I was visiting my family in Virginia a few weeks ago, and really thought it would be a forgettable, averagely enjoyable trip. The late night bus I took from New York was uncomfortable. The bathroom I shared with my two siblings when the three of us lived at home was messy. Our family dog Bear had more trouble getting up and down our front porch steps than I remembered. All of these were normal, expected home-visit realities. Everything was as it had been on every other visit.
I was sinking into the usual couch-and-tv-induced lazy haze on my last night home, watching a movie with my mom and sister. For some reason, the couch at your home, regardless if it’s a nice couch or not, is the quickest quicksand when it comes to sucking you into an unexpected bout of hours-long lounging. Maybe it’s the familiar pheromones gripping your body and reminding it that you’re safe here, safer than anywhere else. It’s a sensation that triggers a refreshing release of the armor I feel like I wear everyday in New York.
As my eyes glossed over in the glow of the tv and the three of us in the living room continued to fall deeper into the couch, it began to thunderstorm. Virginia weather never does what is expected, so a storm in May ripe with July’s humidity and March’s thick drops wasn’t surprising. The sound of it enclosed us ever tighter into the sanctuary of the living room and I smiled at the peace of it all.
The movie ended, and we, with immediate pinches of regret, got off the couch. The thunder yelled and we pattered to separate rooms. Then I got a call.
It’s funny how the origins of conversations can be lost. “How did we talk our way to this point?” In the casual moments where that question comes up with friends, I’m often the fastest at retracing the steps, following our trail of dialogue backward with a sprint. I’m always the one to remind others of the starting point of the trail, eagerly. I think I’m kind of good at it. It also, in a way, assures me of my intellectual control over the interaction, suggesting that I have a decent enough mind to run quickest back through a five minute or fifty-five minute conversation and touch the tree from which we started the race.
But I got this call from a friend after my living room reverie, and even though I’ve tried to retrace it, I don’t know what started the discussion that took place on it.
The conversation got serious enough soon enough for me to go on our front porch for privacy. And it was long enough that eventually I slid my back down the front door and squatted on the porch in the storm for what seemed like days. It was a hard talk, with points brought up that I wasn’t expecting. Words from the friend shot into my ear like darts that I didn’t see coming. With each new sentence, I grew sadder, more confused. Pain was seeping into the life of my friend and now it made its way over the phone line to me. I grew so sad that after each word spoken by my friend, my brain faded away from being able to think of responses, maybe as a subconscious defense mechanism, shielding me from it all.
I do remember that the friend on the other line sometimes would be overpowered by resounding cracks of thunder around me as we talked. Nature’s way of reminding me that the gravity of the matters my friend and I were discussing were nothing compared to its dominance. I wish every hard talk I ever had with anyone took place during a storm like that, because in the moment, with the rain spiking the ground and the lightning and the thunder…it all grounded me more than anything else could. The storm didn’t remove any sting of the words, but I was put back in my small place, knocked off the pedestal of ego-driven issues everyone, including me, builds for themselves to stand on. Kicked off of that pedestal by something larger than myself, I asked my friend to repeat themselves when the thunder sounded, though sometimes I asked them not because I couldn’t hear them, but because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from them.
The progression of the storm paralleled that of the conversation: as the rain increased, the friend on the other line told me something more shocking, more grave. As I stared into the dark yard, lightning hit the ground as my heart rate sped up. Something in the universe connected the two, and I sat crouched on the porch in the middle of both, confused and saddened by what I was hearing, but unable to figure out where it was coming from, all the while leveled by the real storm.
Simultaneously, the two forces I had been encountering for the evening died down together. The conversation diluted into teary-eyed whispers of goodbyes, and the storm reduced to a light rain. I got up from my seat on the porch, battered by it all, and went inside to go to bed.
I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, seeing how I had turned out after enduring all this. Hair a mess from the humid air, face red from pent up anger and some escaped tears. Not so good. The double-edged sword of this night had slashed me, and it was obvious. But, that’s when I saw it. On my t-shirt, clinging to me almost exactly where a woman’s brooch would be pinned, was a brown beetle.
Most normal people (I think) would have brushed it off of their body in disgust. However, I have always had a curious appreciation for all things alive, large mud-colored insects included. So instead of flicking it away, I just looked at it in the bathroom mirror. And like the origin of the emotionally-taxing conversation I had just had, I wondered where it came from, as well as when it had found its way to my chest, how long it had been there, and how I hadn’t noticed it.
This small being clung to me though, over my heart, and it immediately yanked me out of the foggy aftermath of the talk on the porch. It did nothing interesting or revealing to accomplish this; it didn’t crawl or scurry or hiss or sting. It did not offer the knowing look my dog might have given me. It just sat there, on me, existing. But in that moment, its existence, just it being alive, calmed all the rushing waves of despair and confusion in me.
I looked down at the small life, and while hundreds of thousands of neurons and synapses gave me the cognitive upper hand between the two of us, we connected nonetheless by the mere fact that we both were alive. Being alive had given me a mess a few moments before, but now it delivered the utmost serenity as I experienced it with something that never would know the trials of relationships, of emotions, of social dynamics between different personalities. This beetle, I realized, would never even come close to knowing what being human was like. In an empathetic context, it might as well have been a leaf or a twig stuck to my shirt. But it wasn’t. It was a living, breathing being, and as little and insignificant as it was, I found solace in its tiny life.
I walked back downstairs with the beetle on my shirt to let him go back outside. It stayed put, and I basked in this feeling of peace as its six little legs held onto me. I felt a profound sense of honor that it had chosen me as a temporary resting place. This small life that asked the world for nothing and could never even comprehend what asking was; it had crawled silently onto me out of all the places in my yard.
Back on the porch where the storm and the phone call had shaken my world, I crouched again. I didn’t want the bug to leave, because by its tiny, living body, it had bestowed on me more peace and hope than any human words could have. Its simple existence had flooded my heart with acceptance of everything I was going through. I felt indebted to it, and wondered if it had sensed in me that gratitude. I hoped it did.
There’s of course something to be said here about man’s relationship with nature, and how it has forever been one of exploitation. There’s something to be said for me emotionally exploiting this creature to find peace with a problem it was in no way involved in. We strip the wild of resources, claiming how blessed we are to have a planet that gives us so much. But when that concept is stripped itself, it is nothing more than humanity taking from a planet that is really not gifting anything. And while that’s all true, I think humanity, with all our psychological ability, has the mental and emotional capacity to reach places where we do not exploit the wild that surrounds us, but rather fully embrace it through the link of life we share with it. I think I reached that place with this little bug.
I sat there for some moments, glancing down every now and then at the beetle, making sure it was still there on my chest. Finally, I reached my hand to my heart, where it had been clinging for an unknown amount of time, and it crawled onto my finger. I looked at it for a few minutes, admiring the details of its antennas, of the muscles in its legs, of its eyes. And while there is no formal, universal language between humans and wildlife, I felt as though I should thank it. So, after moments of us sitting in silence together on the porch, I pulled it closer to me and whispered, “thank you.” Extending my finger to a nearby plant then, it paused, then walked onto a leaf.