The Year of the Wandering Snail

E found a snail in our side-yard a few weeks ago after a good rain. “Our” side-yard actually belongs to our neighbor, who bought it a few months ago after a long battle with the city and has proceeded to do nothing with it as of yet. A house once stood on this lot, one half of a duplex that burned down some number of decades ago, leaving the adjoined house intact, the black scars of the fire still visible on its broad stucco sidewall. The side-yard is the reason our house has light on three sides, a clearing in the otherwise closely-spaced Victorian twins that line the streets of our neighborhood, clothed in their surprising splashes of yellow and purple and blue.

The side-yard has an ecology of its own. It was once tended by a neighborhood gardener, so you can discern amidst the ungoverned growth of weeds the echo of human intention — a patch of day lillies, a stand of sturdy hostas, a deep tangle of morning glory vines that have nowhere to climb and so have elected instead to spread along the ground. The foundation of the absent house is still visible at the surface of the earth in between the verdant volunteers — a submerged ruin of stone and brick and wire mesh that has left the ground pock-marked and uneven. Things appear in the lot sometimes — a pile of thin wooden beams, the inevitable stream of Doritos bags and sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll paraphernalia that blows in from the park across the street, discarded paperwork that has escaped from our neighbors’ recycling bins, and, most notably, a large wooden structure that looks like a spool of thread that has been blown up to giant-size, Alice-in-Wonderland-style. The unexplained appearance of these objects is a source of some consternation for C, and I can understand why, but I secretly welcome their comings and goings. It feels like the city is breathing in and out around us. Every few months, the motion sensor light that was installed facing the side-yard by the previous owners of our house mysteriously turns on at night. The harsh fluorescent light illuminates a wedge-shaped area of the side-yard for several minutes when this happens and I peer out of the windows trying to identify the human or animal that triggered it, but nothing is ever visible. The thing to do with this side yard would be to buy it, fence it, fill it with earth, level it, landscape it, and put a swing set on it, but I kind of like it as it is — wild, nationless, filled like the Elvish forests in the Lord of the Rings with a magic whose intentions are beyond human understanding.

So it is fitting that E found the snail in this side-yard. It happened when I was at work. E wanted to keep it and so it was brought inside, with the plan to observe it for a time, feed it some lettuce, and release it the next day. When I came home, E led me upstairs excitedly and we peered in at it. There was nothing of its meat visible, just a shell adhered to the side of the tupperware, its seal easily broken to reveal a crust of dried mucus at the shell’s opening. Nothing about it suggested the presence of life. Why, I silently pleaded, must all pet experiences end in lessons about death? But we didn’t speak of that possibility and instead, we covered the tupperware with foil, leaving a few holes for air, and went to bed.

In the morning, the snail was nowhere to be found. The tupperware was exactly where we had left it and the foil seemed undisturbed but there was no snail. We searched every surface of the playroom, the edges of the furniture, the walls, the baseboards, the many books and boxes and toys — no snail. The effect was one of uncanny silence. It’s not like the snail had been making noise when we knew where it was, but the snail’s absence seemed to leave a vacuum of sound borne of the knowledge that we would simply have no way of knowing where or if the snail was. You can call to a snail, but you will get no response. And what pattern governs the movement of snails? Not even Google could guide us. We learned that they are nocturnal, that they require calcium to maintain the health of their shells, that they can live up to 25 years, that they have around 14,000 teeth parts in their mouths, but we still didn’t know where it was.

It made me uncomfortable, knowing that the snail was at large in our house. I found myself opening doors slowly, anticipating the startle of finding it in some unlikely place. I didn’t know whether to fear it from below — I didn’t want to find it by stepping on it — or to fear it from above — would it fall on me from the ceiling? But then the morning picked up speed and I mentally gave the snail back into the care of the universe, acknowledging the likelihood that we would probably never know what had happened to it.

A week passed and we all forgot about the snail. Then one night when I went in to feed the frogs, there it was, adhered to the side of the frog tank, inert. There is a moment in movies when a character enters a room and is unaware of the presence of another person but you as the viewer can see them reflected in a mirror or hidden behind a door. That’s what it felt like. Nothing about the snail seemed alive in that moment but the fact of its having returned spoke to a week of activity — of whatever constitutes the activities of daily living for a snail. Tell us the story of your week! I wanted to say. But there is nothing you can learn from a snail about its past.

