of spiders and scariness (a pre-Halloween challenge)

photo credit Rebecca Gant. This was in her garden. Which is why I will not be.

A couple of years ago, I discovered trail running.

I love running in nature, and I love autumn, and I am thrilled to be living in a part of the country that offers both, and for months at a time.

You take the good with the bad, though.  And you could certainly argue that there is something bad about fall around here.

A dangly, sticky, creepy, crawly, hangy, sneaky, and sometimes hairy thing.

Spiders.

I have lived in the Missouri river valley for a total of 12 years. I grew up, on the other hand, at 6200 feet, and the local fauna, while impressive in their own right, were much less horrifying. Living here, I have seen creatures that would have sent my Wyoming schoolchild self running into . . . well, Nebraska.

Except that I would run north. Because: spiders.

I have made some progress around my phobia. I don’t have actual proof for you, because have spent most of the last decade grabbing a projectile rather than a camera, but I have encountered orb weavers and crab spiders, wolf spiders and enough recluses to become thoroughly bored of them. And also, jumping spiders (my least favorite because, well, they jump. And so will you. It is wrong.)

And I have survived them all.

I have outlived them, in fact.

Which brings us back to this fall. Where running meets homeschooling, in that a couple of times each week, my older son and I take to the trails while Silas is at preschool.

don’t be fooled by the civilized-looking trail marker. anything could happen in here, people. and I will probably scream when it does.

There is a story here.  It happened a couple of weeks ago on one of those amazing crisp-air, blue-sky mornings that only fall can offer.

I was excited to reach the first fork in the path so I could run a few circuits of the white trail. Soeren was excited to examine every object in front of him. And that was fortunate, because it is how I avoided stepping on what Soeren identified as The Second Largest Spider I Have Ever Seen. (It is not, I will note, the second-largest spider I have ever seen. I spent part of a summer in Costa Rica, which is a country populated by people who appear to be peaceful, yet who will reliably launch a full-scale military assault against a two-inch gecko in a shower stall. Those same people also appear to be rational, yet not one of them batted an eye while tarantulas the size of salad plates claim space on the sidewalks at sundown. Costa Rica is a beautiful and worthwhile travel destination . . . and it’s the “Switzerland of Central America” only in the way that Tim Burton’s land of Halloween was the true home of Santa Claus.)

While probably not a tarantula, Soeren’s spider was, if you are someone with misgivings about arachnids, rather heinous. Furry. Marked with dramatic lines and swirls. Camouflaged almost perfectly in the dappled sunlight of the leaf-lined trail. And large enough to neatly cover the top of my shoe. Had it walked onto my shoe. Which it did not.

[Makes the sign of the cross before continuing to type]

I offer, as evidence of my progress, my ability to make comments appropriate for a parent of a science-loving child, and for a minister-in-training who is mindful of the Interdependent Web of Which We Are All a Part.

It is true, however, that I did this while backing away slowly.  Subsequent conversation as follows:

Soeren: You don’t like him, do you?

Me: I like him fine. Over there.

Soeren: I don’t think he’s going to hurt you.

Me: I don’t think he’s going to hurt me, either.

Soeren: You’re not even standing on the trail anymore.

Me: Yikes! I mean . . . you’re right.

Sooooo. [deep breath.] I’m gonna run now.

Soeren: I’m gonna stay here and investigate.

Me: Ooohkay.

There are some things that I would like you to know before I tell you the next part of this story: I have been terrified of spiders for most of my life. I have spent parts of nights awake after seeing one in my room, afraid to close my eyes in case it walked on me. I finally learned to kill them on sight, because this at least was preferable to wondering where the object of my fears was at any given moment. I once launched a full-on administrative (and pesticidal) offensive, when volunteering in an old house that was truly overrun with recluses. And until the house in which we live now, I bug bombed every space I ever inhabited before moving in—and not for the bugs. For the spiders.

I am, to put it mildly, an unlikely candidate for arachnid coexistence.

And yet, at first grudgingly, and then in a spirit of détente, and finally with an open curiosity that astonishes those who love me (and also, somewhat freaks them out), the truth is that things have changed.

I wrote about the beginnings of this, from a different angle, a couple of years ago. I’m as surprised as anyone, but it turns out that the things I was saying to Silas back then were not just lip service.

I really do think that spider is of God, as I am. And once I realized that I couldn’t rationally refuse to acknowledge this, I also could not help but act differently. And then, to think and feel differently.

Results, thus far:

*I left a spindly little spider in her tiny web in the far corner of my room. She never bothered me, nor, to my knowledge, I her. Eventually, she disappeared. I don’t worry about it; I wish her well.

*I considered the many, many recluses scrabbling around in the night in an old house where people slept on pallets on the floor, and weighed that frightening number of spiders (xxxx?) against the number of people there who were ever bitten (0).

