This past Tuesday, on my way to put the garbage cans out on the curb, I noticed a small, amber-colored house spider loafing in the center of one of the most beautiful, intricate, delicate webs I’ve ever seen.
“Hey there, little cutie,” I whispered, bending to make eye contact, with, I hoped, one of the eyes on her cephalothorax. “That’s a really pretty web.”
(This was not the web I found in my yard. It was easier to just steal someone else’s via Google Images. Plus this one has dew drops.)
But the moment my compliment slipped from my lips, I remembered what all the parenting books say: compliments (such as “That’s a really pretty web / drawing / picture / poem.”) are terribly, horribly detrimental to the child.
If, all the parenting books warn, we constantly offer pithy praise, praise that is roughly as nutritious as cotton candy, the child will not grow artistically. The child will only make art when she knows she will receive external praise. The child will start to make art based on what she feels the teacher likes and admires. And eventually, the child will simply stop making art.
That’s right. If you tell a kid she’s just made a “really pretty drawing,” you might as well snap on a set of handcuffs and head on down to CPS.
But never fear! There is a Right Way to compliment someone’s art:
[A]cknowledge the child’s effort and also empower the child to enjoy the work process without the external influence of others. Next time your child shows you his finished artwork try one these open-ended phrases:
“Why did you decide to use these three colors?”
“Where would you like to hang up this drawing?”
“What were you thinking about when you painted this picture?”
“Who is the figure that you have created?”
“How did you make that gray color?”
So. I pretended I hadn’t just told this spider she had a very pretty web. I pretended I had been talking to myself about the very pretty web of veins that, as I age, are appearing on the outside of my left calf. Spider veins, I believe they are called.
Because I do not care to be the wrecker of a spider’s ability to grow as an artist, I bent down even closer to the web. “Look at that,” I said. “Tell me . . . how did you decide to use this color of . . . web?”
The spider remained silent.
“OK, um . . . what were you thinking about when you were spinning this particular pattern?”
Still, only silence. I wondered if she was perhaps trying to take a nap. The kids and I are reading Charlotte’s Web right now, and man, that Charlotte is no slouch. It would make sense if this little spider was trying to take a nap. So I shut my pie hole and admired her art in silence.
As someone who has trouble rolling out a pizza dough that’s the right thickness, never mind the proper roundness, I find it marvelous that a spider can spin a web that’s the right thickness, one that’s sticky in all the right places, one that’s so perfectly geometric.
I marvel at the tenacity, the dogged determination of nature, insects and arachnids especially. It’s quite beautiful really, that single-minded stubbornness to survive. To me, it’s the smallest, the “least” of creatures that are the most impressive in their desire to survive.
Take the humble ant. If I were an ant, I’m not sure I’d be jazzed about my life, but darn it, ants get up each morning and haul that grain of sand or crumb of sandwich or, with a bit of teamwork, an entire elephant. All in the name of survival.
There is a homeless man, a particularly down-trodden soul whose mouth lolls open and eyes roll back in his head as he stands in the narrow concrete berm between rushing traffic. He holds his Please sign as he waits for a red light to capture an audience for his plight. He doesn’t appear to be physically or mentally healthy, but his eyes are kind, and there he is, every day, holding his sign even as he can barely hold up his drooping head.
It’s heartbreaking and disturbing to see this man each time I drive this stretch of street, but he is programmed to survive. There is beauty in the moxie of that, in his decision to survive for that whole day. And then, to get up the next day and survive all over again.
I looked at my spider’s web, the art she created to ensure her survival.
“Good work, little girl. That’s a totally beautiful web,” I whispered, so the parenting books wouldn’t hear.
But then, through the open window, I heard Buddy and Sweetie starting to argue about whose day it was to dress up the cat, and I remembered why I was outside: to take out the garbage cans.
At this moment I realized my spider had cast her web’s anchors in a way that totally blocked my trash cans.
Suddenly, her web was not a work of art, an example of The Beauty of Survival, but a huge hassle.
I put my hands on my hips. Really? Out of all the places in our yard, you chose to build your apartment-restaurant in the low-rent neighborhood that is our trash can area?
