A Map of Malaise
Updated: Apr 6
Visitors who entered our house by the front door once had to duck their heads to avoid the spiderweb that stretched from the dining room across the foyer before continuing to the far side of the living room. I would lead them along a safe path and say, by way of explanation, "It's almost four o'clock and Lottie will be making her way to the front window soon." This earned me concerned looks, followed either by jokes about cobwebby old houses or recommendations for dusters with long handles. One visitor went so far as to ask if I had left Halloween cobwebs up till spring, giving my house even more of a moldering, Miss Havisham air than usual. Trying to explain Lottie and her peculiarities seemed like a futile endeavor, so I would demur, change the subject, and usher them out the back door.
The truth was that a common house spider had made an architectural wonder spanning the entirety of my first floor. She began spinning by the double glass doors of the dining room and did not stop until she'd festooned the foyer, dining room, and living room with a lacy suspension bridge. As I watched her embroider a path of silken strands that shimmered in the afternoon sun, I wondered just how far she would go if I let her. I got out my library stool and climbed up to meet her. She was perfectly elegant, for a spider. Soft greenish-gray, a bit of charcoal here and there, slender front legs that raised briefly in greeting before returning to her weaving. I named her Lottie and let her go about her work as I went about mine. A few more weeks went by and her task was complete; a luminous bow spanned the entire downstairs: dining room to foyer to living room. Then, content with the world she'd created, Lottie stopped weaving and and set up housekeeping.
Lottie liked to spend the early mornings by the front door but scurried into the dining room while we ate breakfast. After breakfast, she swung back to the foyer for her own breakfast and a late morning nap. Nap time lasted until the mail dropped through the slot and slid across the foyer floor, rousing her. Lottie spent the long afternoon hours following the sun across the living room at a leisurely pace before settling into a wispy hammock in the far corner. If my son had cello lessons that day (usually held in the sunny corner of the living room by the piano) she seemed to move a little faster, almost as if she wanted to have front row seats. She would listen, rapt, until the lesson was over and then follow the setting sun back to the front door and tuck herself in. Weeks went by, with Lottie going about her day above, as I went about mine below.
One day, Lottie stopped following her daily schedule, and kept instead to one complicated corner of her web. By fall, Lottie hardly moved at all. I carefully cut away the expansive highway of webbing she'd spun across my ceiling, leaving her nestled in her tiny web in a dark corner behind the glass door. She seemed content there. I did that, thinking that being surrounded by all she couldn't visit or do anymore might trouble her. One morning, Lottie was gone. I don't know where or why, but I have to believe it meant something.
We've had other spiders in the house. But none of them has been as ambitious as Lottie was. I give them each a chance to do what she did, but they never do. I have a feather duster with a long handle now and you don't have to duck when you come through my front door.
I can't use my utility tub because of what's going on in there. Things are piling up all around until I figure out what to do. Another spider took up residence in one side of the wash basin in my basement. There's nothing elegant about this spider. She's more of a hairy ink drop and seems to have an appetite for crickets. I haven't named her because she looks like the sort to resent that sort of impertinence. Yes, I have crickets in my basement. They come in through my window wells.
My house has window wells that go deep, eight feet into the ground. Most old houses have wells like this, windows you could easily stand up in. Newer homes have narrow shafts you can't even stick your head out of. While I worry about how deep mine are (they tend to flood, people could fall in and get hurt) I love how much light they cast into the gloom of my basement.
The basement spider likes crickets. They get caught in the web she built across one side of my sink. Her web is strictly utilitarian, with indifferent repairs where her prey has struggled; nothing of the tatted lace Lottie made. She sucks at the crickets leisurely for two days, then tosses their corpses aside. She eats the odd potato bug. I was just thinking I should relocate her so I could use my sink, when she began spinning an egg sack. Now she's cuddled around it, a field of dead crickets beneath her. I don't have the heart to move her now. They only have one small season to spin in, I tell myself as I climb the stairs to use another sink. It's not really a bother. And if she prefers an old basement sink and crickets to a gossamer living room web and cello lessons, what's it to me?
And anyway, this all gives me time to sort out how webs and maps are connected, because surely they must be. I've been studying maps for a while, trying to figure out why Michigan is a safe shape, but Ohio isn't. What I've come up with is that Michigan has clearly defined borders. The lower peninsula is defined by water, the southern border is nearly straight. But look at Ohio! The border bleeds out in unpredictable directions, randomly jutting out and back in for no apparent reason, like someone stomped on a pentagon. I confided in my husband recently that I felt certain I could drive on highways in Michigan because the shape was positively serene. I mean really, it's a mitten. What is more calming than a mitten? But Ohio looks like something that started out safe and predictable (the western edge is almost boringly square) and then slid out of control the further it goes. I'm pretty sure this means something. I'm on the edge of a big breakthrough with the maps.
When things are beyond your control, fear is a great way to rein all that in. Take, for example, children. Children are chaos incarnate but they respond well to fear. You could say things like, " I heard about a little girl who didn't behave on the escalator and her hair got caught in the steps. She got scalped and her mother watched her die." Or you could say, "No, you can't ride your bike to the store because you'll get kidnapped. There are bad men waiting out there for a little girl like you." Another good one is, "I know a little girl who played too close to the street and a car crushed her head like a jack-o-lantern."
