taking the passive out of passive-aggressive

Friday, July 29, 2005

Some years ago my husband bought an ant farm for our daughter, who was a toddler. It was an odd choice of gift, I thought--at the time, we'd sold our house, thinking we'd be able to find something right away, and we couldn't. So we ended up in this apartment over by Wyman Park, living in a quarter of the space we'd had before. My father died right around this time, and I was working this incredibly demanding job, and we were totally displaced and had this two-year-old who was understandably upset by the moving and uncertainty. I used to come home every night, eat a bowl of pasta and read one of the John LeCarre novels that my father had left behind, drink some beers and pass out in my business suit, unable really to do much more than that. That, and cry. I was twenty-five years old and I didn't know what to do at all. I'd no idea that when people said "life is hard" they meant this--a father you missed, a child you didn't know what to do with, no home to call home, working fifteen hours a day--a whole set of devastating events that meant yes, I was an adult, and yes, I needed to pick myself back up and deal with it.

So anyway, one day the husband comes home with an ant farm that had arrived in the mail. A little green ant farm, just like I remembered from childhood, with a packet of sleeping ants (I can't remember now if they were drugged or there was some natural reason for them to sleep while going through the U.S. Postal Service). And a note that said, more or less (I can't quote it verbatim now) "It is illegal to ship queen ants through the mail. Therefore, all of the ants will eventually die. If you want to keep your ant farm alive, you will need to find a queen ant in your yard and put her in the ant farm."

Well, we didn't have a yard. And I was most certainly not going out into the courtyard digging for queen ants, and neither, it seemed, was my husband. So the ant farm became essentially an exercise in work and death: the drones built sand hills and carried their dead to the bottom of the farm, working little paths through the white hills beneath the fake green plastic barn. Over the course of a few months, in between giving my child baths in the rusty tub, weeping over spaghetti and George Smiley, I watched the ants die one by one, carried to their graves by their comrades, who worked without purpose in the flat, two-dimensional farm. I remember often thinking, "What will happen when the last one dies? Who will carry her to her grave?"

And it would have been a her--the helpful notes with the ant farm, besides extolling the virtues of ants ("Ants are the hardest workers on earth! They work all day and most of the night!") told me that all the worker ants were female. All of them. The only males in the bunch would appear, spontaneously, in the presence of a queen--yes, the female ants sprung wings from their backs and became males for half a day to fertilize the lolling queen, and then die--spent. But without a queen, they were doomed to work ceaselessly, never to sprout wings, never to do anything at all but carry the dead around.

I fed them their sugar water, they lived a while, and I don't remember now whether I got to see the last one carrying the second-to-last one onto the now-huge pile of dead. I did notice that they never ate their own, and the burial ritual seemed quite elaborate. And yes, they were hard workers; and indeed, they worked all together--the ant farm was like some Soviet propaganda for the collective. Their movements seemed somehow coordinated, and yet how could they communicate, these tiny insects with their tiny segmented bodies and tiny little brains? Was I missing something--some connection with my fellow humans, that I couldn't understand how it was possible?

I came back to life--slowly, it's true, and with great difficulty. And realized that we all live in the ant farm to some degree, but it's not the horrible thing I'd imagined back then. That we all affect each other--that our decisions matter far beyond their immediate consequence, that the walking back and forth and going here to there and the work that seems like drudgery has an underlying purpose--if it does. If you have a queen, it matters. And if you don't, it's work and death.


At 6:01 PM, Blogger Zenchick said...

beautiful post.
thank you.


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