“One Horrible Thing After Another”: A Celebration of Hagfish Day

It’s National Hagfish Day, a day to focus on the unattractive and downright disgusting or horrific creatures of nature.* Seemed like a good time to run this portion of my MFA third semester research project, “A Place in the Family.” This paper focused on learning from women nature writers how to reconnect with nature. It’s important, I think, to value all creatures and to figure out where they belong in our ecological family of creation.

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Nature and humans are connected by our creation. . . . With our anthropocentric tendencies, we forget that we have been created just as the frog and the lily pad, the bird and the tree. It’s easy to forget our connection to nature because we have severed ourselves from it.

Once, not so long ago, humans respected nature, relying on it for many of our needs; we were a community with interacting species. More than just physical necessities, nature provided us with identity and purpose. A man was nothing without land to till or livestock to tend. But with the Industrial Revolution and subsequent advancements, humans built more walls, poured more concrete, and founded larger towns rather than small sustainable communities. As our need for nature’s resources expanded, our regard and respect for nature itself grew smaller. Rather than partners, we turned ourselves into strangers.

Nature finds its place with us by simply being close by.

Nature, however, has not drawn back from remaining connected with us. The tree that forces its roots through the sidewalk, a sparrow that builds its nest in a stoplight, the ant that makes its way into the pantry, and the frog that makes its home in the siding–nature finds its place with us not in an intentional desire for closeness, but by simply being close by. Humans will never find a complete sense of place until we rediscover the community that is waiting in nature. To do this, however, we must repair our damaged and neglected ties to nature including our toxic thoughts about it. . . .

One toxic mindset that we must address is our repulsion of or prejudice against certain parts of nature. In our obsession with aesthetics, we easily disregard or avoid species that we find unappealing. The goblin shark with its horrific horn-like snout and snaggle-toothed mouth; hairless cats with smooth gray skin instead of fluffy fur; proboscis monkeys with their Jimmy Durante-esque nose; the giant water bug with its capacity to suck the life out of frogs and small snakes; the dolls eye plant with blossoms resembling eyeballs impaled on red stems; viruses with an appetite for flesh or brain; and, most notably, the recent winner of the world’s ugliest animal contest, the blobfish with its gelatinous body, drooping nose, and down-turned mouth.

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No doubt, along with its magnificently beautiful and awe-inspiring facets, nature presents no small array of poisonous, frightening, and downright horrifying species. One creature was appalling enough to shake Charles Darwin’s religious faith. He said, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”

Even much less gruesome species of insects . . . receive derogatory reviews. I walked out my front door a few weeks ago to find what looked like a yellow and black smiley face stuck in the middle of an ornate spider’s web strung across my porch. After some examination and a quick check on the Internet, I found the smiley face to be the spider itself–a star spider flaunting its striking yellow abdomen with black dots surrounding it. Later that day I posted a picture of the spider on Facebook, garnering various remarks. One friend commiserated with me about the inconvenience of the tenacious spiders that build webs across his walkway. Another aptly represented how many people feel about nature: “Oh, sick. Another reason I’m moving back north.”

Insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.

Instinctively, we draw back in horror at creatures with more than two eyes and four legs, or an exoskeleton rather than fur. No doubt, horrific species exist with horrific habits. Even Annie Dillard, in her minute inspection and awe of nature, seems to shudder as she writes, “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. . . . I ask why of almost every insect I see. . . . But they make up the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship” (Pilgrim Tinker Creek,64–65).

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However, just as Dillard acknowledged, the unattractive and horrific still hold purpose and value, even if only because they are living creatures. Gretel Ehrlich concurs with the need to connect with the uncomely species. Though in Wyoming Ehrlich typically encountered cattle, horses, and prairie dogs, with the summer heat came a plethora of insects. Like Dillard, she marvels at the populace of the insect world. “It’s said that 80 percent of all animal species are insects. . . . It does no good to ask . . . why so many insects exist–so I content myself with the cold ingenuity of their lives,” and she describes how ants heat their underground chambers in the winter by sending up worker ants to act as solar collectors (Solace of Open Spaces, 69). Instead of disregarding the ants and other insects, she studies them to understand their patterns and habits.

From black mold to flesh eating bacteria, from the sea louse to the oar fish, from the cockroach to the giant water bug, unappealing or dangerous species call for inspection, not repulsion. . . . [Why is it] not deemed unacceptable to grimace at an intricate species with a life and purpose its own as a part of creation that in the beginning God called good? It isn’t necessary to be best friends with everyone in a community, but we must respect them.

