In Mid-Spin

In Mid-Spin

by Susan Downing

Turns out that Mr. Spider was Mrs. Spider. (See my previous post, “Out of the Threads of the Past” for the story of how I came to be acquainted with this arachnid.)  I’d been watching the nightly web-building for nearly two weeks.  Some nights I’d seen a smaller version of my web-builder hanging out at the top of the web, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about.  So naïve of me!  Because at the beginning of last week, gazing out through the glass of my slider door, I noticed five tiny little spiders in the same spot where the big spider spun its nightly web.

These little ones were just like the big one, except super tiny. So small I could barely see them.  But once I did, all the details fell into place (with a little help from the internet.) Of course!  The big spider was the female, and the one hanging out above was the male.  Had I seen an egg sac around, I would have gotten the picture earlier.

For the next couple of days I delighted in watching the little ones.  At night they’d build tiny webs at the corners of mom’s.  (I wondered how they could possible eat anything that might fly into their webs, and then I learned that baby spiders feed on nectar at first.)  Like most young’ns I’ve known, these spider toddlers got up much earlier than their parents and took advantage of their temporary freedom to race around and play house. A couple of them would hang out in their own webs, while the others crept along remnants of their mom’s.  All of them seemed to be saying, Hey, look at us, we’re here on this web.  We’re cool! We know what we’re doing!  We’re tough! We’ll eat you if you get too close!

That phase lasted only a few days.  By week’s end, they were gone, off to explore the world on their own, I guess.  But Mrs. Spider was still there, spinning her nightly web, and Mr. Spider would make occasional appearances, too.

A few evenings ago, once darkness had fallen, I walked over to the slider doors and, as had become my habit, flipped on the outside light to see what Mrs. Spider was up to.  There she was, spinning the top anchor line for her web.  I turned off the light and went about my business.  When I returned a bit later to check her progress, I noticed that she was still working on that same line.  That was odd.  Usually she’d have her whole web done by now.  I leaned a little closer and noticed that she wasn’t moving.  At all.  At first I though she had just paused in her work, hanging from the line for a moment.  Then, leaning close to the glass to get the closest possible look, I saw that three of her little legs were curled up in the way you see dead spiders’ legs curled.

Aside from the curled up legs, she looked quite alive.  One front leg was gracefully, even elegantly, stretched out, lightly touching the web, while her back legs also still seemed somehow poised, in mid-step. In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider knows when death is approaching.  She tells her friend Wilbur the pig, “I’m done for. In a day or two I’ll be dead. I haven’t strength enough to climb into the crate. I doubt if there is enough silk in my spinnerets to lower me to the ground.”

Who knows whether Mrs. Spider sensed the end coming in some way.   It didn’t look that way to me. It seemed that she’d gone out as usual that night to build her web, and then, suddenly, death had taken her totally by surprise.  Or perhaps she had some unusual sensation, but just kept to her routine anyway.  As if denying the possibility that she might not complete her web that night.

Although I know that Mrs. Spider certainly didn’t engage in conscious reflection on her own experience of approaching death, it’s quite possible that she was aware that something was amiss, even if she didn’t express this the way Charlotte did.  And in keeping to her routine, denying the approach of death by spinning up until the very last second, Mrs. Spider seems a lot more like us humans than does Charlotte, despite the literary spider’s eloquence.  For when Wilbur the pig responds in a very human way to his friend’s announcement, with grief and denial, Charlotte says to him, “Come now, let’s not make a scene. Be quiet, Wilbur. Stop thrashing about.”

Who among us humans would be able to muster Charlotte’s sense of peace as death approaches, consoling our loved ones as they fall apart beside us?  It seems a rare achievement to me, to die without fighting it, to accept it as the inevitability it is.  Accepting a loved one’s death with equanimity is often more than we can manage, too.  It can also give us pause when animals die. And so I, realizing that Mrs. Spider had died, felt sad.  Partly because I had grown fond of her, but more because she seemed to unprepared for death, taken by surprise, and because this is the way we humans mostly die, too.

Before Charlotte dies, she enlists Wilbur’s help: she asks him to safeguard her egg sac so that her babies will not perish.   She tells him, “This is my egg sac, my magnum opus, my great work, the finest thing I have ever made.”  Wilbur carries out Charlotte’s last wish, and one fine morning, the tiny newborn spiders begin climbing out of this sac in a corner of the barn.

Given this joyful moment of new life at the end of the book, it’s easy to conclude that Charlotte managed to approach death with remarkable acceptance because she knew that she had done what she’d come into her life to do: to produce that egg sac.  But the young reader’s response to Charlotte’s death, and our responses to loved ones’ deaths, and whatever visceral response we have when we think about having to die ourselves some day – that grief or fear or denial is not something that will vanish as soon as we remind ourselves that the deceased achieved something in life that we see as valuable.  We use that reminder to distract ourselves from the very real grief or fear we’re feeling.  Because it can be too terrifying to think of death itself, of the moment when we ourselves can be unexpectedly taken by death.

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings called the Lam Rim (“Stages of the Path”) talk at length about death, its inevitability and its unpredictability:

“You will not get a message warning you, “Now prepare to die.” Death will strike suddenly one day and you will just have to leave whatever you are doing.  Even simple monks have to stop drinking butter tea, eating barley flour or noodles and go to their next life: this shows how uncertain the time of death is.

Grasping at permanence tricks you into thinking you have many years left, but the day will come when you will die.  People who will die from illness today are still thinking, “I will not die today.””

The Lam Rim makes such a big deal of the uncertainty and inevitability of death because knowing we’ll die, believing that we really will die, can prompt us to study and practice the Dharma:

The great risk is: before the tomorrow when

You were going to practice Dharma comes,

The time for you to die will come today.

So do not let your head be turned;

If you would practice Dharma,

Do it from today.

And His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his book Becoming Enlightened, explains the benefit such practice will give us:

“The fragility of life calls us to make a decision to implement spiritual practice right now.  Religion is not physical.  Although both physical and verbal virtuous actions are important, religion is a matter of mental transformation.  This means not just understanding something new but suffusing your mental continuum with this knowledge in order to tame your unruly mind and put it in the service of virtue.  This means that you must practice now. If you do whatever you can at the present juncture to transform your mind, then even sickness and pain while you are dying will not disturb the strong sense of peace, firm like a mountain, deep in your mind.”

The Lam Rim tells us that the Dharma is “your guide, captain and provisions for your journey when you die.”  It says that if we don’t practice, when we die, our death will be no different from that of a “stray dog in an alley.”

Or perhaps from that of a spider who perishes in mid-spin.

Now, the very night Mrs. Spider died, as she still hung there on the one completed strand of her web, a small spider busied itself weaving its own web in the corner.  But the next night, Mr. Spider took center stage, spinning a web right where Mrs. Spider’s had always hung.  And he’s been there every night since. There’s something comforting about that, I guess, a sense of familial continuity, just like the nice warm feeling I had when I watched the baby spiders begin their life of weaving.  But that’s not the essence of what I see in this story.

Mrs. Spider’s nightly spinning reminded me that we can transform our mind and our life by making good use of all that we learn as we travel through cyclic existence.  Her seemingly sudden death reminded me just how urgent it is to prepare for death by practicing and living out the Dharma.  That way we’ll be able to look back on a life we can be proud of, and we’ll also be able to leave the this life with genuine peace of mind, instead of thrashing about like a terrified moth unexpectedly trapped in one of Mrs. Spider’s webs.

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