Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Meditation for Mother’s Day

[From a letter to my Mother in the old-folks home.]

~     ~     ~

The other day -- a sunny one, stirred by the merest of breezes -- a friend and I sat on a low wall  conversing (much like Pooh and Piglet in similar circumstances), in a shady spot of the University of Maryland campus, where I now work part-time, in addition to my regular job.  He remarked, à propos of nothing (for there was really nothing much to be à-propos of, save the drifting clouds and the dreaming birds, neither of which had anywhere they had to be, in any sort of haste or hurry) that his wife has an absolute horror of snakes.   Simply cannot abide ‘em.

Now, snakes (I mused aloud), I can take them or leave them, just as you please;  but one creature that many people shrink from, but which I positively enjoy, is spiders.   These have held an especial fascination  ever since I read a detailed account of their constructional capacities (webs of various sorts and shapes, according to species, but other contraptions as well) in a book by the science writer Richard Dawkins.  Whenever I spy a spider, I seem to behold a busy little engineer, and am always careful not to disturb his handiwork (or leg-i-work), even to the extent of, if needs be, ducking-under  to go out to the back deck, or refraining from emptying the leaf-barrel, whenever its brim has been spanned with a weft of his recent weaving.
(There is always something new and wondrous in the world of spiders.  Last week they reported a new kind of locomotion in one desert species:  It can do a kind of forward back-flip (if that is the term I want) as it scurries along, whether to relieve its little eight feet from the burning sands, or from sheer high spirits, was unclear.  He can also do a string of them in succession, so that he rolls along like a tumbleweed.)

Yet afterwards, as I drove home, it occurred to me that my fondness for God’s wee octopods  goes back much farther, earlier than Dawkins or even than learning to read:  back to Oak Ridge, by our little white house with its proper white downspout, one sunny day still glistening with a late rain, as you taught me a little rhyme, on a bouncy wee tune, that lives in memory yet (though that was long ago, the day you taught it to me, Truman probably still in office if I reckon correctly, and any number of things not yet invented), and which has been handed down through mothers and grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers through immemorial time, almost back to the first day of Creation.   It goes (in the version you taught me, which is still my favorite;  other variants exist):

            Oh the inky-dinky spider went up the water spout.
            Down came the rain, and washed the spider out.
            Out came the sun, and dried up all the rain,
            and the inky-dinky spider went up the spout again.

You taught me the hand-gestures that go with it:  downrippling fingers to figure the raindrops sliding down the spout, broadspreading arms to evoke the return of the smiling sun:  but best of all, an intricate, digital concatenation, thumb to finger and finger to thumb (with an asymmetry easier to show than to describe in words), then pivoting on the one link, swiveling upwards a rung, now this way now that (it’s quite difficult even to imagine, unless you are watching yourself do it), in a way that is quite counter-intuitive until you get the hang of it:  all of which represents, or is meant to suggest, the patient slow small steps of our diminutive eight-legged friend, Mister Spider -- whose actual motions, indeed, must exceed in complexity anything or brains can picture or fingers depict -- as he climbs the spout, and then, washed-down, re-climbs it, nothing daunted, as many times as it takes.  This was, in fact, the most complicated physical movement I had ever learned as of that date, rivaling that of tying one’s shoe (a task I had not yet mastered), and scarcely to be exceeded in after-years, until the dos-ee-dos and allemand-left of square-dancing.


Well, Mother, such is the gift you gave me that day, so long ago;  and which, in the absence of grandchildren of my own, I  from time to time  pass on  to such of the wondering toddlers of our cul-de-sac  as care to gather round and learn the old lore.   For there will ever and anew be fresh children, and that inky, dinky spider  will never cease climbing his spout.

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