Bugs Are Saving My (Writing) Life

July 20, 2020 § 57 Comments

By Abigail Thomas

abigailAnother rainy day in a long succession of rainy days and I’m bummed that the part of myself that has always kept me company seems to have disappeared. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, I haven’t left the house in five months, and can’t write a word.  What’s the point of being me? I wonder. I’m so stuck. Write about what you notice when you’re stuck, I tell my students. Write about what you notice and see what happens. Nothing happens here except bugs. Oh my god, I think.  I’ll write about the bugs!

For instance: I often see one large black ant wandering across the living room floor in early evening.  I think there’s only one of him. He (I think of it as a he), is always headed toward the dining room but never seems to get there because the next night, and the next, there he is again, walking across the same portion of floor towards the dining room. It’s as if he’s having his own Groundhog Day.  The pale brown ants, like little freckles, are everywhere and get into everything. One morning they turned up in the jug of maple syrup even though the cap was screwed on tight.  My grandsons were horrified and refused to eat their french toast, although I ate mine and part of theirs.

But the most interesting thing is that once or twice a week I find a dead wasp on my bedroom floor. Their presence gets me in gear. Because where are they coming from? The windows haven’t been opened in the four years following the discovery of a spider the size of a salad plate in a basket of old yarn, and wasps are nowhere else in the house. When I find one I use my cane to nudge it behind the bedside table so I don’t step on it by mistake.  It doesn’t occur to me to throw them out. They are too perfect, and too tiny to be rubbish.

It isn’t really a bedside table. It’s an old filing cabinet, empty of whatever files it once held. The drawers are now full of whatever I don’t know what else to do with when I find it in my hand.  Uncomfortable earrings, a letter from somebody called William C . Estler to a woman named Mardi, apologizing for taking her to The Iceman, which she hated and asked to leave. “’I don’t like it and I want to go home,” he quotes her as saying. Not The Iceman Cometh unless he didn’t bother with the whole title. Whether it was a play or a movie I’ll never know nor do I know how it ended up in my possession.  When I looked him up there were two of him, both dead, one a painter from West Virginia, the other a scientist of sorts in Palo Alto who published an article called Ion-Scattering Analyzer. There is also a silver bracelet, other scraps of paper on which various grandsons have written darling inauthentic apologies,  licenses from four dead dogs I loved,  and a necklace I bought because the woman who made it told me the tiny silver sword charm was supposed to cut fear. Why not? I thought.

Today I picked up a wasp by one wing and put it carefully in the cap of an old pill bottle from the drawer. The wasp is so completely dead, tidy and beautiful. Its wings are slender, themselves like tiny swords. I’m amazed that I’m not in the least worried by the intrusion. I’m not afraid that I will one day discover dozens of them flying around my bed. What’s wrong with me? It seems a natural fear, but I’m just not afraid. Maybe the necklace works whether you’re wearing it or not.

They are paper wasps, I looked them up. They chew wood or whatever else is handy and their saliva turns it into paper and they make hanging nests. Somebody had the brilliant idea of giving these wasps colored construction paper and my god, the nests they made look like beautiful misshapen rainbows. I am kind of in love. Paper wasps are also good for gardens, eating bad bugs. They aren’t ornery, like yellow jackets who’d just as soon sting you as not, but they will defend their nests. Well, who wouldn’t?

Some time ago I noticed what appeared to be a lightning bug clinging (or stuck?) to the side of my sofa, and I’ve been careful not to disturb it. It stayed fixed in place for several days without moving an inch. I wondered if it had decided to die. Then it vanished. Where was it, I wondered. Last night I saw bright blinks amongst the geraniums that climb up my front window. On, off, on, off. There you are, I thought. Oh good, there you are.

Abigail Thomas writes mostly memoir, her latest being What Comes Next and How to Like It.


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