Monthly Archives: July 2013

Before You Swat That Spider….!

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Yes, yes, I know. Spiders are small, creepy things that skitter about on eight legs and crawl up your sleeve when you’re not looking. They are perceived as venomous—and surely, some of them are. The Brown Recluse packs so much venom in its tiny body that its bite will cause horrible damage or even death to the unwary. And the Black Widow is not only a dangerous creature but prone to appear uninvited. My daughter in law found one lurking in her mailbox not too long ago!

Still, you have to admit that spiders can do some extraordinary things. I saw a  spider web this morning with the sun shining against last night’s raindrops, and it seemed a creation of lace and diamonds. I marveled that the tiny creature in the middle of this web had started its architectural feat by tossing into the wind a single very strong line  drawn out from its own silk glands!

Watching that web made me wonder about the spider’s place in history and legend around the world where—in some places at least— these creatures were supposedly bringers of good things. In China, for instance, spiders were called ximu, and were purported to bring happiness in the morning and riches in the evening.  And not only in China, either, for across the ocean in 16th century Europe, superstition has it that “When a man fyndeth a spyder upon his gowne it is a singe to be that daye right happye.” Or even—“If a spinner creepe upon him, hee shall have golde raine downe from heaven.”

Spidey’s role in other countries has been mixed: contrast, if you will, the spider that scared Miss Muffett to the nice arachnid in Charlotte’s Web. Norsemen considered spiders to be the Weavers of Man’s fate while ancient Greeks mythology told the tale of Arachne whose conceit inspired Athena to turn her into a spider.  In West Africa Anansi is a trickster god—an idea shared by Native Americans in the Plains who also considered the spinner to be a rough and tumble character. Not so the Southwestern tribes, who felt spiders were associated with art and weaving, or the Ojibwe, who felt that webs were dream catchers. And in far away in Scotland there is that story of Robert the Bruce who, while hiding in a cave from his enemies, almost despaired of leading his countrymen to victory until he saw the tenacity and resolution of a spider making its web.

In my parents’ home back in Japan, there were two, big, harmless spinners which my mother— who had a fondness for all living things—named Jack and Jane. The two  lived with us for many years until Mike, who was visiting, swatted Jack in the bathroom.

It was in Japan, too, that I heard another folktale concerning arachnids. This was the story of a murderous brigand who had never done a decent thing in his life until one day he came upon a spider and, moved by some  sense uncharacteristic  kindness, did not kill it. Eventually the brigand died and was sent packing to a fiery pit from which there was no escape. But, wait! From above dangled a single strong strand made by the very spider whose life he had saved! Joyfully, the brigand reached for the strand and began to haul himself up. Up and up he went until he could almost see Paradise awaiting him, but before he could reach the Pearly Gates he chanced to look down and realized that many other damned souls were also hauling themselves upward. “Get away!” Snarled the brigand, “Get off! This MY ticket out of here, not yours!” At which point the strand broke and cast them all back into the fiery pit.

Which might go to prove that though a spider can inspire horror and revulsion, we should pause before reaching for the rolled newspaper and consider the old English nursery rhyme: “If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive.”

Small, crawling creatures

Are yet able to create

Things of great beauty

watercolor, "Spring Garden"

watercolor, “Spring Garden”

 

 

 

The Most Daring Adventure

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Now, how to define Life?

There are a number of definitions around, but I really like the one that says: “Life is a daring adventure—or nothing.” Now this isn’t a quote from the Wallenda who walked a high wire across Niagara Falls or a daredevil stunt man or even from the first man to travel into space. The words were spoken by Helen Keller.

It makes me rethink the meaning of those two words, ‘daring’ and ‘adventure.’ Of course, there are truly daring people—heroes like firemen and officers of the law and soldiers who face unknown  dangers for the good of all.  Then come those intrepid souls who dance on the edge of danger. Explorers who ignore ice or blazing heat to map new terrain, adventurers who climb frozen peaks or chart a solo course across the ocean in a fragile boat, divers who seek treasure in hulks of long forgotten ships under the sea— all of these  people easily fit one definition of ‘daring.’

