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Conquering Fear One Spider at a Time




By Susan Chernak McElroy

Out of the corner of my eye I saw her, a tiny spider no bigger than a pea making her tentative way across the vast expanse of my bedcovers. Instantly, I went stiff. Her body was the color and size of a small pearl, her eight legs deep espresso brown. My ten-year-old face contorted at the sight of her, and I heard the shriek explode out of my lungs with the force of a whale spouting. By the time my mom arrived with a tissue and squashed her, I was close to hyperventilation. That night, I burned every light in my room and slept with the covers over my head.

I lived in a small factory town where tired streetlights burned away the light of the stars and yellow smog regularly obliterated the green hills standing not more than three miles from our tiny suburban house. The night of the terrible spider massacre, I was burrowed deep in my bedcovers, reading my favorite book, Understood Betsy. It is the story of a young city girl who finds herself suddenly sent to live with distant relatives on a poor, northeast farm. Word for word, it was the story of my secret childhood dream. But in my dreams, Betsy never had to contend with bugs, particularly spiders, no matter how remote her surroundings. That something as harmless as an innocent spider coming to visit in the peace of night should throw me into such trembling paroxysms of fear and sleeplessness attests to the powerful effect that horror movies and collective cultural stupidity and bias had had on me by that tender age. I'm certain I was not born afraid of spiders. As a youngster, I had never been harmed by a spider, nor by any other insect save a hapless honeybee that found himself under my bare and unaware foot. My spider fear and countless other senseless fears I still harbor I absorbed from the body of my culture. Our societal myth about the danger of wild nature and her children - rats, bats, spiders, wolves, snakes, darkness, storms, silence - is an old one, well-secured in human hearts by the time the first settlers arrived in this country. I have written about this fear of wild Earth and wild kin in my first book, Animals as Teachers and Healers, but until recently I had never fully considered just how fully imprisoned I was by it. "What is not useful is vicious," wrote Puritan leader Cotton Mather. I had never heard those words as a child, but somehow, I had ingested them. That is exactly how I felt about spiders. They were of no use to me, so they were vicious.

My spider terrors did not diminish as I grew older. In fact, without my mother there all the time with a fly swatter or a paper towel in hand, my fears seemed to intensify and to make nights away from home almost unbearable. A spider on the ceiling or scuttling along a floorboard would mean a night without sleep, as I sat crouched in the covers, nearly crippled with the crazy fantasy that somehow the insect was searching for me, would find me, would - God forbid - crawl across me. As I grew older it baffled and frustrated me no end that I was aware enough to recognize the immobilizing power of my phobia but not aware enough to influence it in the least. Telling myself I was being foolish, stupid, ridiculous, and childish was useless. There was simply no way my analytical brain could make contact with my body and convince it of anything. Grace and hope finally came to me in the form of a college psychology class, where I first read about a technique for phobia called "submersion," in which people face their phobia head on, even hands-on if need be. Not being patient by nature, I thought diving in seemed about the best option for facing my spider fears. Large spiders were all the rage at that time as "pets," and every pet shop had its retail collection of both drab (cheap) and colorful (costly) tarantulas imprisoned in small glass tanks. On a Saturday afternoon marked by brilliant skies and crisp sunshine, I walked into a store and asked if I could hold one of the spiders. Perhaps I seemed like a composed, potential buyer to the skinny youngster behind the counter. I was far from it. It had taken me weeks of sleepless nights and nervous fits to get this far. My stomach was churning and my hands were as cold as icicles. Only the acute level of my desperation could have pushed me into the pet shop that day. I had decided that I would meet my fear where it lived by allowing a spider - a huge, huge spider - to speak to me through touch.

"Which one would you like to see?" the boy asked. None of them, I thought. Not a single miserable one. "That big one -the one with the orange stripes on its legs," I answered in a voice that sounded hollow and far away.

Pulling down the small tank from the shelf, the boy began a long stream of talk as he slowly removed the screen lid and reached his hand down to the arachnid, who pulled away and hunched herself into a corner of her glass cell. She was a beautiful thing. I could see that even through my fear, which had enveloped me in a dreamy, surreal fog. Her hair was erect and shiny black. Bright orange bands the color of ripe pumpkins encircled her legs, which were nearly as large around as my pinky fingers.

The boy was soft-voiced and patient. He simply rested his hand, open and palm up, next to the tarantula and waited. "When I pass it to you, don't jerk away or try to fling it off. Don't blow on it, because it gets them mad. Don't poke it. You can pet it, but if it puts its front feet up, stop. That means it's getting upset. It won't bite or anything."

"It." I never like hearing an animal referred to as "it." His use of the impersonal pronoun inadvertently brought me into a weak alliance with the spider, forging the tiniest thread of a bond between us, just strong enough to keep my feet planted on the linoleum and to keep me from bolting out of the store.

