Hamilton Stone Review #28
Reamy Jansen, Nonfiction Editor
Out of the strange
Still dusk . . . as strange, as still . . .
A white moth flew . . .
Why am I grown
—Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914)
Dumping the garbage one Vermont summer night, I find my attention drawn to the spotlight mounted on the front shed. The lamp casts a big cone of light outward from that structure. Illuminated in the beam, a cloud of moths billows in the air—hundreds upon hundreds of them, individually small but collectively as thick as a snow flurry. Their wings, though insubstantial, are so numerous as to create a faint yet easily audible hiss. What impresses me even more than the multitude in flight, however, is the smaller but visible array of moths on the wooden doors. The wood is speckled with them. They are so abundant and so varied that no two appear to be of the same species. Some are little wedges. One, triangular and pure white, looks like a corner snipped off a piece of paper. One resembles an inch-long model airplane, narrow wings jutting straight out from the fuselage, a little tail at the rear end. One appears to be the world's smallest space shuttle. Several are unimaginably delicate, almost angelic: ghostly pale, nearly transparent, like a shred of a woman's negligee. Their beauty is obvious, shocking, and almost totally unfamiliar.
Minutes pass. The tumult of their light-drawn flight continues. I watch them, amazed and appalled, for a long time.
Butterflies generally fly in the daytime, while moths usually fly at night. There are exceptions to this pattern, but the day/night distinction is a significant feature differentiating one order of lepidopteran insects from the other. It's also part of what makes moths less familiar than butterflies: they're harder to see in dark settings, and few people are around (or even awake) to see them. The nocturnal nature of moths also gives them an air of mystery. As a boy prowling about my yard each summer, I was frequently startled by the sensation of almost intangible wings brushing against my face and by the sight of nearly invisible wisps flitting by. Most eerie was the tapping of moths at the windows, the unsettling arrival of unbidden presences—messengers, it seemed, intent on delivering their news. I also felt unnerved by the strangeness of moths' legendary obsession: seeking out lights even at the peril of incineration.
* * *
A Moth the Hue of This
A Moth the hue of this
Haunts Candles in Brazil.
Nature's Experience would make
Our Reddest Second pale.
Nature is fond, I sometimes think,
Of Trinkets, as a Girl.
* * *
During my boyhood I noticed moths in the same places where most people do: circling light bulbs, swarming under streetlamps, tapping at the screens in summertime. I wasn't afraid of bugs––I collected them, examined them under a magnifying glass, and observed them mating or eating one another––but I found moths more mysterious than other insects because of their nocturnal ways. They always seemed beyond reach, longing for light but otherwise going about their business in the dark. When I was ten or so, my mother found a Cecropia moth, and the creature's great size––the wings easily four inches across––amazed and alarmed me.
My interactions with moths intensified when I was twelve. That summer, thousands of inch-long, slate-gray caterpillars swarmed over the trees in our yard. The plum and apple trees, especially, suffered great damage: caterpillars stripped many branches completely bare of foliage. The plague grew so severe that my father paid my brother and me to collect and destroy as many of the invaders as possible. We shook them out of the trees and stomped on them, picked them off one by one, and sprayed them off the branches with the garden hose. The infestation and the resulting damage continued. Then summer ended; the caterpillars simply disappeared. We had won the war.
Except that we hadn't. During the cool Colorado autumn, I noticed moths emerging from the air vent in my bedroom: dark little inch-long triangles that crawled out through the grate and launched themselves into the air, then fluttered about, seeking and orbiting my table lamp. They seemed harmless enough; I swatted a few but otherwise ignored them. Then the number increased. What had begun as an occasional insect's arrival became more frequent––two or three at once, then five or more, then a steady launching of insects into the air, soon a stream, one after another, until my entire room was aflutter with tiny winged creatures.
I decided to fight back. Rummaging through our family's cleaning closet, I found a can of aerosol insecticide; now properly armed, I retreated to my bedroom to repel the assault. I stood on a chair, raised my weapon to the air vent, and sprayed the moths as they emerged into my bedroom. They would flit about for a few seconds in midair before falling to the floor and flopping there like beached fish. Hundreds came out; I sprayed them; they fell; they died. I would stand there all night, I decided, if that's what the battle required. I would wipe out the entire swarm. Soon enough, though, I felt so dizzy and sick from inhaling clouds of insecticide that I abandoned the fight, descended from my strategic roost, opened all the windows, and let the cool autumn air wash in.