One of my dear friends was one to whom adventure came naturally. Widowed at sixty, she joined the Peace Corps to share her knowledge of nursing. Later, she traveled the world, finding joy and excitement everywhere:  she was invited to share bread and tea in a Guatamalan goatherd’s hut; she visited China long before its doors were open to the West and stayed with a Chinese family; once she sat next to the pilot of a two-engine plane in Nepal. “You know,” I remember her telling me, “there was mist everywhere but then it parted… and right in front of us was Everest!” When I exclaimed over her daring, she laughed. “Everybody’s life is an adventure,” she said.

Not every one of us has a chance to view Everest at close quarters, but my friend has the right of it, for there is the kind of daring that ordinary people practice as a matter of course. What can be more ordinary—or daring—than the child who leaves home for the first time and travels to a far away city or a new country to attend college? Young people thrive on new places, friendships, ideas, and knowledge—and step bravely into adulthood every day. Then there are those immigrant families who, in spite of many difficulties, work hard to create a new life in a new world. And what of those who are physically or mentally challenged but who absolutely refuse to be marginalized? Or those stalwarts who face terrible losses due to earthquakes or tornados or hurricanes and somehow soldier on to build again in the face of an uncertain tomorrow?

I’m thinking that we are all more daring than we believe. I’m thinking that folks who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own but who still keep looking day after day have a silent, unsung bravery all their own. And what can be more courageous than a patient who will not let a disease control her and who insists on living each day as fully as possible?  My late friend, Lynne, was one of those people, and her too-short  life was a grand adventure.

Teachers who inspire student after student and set each on his or her confident journey … the little lady behind the cash register at the grocery store who always greets me with a lovely smile and a hug… the people who take in unwanted animals and give them love… writers and artists who weave their dreams into works they can share with the world… in their way all these people dare to work and dream. They are brave and, yes, the rest of us are, too. Perhaps our lives don’t generate headlines or get hits on U-tube, but we are all of us  travelers who undertake that greatest and most wondrous adventure of all: Life.

Each day, sun rises

Greet it with joy or sorrow…

The choice lies with us.

Sunset and a Fair Wind

Intelligence?

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Since its leaves are fast becoming the favorite food for caterpillars and slugs, my cucumber plant must have failed Plant Intel 101.. No, it’s true. There’s a hypothesis among some scientist that plants—not my cucumber plant but others of its ilk— may indeed possess intelligence. An intelligence alien to ours, of course, but an intelligence nonetheless.

An Italian scientist, Stefano Mancuso, believes that plants possess a complex analysis system that enables them to gather, process and share information vital to their survival. “Plants are not just able to live, they are able to sense,” he insists. For instance, Mancuso suggests that plants can stop a foraging caterpillar dead in its tracks by secreting a chemical that attracts caterpillar-killing wasps. Further, he and other scientists believe that plants have a way of communicating to other plants that there is danger—in other words, a grapevine of sorts.

I’m not sure whether I ascribe to this way of thinking—I would have to view my salad in a very different light— but, truly it would be arrogance to imagine that ours is the only type of intelligence on Planet Earth. Of course there are differences. Ants, who build complex societies, are known to have a collective intelligence. The entire ant colony is one brain with each ant carrying a neuron  that enables it  to perform its task for the good of the whole.

Non-human intelligence exists under the sea, too. Of course we all know that dolphins are smart and have self awareness which is the cornerstone of intelligence. But in the deep and briny we can also find the octopus whose brain is proportionately larger than Man’s. This amazing cephalopod’s vision is advanced, and as it coils and slithers about in the deep, it can also use its tentacles to check for depth perception as well as to explore its environment. I think it’s interesting that octopi like society and, lacking  their own kind, will hang out with fish… proving that these interesting creatures are smart enough to realize that differences matter not a whit.

