Category Archives: Walt Whitman

The Other Spider

spicafAnother parable…

Most spiders build well or beautifully. A special few do both, their art being function and their function being art. Dewy mornings display their webs’ perfect parallels and perfect circularities, and, though their work couldn’t be more visible, they catch wary prey looking too close. Drawn like moths to light, their victims barely struggle in the sticky strings of arrest. Acquiescence overcomes will. Even things that once flew know they’re had, and the web maker feels no impatience to meet and complete its kill. You’d call that sort of restraint self-control, but it isn’t control exactly when command requires little effort. Such a spider issues such a web, and waits. It seems made for that life.

There’s another spider, though, whose webs are neither expert nor special. Its abdomen is stuck open and launches filament after filament in a tangled, impatient mass. Its eight perpetually scrambling legs carry it from place to place, away from its leavings and toward any empty cranny, dragging its ductile chains. Design may govern even things so small, but this spider knows little government other than compulsion, moving because it must, because it cannot not. You’d recognize its webs—after so much practice how could they be anything but consistent?—but, unless you mistake uniformity for artistry—you’d find little to admire, especially when comparison is so easy and ready.

This spider feeds on the accident-prone, insects wandering from common paths and into shadowy niches. Bad fortune carries the spider’s food to the wrong places, and the spider, ever grateful for the least attention, wraps victims almost before they know they’ve been duped. The spider knows its clientele and strings the landscape with traps. It can’t do otherwise because no advantage lies in one well-made thing when making rather than capture dictates life. It wants to eat, that’s all. It needs to express sticky strands, so a diet of gnats is as good as a grasshopper.

The work of peers passes as the spider moves to undiscovered places. You’ll see no grumbling in its steps. There isn’t time but there also isn’t envy. Part of knowing place is knowing context. The spider sees its ways relative to others, and their judgment is his own. Sometimes, passing under the great arc of a masterpiece, the spider dips its head and recommits to the path before it, but whether that’s bowing to emulation or oblivion is unclear. Neither shows in its next effort in any case.

An ending to its restlessness might be welcome. Were its supply of web to cease, the spider could be content to play caretaker, to wander among its many webs watching to see if anything unsuspecting remains to be caught. Eventually the spider would see all the strands break and maybe then it would feel loss as its life dwindled, but perhaps not.

What future awaits has little place in the spider’s attention. It looks for new space. It means to work.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Buddhism, Doubt, Ego, Experiments, Fiction, Genius, Identity, Kafka, Laments, Metaphor, Parables, Place, Robert Frost, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Walt Whitman, Work, Writing

Making Scenes

I like to think about what people are doing right now:

  • My fourth grade classmate with the indomitable cowlick putting the last touches on a carpentry project
  • The television celebrity panning the shelves of an open refrigerator
  • A seventh grade girlfriend talking to her new son-in-law
  • The star athlete losing his wife’s conversation in his worries about a contest that afternoon
  • A niece looking for her glasses so she can delay putting in her contacts to read
  • A former student hanging a print in a narrow apartment powder room

Though picturing these people may seem voyeuristic and vaguely creepy, a sort of peace settles in me when I imagine everyone okay. I don’t picture a father slapping a child, someone throwing a stone at a policeman, a policeman firing bullets into a crowd, a bomb being planted.  No murder or mayhem.  My fantasies land inside a narrow range of daily living, working, and loving. Our lives on a regular day.

In the city, I pass similar scenes every morning.  A fit and sharply dressed woman in heels emerges from the gym at a trot, rushing to meet the next brown line L.  Two senior regulars at McDonald’s are sitting at the same table with the same coffees before them, contributing to a conversation interrupted by yesterday.  At the dry cleaners, the employee who helps at the register arrives with snow on her boots and stomps her feet near the doorway.  The owner, sitting at the sowing machine doing alterations, looks up and smiles.  They laugh about something I can’t hear.  Down the street, a customer at an all-night diner throws both her arms in the air in the middle of a story and, though her companion has his back to me, he leans forward in rapt attention.

Walt Whitman understood the reassurance in these glimpses of humanity.  Little moments populate his poems, and, though they aren’t always as tranquil as mine, they are companionable, reaffirming people flow in one river that, at least in our daily lives, moves in similar ways to the same sea.  His poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” describes commuters with eerie familiarity.  A bridge replaced the ferry and we have conveyances Whitman never dreamed, but a reader recognizes the people he meets.  “It avails not,” Whitman says:

… neither time or place—distance avails not:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;

I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;

Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;

Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried…

I wonder what difference it might make if we experienced each other so directly and shared life without technology.  Instead of splitting into billions of separate people, what if we could all picture any person at any moment?  We don’t have gods’ omniscience, but we have imagination.  Why can’t we see how closely other lives parallel our own, how, at any instant, we are all acting in the same scenes?

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Filed under Buddhism, Chicago, Essays, Gesellschaft, Hope, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Thoughts, Urban Life, Walt Whitman