Clearly I needed a different approach to avoid a Pyrrhic victory. On cleaning up the dead and dying moths with our vacuum cleaner, I realized that the ideal armament would be mechanical, not chemical. The vacuum itself would be my secret weapon. Removing the head from the stainless steel wand, I turned on the machine, returned to my chair, raised the wand, and suctioned the insects right out of the air. Dozens of them emerged from the duct but instantly disappeared into the wand with a little noise: Thlup! Thlup! Thlup thlup thlup!
Why are moths drawn to light? What accounts for their insistent, counterproductive, often fatal attraction to lamps, candles, and other open flames? This behavior is phototaxis, an organism's automatic movement toward or away from light. Cockroaches, for example, are negatively phototactic, while moths are positively phototactic. There is currently no definitive explanation for why moths seek out lights, but a number of intriguing theories exist. One concerns migration. Since some species of moths are migratory insects, perhaps lights in the night sky, especially the moon, provide navigational cues during their travels. Alternatively, positive phototaxis may figure in moths' escape reflexes: flying toward the light (usually in the sky, or at least upward) tends to be a more advantageous response to danger than flying toward darkness (which is usually downward). In any case, the phototactic response probably served moths well up to the modern era, but the proliferation of artificial lights over the past century has presented challenges far beyond what their evolutionary development is prepared to handle.
If nothing else, these insects' intense attraction to light—especially light in its pre-industrial forms as candles, oil lamps, and other open flames—has given rise to one of the most persistent and widespread metaphors present across human cultures. Drawn like a moth to the flame . . . But moths and butterflies turn up in other images and other myths as well. One of the most prevalent is the notion that conflates these insects with souls or spirits. The Greek word psyche, for instance, means soul, but it can also designate a butterfly or moth. The Latin word anima can have the same dual meaning. This double entendre may derive from these insects' evanescent lives. In addition, a fundamental aspect of moths' and butterflies' nature—metamorphosis—provides such a powerful, undeniable image of transformation that human beings can't help but extrapolate from this natural phenomenon to the supernatural. To observe a lowly worm or caterpillar disappear into a cocoon, then emerge a short while later transformed into a completely different, ethereal, often beautiful creature—one capable of flight, no less—is an irresistible inducement to images of human transformation.
* * *
from "The Desire of the Moth"
I can give not what men call love;
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heaven's reject not,—
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion of something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?
* * *
Poetry is aflutter with moths. (One could easily assemble Of Wings and Flames: The Singed Moth Anthology.) By contrast, moths flit only now and then into novels and stories. The American humorist James Thurber, writing in his Fables for Our Time (1939), offers this revisionist tale.
A young and impressionable moth once set his heart on a certain star. He told his mother about this and she counseled him to set his heart on a bridge lamp instead. "Stars aren't the thing to hang around," she said; "lamps are the thing to hang around." "You get somewhere that way," said the moth's father. "You don't get anywhere chasing stars." But the moth would not heed the words of either parent. Every evening at dusk when the star came out he would start flying toward it and every morning at dawn he would crawl back home worn out with his vain endeavor.
The moth's parents criticize him for his lack of practical ambition: "You haven't burned a wing in months, boy, and it looks to me as if you were never going to. . . . Come on, now, get out of here and get yourself scorched! A big strapping moth like you without a mark on him!" Instead of responding to these imprecations, however, the moth continued to pursue his absurd ambition.
He went right on trying to reach the star, which was four and one-third light years, or twenty-five trillion miles, away. The moth thought it was just caught up in the top branches of an elm. He never did reach the star, but he went right on trying, night after night, and when he was a very, very old moth he began to think that he really had reached the star and he went around saying so. This gave him a deep and lasting pleasure, and he lived to a great old age. His parents and his brothers and his sisters had all been burned to death when they were quite young.
The moral of the story (perhaps riffing on Shelley): Who flies afar from the sphere of our sorrow is here today and here tomorrow.