It’s been long established that Man has superiority in the cerebral department. We can create, devise and dream magnificent things. We can accomplish the most complex feats of engineering and  invention imaginable. And, yes, we can be altruistic and work for the good of all or reach deep into our hearts to be heroic or even saintly. But when I look at the news and see the mindless eyes of people who have been swept up in a mob, I have to wonder what happens to us when our vaunted reasoning powers vanish into a rush of hate-directed adrenaline. I suppose it all goes to prove that all the brainpower in the world  is only useful when we actually think.

Perhaps in the far future we will find on other planets an intelligence completely different from any that is known today. Will it be of a collective nature where the whole planet is linked together as one mind? Will it be a sort of plant-like symbiosis? Or will we find an intellect so far superior to ours that we will stand in awe?

I’ll never know. But one of the most wonderful parts of being human is the ability to dream….

When the mind is still

And imagination rules,

Then dreams can take flight.

In the collection of Mrs. A. Joh

Thoughts On the Fourth of July

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When our family gathered together last weekend, we toasted life, health and happiness. Our older son raised his glass, as he always does, “To Freedom,.” because somewhere in the world people are oppressed and are seeking to be free.

Perhaps because  our experiences in the Baltic countries are so fresh, I am thinking a lot about freedom this July 4th. There are many life prompts. Nelson Mandela, who gave his health and would have given his life for his country is struggling for life, and in

too many lands around the world bitter struggle and bloodshed accompanies the quest for freedom.

I keep thinking, too, of the people in Bulgaria who have only really been ‘free’ for about fifty years after centuries of oppression. How hard it must be  for Bulgarians to shake off nightmare memories and to grasp the realization that now they are truly able to chart their destiny. Then there are the people in Tunisia who are in the process of putting together their first constitution. “We have just awakened from a long sleep,” our Tunisian guide told us last year when we were in his country. “Now we must find our way.”

How truly precious is this freedom that we take for granted in our country! How precious freedom must mean to San Suu Kyi, who headed the National League for Democracy in Burma and who is newly freed from 15 years of house arrest during which she staunchly upheld her ideals!

But, I remind myself,  many freedoms in these United States have been dearly won, too.

I’m not just talking about our war of independence—which is why we celebrate the 4th of July—but of other hard won struggles. Not even a hundred years ago women fought their own war in order to win the right to vote. It couldn’t have been an easy fight, for victory came only after generations of women and the supporters of women’s rights lobbied, lectured,  and were arrested for civil disobedience. Women were jailed, tormented and reviled until, in 1920 the 19th amendment was ratified.

And civil rights—how much blood, how much suffering did it take to bring civil rights to fruition? How long did it take, what did it take us to practice what Clarence Darrow once said—“You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man’s freedom” ?

I think of new freedoms being won today, in the courts as well as on the fields of war. I think of people who chart a never violent course of civil disobedience so that their voices can be heard; theirs is the voice of our freedom at work. I thank and honor those men and women who serve overseas and also the many who selflessly serve the poor and forgotten here at home. They are the ambassadors of our precious liberty.

And—because I have been a writer for more than half my life, I think of times not so long ago when books were burned in brutal Nazi Germany, barred as subversive in Communist countries and—sadly— banned here in many states around the country. I even heard a rumor that “The Little Red Hen” was once considered a ‘bad book’! Even worse, I’ve heard it said that there are still communities who practice this gag rule on what is written. Now, is censorship a freedom of choice or an assault on freedom itself?

Today as I watch children in red white and blue streamers ride their bicycles in a parade, as I look forward to watching fireworks and enjoying barbecue and the company of friends, I am forever thankful that I live in a country that sees personal liberty as a given, in a land that offers freely what many in the world still die for.  As our young nation walks toward the future, we will surely have struggles ahead of us and we will not always agree with one another, but at the end of the day each of us believes in the word for which this day stands.

To Freedom!

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