*And just the other day, Silas came running in from the yard to bring me to see a black spider the size of a small hamster sunning himself on our doormat. We counted his eyes, declined to invite him inside, and speculated, later, on where he might have gone.

I wouldn’t say that arachnidae and I are friends, exactly, or even allies . . . but I’m working on something like appreciation. And leading the way has been curiosity. With respect trailing right behind.

And so, I am sad to tell you what happened next. Which is this: The experience of nearly stepping on the camouflaged spider fresh in my mind, I headed down the trail. I made the turn. I leaped over the muddy area separating the trailhead from the uphill climb onto the ridge. I tucked my chin. I watched my feet.

I ran full-body into a large web extending between two trees.

Now, perspective: I run a lot, which means I actually run through webs, or parts of them, very frequently. And occasionally, I even end up with an actual spider on me, too (this is actually rarer than you might think—orb weavers are extraordinarily canny about getting out of the way when something big trip over their guide threads). In those moments, that spider is at least as eager to be off of my person as I am to remove it; orb weavers are much, much smaller than their webs would lead you to believe. Also, they are in no way dangerous.

Orb Weaver Spider

I know all of this. I know it in my head. Sometimes I know it at a gut level, too.

But on this day, friends, I utterly lost my shit.

I ran through that web and within one second, I had thrown my phone, screamed bloody murder, smacked myself upside the head, and knocked my sunglasses so far into the brush that I thought I’d never find them. I DID never find them. Soeren found them. I think it’s because he’s closer to the ground. Or perhaps it was because Soeren wasn’t searching while simultaneously hyperventilating and clutching at the air near his head and face.

And since that morning, I’ve been doing some thinking. About where fears become phobias, and memories become trauma, and also, about how kneejerk impulses might become immediate, unreflective actions. The last time I played Wii Fit it suggested that my reaction time is not so great. But friends, I know better. I may not be able to react intentionally or constructively as soon as I would like, but I can definitely react quickly.

In fact, I am pretty sure we all can—even those of us who never can make it down the fake ski slope or head the soccer ball can move effortlessly to defend ourselves from perceived mortal threat.

This is simply a human reality, right? Soeren told me the other day that he wishes he had more instincts. Sometimes I wish I had fewer, or different ones, at least.

I’m going to preach about this soon . . . the sermon’s called Something Wicked, and before I deliver it, I’m going to lead the congregation in an exercise: assembling our own personal monster.

I doubt that monster will look like a spider, but for those of us for whom it might, I also offer an alternate possibility:

Someone I know—a colleague—took a walk.

Through a graveyard.

At midnight.

Speaking of assembling monsters—how many things might we fear to meet in this situation? How many of those fears might even feel perfectly logical?

Personally, I don’t need come up with any additional answers, because what Lisa actually met in that graveyard just happened to be none other than a spider. And its web.  Which she walked through, in the dark, face first.

And in the end, her glasses looked like this:

photo credit (and, let's be real, badassery credit) the Rev. Lisa Schwartz

photo credit (and, let’s be real, badassery credit) the Rev. Lisa Schwartz

Which I can report because those glasses were not thrown into the bushes. Rather, they were held carefully, with honor for the magic of the evening and respect for a weaver whose work was inadvertently destroyed.

I have been thinking about this–was thinking about it even, as I calmed my breathing and removed the stray web pieces from my forehead.  And I wonder: how might I walk with such wonder and poise, even through the scary places?

How, in fact, might we all?

I have a theory . . . let’s call it a sneaking suspicion . . . that calmly confronting our fears might be a skill worth practicing.  In our congregations.  Where the spiders have different names, and are sometimes shaped more like elephants.

And I think we have the tools to do it.

Let’s talk more about this here.  But first: let’s do it in person–Kansas City, October 5th, 11:15 a.m.

See you at #allsoulsKC.  With . . . just maybe . . . Something Wicked.

j

parenting and other cruelties

It’s like this: Silas, a tiny imp at three, hair like a supernova, blue eyes lit with mischief, turns away from my gentle chiding and walks slowly, purposefully, down the hallway.  His newly three-year-old body conveys resolve in its posture, intention in its steps.  He trails one finger along the wall as he walks, pivots, turns the corner at the end.  He disappears.  Si walks away from me, without looking back.  And then he is gone.

And suddenly, in a flash of premature nostalgia, versions of this scene—the rest of his childhood, the rest of our lives—play out, one after another, in my mind.  I lean against the kitchen counter, regard the empty hallway, breathe.

And then Si’s blond head pops back into view as he leans carefully around the corner, catches my eye, grins.  He doesn’t speak as he smiles, but I hear him loud and clear.  Gotcha, Mom! I walked away from you!  