 

 

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For more reading on this topic, read about the Hagfish and check out this excellent article, “Caring About Creation for the Right Reasons.”

Thank You for Not Reading

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“Keep up the good work. No one reads this stuff anyway.”

In my first days as a content editor at my office, one of my coworkers gave me this snarky piece of motivation. I frequently glance at the phrase scrawled on a yellow Post-it at my desk—and grin.

Some days, it helps. When I’ve had to rush through articles, and I’m sure that I’ve missed a comma here or a hyphen there, I chuckle to myself: No one reads this stuff anyway.

And it helps here on Goose Hill, too. When I lament the few hits on my posts, and when I’m thankful for the eight people who care that I’m writing, but still wish for more to hear my thoughts—even then it strangely helps to think, “No one reads this stuff anyway.”

No one reads this stuff anyway.

I’m just practicing here—it’s not perfect, and fewer readers means fewer critics to catch my weaknesses. I’m no pro; I’m just writing for anyone who wants to read, including those who choose not to. Who knows how many readers are left to discover Goose Hill—what a nice surprise it will be when they find it.

So to everyone who has never visited my blog, I hope that some day you’ll read something you like here. But until then, thank you for not reading!

88 Keys and Constellations

We have pictures of my older sister, Heather, at eight years old, sitting at the piano, fingers curled tall on the piano keys, a big grin revealing her new teeth. It was a piano recital, and piano was Heather’s thing. In the afternoons, the house was often filled with her notes—the stops and stutters of fingers finding the way.

And then there was me. I had been writing since I was seven, filling Lisa Frank notebooks and stacks of lined paper with my burgeoning art. But when it came to the piano, 88 keys glared back at me—nothing but an ivory barrier between me and the stories I would have rather been writing. I hated to practice and rarely did. Piano to me was notes rather than music.

Of my various instructors through the years, Mrs. Kelly is one teacher I remember the most. When it came time for my lesson, I trudged up the hill to her house, books in hand. Heather had already been there for a while, cleaning the house to pay for her lessons. I didn’t care about who was paying for mine.

“Did you just roll your eyes at me?”

One day, after I mutilated my assigned song, Mrs. Kelly seemed determined to motivate my inner maestro. “You have to feel the rhythm! One and two and three and one and two and—here, see.” She stood from her seat beside the piano and began waltzing in the center of the room. I stared at the spectacle in typical preteen disgust. When at last she ended the embarrassing performance, we commenced the doomed lesson. Seeing my sloppy fingers smashed down against the keys, she attempted to remain upbeat: “Remember, octopus fingers, not jellyfish fingers—”

But my patience had found an end.

“Did you just roll your eyes at me?” Her patience, too, had found an end.

I had no defense, for I had indeed just rolled my eyes, knowing full better than to disrespect an adult in that way—even one as crazy as I thought Mrs. Kelly was.

Early in my teens, though I don’t remember the circumstances, we stopped taking piano lessons from Mrs. Kelly. Perhaps after the eye-rolling incident, Mrs. Kelly had a secret council with my parents, refusing to put up with my shenanigans any longer. Though they could have given up, left me to my failing ways, and saved their money for an entertainment center or a vacation, my parents found yet another piano teacher, my first male teacher, Nathan.

Nathan’s studio was set up in his parent’s basement—which sounds like the beginning of a horror story with a tragic ending. But the basement smelled of berry air freshener, lace curtains hung at the door, and Highlights magazines were stacked in the foyer. There I waited for the kid before me to finish his lesson as I clutched my books, hoping that somehow the notes would find themselves into my fingers by osmosis. Finally Nathan would open the door to usher out the student and call me in.

Nathan was a masters student, and although he seemed ancient to me then, he was probably younger than I am now. He wore glasses and sweaters and a smile that settled even the most hesitant of students.

For what seemed like the first 15 minutes of my 30-minute lesson, we talked about books, the news, and any other topic that struck our fancy. Sometimes he ran into the next room and return with a CD or book to show me. And we talked about my writing. It occurs to me now that perhaps he was just prolonging the inevitable of hearing me crash through my under-practiced songs like a  missionary thrashing through neck-high jungle brush with a machete, not quite sure where she was heading.

Perhaps he was prolonging the inevitable of hearing me crash through my under-practiced songs.

