Witness the woolly bear caterpillar, master of dormancy. If you have spent time in parks and yards in America, you have seen them. Fat, dark pipe cleaners with rusty bands around their middles. The size of the bands predicts the harshness of winter, according to folklore. What I didn’t know as a boy, as I plucked them from the grass, is this: There is anti-freeze in their blood. Glycerol. Enough to lower the freezing point of water, keeping cells from bursting as the caterpillars lie under leaves and snow, rigid as ice. Hearts slowed almost to a stop. In spring, a frozen woolly bear thaws and reanimates. It spins a silk pupa and becomes a moth the color of ripe wheat. The condition of waking is that the organism must change.
Ten years ago, my nerves gave out while I slept. Most likely the problem began in childhood, with a virus that struck and then lay dormant in the tissues beneath my ear. That winter I was twenty-six. I woke sweat-soaked and dizzy in my new apartment, which I had rented too quickly, a bid to start over after abandoning love for no good reason. The place was two floors above a rock club whose bass rattled my bed most nights. I wobbled past cold appliances to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My face had dropped. The skin and muscles were heavy, mask-like. Attempts at normal facial expressions – a squint, a raised brow – failed, the signals between my brain and flesh disrupted. My eyes would not cooperate; words split and swam on the pages of books, on screens. It felt like sabotage, like rebellion: my nervous system recoiling from the world, ganglia fizzling out in protest.
For years afterward, as my nerves slowly healed and re-webbed, all I saw in the faces of others was machinery. It was like people had become puppets. Latex skin, fishing line jerking lips into smiles, eyeballs rolling like bearings. With those visions came a sick, freeing thought: Who and what we are is the same. Self equals body. When the machinery is working we do not care. When the problem is quiet, curled on the frozen ground awaiting transformation, we do not care. Any grace is the grace of machinery working.
Still, long after experts say it should happen, I am surprised by faint electric jolts. My cheek crackles and plumps as nerves creep back to life. Even now, it is happening. I can forget that lesson but I cannot unknow it.
I am watching my country fall asleep. We are drowsing, feeding on insults and falsehoods and facts like sedatives. We cage children for walking with their parents across an invisible line in the dirt. We shrug and hedge. Denial becomes a cocoon. On his birthday, I scream at my father about corruption and cruelty, feeling rotten and ashamed but unable to stop. (The same father who paid my rent during those months when I was sick, who later loaded my things into a box truck and drove them six hundred miles home, an act of rescue, the blood in his leg clotting from the strain.) Now he baits me with lies without knowing, and I gape like a wound. We are helpless, lost in a fog of rage. Wake up.
A few years ago in the fall, before we saw more of ourselves, before the mirror was wiped of steam, the edges of the image sharpened beyond argument, beyond bad faith, I walked by a neighborhood pond. There was fog that night, hanging low and weird around the trees. And all around me, moths: newly hatched and velvet-furred, tumbling in the cool air, dipping through cones of yellow streetlight. They emerged all at once, a kind of eruption. Dozens and dozens. It made the news. They cut awkward paths, seemingly confused by their freedom. In past seasons they had gotten in the house, yo-yoing around bulbs, chewing pinhead holes in my shirts. I chased them too angrily, always, caught and trapped them in one hand, flung them out the front door, cursed. I missed the frantic wingbeats in the dark of my fist as soon as my fingers splayed. Across my palm, streaks of powder like television makeup.
By the pond that night, it was different. The moths brushed over my clothes and skin. Perhaps they sensed no threat. A cellular acceptance, like a blessing, like truth. They flickered out across the water in the dark. Hundreds of wings fluttering like eyes blinking open.