November 11, 2009


Morning is a tender time. Sun slants through the blinds and a soft light, curving, breaks in. I’m alone, with no body beside me, no breathing, no warmth or presence. Like the light, I stretch and curve, spreading limbs. From a patchwork of dreams I arrive here, remembering sadness. How heavy is this dark body, draped in sheets, how heavy is my beating heart.

In Thailand, white-clad and barefoot nuns, bhikkunis, wear veils not to hide their faces, but to protect dust mites, air-borne seed spores, microscopic beings from the wrath of their every inhale. They believe we are all intricately connected, minutely related. Even the smallest creature, unseen, is somehow irrevocably linked to each of us, closer than the skin on our animate bones. So we must walk gently upon the earth, intending no harm, and treat all living beings as we would treat our own mother. Separateness of self, the distinction between landscapes inside and out, is a mistake, a mere illusion, an unnecessary nightmare of suffering and isolation.

I pick up a book and begin to read, turning pages, escaping the solemn bulk of my listless limbs. A fluttering near my hip distracts. I look down. Flapping on the cream-colored sheets is a moth, a blur of brown mottled wings. He is small, an inch wide at most, with a thin, breakable body. He settles on my sheet, alone in his silky brownness. The patterns on his wings remind me of sand shaped by wind, or the subtle designs that loop along borders of Persian rugs.

We regard each other. We’re not strangers. The night before, in the yellow light of my reading lamp, I saw him circling the room. The ceiling fan was on, blowing him about on waves of moving air. He swam in the coolness, coming to rest on a silk painting of Vajrasattva, the Tibetan deity of purification, renewal, clarity.

In Buddhist teachings, Vajrasattva is considered a bodhisattva, a being who vows to return after enlightenment, again and again, to drive away the sorrows of the world, working endlessly, tirelessly, to rescue all beings from the unceasing cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth that is samsara. Tibetans believe these sacred images bestow blessings and good fortune on all proximate creatures—bees who build nests in Buddhist temples, birds alighting on sacred statues, and the snakes curled under the rocks of yogis’ caves.

Last night I admired the moth from my bed, impressed by his likeness to the pale silk border of the painting. The lacey weave of the fabric seemed to continue on his wings. He held still, as if receiving benediction. Or bestowing one. What gentle communion took place, what secret blessing?

So I know this moth already. This morning I am only startled by his approach. He waddles closer to me, feeling his way with quivering antennae. He is almost too near—I don’t want to absent-mindedly shift my leg and crush his small frame. I hold as still as I can and go back to reading. He crawls in closer and nestles his fine body into the place where my thigh meets the mattress, hunkering down.
His wings spread against the bed, head facing outward. His antennae softly probe the air. Neither of us move. All the muscles in my leg are alert, intending stillness, avoiding harm. Does he find companionship, as I do, in sharing the morning’s quiet?

I turn the pages of my book, looking occasionally down to the creature resting in the crook between body and bed. Sometimes we shift position; he crawls up near the hem of my shorts. I wonder how long he will stay. At the end of my chapter, I roll away to stretch my aching leg. The moth does not move. I reach down to nudge him. He is dead. His wings lie softly on my hand, feet folded up against his small abdomen like crooked bantam twigs. His antennae droop and drift with my fingering; my hope moves those filaments more than he.

I push the open window with my free hand, and set him gently on the windowsill. His light body shifts from my fingers, stumbles down the sill, and lies there, upside down and awkward. I watch as the breeze shoves him along; he teeters on the edge of the pane and then drifts two stories down to the ground like a flake of snow.

If I were a moth, I would want to die snuggled up to a warm waking body, enmeshed in creamy cotton and pulsing flesh, young bone. Do moths feel lonely, too? As his heartbeat slowed, his breath tapered, I didn’t know, even with his small body curled up against me. Yet I want to believe we are all connected. My every shift and sneeze, my deep and shallow breaths, my holding still, all these movements make shudders in a waking world, an indivisible, invisible web. Where do I end? Where does this moth begin? Is it in between the outside of my skin and the texture of his delicately scaled wings? Is his death a discrete, separate happening, or is a small part of it also mine?

We try and we try, to connect, to know another body, another mind, as intimately as we know our own. I woke this morning with an aching lack beside me, a void, that absence of a body known closely, now no longer known. Then the moth, a soft body like my own. We breathed together for a while. Did he know me? Did he come to me to die? Now I am left, alone with a still deeper absence, feeling myself as ephemeral and distinct, cumbersome in my solidness. Each breath is an end, a killing, a pause which could be final. Fragile bodies meet and part, separate in their hidden worlds. Each landscape is a uniqueness, dark in its loneliness, and intimate as skin on skin.

What do I want in this world? I want to know it, the intimate web, I want to know what those nuns know, who wear the masks to protect creatures from their hungry human inhalations. I want to know the mind of a bodhisattva, a being bent on returning, again and again, to save us from our dream of separation.

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