Glow And Shadow

I’m a little early for my lunch date on the main campus so I spend some time watching a fat and busy spider weave her web, in the medicinal garden below the main fountain. She is so big and round I can see her from several yards away in her flowering shrub and she is hanging upside down on her under-construction web, allowing me to peer for minutes at a time at the architecture of spinneret and mandible. I get a cramp in my calf from bending over at a ninety-degree angle and watching her build her death trap.

She hangs from two legs, uses two legs to pull the silk out, uses two to attach the thinly indestructible threads to one another, and uses the last two to adjust the tension of the lines with a gesture that reminds me of wrapping yarn around my hand in preparation to knit. Can a spider gesture? Does she know I’m there? I read somewhere once that spiders are functionally blind…but if that’s true, then why the big eyes? And how does she know where to place each leg, working unhurriedly and competently, doing what she was born to do and nothing else, nothing less?

I walk up past the fountain with its scattering of geese and ducks. In my head the ducks at Green Lake are stable, well-meaning families who have been nesting there for years, with their eight geeselings a year and their sedate trips out to the island in the middle of the algae-infested lake. You can hear them scolding the kids to swim in line, talking to their mates about whether they need to go to the store tonight or can it wait until tomorrow, is there gas in the car, what time do we need to be at the PTA meeting tomorrow night, do we both have to go? The bedrock of the waterfowl community, patriotic and friendly and a little frazzled. They always bring potato salad to duck barbecues and they have a large collection of Disney DVDs at home.

The fountain ducks are a little more cosmopolitan. They’re partnered, most of them, but yeah, they had a threesome once, back in duck school. No big deal, really, but whoo, man, those were some crazy times. They prefer to live in a small condo right in the middle of everything and to take public transportation from the nest to the fountain, although they do still have a Subaru in the garage. They shop at Whole Foods and they listen to Guns N’ Roses ironically on their iPod Nanos (anything bigger gets in the way of flying). They sit lined up on the lip of the fountain, watching the world go by, drinking soy lattes, making up stories about the flightless bipeds that hurry along past them.

I’m meeting my friend at a part of the campus that I don’t know very well since all my classes during the two years of my social work program were held in the same basement of a building that was technically off campus. The leaves on the trees and on the walkways are golden red and the wind kicks up a little and swirls them around and the clock tower starts clanging twelve times and I look around for the movie cameras as the gorgeous down-vested students pour out of the brick buildings that are as close as we come to history on the west coast of this country. I am thinking about Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald and the administration indictments that are supposed to come any day now. I am thinking about the 2000 Americans and many more thousand Iraqis killed in the war. I am thinking about broken hearts and rocky transitions and the latest hurricane that somehow spared my family and my childhood home, and about the long slow dim of autumn, as I zip my sweater up and the leaves cover the grass completely, allowing me to shoosh and swish my sensible shoes just a little.

“You don’t care about people because it gets you anything,” my lunch date says over our healthy brown-bagged soups. “You have to live in the present because you can control neither the past nor the future,” my dinner date says over spicy tea and chocolate with chili in it. I think about the unexpected compassion that can buoy you up in the middle of grayness, about the bright world that can beat you down even if you are slow and careful. We all live in tension between the glow and the shadow, scuffing our feet in the beautiful dead leaves, hanging blind from the flower stems, splashing down inexpertly in the false city lakes.

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