The most butterfly- and moth-obsessed writer in all of literature is, of course, Vladimir Nabokov. His first publication in English was an article titled "A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera"; he published many technical papers of butterflies and moths; he became an expert in the group of small, brightly colored butterflies known as blues; and he spent six years as a professional lepidopterist at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology—a period that he described later as "the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life." He became so engrossed in his meticulous work on the taxonomy of butterflies that his wife, Vera, had to prod him at one point to resume work on an unfinished novel. Nabokov felt intensely torn between literature and lepidopterology. In 1967, Nabokov commented: "The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all." His books contain multiple references to butterflies. In Pnin he writes a passage that describes the Karner Blue species that obsessed him: "A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin's shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes before settling again." What about moths? Nabokov's letters include references to moths, including one from August of 1942 in which he instructs Edmund Wilson, of all people, on how to attract these insects. "[Y]ou mix: a bottle of stale beer, two pounds of brown sugar (or treacle) and a little rum (added just before applying); then just before dusk you smear . . . a score of tree trunks . . . with the concoction and wait. They will come from nowhere, settling on the glistening bark and showing their crimson underwings. . . ." Addressing Wilson by his nickname, Nabokov adds this exhortation: "Try, Bunny, it is the noblest sport in the world." (Whether Wilson followed these suggestions and dipped into his ample supply of liquor isn't evident in the literary record.) Despite Nabokov's clear interest in moths, I've found no description of them anywhere in his fiction; even this most lepi-doptera-obsessed of authors allowed only butterflies into the pages of his novels.
Virginia Woolf, writing in "The Death of the Moth" (published in 1942, one year after her suicide), created a dark, fable-like essay. Woolf begins by describing the autumnal vitality beyond her window––the plowman tilling the fields, the crows soaring above the treetops, the light shining on the downs––and then, in this idyllic setting, she notes her awareness of a moth on the windowpane.
One could not help watching him. . . . The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth's part in life . . . appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meager opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth?
But pity isn't her only response:
Watching him, it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. . . . He was little or nothing but life. Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvelous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.
Soon, however, something intervenes to quench this spark.
He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window pane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed. . . . After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, onto his back on the window sill. . . . It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and the awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid down the pencil again.
Woolf realizes that for unknown reasons, the life force so evident everywhere beyond the window has somehow abandoned the small creature.
[T]he power was there all the same, massed outside, indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-colored moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew had any chance against death. . . . [T]he unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean and antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now is strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.
The moral of the story? It is simply Mors vincit omnia? Or perhaps merely a novelist's compassion for a tiny creature? At the time of her writing "The Death of the Moth," Woolf surely also let her mind roam beyond the idyllic English countryside to occupied Europe, where Hitler had unleashed "an oncoming doom which [had] submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings." As her long struggle with madness continued—she probably suffered from what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder—a severe depressive episode, allied with "so great a force over so mean an antagonist," soon compelled her to fill her coat pockets with stones and wade into the River Ouse.
* * *
Isled in the midnight air,
Musked with the dark's faint bloom,
Out into glooming and secret haunts
The flame cries, 'Come!'
Lovely in dye and fan,
A-tremble in shimmering grace,
A moth from her winter swoon
Uplifts her face:
Stares from her glamorous eyes;
Wafts her on plumes like mist;
In ecstasy swirls and sways
To her strange tryst.
* * *
How remarkable that we pay attention to moths chiefly, almost exclusively, because of their strange, disturbing, inadvertently suicidal attraction to flames and other lights. Never mind that somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 moth species exist, ten times the number of butterfly species. Never mind that among these species are innumerable creatures of great beauty, grace, and ecological benefit. It's analogous to regarding dogs as remarkable and fascinating simply because of their tendency to run into the road and get struck by cars. On the other hand: if moths didn't exist, we would have to invent them. By what other means would we have such a powerful, readily available metaphor to describe fatal attraction resulting from sexual, political, financial, artistic, or spiritual impulses?
