I notice the spider on the third day of my silence. I approach the web strung between two blades of meadow grass and bend down so the spider is at eye level. It’s dusk and the meadow behind her is vibrating with golden, fluid energy. The sun, ever brighter as it falls, pushes through her intricate orb web. It looks as though the light itself radiates from within the fine, silken fibers of her home.
She doesn’t move, sits just off center, head pointed down. She is mostly dark brown – slightly smaller than a quarter. A cream-colored cross made of imprecise dots decorates her back. Her body is round and full. Her legs are banded with alternating cream and brown rings. I’ll learn she is a European garden spider.
I count her legs to make sure there are eight. It feels important to establish that point, to get to know her systematically at first. I begin to count the concentric circles of her web that grow larger as I move out, but I lose my place. It’s almost totally dark now and my eyes don’t adjust quickly enough to distinguish the fine lines for long.
I stand up, pull my shawl more tightly around my shoulders, walk through the forest that borders the meadow, and leave the spider to her stillness.
I have been traveling for ten months through Ghana, South Africa, and Europe. I’m a nomad. In my seventy-five-liter backpack I have everything I need – clothes, medicine, shoes, a headlamp, books, and a hammock. I carry my life with me. I settle in anywhere I go.
I stop in Belgium for a ten-day silent meditation course. When the course is over, I’ll pick up again and move on to the next place, rebuilding my life, remaking my home.
For fourteen hours a day, the other students and I meditate in the main hall. The spider reminds me of myself, the way she sits isolated on her web. Although I live among the other female students, I’m not allowed to read, exercise, write, speak, touch another human, or make eye contact during the course. The goal is to create a space in which only I exist, to resist association with anyone but myself. Yet between meditation sessions I will find myself continuously crouching to examine this spider, to understand her solitary way of life, to feel connection through our separate solitudes.
Early morning of Day Five, I return to the forest. It’s still dark out. It’s September and the chill clings to my skin. The trees stand like shadowy sentries. My shawl holds me in as I feel for the path with my toes, and then the moon is there, and I can see my feet. I stand in the moon’s circular reflection and concentrate as I exhale into the triangular area beneath my nose, my upper lip a base with sides that reach to my nostrils. I think of my instructor’s words and try to focus.
This triangle is all that exists, I tell myself. The intensity it holds is all the vibrancy of the world. Every breath changes the movement of time.
But when I breathe out again to cover the triangle with air, I can’t feel it anymore. It’s gone. It’s just me between the trees.
I wonder if the spider is sleeping or if she is nocturnal. I wonder what she thinks of the quiet or if the buzz of insects fills her ears. Does she enjoy the peacefulness of the moonlight as I do?
Before the course began, I was worried about the silence. I feared it would feel too foreign, too uncomfortable. But, somehow, it feels wholly natural. I embrace the quietness of my inner world, the way my thoughts come but never linger for too long, the way I have become more attuned to everything that exists around me, especially my spider. My body feels connected to the earth. It isn’t too fast or too slow. I fall into the silence, and it carries me like a gentle wave through the day and into night.
I walk to my spider’s web and bend to her, but it’s too dark to see. She remains hidden in her world. I know this won’t last. In a couple hours, when the sun emerges, I’ll be able to see her again. Tonight, she will fade away into the dark.
This Vipassana meditation the other students and I are practicing is based on the idea of impermanence. I learn through examining the sensations of my body that nothing ever remains as it has been. Whatever ache, heat, coolness, tingle, twitch, burn, wetness, dryness, pinch, pleasure, calm, anxiety, peacefulness I feel while I sit and breathe will only be temporary. I live through the sensations without wishing they leave or stay, without physically reacting. I observe them, remain aware of their presence, feel them deepen, then allow them to pass just as they came. The further I get into the practice, the more clearly I understand the fleeting nature of everything that exists, the danger of attachment, the way even the things we love will always leave us.
I think about my mom. I haven’t stopped aching for her in the fifteen months since her death. The cancer was not fleeting. The cancer did not deepen and then pass. It deepened and then my mom passed. I try to understand how this is natural, how to observe it and let it go, but I can’t. That sensation does not make sense. The leaden, desperate, clawing clutch of missing her never fully leaves.
I think about her body underground, no longer alive and moving, no longer pumping blood and creating heat but still changing. Becoming a part of the earth, falling into it, and then growing into something new all over again.
I was twenty-two when my mom died. Now that she’s gone, I feel the urge to keep moving. This is why I’m traveling, adventuring, surrounding myself with new people and places and ideas. I’m trying to relearn firsthand that sadness isn’t the only feeling that exists, that the world is still dynamic and full of life. I need to move, but I also want to learn stillness. I’m trying to understand new ways of thinking, of believing, of accepting, of remaking my life in this world.
