Heeding a Wayward Sound of Summer
Updated: Jan 22
While reading a book a few days ago, I spotted a housefly crawling on the window across the room. At first I couldn’t tell whether it was inside or outside. Occasionally it would take flight and disappear. Eventually I concluded that it was inside. And trying to escape?! It was bitterly cold outside, but maybe flies are unfazed by the cold? Soon I went back to my book and forgot about this companion.
Sometimes the fly would land nearby, and I would take a half-hearted swipe at it. But I’m too slow, and we don’t even have a flyswatter in our household. But this action triggered a memory I wouldn’t even have dignified by that terminology ...
Over the next few days I occasionally saw the fly. My wife saw it, too, and we agreed the creature was solitary, though it moved from room to room. I guess we’ll know for sure if a swarm of flies appears in the next few weeks, if it was a female. I haven’t seen a carcass. I pause here and wonder if I might be ennobling this insect by calling a creature. But then look at its image and the details in Wikipedia. The most widespread insect in the world, named for its affinity for humans. Infinitely complex and adaptable, even ready to help “govern” should we humans should completely lose our grip.
Sometimes the fly would land nearby, and I would take a half-hearted swipe at it. But I’m too slow, and we don’t even have a flyswatter in our household. But this action triggered a memory I wouldn’t even have dignified by that term, as it involved events sixty-some years ago. It evokes my fascination and discomfort with the idea of karma.
When I was a boy, I spent some time with the family of my father’s cousin in Two Rock, a disappearing outpost about 10 miles west of Petaluma. The cousin was a Presbyterian minister who lived with his wife and—they must have had a couple of children, younger than me, because I don’t remember anything about them. This visit was extremely boring, alleviated only by taking a flyswatter out onto the porch and killing the cloud of houseflies. In those days I was quick as a flick and exulted in my prowess at killing these pests.
So, what has this to do with karma? I’m not alone in this curiosity, You can find people searching for answers about flies on the internet. If they have killed flies, has karma offered the flies a means of revenge. Can flies come back as people, or vice versa? Most of the questions—and answers! —strike me as naïve. If my visiting fly was karmic, I think it brought only a reminder of how events can be linked in mysterious ways.
My father’s cousin left the ministry to become a counselor and author. He published a book titled Why You Can’t Love. His mother, my sainted Great Aunt Mary– lamented that “Marshall has written a dirty book.” I can’t find the book on the internet anymore, but I read it a few decades ago and thought it cogent.
An aunt who had married into my father’s large extended family once told me that four of fourteen first cousins had committed suicide. I could never recite all these cousins’ names, though I did meet most of them. Most seemed to me like vague entities, so I didn’t think to ask if Marshall was included in that unfortunate quartet. Because there were rumors. But according to my mother, Marshall died on a fishing trip when a huge storm swept across a large lake in a Western state, taking Marshall and his three companions.
So I have other questions about karma. I sometimes see skeins of karma running through my family. I asked my brother about them. He was a Hindu monk for ten years and is still a Hindu. But he replied that he did not think he nor I were qualified to determine what was owing to karma. I accept that. Yet still, when I practice the “four thoughts” of Tibetan Buddhism—one of which is a single, enigmatic word—karma—may I maintain an open mind about the function of this mystifying force. * And may the soul of the visiting housefly be satisfied that it captured my attention.
* These are the “four thoughts,” or preliminaries. I am used to thinking of samsara as number two.
1. Thinking about appreciating the precious human life
2. Thinking about death and impermanence, that the opportunities that we have now with this precious existence are not going to last
3. Thinking about the laws of karma and cause and effect, in other words how our behavior affects what we experience
4. Thinking about the disadvantages of samsara, of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.