The other element that makes butterflies and moths so mysterious and so transfixing to people throughout the world is, as I noted earlier, metamorphosis. That a meager and often repulsive caterpillar can emerge as a completely different being is bizarre and compelling in its own right; in addition, it also hints at the possibility of transformation beyond the natural phenomenon itself. Christians throughout the ages have extrapolated readily from metamorphosis. As described in a Catholic website: "The butterfly [as a] Christian symbol represents and symbolizes the Resurrection. . . . The caterpillar symbolizes normal earthly life, where people are preoccupied with taking care of their physical needs. The chrysalis or cocoon resembles the tomb. The butterfly represents the resurrection into a glorious new life free of material restrictions." Small wonder that butterflies decorate many American Christians' homes and yards, as well as elsewhere throughout the world. But what about moths? Moths are fully as subject to the resurrection-like process of metamorphosis, yet I've never seen Christians festoon their walls with representations of dun-colored moths. Are moths too shadowy in appearance? Too suspicious because their fly-by-night activities? Too symbolic of the Dark?
One exception to this leeriness is the American writer Annie Dillard, who, as a youthful, heterodox Christian, stoked a moth's death into something almost literally incandescent. Moving beyond the standard images of metamorphosis, Dillard describes a bizarre incident in her book Holy the Firm. While camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, she read all day at her campsite and then each night by candlelight. "Moth kept flying into the candle," she writes. But after a series of these deaths—the moths singed and destroyed—a more remarkable incident took place.
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up on a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth's wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouthparts crackled like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was gone, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. . . . All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax––a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed up right in the candle's round pool.
As if the moth's death weren't sufficiently appalling and remarkable, her transfiguration continued:
And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth's body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk. The candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side-by-side. The moth's head was fire.
She burned for two hours, until I blew her out. She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning––only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light . . .
But this tale of the flame-filled moth, this extension of the quintessential moth schema, is only the start of Dillard's narrative. In the second section of Holy the Firm, the author tells of an even more calamitous immolation:
Into this world falls a plane. . . . There was no reason: the plane's engine simply stilled after takeoff, and the light plane failed to clear the firs. It fell easily; one wing snagged on a fir top; the metal fell down and smashed in the tin woods where cattle browse; the fuel exploded; and Julie Norwich seven years old burnt off her face. . . .
What follows her description of the child's tragedy are several dozen pages of eloquent, wrenching, ultimately white-hot ruminations on life, knowledge, God, and suffering:
Of faith I have nothing, only of truth: that this one God is a brute and traitor, abandoning us to time, to necessity and the engines of matter unhinged. This is no leap; this is evidence of things seen: one Julie, one sorrow, one sensation bewildering the heart, and enraging the mind . . . Has God a hand in this? Then it is a good hand. But has he a hand at all? Or is he a holy fire burning self-contained for power's sake alone? Then he knows himself blissfully as flame unconsuming, as all brilliance and beauty and power, and the rest of us can go hang. Then the accidental universe spins mute, obedient only to its own gross terms, meaningless, out of mind, and alone.
What, then, should we make of human suffering? Dillard quotes John 9:1-3, in which Jesus, healing a blind beggar at the roadside, proclaims that "Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." Dillard is appalled: "The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we're all victims? . . . Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flamefaced children, to remind us what God can—and will—do?" Yet she calls herself down at once for expressing her own outrage. "Yes, in fact, we do. We do need reminding, not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel's worth of sense into our days." And she scolds herself and other doubters much as Yahweh scolded Job: "Who are we to demand explanations of God?"
Holy the Firm ends with a flaming, inflamed, inflammatory passage in which Julie Norwich ends up as totally transformed as the moth Annie Dillard observed at her Virginia campsite:
There is Julie Norwich. Julie Norwich is salted with fire. She is preserved like a salted fillet from all evil, baptized at birth into time and now into eternity, into the bladelike arms of God. For who will love her now, without a face, when women with faces abound, and people are so? People are reasoned, while God is mad. They love only beauty; who knows what God loves? . . . You might as well be a nun. You might as well be God's chaste bride, chased by plunderers to the high caves of solitude, to the hearthless rooms empty of voices, and of warm limbs hooking your heart to the world. Look how he loves you! Are you bandaged now, or loose in a sterilized room? Wait till they hand you a mirror, if you can hold one, and know what it means. . . . You cry, My father, my father, the chariots of Israel, and the horsemen thereof! Held, held fast by love in the world like the moth in wax, your life a wick, your head on fire with prayer, held utterly, outside and in, you sleep alone, if you call that alone, you cry God.
* * *
It's a heavy burden we place on moths: the weight of our metaphors.
Metamorphosis may be common, but perhaps only for insects and amphibians.
