than just avoid pain. I want to live – with a capital L.

See, I’ve got these delusions of grandeur. I’ve got this idea that life is something wonderful. That we can, all of us, realize our dreams, that we don’t have to settle for what’s easy or sink back into the status quo. That, sappy as it is, the words in the song I sing with my niece are true and that I can:

have faith in [my] dreams and someday
[My] rainbow will come smiling thru
No matter how [my] heart is grieving
If [I] keep on believing
the dream that [I] wish will come true

A day goes by. And another. I go outside and visit with the moth. We’ve moved it under the patio’s overhang to try and keep the dogs from trampling it or the wind from blowing it away from us. Marie and I’ve both brought it twigs and rocks and leaves to try and make its week of moth life the most comfortable one we can. “You’re really beautiful,” I tell it.

The fact that it’s dying still bothers me. The fact that evolution hasn’t fitted it with a mouth still angers me. Then I laugh at myself. What do I know about being a Lepidoptera? What do I know about having wings? What do I know about the glory of changing from a caterpillar to a moth? How do I know that this time of this creature’s life isn’t its most glorious? Who am I to judge? Am I not dying too? Am I not also living?

On Friday, I met up with one of the local ladies to talk with her about how she’d gotten into freelance writing. Wanting to refill my piggy bank, I’m looking for part time work to supplement my writing habit. I’m looking to find some kind of income that isn’t a soul draining chore and that lets the fiction I love stay the focus of my working life. I’m looking for a get-rich-quick-scheme. She says, “There’s nothing wrong with working a traditional job. What about going after an MFA? What about teaching? Have you considered temp work? What about technical writing? Have you thought about going back to school to get a librarian’s degree?” 

She’s full of sound advice. She’s helpful and kind. I have a feeling she thinks I’m younger than I am. That I haven’t discovered my niche yet. That I don’t know that success takes tenacity and perseverance. I don’t hold any of this against her, she doesn’t know me, we’ve only just met. I’m not opposed to hard work, but I know what I want. I know too much what I don’t want.

We say “See you later” and I go to the library and work until my vision blurs. Then I walk home. The back door is locked and I let myself inside to the delight of the two dogs. Marie and Shea are visiting Marie’s sister. My brothers are out somewhere together. I sit in one of the rocking chairs and let my head clear in this seldom gotten alone time, listen to the sound of the birds, the barking of the squirrels, feel the air shift from pleasant to chill. The moth is behind me, a silent and friendly companion.

Can’t life be easy?

My brothers get back from playing basketball at the nearby park. Phinehas mixes up margaritas for the two of them and then comes to join me on the patio. A bit later Ben ventures out. We tell stories, pull out the main events from our day, share a bit of our individual lives with each other. 

“There’s got to be a way to do what you want to do. To not settle,” I say, summing up my lunch date conversation. I stand up and go look at the moth. It’s got its legs wrapped around a twig, it’s leaning up against a rock. “I really love this moth,” I tell my brothers.

Maybe there’s a metaphor for life here. Maybe there’s not.

Maybe all I know is that this experience of being alive--with or without a mouth, with one week or one hundred years to live, with or without pain--is still a spectacular and amazing thing. There’s always a way. This life is what I make of it. Life can be lived, not just survived. And, also, I want to fly.

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