This morning as I walked along the seashore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table . . .
Billy Collins, “Fleeting Love”
Once upon a time, I had a religious experience when I fell in love. Not the sort that comes with burning bushes or clay tablets, or even sounds of erotic bliss in the night, but filled with awe nonetheless. I was leaving our only bank in Abita Springs, Louisiana, one that pays architectural homage to the iconic nineteenth-century white-steepled Lutheran church a block away, when I spied a praying mantis sitting on the bank’s long white porch railing. I don’t think I interrupted anything liturgical when I stopped to greet it, as its hands were firmly planted on the railing. But of course, one never knows when it comes to witnessing prayer, since it manifests itself in sometimes surprising ways.
I figured my sunglasses would frighten the little critter, so I removed them when I bent forward in greeting. “Hello there,” I said. “You’re a mighty handsome fellow.” (As a Southern woman, I live by the rule that it is always polite to make favorable comments on another’s appearance.) Anyway, he—and I shall use the masculine pronoun to simplify matters—turned to take me in, folding up his elbows in the process. There were pinpoint black dots in his eyes, which continued to regard me, cooing away as I was on the excellent quality of his coloring and his fine appendages. And oh, how captivating were his eyes.
That’s when it happened. He put his hands down on the railing and began swaying from side to side in a steady rhythm to music barely perceptible to my ears and yet familiar. Whether it was “Beautiful Dreamer” or “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” I cannot say for sure. “Such a flirt you are,” I said, clearly charmed, unable to break away from his dance. We stood like this for a while, he swaying, me watching intently, but too shy to join him. Finally, he began moving slowly forward, sashaying down that railing in a strut so irresistible as to render me speechless. I had a brief pang of regret as he left. I almost wanted to call out, to beg forgiveness, saying that I wouldn’t be so reserved the next time.
Now, I recognize a mating dance when I see one, and I want to tell you that I felt truly honored by his efforts. In fact, I fell in love. Who was I to spurn such a suitor—especially one so spiritual in nature? Yet I wondered if our relationship would be problematic in the long run, coming from such radically different cultures as we do. So, I simply beamed my gratitude and bid him adiós. He continued down his path, and I mine, heartened by the fact that I’d been invited to dance along the way, a little wistful, nonetheless.
It might have ended there. Yet the mystery of our encounter lingered and, flawed human that I am, I wanted proof of his love, even if our relationship was fleeting. Did I mean anything to him, or was I simply a convenient mirror for his narcissism? And why malign mirroring in the first place? Wasn’t the pool equally smitten by Narcissus? I wanted The Real Truth. Closure even.
A letter would have been nice.
Entomologists, with their bright lights and dissecting tools, would likely inform me that my experience was not at all what I thought. “It was just gas,” the chief entomologist would rant in biospeak, not even bothering to conceal his hard-science disdain for what he regarded as my romantic foolishness. Any child could tell you not to pay much heed to that kind of poo-pooing. An analyst—not mine, of course—would stroke his van Dyke and pronounce, “All projection, my dear. Now tell me, what does a praying mantis represent to you?” The abbot of the nearby St. Benedict’s Abbey would intone in Gregorian chant that one should not ask pointed questions, that close scrutiny of Love and Mystery isn’t always wise. “Sometimes it’s best just to let things be,” he would counsel. Rilke would take a different stand. He would tell me to learn to love the questions, and not to concern myself with needing answers.
Nevertheless, I know the Dalai Lama would agree with me. I can just see that beatific smile wash over his face and merriment twinkle in his eyes when he says, “You remember, don’t you?”
See, that’s the thing. Even if karma assigned me to be a mantid in this life, wouldn’t there still be the problem of our dissimilarity? With his almost Calvinistic, if elegant, spare green attire, my little suitor clearly embraced the clerical; and I, undoubtedly, would be one of those secularly-entrenched, flamboyant flower mantids with enough ruffles and excess to make Carmen Miranda envious. Showy would not be too strong a word to describe my raiment. While he might be content to do a modest sway on a bank railing, I would want to tango on Tahoma with moonlight bathing the snow. Wouldn’t what is obvious on the surface reflect that which is innermost?
Who knows? Maybe my concerns were completely unfounded and we could have found ample occasions for communion.
I hate to admit it, but I suppose the abbot could have a point about putting Mystery under a microscope. The Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, says, “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.” Having savored those pleasures and accessing the Divine, we want more. And yet, when one opens the door to Eros or any other of the gods and goddesses, one had better hang on to the doorframe. Look at what happened to Psyche and Semele. They wanted to know for sure and what did they get? Ants and a pile of seeds and all that business with smelly ram fleece was only the half of it. And turning into a pile of ash? I mean, who needs it?
A niggling thought lingers, though. What if it really were something else? What if I had completely misread the situation and projected my yearning for the Beloved onto him, when his strut bespoke the killing he’d just made on his Apple stock? After all, he was leaving the bank. Or perhaps he was simply an angel in disguise, sent with a message a different sort, one that has yet to reveal itself.
It is about Love’s Mystery. That much is certain. And in that alone, I recognize the Divine.