A better bet for humans: being. Just being.
* * *
On the one-ton temple bell
a moon-moth, folded into sleep,
* * *
One afternoon, during a visit from our friend Dianne, Edith and I show her the front flowerbeds. The previous owners of the house had operated a commercial flower business on Long Island for many decades, and they had lavished great skill and attention on their own property as well, so the gardens on Hyland Hill delighted us from the outset with their size and the variety and splendor of their plantings. Now Edith and I want to show them off to Dianne, herself an accomplished gardener. The front bed is especially lush at that point of the summer.
Dianne is impressed. At one point, however, as she comments on the various flowers and their proper care, she suddenly interrupts herself and exclaims, "Look, a baby hummingbird!"
What she points out is so small––just a little over an inch long––that I can't see it at first. Soon it is unmistakable. Flitting, hovering, darting about, this little bird pokes its needle-narrow beak into the tiniest flowers, then withdraws, then angles about to probe the next bloom.
A stirring sight! I have long delighted in these tiny, unimaginably agile creatures. Here now is one even smaller than the miniscule birds I've observed in Mexico, Colorado, Peru, Singapore, and elsewhere. It doesn't seem possible that something so delicate, so beautiful, so perfect can exist.
The three of us watch in silence for a long time.
Something soon puzzles me. Yes, the wings beat so fast as to be almost invisible. Somehow they seem different, though, not quite as rapid as what I've seen on other hummingbirds in the past. A consequence of this one's size, perhaps? Or of its youth? I can't even guess. Yes, the tiny bird pokes its beak into the flowers . . . but somehow with a slightly different motion, or in a slightly different way, from what I've observed in the past. Intrigued, I edge closer to get a better look. The bird may or may not notice me, but in any case it keeps moving from flower to flower. I expect it to zip away at a moment, but it allows me to draw near.
I then see something I would never have expected: antennae. Stepping closer still, I spot another feature out of keeping with a hummingbird's: legs that dangle from the tiny body. Two legs . . . No, four legs . . . No, six.
The hummingbird isn't a hummingbird at all––it's a moth. As I learn later, it's Hemaris thysbe, the so-called hummingbird clearwing moth. First identified in 1775 by Johan Christian Fabricius, a Danish naturalist, members of this species are common throughout the entire eastern half of the United States and in much of Europe; and, according to several articles I've read, they are frequently mistaken for hummingbirds because of their coloration and fast-moving wings. They may also have contributed to the legend of faeries in England and elsewhere. Our perceptual error in the garden is understandable. But at that moment, the moth itself—delicate, gentle, languid in its motions—transfixes all three of us simply for existing, simply for being there.
I am not a mystic who feels drawn to see the moth, whether immolated or merely airborne, as a promise of Reality beyond reality, of Life beyond life. Moths are intriguing in the moment and for the moment. I'm not convinced that there is transfiguration or metamorphosis of what lies right before us. There is no fleshly transcendence, only immanence. There is perfection in the here-and-now: the day warm and bright, the air still, the flowers resplendent, the hummingbird-impostor moth beautiful and beguiling as she makes her rounds among the blossoms.
Adelaide Crapsey. The Complete Poems and Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey, Sutton Smith, Susan, ed. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1977.
Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. New York: Little Brown and Company, 1961.
Regarding phototaxis: http://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/moth-versus-butterfly.htm
Herbert Gold. "Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction." The Paris Review. Summer-Fall 1967. Page 8-9: Simon Karlinsky, ed. The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
In a note written to her husband, Leonard Woolf, shortly before her death, Virginia wrote:
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Regarding Christians' use of butterflies as a symbol: http://www.catholic-saints.info/catholic-symbols/butterfly-christian-symbol.htm
Yosa Buson. Haiku Master Buson (Yuki Sawa, tr.; Edith Siefert, ed.). Torrance, California: Heian International, Inc., 1978.
(for Leah Maines)
College days, or nights, rather, introduced me to the bright, shadow-less life of the Laundromat –humid environs forever smelling of bleach and soap that I visited each semester about as regularly as I wrote to my girlfriend from high school. Despite my lack of constancy with each, there came a point when one could no longer extract socks and underwear from the bottom of a near-combusting pile of composting cottons. So out would come the still relatively fresh laundry sack to be stuffed, trussed, and left to slump in resignation in the corner until the requisite stacks of quarters and dimes were collected. Laundry then became a matter of one waiting game succeeding another.
