A Husky-Shepherd mix dog regularly frequents the neighborhood. He has a collar, but at the appointed hour he is roaming in Husky style, visiting dogs fenced or otherwise unable to go far. He knows where there are oppressed and friendless dogs, and visits them. He knows where there are cats, bears, rabbits, mean dogs, mean people, dangerous vehicles. He is Han-shan, the hermit dog, roaming the woods, trotting on roads, meticulously avoiding people by leaving the road when they approach. He is never hostile. The time of morning anticipates his movements. Wait for him at a certain hour and he is usually passing by. If you greet him he will not look up. If you move toward him, he will pass on more briskly. Do not impede his way, for though he seems to move about without purpose, he recognizes every boundary line, ditch, rock, and entry. He is Han-shan, the hermit dog.
A green spider created a magnificent web under the eaves of the window. The spider was not one of the little random spiders that cannot or does not know how to weave, only producing a set of random threads. This spider was the classic artist of a magnificent symmetrical web that was topped by a better every night, until the web hung from the top of the eave to the bottom of the window, the spider growing large and sitting triumphantly at one end in the center of its ball of silk. The old web decals on the window, for years warding off torpid birds from flying into the glass pane, were pale versions of this web, insufficient imitations. To watch the spider at work, to rise and see the dewdrops on this work of art, was to inspire a faith in nature and beauty.
Then one morning, pulling back the curtain, there was a void — several random threads dangling ominously. There was no spider. She had not worked overnight. Her time had not come for her egg sac, had it, though she had grown large? On the ground beneath the window lay the spider, already shriveling, her magnificent legs pulled back, ants hovering. She was quite dead. Had she managed a secret egg sac after all, or been attacked by a wolf spider, or the chemicals of a mosquito-spraying airplane the previous night (yes, they are odious and ineffective, except at killing everything but mosquitoes — butterflies, moths, dragonflies, perhaps spiders)? The spider’s death was a blow to art, nature, and beauty. The Buddha was right: life is nothing but suffering, not even redeemed at such moments by the memory of beauty and love of nature. Lifting it while still lain out on a stone, the spider was buried quietly in a corner of a garden bed, where, perhaps, she will spin a different manifestation of nature and beauty in a flower.
Disappearances are disconcerting because they are often unexpected and startling. Just when familiarity has lulled one into comfort and routine, that which gave comfort, which represented routine, is gone. Not so much the larger things for which one can prepare psychologically, but the little things. Leave a vulnerable child alone too long and it wonders whether her parents will ever come back. Stand on a corner in a strange neighborhood too long and wonder if the bus will ever show up. Work in the same place and wonder if you will survive without the same dull and necessary routine.
Where have the raccoons gone, no longer raiding the compost pile for scraps not buried well? Where did the neighbors chickens go after watching them grow from wee chicks to waddling adults scattered about the neighbors’ lawn roaming innocently? Where do the bears go when there is not enough food or water and the heat far more intense than their heavy fur could anticipate? Where did the bird that sang so magnificently from the oak tree fly? The sly cartoon of the mayfly reading its fortune comes to mind: “Today is the last day of the rest of your life” (echoing the pop formula of decades ago).
The lesson of impermanence is not a lesson but a reprimand, not an insight but a blow. We excrete a shell of armor, like an oyster, expecting a pearl from our resulting invulnerability, but instead it is a mask that we do not know how to wear effectively in moments of passing. How many masks must we wear through before our arms tire of holding them up, our faces grow lined by trying to peer through its eye-holes and seeing only a shadow of what we hoped to see? Where, indeed, do the real things go, the real things as opposed to the impermanent ones that drift back and forth in front of our masks? Must we, as Pema Chodron’s book title suggests, grow comfortable with insecurity, meaning, one supposes, grow comfortable with discomfort, grow secure with our masks of nonchalance, get used to being drained of life and feeling if we don’t want to suffer?
There’s a black cat caught in a high tree top.
There’s a flag-pole rag and the wind won’t stop.
There’s a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall.
There’s a dead salmon frozen in a waterfall.
There’s a blue whale beached by a spring tide’s ebb.
There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web.
There’s a king on a throne with his eyes torn out.
There’s a blind man looking for a shadow of doubt.
There’s a rich man sleeping on a golden bed.
There’s a skeleton choking on a crust of bread.
There’s a red fox torn by a huntsman’s pack.
There’s a black-winged gull with a broken back.
There’s a little black spot on the sun today.
It’s the same old thing as yesterday …