As they get older and bolder, and their interests and dreams boil over, you really need to shift gears if you want to maintain control over your kids. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," works well to quell enthusiasm and creativity. You could follow that up with, "You can't do that. People will laugh at you." All you have to do is recite a catechism of fear and failure over and over until they see danger and humiliation all around. You could extend this to scary things under the bed to keep them under the covers, listing all the many ways they will fail if they try something new, expounding on this general theme for years in a variety of ways. The nice thing about this is that after a while, you don't even have to say anything anymore. It will ring in their ears like bells, tolling out fear and failure endlessly like some sort of perpetual call of the faithful. It will become their religion.
I have to be honest, though. I didn't inherit the knack for this. I may hear the bells but I can't ring them. I choke on the words. When people I care about do something that scares me, something beyond my control, something outside my comfort zone, I hold my breath and count my bells. I let them ring in my ears, but not theirs. I pray they can't hear them.
Because next thing you know you've molded someone who can't ride an escalator or sleep with one arm hanging over the side of the bed in case a clown eats it. Someone who thinks of the world like the early explorers did, with their maps of islands of land surrounded by dragon-filled oceans. An existence so perilously balanced and unpredictable that you could very easily fall off the known world if you traveled too fast or ventured too far.
I've had to clip bird wings. It's not a big deal really. It's not painful or harmful to the bird. My first hen could fly like a dove and wanted nothing more than to roost in the trees, but I couldn't have her doing that. What you do is this: hold the bird gently, spread one wing and locate the flight wings. The flight wings are on the underside, towards the back, long and tapered, slightly curved to catch the air and lift them up into it. It's simple really. You cut them off and set them back down. They don't feel a thing. It's days before they realize they can't fly. You remove their flight wings and then, one day, they try to fly and can't get off the ground. Eventually they give up and accept life on the ground. They forget about flying and roosting high in the canopy. The cruel part is that those flight wings grow back. But the bird never knows that. All the rest of their life, they have the ability to fly. But you've tricked them into thinking they can't. And it only took a moment.
I organize my fears into two camps, to keep things tidy. I like things tidy. I allow myself to be afraid of heights and of things spiraling out of control. Just these two fears could get out of hand fast, so I ruthlessly limit myself to a fear of driving on highways-this seems to satisfy my fear of loss of control-and I stay away from escalators, balconies, tall buildings, bridges, etc. I bundle my fears into these two camps and then I go about my business, knowing that they are well taken care of. I keep them safely corralled like restless horses. My secret is that I'm really afraid of everything. But the two camps make life possible. I just have to mind my horse fences and keep them in good repair. I can have the whole world as long as I keep the border defined. The horses can do what they want inside.
My rose bush died eight days ago. Well, I think it was eight days-who could really be sure-but it was alive and thriving when I left for vacation. When I returned, it was brittle and lifeless. It probably expired right before my eyes but I only noticed long after it was dead. It was the oldest thing in my garden, the centerpiece that held the whole yard together. It's strange for something that big to die that completely in a garden. I ignored it for two days, determined to pretend it wasn't happening. I closed all the drapes on the front of the house, averted my eyes as I backed my car down the drive, used the back door instead of the front no matter the inconvenience. After a week of that nonsense, I crept out in the pearly morning hours and forced myself to look at it. The rose was dead. Mercilessly dead. A five-foot tall rose dead and withered with no visible cause. What did it mean?
As the sun rose, I considered my options, then made a plan. First, I would do nothing. This would go on for up to one month, into the fall. Maybe if enough of the dead leaves fell off, it would enable me to see into the crown of the plant and figure out what the problem was. Maybe I could save some small part of it. I would pull on my thick leather gauntlet gloves and carefully cut away the dead rose branches, searching for a core of life. This would start as a surgical procedure, but as I inevitably found that there was no life in it, I would strip my gloves off, slashing at random and tossing thorny limbs all over the yard as blood ran down my arms and legs. I did not take the mental exercise any further; the whole prospect seemed hopeless. I decided firmly that I wouldn't dwell on it anymore. I was very firm with myself on this point. I have enough horses already. And my plan was a solid one. I continued with phase one: ignoring it entirely.
As we were backing down the driveway a few weeks later, my children asked when I was going to do something about the giant dead thing in the front yard. An innocent enough question. Instead of answering, I forced myself to look at the very thing I'd been avoiding. A shriveled mass of thorns with no life in it. Dealing with it would hurt. But I also knew I would go through my entire complicated plan regardless. Some things are inevitable. But of course, I can't tell my children that. They don't understand about the bells. My husband squeezed my hand and said, "She knows what she has to do, but it's going to be hard. Removing something that big is going to take time. And it's going to leave an enormous hole. And she doesn't want to think about it just yet."
I realized as we drove away together that he's right. I don't want to think about the hole that will be left behind when I tear it all out. Because then I'll have to decide: leave the hole or fill it? It would take less than a day to rip it out, bundle it up, carry it to the curb. Grab a new rose from the garden center and plunk it in. That would deal with the hole, but would that be the best thing for the rest of my garden? In a field of color, the human eye translates darkness as a sparkle of light. The dark nothing is reborn as a glimmering something, just on the edge of your vision. So maybe I should leave the hole. At least until I understand what it meant.
But while I was worrying about the rose, another curiosity appeared to balance out the equation. Something died out front, but something bloomed in my basement. A sweet potato vine wound its way through my window well and made a canopy over the ink drop spider and her egg sack. Long tendrils surround her now in a intricate hammock, not unlike the one Lottie wove for her shroud. So I've decided to give the vine all the patience that I did Lottie. I want to see how far it will go, how long it will bloom. Because I have to understand why this brave explorer chose to shun the sunlight and instead seek out the darkness of my basement. I have to see if it can survive and thrive down there, so far removed from its natural element. Because that, I am certain, will mean everything.