The spider was beginning to uncurl herself, and looked to be about the size of my palm. With one feathery leg, she reached forward and touched the boy's hand. Soon, all eight feet were moving in the direction of his outstretched fingers, and then she was sitting quietly with the orb of her body centered in his palm. He slowly raised his hand up and extended it to me. I saw my own hand reach forward with no sense at all that it was connected to my arm, and as the boy tipped his hand up, I felt the first touch of the spider's sticky feet against my fingers. My body recoiled, but somehow my hand remained extended. I turned my face away from her and closed my eyes. More feather-weight feet touched my hand, then there was only stillness. Turning my face, I opened my eyes and I saw her snuggled down into the cup of my palm. "It likes the warmth," the boy said. "It'll start moving soon." As though he had given her marching orders, she raised her body and began moving delicately toward my wrist, waving each leg slowly in the air like a curious antennae before resting it on my skin. My face seemed to be miles away from my arm, as though I were viewing this bizarre and unlikely event from outer space. Quiet pervaded my body. There was a curious rushing sound in my ears that drowned out all sound save for the occasional comments from the sales boy. I watched, entranced, as she made her tentative way past my elbow, tickling the hairs on my arm as she went. My focus was entirely upon her, upon the sleekness of her, and upon the soul of her. At my armpit, she paused and waved her two front legs, clearly at the crossroads of a choice: Down to the torso, or up to the face? My fear gave way before a flood of simple enchantment and childlike wonder. So close to the spider, I found it suddenly impossible not to see the personhood that resided with such dignity there. She waited and stroked her back leg thoughtfully, a spider-person at a turn in the road. What do to? Ah, well, why not the high road? With a slight shift, she spoke to all of her legs and each one turned in unison, aiming up, up over my shoulder to touch the thin skin of my neck underneath my hair. "Ick! Oh, man, it's going to walk across her face! Gross!" Lost in my enchanted trance, I did not realize we had attracted a small, encircling audience. "Eeeyoo - What does it feel like?" someone asked. "Like feathers brushing your skin. Or like blades of grass when you pull them backwards between your fingers," I replied. The spider was now at my jawline, reaching her arms up over the ridge there toward my lips. I felt her gentle hands on my mouth, my upper lip, touching inquisitively on the edge of my nose. Her body moved across my face, the prickly hairs of her abdomen sliding across my upper cheek. I tilted my face to offer her a flatter platform. Then, she marched over my eye, onto my forehead, and stopped on the top of my head, Everest conquered.

At the boy's suggestion, I offered her my palm and she climbed aboard. I no longer turned my face away from her. In fact, I could not take my eyes off her. When I stroked her back with the top of my finger, she seemed to rise to the touch. Far, far too soon, the time came to return her to her tank. When I left the pet shop that afternoon, I felt as though I were betraying her by leaving her there.

The spider and I had accomplished a miracle together that afternoon. I brought myself, my fear, and my willingness for things to be different to that pet shop, and the spider brought me the transformative mystery of herself. Across the barriers of culture and species, she spoke to me of life as it looks encased in a stiff and fragile body. From inside of that body - a small and hairy thing - she revealed to me simply and masterfully that a larger body of mind and spirit resided there. I don't know what, if anything, I revealed to her. I hope in some way she felt through my skin a sense of my awe and appreciation of her, and of my unspeakable gratitude toward her.

I never saw spiders with the same eyes after that day. When I moved into my first rental trailer several years later and found it already inhabited by hoards of black house spiders, I was able to modify my spider vocabulary from "invaders" to "roommates" and find a way to live in peace with them, asking only that they not fall from the ceiling onto my face in the middle of the night. None did. Just this past year, while cleaning my bedroom, I came across a small jumping spider moving across the surface of my sliding patio door. Thirty-four years have passed since my encounter with the tarantula. In the ensuing years, I have escorted many spiders outside in cups and on tissues. Many more I have simply let share the sink, the corners, the ceilings. Jumping spiders have become a special love of mine, with their flying, saucer-shaped bodies and rows of portal-like black eyes. This one was so small, a tiny animated jewel no bigger than a piece of cracked corn.

I needed to clean the glass doors, so the spider had to go somewhere else. On a whim, I spoke to her, saying, "If you climb onto my finger tip, I'll take you to a better, safer place than this." Always before, when I extended my digits to spiders, they recoiled and ran. But this day was different. The jumping spider stood her ground as my index finger touched down like a mountain in front of her. After maybe five full seconds of quiet deliberation, she reached out a leg as fine as an eyelash and touched my finger, probing as far as she could reach. Satisfied, she gathered her legs beneath her and launched herself onto my fingernail. Never once did she move while I carried her slowly to the spider plant in the bathroom. When I said, "This is the place," she launched again onto a leaf and scurried away into the plant forest. A person, I thought. A spider-person of great courage and trust. For decades after my face-to-face meeting with the tarantula - my ultimate spider - I would read about the mythology of the Spider, and about Spider as creator of the first alphabet. I believe now that Spider was calling me to my true work as a writer, and that my fear of Spider was wedded in part to my fears of claiming my dormant skills as a weaver of alphabets.

When I recall my tarantula experience, which I often do, what remains vivid in my mind is not the color of her, or the face of the clerk, or the particulars of the shop or the day. The enduring clarity of sight and sensation attending those memories rests solely in the numinousness of the encounter, in the spiritual, almost holy sensation of meeting a deep fear eye-to-eye and having the fear burst softly like an iridescent soap bubble over your face. No one, myself included, could have talked me out of my spider terrors. Instead, Spider herself, wordlessly and in the simple language of her own personhood, reached out and met me finger to finger, changing my world forever in less time than it had ever taken my mother to quell my fear with the swat of a well-aimed towel.

I think back to the small brown and pearl-colored spider stepping gently across my covers who had made the innocent and fatal error of coming to meet me when my fear was uncontrollable and deadly. In my dreams, I choose to imagine that she came back to Earth larger than life, with black bristling hairs and pumpkin-colored stripes around her legs, and that we met again, not simply face to face, but soul to soul.


Excerpted from All My Relations by Susan Chernak McElroy. Copyright © 2004 Susan Chernak McElroy. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library . All rights reserved. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657, ext 52 or click here .

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