I finish lunch and take a slow forest walk to the spider’s web. It’s the afternoon of the seventh day. The sun is high over the meadow, a solid white bulb. It comes through my shawl to heat my shoulders. Like nourishment, the warmth is rich and deep. The hairs on my shoulder prickle happily, a basking, a release. Does the spider feel the warmth through the thin hairs of her abdomen? Does the web feel hot to her touch?
I crouch to watch her. She doesn’t move. I have yet to see an insect in her web. We share the quiet. She seems to bask in its sacredness, too. My face is eight inches from her body. I admire her stillness and try to mimic it. We remain unmoving, two silent masses in the sun.
Before I stand up to walk to my dorm room, I whisper, without forethought, “Goodbye, spider.” I twitch softly at the sound. I haven’t heard my own voice in seven days, haven’t felt the vibration in my throat, the rumble in my chest. It feels foreign, a strangeness coming from within my own body. I resist it. The world does not need my noise. I imagine my breath absorbed into her web, the imperceptible quaking like a handshake between us.
I walk from the meditation hall through the forest on Day Eight. I feel each part of my foot hit the ground as I move. My hips turn with every step. My shoulders move fluidly in time. I remain aware of my breath. In and out. In and out. Each part of me connects to every other.
It’s gray outside. The sky above the meadow is opaque with dense clouds. I shiver in the cool air, the swift breeze. A light drizzle comes down. I bend to my spider and see small water drops, the size of pinheads, dotting her web. She sits still as the rain falls around her. She lets it come, lets it pass. I want to be like her – independent, adaptable, resilient.
I wonder if my spider has a daughter who will miss her someday. I wonder if she has any family at all. What are her losses? An escaped fly? A broken web? How lucky it might be not to know deep, unending loss.
It turns out European garden spiders mate in late summer or early autumn. The female hides a well-protected silk cocoon of up to 900 eggs somewhere near her web. A few days later, unable to return to her web for food while protecting the cocoon, she dies.
The babies will emerge in the spring, grouping together initially. After their first molt, they’ll fly away, “ballooning.” They will climb high in whatever tree or plant they’re nearest, raise their legs as if on tiptoe, point their abdomens towards the sky and release silk threads to create triangular parachutes in their wakes. The slightest breeze will disperse the spiderlings, sending them spiraling into their own separate lives, off to survive alone.
They will never know their mother, never know whom it is they came from. Maybe, then, I’m lucky not to be the spider. I do know where I came from. I do know my connection to my mother, and it runs strong and deep and wide. Though, for a moment, I see the spider and my mother converge, two circles overlapping, a misshapen web. My mother also set me free into the world and then left me to survive in it without her.
It’s likely my spider will lay her eggs shortly as it has just turned to autumn. If this is true, it means she will die soon. I wonder if she knows this. I wonder if she can feel the pressure of time closing in on her, if the tiny hairs on her legs communicate mortality, if her small bulbous body can feel itself preparing to shut down. I watch this small creature, her insides still pulsing and beating with life, and I know I am lucky to have found her.
It is Day Ten, the last day, dawn. Tomorrow, I will pack up and travel to Bruges, my next home, a city of bustling life, a world of crowds and stimulation. I fear it will be too loud. I fear the complexity of human interaction will overwhelm me. I try to absorb the last hours I have in solitude.
I make my way to my spider in the warm, liquid light of the new sun. As I crouch to meet her, I see nothing. Her web is no longer there. My heart beats faster. Where is she? Has she already left to lay her eggs? I stay crouched, hoping I still might see her.
And then I do.
She is balancing on a single circle of filament strung between two new blades of meadow grass. About twenty spokes come out from the middle of the circle to this outer edge. She proceeds to move circularly around the orb, new thread trailing behind her. She stops at every unconnected spoke to attach the thread, silk connecting silk. She moves onto the next spoke, connects. Continues, connects. She does this until she has closed the circle, made it complete, then slides inward to where she will build the next concentric circle. She is rhythmic and careful and quick.
I find out later that European garden spiders eat their webs every night and re-construct new ones each morning. Protein from the silk thread and caught insects provides the spiders with fresh energy, allowing them to maintain constantly sticky webs. This morning is the first I’ve seen her make her web. She is a nomad just like me. She picks herself up every day, starts anew, remakes her life. Each day without my mom, I relearn the world, settle further into my life and body as a motherless daughter. Maybe it’s a small comfort, but seeing myself in the spider makes me feel stronger. Nothing remains. There is only beginning again, finding new ways to live. For now, I’m alive with heat and blood that moves, and maybe that’s enough.