That he can even do this is new—a milestone—a marvel.  And so, this was for show.  Yet I know, and maybe he does, too, on an instinctive level, that every day he is practicing for the real thing.  We both are—blocking and rehearsing for a play I’m not sure I want to be part of.

Here’s the thing: it is freaking terrifying to be a parent.  Like, in any moment in which you’re actually paying attention.  The weight, the risk, the fear.  Sometimes it feels hard to inhale.

Part of this is the knowledge—the fear, and also the certainty—that I’m doing it wrong, all the time.  The crushing thing is that there’s no way to do it right.  I perceive the vague outline of impossibility, and in the face of something so huge, I am paralyzed.

And it’s not just my kids.  Sometimes I experience the entire world through the lens of a moral imperative that I cannot meet.  Save Things.  And it is thus both fitting and unbelievable that last Friday night, I met the bird.

Every day I can, come rain, or snow, or (my husband hates this) even dark of night, when I have 20 minutes and shoes, I run through the forest on the west side of town.  Sometimes, particularly when I have a lot of other things competing for my attention, this compulsion to self-care feels a bit sneaky.  Last Friday evening, though, under a weight of obligations and expectations that suddenly felt impossible, I spent not 20 minutes but 90, and I didn’t sneak so much commandeer them.  Rumbling thunder, running water on the path, and the increasing heaviness of my soil-caked feet aside, it was just what my soul needed . . . and then I saw him.

He was about the size of my hand, feathers puffed up a bit, bright red and completely incongruous—a songbird on the ground.   He glanced in the direction of my shoe when I stepped near him, but didn’t fly away—instead, he walked on the path.

Honestly, he seemed untroubled.  At the very least, he was not visibly panicked.  That was fine; I felt enough panic for both of us.  He was beautiful.  He was hurt or sick.  He couldn’t live here on the ground, on the trail, in the rain.  Surely I should do something?  I crouched near him on the soggy trail, asked him inane questions, watched as he snatched a mouthful of grass on this side, dug a bit in the mud on that.  He kept walking whether I did or not, seeming only slightly to notice when I reappeared next to him, and not at all when I stopped.

I considered the wild bird rescue center in a neighboring town—we once took a robin there; it had knocked itself unconscious against our clerestory window.  I considered attempting to catch this wild thing, holding it in my hands, taking him from Here to Somewhere Else.  I considered hope, and what I could rightly invest in this bird.  I considered the tasks and obligations that had already been given to me for that night.  And then I stood up and walked away.  I channeled my plucky three-year-old, and did not look back.*

I’ve been out to the trails in the week since then, and I haven’t seen the bird again.  I haven’t looked for him, either.  I have felt for him, though, in what I’m coming to understand as the pull of something bigger—a call to accept what is.

IMG_1681

It was drier this week, the trails returning to dirt; life continues to assert itself in ways hopeful, marvelous—and challenging.  The brown of the trail is increasingly adorned with dots of green.  These are the insistent sprouts of baby trees that have found enough space and enough light to grow—directly in the path of my feet.

I hopscotch over them, and try not to think too much about it.  They are heartbreaking, a bit.  A baby tree pushes up through the soil and unfurls its first leaf with a strength and hopefulness that is inspiring—it’s going to take this chance its been given to grow, and go for it.  Except that here it has no chance.  This little tree—and this one, and that one—grows only to be trampled underfoot.  And again, my heart pulls at my hands: do something.  Fix it.

I don’t, though.  I just feel.  I just think.  My grief is not for these trees.

There is no way around it, and also no way through.  I am crushed underneath its weight, under the terrible knowledge that I will fail as a parent.  Under the understanding that beyond that, I am incapable of protecting anything—even that which is most precious to me.  I am rendered powerless by truth and certainty, as in the Samyutta nikaya, that whatsoever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.

And, I find, in some strange way, that in utter powerlessness there is freedom.  In lack of choice there is space to breathe, to be.  To experience the strange magic of now—how this one small moment offers comfort and shelter, yet refuses to make a single promise to any of us.

I keep running through the forest, sliding around in the mud.  I’m trying to keep my feet off the living.

I’m trying to understand.

j

 

my prayer for today, for tomorrow, and for the mixed blessing that is mothering and mother’s day:

 

In these moments

when what we perceive most acutely

is our own smallness,

when we cling to things we cannot keep

as we are called to love what cannot stay

 

Comfort us as we grieve our failures,

Our incapability, our losses.  

Strengthen us that we may see, and celebrate,

our children

not as something of or belonging to us,

but as they are . . . as themselves.  

 

And help us to cultivate the gift of presence,

that we may take and recognize our joy

as it comes in the small moments of the everyday.

 

Amen.


*Ok, I looked back once.  I was already around the bend in the trail, though, and I couldn’t see him anymore.  So I waited a minute.  And then, with a prayer for bird peace, I walked to my car.