We placed the snail in a small drop of water and watched it slowly unfurl itself from its shell. I’m a little sheepish to admit it, but I haven’t experienced such visual curiosity or taken such pleasure in observing a living thing since they put E’s squirming, slick, blue body on my chest that bright morning four-and-a-half years ago. I was shocked by the miracle of it. At a pace that is just above the perceptible, the translucent body of the snail slowly expanded from the mouth of the shell, its dark “foot” finding its way toward the table, its featureless neck and head extending up, its four antennae emerging last, alert, with what I now know to be its eyes turning in every direction at the tips of the top two longer stalks. Its colors both were and weren’t — somewhere between clear and gray and white. It started to move across the table in one fluid movement and I thought of Michael Jackson moonwalking — that level of perfection and genius. It moonwalked over to the leaf of romaine lettuce that we had prepared for it and started to eat. If nothing in the room moved and you held your breath, you could just hear the sound of its 14,000 teeth parts chomping, the smallest sound that could reasonably be distinguished from silence.

The next day, E found another snail and so now we live with two snails. E named them Dino and Nino or Dinah and Nina, gender being the mystery that it is. They spend the majority of their time in the interior wilderness of our house, unseen, but then they return to the table where the frog tank is and we feed them. My spiritual development is not their job — and if I’m honest with myself, I don’t know how ethical it is to keep them in our home at all — but living with them is reminding me about wildness and I’m so grateful for that reminder.

It is easy to forget about wildness. There are all the schedules and plans and account numbers and passwords and meetings and aspirations and metrics and milestones and accomplishments. There is all the work of creating a life. It’s easy to feel that the substance of your life is that which you cultivate. But there is another story to life, which is a story of wild chance — to have been brought into being from the hundreds of thousands of eggs and the millions of sperm that might have been instead, to have avoided dying of the thousands things that could have killed you, to happen to sit next to a stranger on an airplane who soon is no longer a stranger, to look up one evening just as the sun’s last light sets the entire side of a glass-walled skyscraper on fire. Then there is the life of the animal. Soaked in amniotic fluid we arrive, beset throughout our lives by the scents and sensations of food and love and the body’s functioning, living through the infinite unconscious bodily processes that sustain us and move us through space until for whatever reason they no longer can. It is easy to forget about wildness until it comes into conflict with the life we choose and make, but it’s also possible to live in that wildness all along, an experience parallel to and in communication with the life that is reflected on the Google calendar.

I’m turning 36 today, which is not a huge number, but it’s not a small number either. It is conceivable that the majority of my days in this life have already occurred, perhaps even the vast majority — one never knows. The prospect of dying used to seem just completely impossible to me on an existential level. But whether it is a function of getting older or the fact that my job brings me into such intimate contact with birth and death, I can see now how life comes and goes, possessed of so much drama and emotional meaning, yet also indifferent to it. The awareness of life’s finitude has produced dueling urges: On the one hand, there is the urge to do and create and make a mark on the world. But even more strongly, I feel the urge to live out the full fruit of my wild life — to taste everything and smell the air and have my fingers in the dirt and the sea and to more fully inhabit my body and to sleep deeply and to love and to love and to love and to see what there is to be seen. To be, like the wandering snail, complete unto myself on this adventure of days and nights.

I was searching the other night for a poem to give to a friend who is in a hard spot, and I found this Mary Oliver poem which I haven’t read in a long time. It was not the poem for my friend at this moment — there are times when you just can’t send someone a poem about death no matter how profound it is — but it is the mantra I am going to carry into my 36th year, the year of wildness, the year of the wandering snail.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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6 thoughts on “The Year of the Wandering Snail

  1. This is beautiful. I got completely distracted from my cervical cone. I’m so happy to have met you so I can think of you when I read your words. At 42, I’m in a huge resolution phase and this truly resonates. Happy bday!

    • Thanks Gizabeth! I feel the same way — it’s great to have met you — makes the connection through shared writing that much stronger. Thanks for the birthday wishes! I hope you and yours are doing well!

  2. I cannot even tell you how wonderful I think your blog is (found it from MiM; I’m also a mommy in medicine..though just a med student). It’s like reading poetry; you truly have a gift! I write for fun but will never have such skill; you paint a most beautiful picture of really seeing life through the eyes of a beloved child. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you so much for your comment and sorry for my delayed response! I don’t log on here as much as I want to or should because: medicine! and motherhood! So not enough time for writing. But it’s always so nice to hear from a fellow doctor-mom. Best of luck to you in your medical training journey!

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