But when still, she didn’t respond, I realized something. Trash lures flies . . . a spider wants flies to fly near its web . . . she’s brilliant.
“Oh,” I said, knowing full well that what I was about to say was NOT on The List, “of course you chose to build your web here. Because you’re a major smartie-pants, that’s why. From now on, I will call you Mensa.”
And then I explored my options. Mensa’s web was blocking all three cans, BUT if I could just do a little shimmying and a little limbo-ing and kind of drag the yard waste can a little horizontally, then maybe . . . yes, there was a chance I could get all three cans under the web without destroying her home. Her restaurant. Her means of survival. Most important, her artwork, possibly her most important body of work heretofore.
Well. Just so you know, dragging a full Yard Waste can horizontally is not for wimps. I can bench press at least 14 pounds, and believe you me, I could just barely master this maneuver. Plus, the smell! Ever since the City of Seattle started accepting fish, meat, chicken, whatever, into its yard waste program, one needs to be very careful not to open the lid when fish and meat and chicken have been yard wasting together for the week. Especially in summertime.
But I was determined to get the cans curbside without disturbing Mensa’s survival-art. So I heaved and ho’d that yard waste under her web. Next came the recycling can, filled to the brim, but with cardboard, not week old, sun-warmed food and yard clippings.
I saved the easiest for last, the small-by-comparison trash can filled with a bag or two of cat litter and maybe a piece or two or three of Sweetie’s mixed media art that’s neither yard waste nor recycle. Nor is it survival art. Trust me.
But as I was coming back for the trash can, I overheard the kids, their voices like cherubims and seraphims through the open window:
“But YOU got to brush YOUR teeth first on MY DAY so I should get to dress up the cat first on YOUR DAY. That’s only fair!”
I rolled my eyes. Buddy gets to be first (with tooth brushing, showering, violin practicing, dressing the cat) on odd days; Sweetie on even days. She hasn’t figured out the lack of fairness on months with 31 days. When she does, we’ll have to return to the Edwardian Calendar or whatever calendar didn’t have a situation where it’s possible to have two odd days in a row.
But, alack and alas! As I was concentrating on my eye rolling and the sounds of Buddy and Sweetie’s voices rising higher, I forgot about Mensa.
And I walked right into her web. Right into it. Like my torso was a big ole’ wrecking ball.
There it was, her beautiful work of art splayed across my sweaty gym top.
“Oh, carp! Oh carp, carp, carp! I’m so sorry!”
But I couldn’t even find her. Nor could I move, for fear that I would step on her. So I just stood there, and boy, did I ever feel like a jerk. While my children were clearly attempting to win a bickering contest, I tried to remain calm and not cry and above all NOT listen to the voice, Ron, who likes to tell me I’m a carpy writer and mom and, today, a spider assassinator.
So I elbowed Ron out of my brain and instead reminded myself of this:
She’s resilient. The girl spins webs, for crying out loud! The girl shoots silk out of her BUTT or wherever! How amazing is that? She’ll pick herself up, get right back up on her eight feet, and start shooting web-silk from wherever it is that silk is shot. Probably not from her butt. Probably out of her wrists. Like The Amazing Spiderman. Only smarter.
And I felt a little better.
Even Buddy and Sweetie must have started to feel a little better because there was sudden laughter coming from inside. Probably because Sweetie had farted or maybe because Buddy had stuck his smoothie straw up his nose. Which is, actually, quite funny.
Siblings are resilient too. Just like spiders. Just like that homeless man with the lolling eyes.
So go, little Mensa. Start rebuilding your apartment-restaurant so you catch food and get big and strong and then have lots of babies and then, well, die.
And please accept my most sincere apologies by way of a haiku.
I am so sorry.
I ruined your work of art.
But keep on, keepin’ on, little Mensa. Keep rebuilding your web, even after some clod walks right into it. Might I suggest, however, you spin your next web at the trash cans of my neighbors to the south? That couple is gentle and kind and they have three boys who are all grown up so their bickering won’t cause their mother to decimate your masterpiece. OK. I’m so sorry. Don’t be a stranger!
(Yes, I know that last line has more than five syllables. Mensa is smart, but no spider can count the syllables of a haiku apology blog post. Because spiders don’t have fingers.)