While showering, I spotted on the high, white window ledge an ant ensphered completely by a single drop of water. Inside the edges of the drop of water were the ant’s six legs, its head, thorax, and abdomen. There were its scuttling claws and withering antennae in drenched peril.
Already, I found myself poaching the metaphor, adapting the ant’s plight to a narrative. The ant: possibly a graduate. The water: insurmountable student loan debt. The ant: a woman. The water: a male-gendered body. The ant: me. The water: any number of ideas, experiences, observations that I am currently agitating my way through on the page. The ant, just an ant, and the water just a drop of water drowning an ant as a gawking giantess exfoliates her forehead.
My father always said, “Don’t sweat the small things.” And yet, I have a penchant for both miniatures and minutiae. The smaller the subject, the more miraculous the larger world seems to me. When you study something this closely, literally testing the validity of idioms like watching the grass grow
, you see things others may not notice. You see the interconnectivity of all things. I dwell in this space. I dissect. I connect experience and the natural world with metaphor until one seems impossible without the other — until it is no longer simple metaphor, but a kind of fabric that binds one thing to another, larger thing. “To make a metaphor is to make a fuss,” Patricia Hampl wrote in A Romantic Education
. I think that’s what my father meant. Don’t fuss. And yet, I’ve come to believe that nature’s little scenes can offer the best frames of reference for understanding the human condition.
"How do you decide what goes together?" people often ask me of my braided essays, which are not strictly personal stories but include reflections on philosophy, religion, art, psychology, nature, and history. Small wonders of the natural world, and sometimes the large ones, too, weave their way through my writing, and I can see no other way around it. It happens in the way of the ant trapped in the drop of water — through recently found metaphors married to memories. Information plus story. Constant vigil and a nearby notebook. It is usually not until the right set of circumstances presents itself — some newly learned fact, a glimpse of nature in its daily tedium, a piece of history that piques my interest or solves some problem I’ve been grappling with in writing — that an essay-in-progress gathers itself together and begins to feel whole, even as it gets made up of parts other than its own subject.
If an ant can make a fuss in a space smaller than the cubic dimensions of a drop of water, why can’t I?
I moved closer to the ant, my eyes inches from the scene. The creature tried to get out of the glob, first walking forward, then scooting backward. But with each movement the water only formed itself around him, shape-shifting to quickly enshroud him. He was trapped. His death was imminent. After watching for another moment, I attempted to save him. With the corner of my fingernail, I poked at the water’s perimeter in hopes of freeing him, but it only served to make matters worse. The ant flipped over onto its back, its legs flailing for leverage. It finally righted itself save for two legs, which tangled horrifyingly with each other. And the water, like bits of mercury, gathered around him again.
Of all the things my father has advised against — coughing, ruminating, reading too much into things — it is the prohibition against sweating small things that has stuck with me the longest. Because even the small things have significance. Nature’s minute patterns, for example, repeat all around us, an underlying math coursing within our very own bodies. For example, an ant colony will retrieve and carry its dead home, like soldiers. But maybe it is our soldiers who carry our dead home like ants.
An internal dialogue begins in my head. The new scene I’m witnessing, often having little to do directly with a drafted story, begins to inform it of its meaning. To argue its case for relevancy. The scene becomes a lesson, a way to view the story’s topic from some point that is outside of myself. A way to interrogate from another angle.
I looked again at the drowning ant. What do I know of ants?
I asked myself. I listed the facts in my head: An ant has a simple heart, composed of a tube smaller than a needle’s eye that pumps colorless blood. An ant has legs thin as human hair. A brain the size of a bread crumb.
I couldn’t have predicted what the ant in the drop of water did next with his tiny heart and legs and brain. The ant reacted to its plight. Seeming to mourn in an animated, cartoonish fashion — the ant mimed fainting. As the danger escalated, the ant raised one thin foreleg to its forehead the way a woman in a black-and-white film might before whooshing into the crook of a lover’s arm. The ant began a frenzy, the way Jennifer Jones playing a light-headed Emma in the waltz scene of the 1949 film rendition of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
swirled about as the scene’s momentum mounted.
Here, the ant’s millimeters-wide stage became the whole world playing itself out. He was a dramatic scene’s arc, carried out in miniature theatre for an audience of one. His struggle, the water that adhered to him no matter how he maneuvered his limbs, was much like my own. Or yours. If an ant can make a fuss in a space smaller than the cubic dimensions of a drop of water, why can’t I? But there is nothing romantic about the death of one of the world’s tiniest creatures, is there? Nothing bathetic about the denouement. Only the sense that there is so much happening below our feet, or above our heads, and most of the time we’re missing it, our attention snapped to more obvious calamities. To whatever else is demanding we calm down, look away, keep moving.
It took decades to loosen myself from my father’s advice. Sometimes his words sneak around my ears again, encircling me like a song I can’t mute. Like a drop of water that I can’t escape. Don’t dwell. Don’t look back. Don’t make a fuss. Don’t cough.
And yet, there is so much to think about. To witness. To weave into the fabric of this life.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here
and winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. She edited the anthology Please Do Not Remove
, a collection of prose and poetry that celebrates libraries and Vermont writers. Palm’s writing has appeared in Ecotone
, Essay Daily
, Paper Darts
, Midwestern Gothic
, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont.