May 14, 2020
How long do you suppose “semi-quarantined” will be an apt description for this series? Maybe you don’t think it’s an apt description now. There are an awful lot of terms being bandied about these days, after all. I did consider calling this series “Journal of Social Distancing Introvert,” but pointing out that an introvert is social distancing is like pointing out that water is wet.
We went up to Flagstaff this past weekend, to escape the heat and the scorpions and our tiny confined living space, and it was every bit as lovely as we hoped it would be. The days were warm but they were punctuated by cool, occasionally fierce breezes, and those warm breezy days gave way to crisp, chilly evenings. We ate our dinners outside on the deck, with the angular lines of the mountains and ancient pines silhouetted* against the iridescent sky. It was gorgeous.
Have you ever noticed that everything in the mountains seems simultaneously more dramatic and more peaceful than other places? Plants there are hardy, the wind is rough, the trees are tall, and the mountain peaks are jagged and imposing. The sun is more intense when you’re seven thousand feet closer to it, and even the smell of the pine trees feels vaguely aggressive. It’s breathtaking and more than a little overwhelming at times, and yet there’s a quietness in the mountains too, a sort of otherworldly separateness in the high clear air, that resets the worried pace of my soul.
One morning I watched a hawk just outside my window, circling high and low and near and far but never diving in for the kill. I know virtually nothing about hawks, so if there are any ornithologists out there….well, don’t correct me if I’m wrong, because I like thinking this is true — it seemed to me that this hawk was flying for the sheer joy of it. Do birds fly just for fun? I hope so. I hope that birds, with bodies optimized for flight, put those wings to uses poetic as well as practical. I hope they launch themselves out onto cool currents and feel the excitement of floating high above the earth. I hope they revel in doing the thing they were created to do.
There’s a poem I love, from the odd little book Archy and Mehitabel, called “The Lesson of the Moth.” In the poem the narrator converses with a moth, questioning and criticizing the moth’s attempts to immolate himself on an open flame. The moth ardently argues that he would rather be a part of beauty for one moment than spend his whole life being sensible, and he ultimately gets his wish. The narrator closes with these words:
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself
Is it possible to be wise and safe but also passionate and committed, to make plans and be responsible like the narrator but to also live joyfully and without fear like a soaring hawk or a YOLO moth?
Animals don’t question their purpose the way humans do. I mean, let’s be real, they also don’t love or laugh or bake cookies or make art or think transcendent thoughts the way humans do either. I’m not turning all “animals are better than people” over here. But the narrator of that poem was on to something, and I do envy animals’ unabashed commitment to doing the thing they were made to do. Hawks soar and moths fry themselves on flames, while humans have existential crises and suffer nearly constantly from Impostor Syndrome.
But also…I just watched my cat spend a full two minutes licking our tile floor. It was weird. I guess I’ll take an occasional existential crisis over being the kind of creature that enjoys licking floors, because being able to experience a crisis also means being able to experience a beautiful sunset. The same me that misses friends and wonders about the future also holds my five-year-old’s hand as we take a walk through the forest, counting flowers. The person who feels a little twitchy in semi-quarantine also feels invigorated by cold air in wide open spaces.
I can’t fly with the joyful abandon of a hawk, I don’t want to joyfully throw my life away like a moth, but I can joyfully live as the person I was created to be.
This was Quarantine Week 8. Time to read some more poems about moths.
*My brain is actually turning to mush in semi-quarantine. I just completely blanked on the word “silhouette.” I literally googled “word for when an object is dark against a bright background,” and Google was like “<sigh> it’s silhouette, now go to bed.” And goodnight to you too, Google.