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

the interdependent web(s in our garage)

The other day as I buckled Si into his carseat, he declared, “I like ‘pidahs!” This surprised me; of late, anything that evokes a mere suggestion of 8 legs or skittery movement–things that could represent “spider” only to my son and to Joan Miró–tends to elicit screams and frantic hops from my toddler.

I accept as part of my daily ration of mommy guilt that I somehow Did This.  Confined spaces, public speaking, and spiders; I regard these things with equal parts horror and awe, and in the last example I can only assume I have transmitted those feelings to my child.  In fact, spiders frighten me so much that I have overcome my aversion to killing them. Psychologically, it feels much, much worse to have seen one and wonder where it has gone (and when it might come back to crawl on me) than to simply grab a tissue, take a deep breath and have done with it.  In my semi-conscious worldview, spiders are to be respected but never trusted, and must die or accept voluntary repatriation to the outside if I see them.  So, perhaps it should not have come as a shock that the next statement out of Si’s mouth was, “I like to ‘mash them and ‘tomp on them.”

It was a surprise, though–the cavalier brutality of preschoolers (or is it that of little boys?) always is.  I climbed plenty of trees growing up, but I also liked dresses and dolls and playing quietly with my sister; my two boys, despite my having carried and birthed them and regarded them each day in wonder, remain something entirely Other.  Parenting them is not unlike a hostile takeover: I look around what formerly was simply my house–my life–and discover that things have been retitled and repurposed, as have I.  And I continue to wait for the inevitable adjustment: does their play need to be this wild?  Must their voices be so loud?  Need my every possession become a direct object of verbs so active I worry that our walls may not survive them?  They will change, or I will, or we will continue our mutual wearing-down of one another until college (them) or medication (me), or both.  In the meantime, they–particularly my younger son–manifest a delight in destruction that is a bit unsettling.

Where those destructive urges are applied to other living things, I feel I must draw a line, one that takes into account not just behavior, but ethics.  And sometimes–now I wonder just how often–I use off-the-shelf Parent Theology to do it.  “Are you taking good care of God’s creatures?” I ask my two-year-old.  I am not sure how it started, but I continue to ask this particular question in large part because it’s highly effective.  Five-year-old Ren invariably looks abashed and then calibrates his movements oh-so-carefully, lest he further disturb part of the Lord’s menagerie.  (I have to say, I love this reaction.  Actual worry about other living things, whether it’s motivated by concern for the creatures’ lives or out of fear that God might be looking down and frowning, seems to lessen the odds that the children are on the road to sociopathy.  Which . . . well . . . sometimes we wonder.)  There are evidently limits to the question’s power, however.  My wily toddler regards me seriously for a moment, then announces, “Imma tell God not to put ‘pidahs in our garage!”

Fair enough.  And this statement addresses a conflict that I have a hard time reconciling myself: how should we deal with the place where my space and someone (something) else’s overlap?   As Unitarians, we believe in a just allocation of resources, which we sometimes explain to our children as, “one for you, and one for me.”  When we’re talking about people and cans of food, this makes perfect sense.  When we’re talking about my house and the ravenous colony of sugar ants that invades it every spring, it makes no sense at all . . . except that, sometimes, I still feel like it should.  I put off calling the exterminators until everything sweet has been thrown away or banished to the freezer, and when Dmitri finally comes, I feel terrible.  “You have to get the eggs,” he explains.  He has a friendly smile, a slight accent, and two kids my own children’s age, and I forget for a moment that we are talking about poisoning things.  “We’ll just spray the colonies under the downspouts–they won’t be able to save the eggs.”  Eggs?  They’re going to try in vain to save their eggs?  I must look horrified; Dmitri puts a hand on my arm and says, “You do not have to give to them the house.  They have other places to be living.  This is yours.”

And so it is.  And sometimes maintaining this place of ours involves poisoning other living things.  (Of course, this is true, and it’s not limited to ants and the clear chain of events between my calling the exterminator and their deaths–how many of the things we use, enjoy, or do in and around our home involve a cost in lives of other creatures?)  That I know this and sometimes think about it doesn’t mean that I believe we indeed ought to give our house to the ants.  Nor are we vegetarians, and there is plenty in our home that is neither free-trade nor fair-trade, possibly in the most damaging sense of that phrase.  We accept tradeoffs each day, and we try to educate ourselves and to do better when we know better.  Thinking about the ants, however, brings an awareness that it’s hard to answer my children’s questions around the choices that we make in this area while simultaneously trying to instill in them a code of ethics based on concern for others, and for the interdependent web of all life (that would be UU principle number 7, for those following along at home).

The larger problem then, where moralizing to my offspring is concerned, is that this “caring for God’s creatures” standard is either arbitrarily applied or impossible to meet.  It’s easy enough to trot it out when I feel concerned by my children’s behavior, but try living by it yourself.  Ren has his own version of the question, though his tends to be voiced as an exclamation: “That was a LIVING. THING!”  This phrase–generally howled by a small person laid prostrate at the murder of one or more members of phylum Arthropoda–is the bane of Montessori parents everywhere.  I mean, we love that they teach respect for all living things–but do we really have to mean “all?”  Literally, all of them?  What would that sort of respect look like?  And how do we balance it with the other realities of our lives, for example the desire to eat bananas unsullied by fruit fly eggs or to shower in the basement bathroom without reenacting scenes from Arachnophobia?

Clearly, I do not have answers for these questions.  For the time being, we do the best we can in each moment to reason clearly, and to talk with Si and Ren in a way that makes our reasoning plain.  Or we do, sometimes.  In other moments, it seems so much simpler to borrow the voice of God and issue proclamations–Take Care of My Creatures–that are rule and explanation both.

Perhaps our real religious commitment is not to reach a particular conclusion about ants or spiders, but to continue to wrestle with the questions, and to do it in front of and alongside our children.  This is a struggle, to be sure, but perhaps in our children themselves we have the best equipment possible.  Mine can spot spiderwebs, and hypocrisy, from 100 paces.