Learning from Parasites, Blood-Suckers, and Grinding Adversity

To everything there is a season, a reason, and a purpose (under heaven). Punches to the gut like unemployment, head lice, a scabies-like mite that once bored deeply into my flesh, and thousands of biting flies, all fit snugly into this category. Amazingly, I find myself loving each and every one of these occurrences in my life (some memories, and others ongoing).

Time. An absolute abundance of it. I’ve been blessed with my first surplus of time since I concluded a sabbatical from the real world 19 years ago, at the age of 19, and discovered who I was. In some ways the current experience mirrors the earlier one, but in vastly different ways, and within a new context of need. I’ve found myself fortunate enough to be weaved more fully into the rhythm of my family’s life. Sometimes I’ll find myself feeling like the only thing I’m good for is doing dishes and laundry. Then, like a match suddenly struck to light the way in a dark cavern being traversed, everything comes together into a remarkably sublime focus. A minor crisis, the kind that most young families must face eventually, brought this into sharp relief today.

I kept the train going ALL DAY today. The engine was an insatiably greedy washing machine and dryer, and the fuel I shoveled into the “fire box” was an inexhaustible supply of sheets, blankets, pillows and their cases, teddy bears, jackets, hats, and (pardon my British here) an endless supply of other shite. An occasion like this can really show you just how much extra non-essential stuff can hold you back, while cluttering your life unnecessarily. That’s another conversation, an important one, and interesting to me in that this is what I thought I was gaining from the toilsome experience.

I discovered that I’m actually learning tenderness, something far more valuable than my endless quest for minimalism. Role models have never been present in my life, so I’ve never found parenting to come “naturally.” Tonight while combing my daughter’s hair, and taking two or three times as long to finish drying it as my wife, I found myself grateful for the head lice that invaded and upended our home. Though I’m feverishly working to put out this book, which is the culmination of a life’s dream—which itself wouldn’t have been possible without the gut-wrenching experience of losing my job—I’ve found these past 24 hours entirely consumed by the menial, but necessary, chores of delousing and keeping a home running through it all (my wife soldiers on admirably, but is sick and run down). Calmly, gently, and in unhurried motions I went through my child’s long hair. So lovely. It seemed to mean the world to her too. For this I’m grateful. Hours and hours of work today, with virtually nothing wise being uttered, and this was probably the most meaningful part of the day for both of us. I had simply shown up, was fully present, and available to help. Slowly, often painfully slowly, I am becoming increasingly more vital in the daily life of my family. Frequently being impatient, busy, or distracted, times like this are incredibly valuable. Thus, I can thank the job-loss for this as well as the coming-to-fruition dream of writing and publishing my memoir. Lemons really do make lemonade. It’s not just a catchy phrase. Amazing…

For some reason I can’t resist sharing some other stories of blood-suckers. This particular story ends with me sitting in my underwear, and under the watchful care of a nurse-practitioner who just happened to be the mother of a child in the same class as my kids. FREAKIN’ GREAT! I’ve been awkward around her ever since. Additionally, my wife had been calling me a hypochondriac for a solid month as I scratched the little red bumps gracing my lower abdomen with increasing intensity. I had recently returned from a visit to my childhood home to help clean it out again, and followed this up by reading a book by another child of a hoarder, Jessie Sholl, called Dirty Secret. The author goes into great deal about her own raging case of scabies, which she picked up from her mom’s house, and which proved to be resistant to multiple treatments for the better part of a year or so. Her whole life was becoming devoted to ridding her house and body of scabies. HORRIBLE! Anyhow, in a remarkably ironic coincidence, my symptoms continued to develop unabated as I persevered through the book. My case wound up being easily treated through the smearing on of a disgusting pesticide all over my body. We’re talking every crack and crevice—scalp, eyelids, deep into the belly button, and further on down the line. I’m pleased to say my mite wasn’t scabies, but the treatment of it is the same as that of the other much more dreaded parasite. Also, I did not catch these hitchhikers from the old house, thankfully.

19 years ago, at the very beginning of my sabbatical—I actually prefer referring to this nine-month period of marvelous self-discovery in more gestational terms—I had an amazing encounter with thousands and thousands of biting flies. Coming down from Eagle Mountain, the highest point in Minnesota, I saw 3 heads in the waters of lovely Whale Lake at the base of the large hill. At first we took them to be ducks, and after we realized they were moose I dropped my bag, got my camera ready, and ran as fast as I could for a beach toward which they appeared to be aiming. Just 200 yards down the trail, perhaps half the distance to my goal, I heard loud splashing to my left and stopped in my tracks. A medium-sized cow moose stood in stunned silence, wearing the same expression of surprise and fear, just five feet away. She had two calves with her, so I greatly feared being charged as I remained frozen as a stone. Suddenly she jumped into the water in panic, her two calves slowly followed, and they swam back across the lake.

While reveling in the adrenaline and euphoria, we watched the young family for a short time until we realized we were covered in biting flies. We were so close to the water’s edge that the cloud of deer and horse flies had migrated from the animals to us after they plunged back into the water. There were thousands of them. They were so thick that I couldn’t even see my friend’s back through the swarm as they covered every square centimeter of real estate. It was like a scene taken from a killer bee movie. I cannot fathom how the beasts of the forests can handle such an onslaught all day long. As we sprinted back up the trail in frenzied hysteria we came across a porcupine waddling in the same direction. Our flight path carried us around the animal, and it seemed as if the beasts of the forest were all fleeing the same forest fire. Real adventure and discovery often doesn’t come until adversity strikes in some way.

Ironically, I seem to recall the remarkable army of biting flies with more fondness today than those three magnificent moose. Lacking a picture of deer flies and horse flies, I’ve provided an inadequate picture of the moose fleeing the scene (circa summer of 1995)…

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