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Backstage at the Universe

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Over 30 years have passed since that summer's day in late August. A day when sweat stained everything you touched and the slightest breeze might have lifted your hopes but never the heat.

I was on a spiritual retreat, locked away for a week on a country estate with a few hundred others who, like myself, were seeking a sense of order for their lives by briefly escaping the senseless chaos of their worlds. On the day in question I was toiling away in the depths of the estate's ancient kitchen.

It must have been mid-afternoon when a heavy, languorous droning pulled me from my task, and I found myself staring at, then chasing after, one of those mammoth B-52 moths that seem to live for the thrill of banging into porch screens on sultry summer nights.

He was so fat and ponderous that his evasive retreat seemed to unwind in slow motion through the thick heavy air of the kitchen. Still, he might have escaped had he not flown so close to the window where someone had braced a large portable fan to exhaust the heat of the kitchen ovens.

Fascinated by the sudden drama taking place, I watched as the moth was drawn out of his flight path and pulled -- wings flapping in futile resistance -- towards the whirling, humming blades of the fan.

It was then that the spectacle took a curious turn. The moth, in a plucky bid for survival, reached for the fan's safety screen as he was being sucked through. When I stepped up for a closer look, there he was stubbornly clinging with two front micro-thin feelers to a strand of enameled wire while the rest of his oversized torso was lifted into the vortex of the fan's inexorable draft.

There was something bewitching about this melodrama before me. How else can you describe a moment in your life when a moth becomes suddenly heroic?

I was moved by the moth's almost human will to survive, and the all-too-human way in which he struggled against forces far greater than his species was programmed to resist. It was as if he understood what waited for him the moment he released his grip and was holding on for dear life like a frightened sentient creature.

In witnessing what seemed to me a triumph over the insect's moth-like nature, I inexplicably began to view things that lay beyond the ordinary limits of my own human vision. And in that instant of higher insight, I saw that he and I, in some fundamental way, were not really different from each other. In fact, at some core, ordinarily untapped level, we were exactly the same.

This wasn't knowledge offered up by my intellect, but rather a sense of knowing that came from deep within.

Looking back, I can see that certain qualities shine when manifested, as if containing glimpses of higher truths. What I was experiencing in the drama of the indomitable moth was courage in its purest form. There was something so primal about its nature that it seemed as if I were watching the gears of the universe at work.

I was living in two worlds, and from where I stood I could see them both. In one world, an insignificant moth -- one that in the past I could have easily, without thought or regret, flattened with a rolled newspaper -- was valiantly fighting for its life. In the other, a moth and a man -- he and I -- were no different from each other than one actor in a drama is to the next, We had different roles to play, different costumes to wear, but the importance of those differences melted away once you realized they only existed on a stage.

Suddenly my role in the drama became clear.

I placed my index finger within reaching distance of the moth, and he -- true to his role -- reached for it, pulling himself to the safety of my finger with the first feeler before letting go of the wire strand with the second.

Though he hadn't the language to express it, he knew what I was offering in that moment of extreme peril, he knew the consequences if he didn't respond, and knew that I, the giant creature that had maliciously chased him around the kitchen only moments before, was now acting as a benevolent and trustworthy friend.

In that timeless moment I connected with the moth in a way I've never connected with any other animal or insect, and only rarely with a fellow human being.

And then, of course, the moment passed.

For awhile, I just stood there, silently staring at this brave little creature who seemed content to sit forever on my outstretched finger. But one can only remain so long in the midst of a busy kitchen staring at a moth on your finger before people begin to murmur vague remarks that grow less vague the longer you remain.

And so I carried my new friend outside where I brought him up close to my face for inspection. As I had feared, the magic was indeed gone. Here again was a moth, fat and ugly as before, a kindred spirit no longer. Whatever door had opened to reveal the clockworks of the universe had closed shut once again.

Just a moth sitting on my finger in a world where moths and humans rarely interact.

I don't recall any parting words. With a gentle nudge, his fat little body took wing. I envied him the sky to which he rose, but returned without regret to my duties in the kitchen.

There's a place in the universe -- call it a back room, if you wish -- where all things share equally in the substance of creation. A place where courage and the will to survive can break down the barriers and divisions we foolishly believe are immutable. A place where a moth and a man can meet on equal terms.

One hot August afternoon I stumbled into that room, and ever since I've been trying to find my way back.

This remembrance, which appeared in my book of short insights and fiction flights, "How To Train A Rock" has stayed with me like an old friend. I was recently asked to recount the story and in digging it up to re-read, I thought anew how much I liked it, and how appropriate it would be to share it with you. We live in a world where humans often act as if the universe was created for our benefit, and all "lesser" creatures are given diminished importance and limited rights. For a brief illuminated moment, I discovered the fallacy of such thinking.

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