I slapped the mosquito on my elbow and watched her die on the palm of my hand. Not knowing what to say, I recited a bastardized version of Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment” to her:
Did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
To call yourself Beloved
To feel yourself Beloved on this earth
Well, did you? I asked, as I flicked her dead body away. What does a mosquito want from life? Do other creatures go through life haunted by a desire to matter? To be loved? To be understood so well that their wrongs are not held against them? To experience the ineffable “something more”?
Later that night, while lying on my back in our tent, I was watching three flies throw themselves repeatedly against the underside of our rainfly. Ongoing flurries and bursts of buzzing and bouncing, as they machinegunned their faces into ripstop polyester. Over and over and over again.
I don’t understand insects, I thought to myself.
One must imagine Fly happy, Jessica said, as she also contemplated the absurdity of their Sisyphean task.
Jess and I trudged and dawdled and plodded our way along sixty-four kilometres of backcountry trail along the coast of the Gitchigami. The Gitchigami is said to be the largest freshwater lake in the world if measured by surface area. She’s big. We saw only the tiniest fraction of her. And even that fraction seemed incomprehensibly vast. So vast, in fact, that after spending five days walking close to her, both Jess and I felt disoriented by the lights and noises and roofs and walls and closeness of everything in the city. What happened to the sky? What happened to the water? What happened to the wind? Where’d it all go?
In the tent, as the flies continued to throw themselves against the ripstop polyester, they sometimes touched each other. This increased the buzzing and the frenetic activity. They didn’t seem to like each other very much. Quite the opposite, in fact. A weevil, having ascended the side of the tent and progressed halfway into this buzzing storm, stopped, surveyed the flying fuckery fest, appeared to reconsider their life choices, and turned around. Good choice, weevil, I thought to myself. These flies don’t seem to be very friendly.
And that’s one of the things about life. No matter what you do, some people aren’t going to be very friendly and some people are not going to like you. That’s easier to accept in some cases. if I can say, “oh, that guy doesn’t like anybody,” it means that there is something wrong with him and not me. Or, in other cases, having someone not like me can actually affirm a part of what I like about myself. Pointing out that “those Conservative Evangelical Christians really don’t like what I stand for,” can actually be a badge of honour. So sometimes people not liking us is something we barely notice or even celebrate. But sometimes it’s very hard to accept. And, it seems to me, is it hardest to accept when people actually have very good reasons to not like us and then refuse to like us anyway. Why is this so hard? After all, these people have good reasons not to like us! Whatever we did or failed to do, whatever our intentions or lack thereof, we did something that hurt, betrayed, or disappointed, someone so much that they have decided that they just don’t like who we are. And that’s fair. But recognizing that as fair means accepting that, yes, despite who we so ardently long to be, despite our very best efforts, sometimes we fail, sometimes we are much less than we wish to be, sometimes we are cruel and selfish and thoughtless and lazy and tired and awful, and sometimes, in our worst possible moments, we do things that cannot ever be undone. Furthermore, having done these things, as we all have done, we find ourselves worrying, “are those actually the moments that define me?” How arbitrary am I being when I define myself by my best moments (“this is who I really am!”) and refuse to define myself by my worst moments (“I wasn’t acting myself just now!”). Those who refuse to like us, despite the fact that we hurt, betrayed, or disappointed them so much have decided the opposite about us. They’ve decided we are defined by our worst moments and not by our best ones. Thus, unlike the other reasons people have for disliking us, this one threatens our perception of “who we really are” and that’s a really scary thing. At least to creatures like us. I’m not sure how much time mosquitoes spend worrying about what other mosquitoes think about them and who they are in the core of their being.
I also don’t understand water. I spent a fair bit of time watching the Gitchigami and thinking about diffraction patterns, chaos theory, symmetry, and how a lake that is large enough to produce its own weather systems seems like an entity beyond our ability to comprehend. What do all the data and stats we collect about a lake—surface area, maximum depth, volume of water, type of water, seasonal temperatures, etc., etc.—actually tell us about who a lake really is? Scrambling over boulders on the coast, I was reminded of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, a water planet who possesses some kind of consciousness and at least some kind of ability to communicate with human life. But what is being communicated and how the different parties are actually experiencing and understanding one another is, in the end, entirely a mystery.
Standing naked in the Gitchigami at the end of another very difficult day of hiking—up and down hills, up and down boulders, up and down knolls, up and down storm beaches, up and down forested paths, up and down dried creek beds, up and down the stony roots of what used to be mountains before the ice ages did their own up and down journey over the land—I watched the fish swim by my blistered and feet and thought to myself, what in the world are those little fishes doing? Oh, and look, a water snail! Hello, little water snail! How are you and do you know that you keep running into the same rock over and over again? How in the world do you survive? How do any of us? Because after a day of drinking and sweating-out litres and litres of water in weather far hotter and more humid than the norm, standing in a lake renowned for its coldness felt like about the best thing I’ve ever experienced. I almost fell asleep on my feet there in the Gitchigami, Jessica walking naked back to the beach in front of me, rocks looming on either side, my blistered feet turning blue, and the sun setting somewhere far behind.
What the water was feeling? The water in me, the water I am, the water around me, the lake that is? Who can say? What I can say, is that I felt content.
I’ve been thinking about the different ways in which people, including myself, seek out the transcendent, or sacred, or meaningful, or “something more,” that almost all of us long for in life. I’ve sought, and often found, these things in different things at different times—from an increasingly apophatic and mystical religiosity, to organizing communities of mutual care, solidarity, resistance, and liberation, to writing, to entering into consciousness-expanding relationships with plants like mushrooms, cacti, vines, and trees—and I’m at a stage in my life now where I am starting to think the most transcendent experiences, for me, are those that are found at home. Sitting on the back deck with the breeze, the birdsongs, and the first rays of the morning sun. Hugging Charlie and Ruby. Running my fingertips across the skin between Jessica’s shoulder blades as she falls asleep. Behold, you already are and have all that you seek.
How lucky I am that I am one of those who no longer needs to seek. How very, very lucky I am to be home.