Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Necessary Lessons


why did you come back

there were silences I'd never solved
and faces still masked by squirming things
certain strange trees had messages for me
a flock of kisses kept searching out my lips

I had to learn how to duel with wasps

and what did you do here

found the key    lost it    found it again
became trapped in the labyrinth of a wound
swam alone through the heart's midnight sea
followed a vision that consumed my grief

juggled on the highest wire without a net

tell about your loves

a tiny cave built once from glittering stones
the slant laughter of the universe in her eyes
every note of music that ever pierced my soul
this ecstatic tango light does with darkness

earth rain sky wind streams mountains stars

will you ever return



Armed with the eyesight of slender wasps,
sucking at the earth's axis, the earth's axis,
I feel everything that ever happened to me...

-- Osip Mandelstam --


     Many years ago my former wife and I rented an ancient farmhouse about 50 miles outside St. Louis, Missouri. It was pretty rundown and had plenty of split seams and widening cracks through which wind and weather could enter--along with occasional smaller critters from the surrounding countryside. I lost track of how many mice we caught in our homemade traps, then released to the nearby fields. Come to think of it, that might have been the identical mouse over and over again!

     One night, after a particularly windy and unseaonably warm autumn day, I noticed a strange-looking black shape in an upper corner of one of our bedroom windows. When I went closer, this anomaly resolved itself into a tightly bunched, queasily squirming mass of wasps. There must have been several dozen! Wasps! Bivouacking in our bedroom!

     After the initial "shock and awe" subsided, we realized there was no way we'd ever sleep again, not as long as we had to bed down right next to a nest of wasps. It was them or us! Nor did we have the money, time, or common sense to call an exterminator. We decided we'd have to deal with this ourselves. And since I was the putative Alpha Male, "ourselves" meant ME.

     Except this Alpha Male was mortally terrified of even one wasp. Here was a whole squadron! Unbelievably, I was staring straight into the teeth of my worst nightmare. But there was nothing else to do but suck it up and blunder foreward. So I went downstairs, buttoned a long black raincoat over my pajamas, put on a pair of rubber boots, and jammed a wool knit cap way down to cover my ears. Finally, clutching a rolled-up magazine in each fist, I was as girded for battle as I'd ever be.

     With my heart in my mouth I burst into the bedroom, charged over to the window, and commenced flailing away! I smacked and crushed quite a few wasps before they could react, but the rest flared up wildly in all directions! After a few more desperate swipes with my magazines, I raced back out, slamming the door behind me.

     Gradually, leaning against the door, I calmed down some and was able to breathe again. But then I had to head back to the front lines on another search and destroy mission, and yet another mop-up sortie after that, until every wasp was dispatched. Finally, it looked like I'd killed them all. And me without a single sting! What a hero!

     When I went to sleep that night, I was exhausted, but also proud. I'd confronted "the enemy," totally defeated it, and bravely surmounted one of my greatest fears. Next morning, slowly waking, savoring my victory, I stretched both arms luxuriously over my head--and recoiled in shock! It felt like I'd thrust one hand into broken glass!

      Jumping up and turning around, I saw--another wasp! A lone survivor of the massacre had stealthily flown to the wall behind our bed, then waited all night to exact revenge for its slaughtered comrades. The wasp had stung me not once, but twice--just to make sure I got the message.

     I guess if there's a moral to this story, it's that sooner or later we always have to duel with our worst fears and take them head on--but also, that this inescapable task is a life's work. We cycle back around to those same scary monsters again and again at different stages of our soul's journey, challenged each time to confront our most primal terrors with deeper humility, courage and understanding. Here's what that last wasp was teaching me by its stings: I'd come a long way in facing my demons. I still had a long way to go.


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