When we got around to opening the books for me to desecrate the art he had made his life’s work to teach, he pointed out the small improvements I had made and ways that I might further improve. Then he sent me on my way with encouragement and a piece of candy I hadn’t earned.

You should know that the issue wasn’t simply my disinclination to practice; I also knew that practicing ultimately led to performing, and performing in front of people made me sick. My nerves wrecked performances at piano guilds, festivals, competitions, and recitals. For offertory one Wednesday evening at church, I played the old hymn “Have Thine Own Way.” Ironically, my hands were having their own way, shaking so hard that I couldn’t keep them in place on the keyboard. I plunked my way through the song but somehow managed to finish a soulful final chord.

I remember slinking down to my pew, then out to the car after the service. Once at home Dad comforted me: “It’s not the way you start but the way you finish that counts.” Though the incident was a good life lesson, it wasn’t the perfect, final chord that rang in my ears but every wrong note I’d committed before it. Like a driver scared to get back behind the wheel after a wreck, I avoided the piano bench and those 88 menacing keys. All I really wanted to do was write in the solitude of my bedroom.

But something shifted during my years of lessons with Nathan. I continued to hate practicing, and still couldn’t command my nerves during performance, but with his laid-back approach to teaching, Nathan distracted me from the austerity of the keys. I grew comfortable enough to strike out on my own without sheet music and explore the keyboard with its combinations of notes and chords and rhythms. Instead of avoiding the piano, I was drawn to it for what I could discover—the music. Like a layer atop my writing, I’d found another way to express emotion and convey meaning.

It was redemption in my favorite key of B flat.

In my later teen years, Dad pastored a small church in South Carolina. Sometimes when we stayed late, after all the lights were turned off, I sat at the piano and picked out songs by ear, learning to roll chords to fill in between the beats. Soon I was composing my own simple hymn arrangements.
Something sacred went on in those evenings, something connected to that calamitous offertory and every other failed lesson and recital—redemption in my favorite key of B flat.
Even now, on Sunday mornings, I sit and look at the electric keyboard, my fingers curving in my lap, tapping out the notes along with our pianist, longing to find their place on the keys.
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Behind the door on Nathan’s studio wall was a framed picture of him as a child, sitting at a keyboard with a proud smile on his face. Seated demurely beside him was his teacher, a younger version of Mrs. Kelly—the same Mrs. Kelly who had willingly made herself a dancing fool before a cynical teenager, desperate to convey her passion for music. During each of my lessons with Nathan, she watched me over my shoulder, and I wondered if she had ever danced in one of Nathan’s lessons, years ago.

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A few weeks back, I was editing an article about bird speciation, written by an author in South Carolina where I’m from. When I emailed to ask what church the author went to, I recognized his response and asked if he knew Nathan, who attended the same church. His response didn’t surprise me: “He’s my children’s piano teacher.”

These experiences mark a pin-pricked map——my life in constellation.

We like to think of our life as a planet, a hunk of material in rotation around the cosmos, far too often at apogee from others. But life is really more like little points of light, stars joining to form the 88 constellations in the heavens, each experience or event connecting in some way to the next.*** sagittarius_28066977314

Mrs. Kelly taught Nathan to love the piano. Nathan taught me to appreciate music, and inadvertently, encouraged me in my writing. And here I sit, editing articles for an author whose children are learning piano from Nathan. Like a night sky stippled with galaxies, these and so many other experiences and events mark a pin-pricked map—my life in constellation.

I’m thankful for a passionate teacher who danced and for a teacher whose unconventional lessons still make me long for those 88 keys.

 

 

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Notes:
*There really are benefits to taking instrument lessons. Check out these articles: “Sorry, Kids, Piano Lessons Make You Smarter”  and “Science Just Discovered Something Amazing About What Childhood Piano Lessons Did to You.” However, in addition to piano lessons, I suggest that parents help children pursue their interests rather than forcing them to pursue an art or skill that they don’t enjoy or identify with.
**I think any teacher can understand Mrs. Kelly’s methods. There are no lengths to which a good teacher would not go to help a student learn and love learning. I get it now, Mrs. Kelly. And I’m sorry for rolling my eyes.
 ***Not once when I began writing about my piano trials did I expect to end up with a astronomy metaphor. Furthermore, I certainly never anticipated a corresponding detail so marvelous as 88 piano keys and 88 constellations. Nonfiction: I never saw it coming—and I sure couldn’t make it up.