The seemingly more prosaic social science majors trudged over during daylight to the town’s small, lone house of washing machines and fewer driers, plastic baskets, dispensers of powdered soap. We Humanities majors, though, already disdainful of circadian rhythms, knew that the nighttime was the right time for wash, when we made the place, briefly, a linoleum-floored men’s club with molded plastic seating. At such odd hours, others were rarely around, and we few, with our serious yellow pads and takeout coffee, thought ourselves nighthawks. The washing cycle allowed for a quick jaunt around the corner for draft beer at Red’s while essays and papers could be begun in longhand on the folding table during the longer and more flexible time—ten cents for every ten minutes—in the dryer, whose motor rang out over my labored compositions with the sound of an enameled prayer wheel.
Done, cottons and such would come out of the dryer almost as hot as a blackened roast, items drawn out quickly to avoid scorched fingers. Unmatched socks, crumpled tee-shirts crackling with static, chinos everywhere creased except as acute angles fore and aft. Each pair looked more a worn paper bag then shoved without care or ceremony back into the sack and later shaken out into two large bottom dorm room drawers. Folding remained an idea ahead of our time.
When I was married out of college, my wife and I would do our weekly laundry together in the corner Laundromat—separating whites from colors and delicate indelicates from tougher weaves., adding detergent at the right stage of the cycle.
Waiting, we’d sit together eating morning pastry and reading Victorian novels. Once I had a full-time teaching job, this neighborhood institution gave way to a basement laundry room in the apartment building we had moved into. Sitting and reading no longer held much appeal in this fairly dim, large room below street level, with its slightly threatening circuitry of dusty, overhead pipes. Instead, the two of us could return to our lighted upper floor during the washing cycle. Dutiful, young husband, I’d come back later to start the fifty minutes of drying.
The folding of the wash became a ritual we observed together. I had long converted to Monica’s way of doing things: Shirts flattened out on their fronts became triptychs closed on invisible hinges, and socks were collared by pulling one open and back over the pair to hold the two together.
My favorite activity was the last—the folding of the top bed sheet, a tightly woven count, an unwieldy queen size, whose halving and quartering we performed like a stately dance choreographed by Martha Graham, accompanied andante by Aaron Copland. Each of us took up our two corners; then raising and extending our arms, which were as one, for the sheet to billow out and up and then return lower, we would bring hands together to accomplish a length-wise fold, followed by a promenade toward one another, joining hands and corners. (Only rarely would a corner snap capriciously away as if our boat had come about; we would laugh and begin again.)
This manageable, still-warm quarto, smelling faintly of toasted cotton, would be turned again and then once more by one of us and placed over the other items like a soft and warm pie crust atop a rustling, wicker laundry basket once my mother’s and whose warm cargo was borne upstairs. It was all ritual of making, joining, unmaking and return: two into one--back to two over to one …a domestic ritual from which I have never been able to recover.
When I became single, my sheets would come off a worn, twin bed. As I had reclaimed the mattress from the attic of my father’s house, it provided a familiar narrowness that I had never really noticed; with my arms tucked in like the chicken wings at Gristede’s, I would fall asleep. it felt, after all, for a time, comfortable,
That comfort of teen boyhood, gutted by loneliness
I had no adventures, except for one day a short-lived girlfriend complained about the bed’s unaccommodating dimensions before having to go to her apartment as there was no room for her. I never did change the mattress for a more welcoming size until when, much later, I wanted to get married again. And every few weeks I would stuff the boy-size sheets and whatever else needed washing into a couple of pillowcases and drop my sacks off at the local Laundromat, “La Perla,” before leaving to teach. A steamy and homey sort of place, it hummed cozily with machines offering manageable tempests through their port holes and were filled with mothers conversing in Spanish while children ran about in a perpetual spin cycle.
Late in the afternoon, I would return to pick up my load, neatly if eccentrically folded and walk back to my apartment, first checking the empty mailbox before going up to the second floor, the sack swinging lightly. After I refolded the socks, I put the rest away in my closet, except for the sheets, which I would fit onto the bare blue mattress. They were, however, no longer warm from the dryer.