Sunday, July 20, 2008

Woven and Spun

Filtered by summer fog, the sun – almost halfway up the sky at 7:30 – was a flat white disk, a poker chip dropped by an inattentive gambler.

I heaved my briefcase into the passenger seat of the car, buckled my seat belt and turned the key, the sequence of rote motions that sets the rhythm of my life five days a week. Lifting my eyes to the rear-view mirror in preparation for backing out of the carport, my mind already racing through the list of tasks that awaited me, I felt the startle before I realized what I had seen.

Directly in front of me, stretching from one of the deck posts to the arm of one of the chairs was a spider web, at least a foot and a half across, dangling from the thinnest of supporting threads.

The diffused sunlight silhouetted every one of its strands glistening like icicles. It quivered in a breeze so slight that I hadn't felt it when I'd walked out into the damp morning. I couldn't move. Just stared for a few seconds like a hypnotist's fool.

When I felt my heart beating again, I unbuckled the seat belt, got out of the car and walked carefully – tiptoed really, almost like walking into a church – up the steps of the deck and over to the web, kneeling down to stare into the gauzy labyrinth. Surrounded by uncommon quietness – the morning birds having sensed, it seemed, that silence was the only psalm needed – I counted the sections, 23 pieces of spider web pie, each seam etched with beads of dew smaller than pinheads, tremulous and hesitant but never falling. I looked for the weaver, but saw no sign of the creature that had spent the entire night spinning.

Anonymity is not something to which many of us aspire. We want to be known in a deep and soulful way by those we love, but we want more. We want to be known by strangers, by people whose faces are caricatures, whose voices are nothing more than vibrations on our eardrums.

A significant portion of American children asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" now answer, "Famous." Not fireman. Not president. Not mommy or daddy or teacher or cowboy. Famous. Our children want to be an adjective?

There is an e-mail going around (and around and around) that asks the reader to name the last five Heisman trophy winners, the last five Oscar winners, the last five Pulitzer Prize winners. Only the nerdiest of trivia nerds would be able to get all the answers, of course, and the punch line comes with the last questions: "Who was your first grade teacher? Who taught you to drive a car? Who gave you your first kiss?"

Thinly disguised moral of the story: Being famous doesn't equate with making a difference in the life of another human being.

I have to admit that, as I approached the masterpiece spider web, I half-expected to see something written in its strands, half-expected to find in its elegant tendrils a personal note, an answer to the deep heart question that had been keeping me company for weeks. I wanted to believe that Charlotte, not just a great writer, but a great friend, had found her way to Sandhill.

But I didn't. At least not literally. There was no pronouncement of my terrific-ness or radiance or humility. No words proclaiming that I am "some woman." No answer to my question.

And, yet, there in the morning sunlight, kneeling silently before that web, the lifework of an anonymous spider, I did get a message: a reminder that one life lived, one effort made, one web spun with passion and love can change the world.

Copyright 2008

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Jake's Choice

The rabbit wasn't large – bigger than a bunny, but not full grown. It sat among the palmetto scrubs and wiregrass along the edge of the road. Jake and I noticed it at the same time.

Jake is Adam's dog, a thick-muscled golden Lab with a serious face. He is smart, one of those dogs with whom you tend to carry on a conversation and half expect to get an answer back. He was my only companion that afternoon. We'd been up the road a mile or so and were headed home when the rabbit showed up.

In a matter of seconds Jake had left the road, leapt over the ditch and hit the ground running on the overgrown timber trail that runs parallel to the road. "Jake!" I called out sharply. "Jake!" His long yellow legs kept galloping toward the white puff of tail that bounced ahead of him.

The rabbit had a head start and, moving surprisingly quickly on short stumpy legs, disappeared into the brush – sort of a reverse magician's trick. Jake came up short, his nose quivering just above the ground at the hole into which the rabbit had dived.


He lifted his head and quizzically tilted it toward me and the road. "Leave that rabbit alone!"

One more look at the hole. One more look at me. A soft – I promise you – sigh and then retreat. He jumped back over the ditch and trotted back up to me. "Good boy, Jake. Good boy."

To be honest, I was more than a little surprised that Jake abandoned his pursuit of the rabbit. He is, after all, a dog and dogs chase rabbits. It is instinctual and, as we often tell ourselves in defense of actions of which we are regretful but for which we have no explanation, you can't fight instinct.

Except that, apparently, based upon what I'd just seen, you can.

In that moment Jake, who isn't supposed to have a moral code, made a choice. Instead of responding to the adrenaline that made his heart race, that made his fur stand up, that sent him running madly after something that wasn't anywhere close to a physical match for him, he responded instead to my voice.

Jake knows me. I feed him when he wanders down to my house. I offer him a big bowl of water after we've been walking. I scruff his ears and talk to him in that strange voice we humans reserve for babies and animals. I love Jake. And he loves me back.

And so he comes when I call.

A triumph of love over instinct.

I thought about all that as Jake and I walked on down the big hill and back up the rise toward home and I realized that Jake's choice was the one that we are asked to make every day, many times a day.

We are asked to respond to all sorts of stimuli, everything from the car that brakes suddenly in front of us to the telephone call that brings bad news. We are asked to respond and we always have to choose. Instinct or love.

Sometimes the response is instantaneous, without conscious deliberation, but most of the time – in a world where "fight or flight" is not a literal confrontation – there is plenty of time to consider the ramifications of choice. And in that time, the moments or days or years that flow by between stimuli and response, we get to decide whether we will respond out of self-preservation or self-sacrifice.

Instinct or love. Jake understands that. I hope I do.

Copyright 2008