“Where there are humans, you’ll find flies—and Buddhas.”
When the Buddha asked a group of his followers to meditate on the decaying flesh of corpses, he was providing an instructive lesson in the truth of impermanence and the instability of the body (not to mention an effective antidote to lust). While most might avoid meditating on life’s more gruesome aspects, author Sallie Tisdale turns her gaze straight to them, using her experience to inform the clear, wide-ranging essays that appear in her newest book, Violation, which was released in April. The collection spans 30 years of writing and a territory of subject matter that includes memories of working at an abortion clinic and a reflection on the fraught relationship women have with their bodies, as well as essays on family, a writer’s obligation to the truth, and the difficulties of playing sports with men. She articulates the strange (and wonderful) underpinnings of our inner lives. This excerpt investigates Tisdale’s lifelong fascination with creatures most of us like to avoid—the buzzing critters associated with decay, decrepitude, and death: flies.
—Marie Scarles, Editorial Assistant
John Clare wrote of flies that “they look like things of mind or fairies.” There are flies so small they can barely be seen by human eyes, others as wide and long as a man’s hand. Their bodies may be lime-green or shiny blue, glowing black, metallic or dull yellow, pearly white, leathery, variegated in browns, matted with dust. A few are flecked with iridescent gold and silver. They are squat or slender or wasp-waisted. Their legs may be very long and fine or stubby, delicate as a web or stout and strong. Fly genitalia, one text notes, are “extremely polymorphous.” Some flies have beards or even furry coats made of bristles; others seem hairless. The hover flies mimic bees and wasps, growing yellow-brown bristly hair like the fur of a bumblebee or striped like yellow jackets. The tangle-veined fly, which is parasitic on grasshoppers, has a loud, bee-like buzz. A fly’s antennae may be akin to knobs or threads or whips or feathers or pencilline brushes. Insects do not breathe, exactly; they perform gas exchange in a different way from mammals, through tubes called spiracles. Their larvae breathe in many ways, through gills and snorkels, or by taking up the oxygen stored in plant roots and stems. Spiracles show up just about anywhere: beside the head, in the belly, in a maggot’s anus.
What great variety they have! When Augustine argued that the fly is also made by God, he spoke of “such towering magnitude in this tininess.” The Family Nycteribiidae, the bat ticks, are true flies but look like spiders without heads. They live only in the fur of bats, sucking bat blood, hanging on with claws. Exposed, the stunted bugs run rapidly across the bat’s fur before disappearing underneath. But the Family Tipulidae, the crane flies, fill your palm. They look like giant tapered mosquitoes, with very long, slender, spider-like legs, three eyes, big veiny wings that may span three inches. They do not bite. These are the ballerinas of the flies, delicate and graceful. Male crane flies form mating swarms that dance above treetops at sundown, or flow over pastures in a cloud, pushed by the breeze.
So one fly seeks light and heat; another avoids both. One is a vegetarian— another a terror. They flit like tiny shadows in the night skies, crawl across the window pane and out of the drain and into the garbage and into our eyes. Sometimes flies migrate out to sea far from anything human, flitting across the white-capped waves of the ever-moving sea for miles, for days. The fly is grotesque and frail and lovely and vigorous, quivering, shivering, lapping, flitting, jerking, sucking, panting: theirs is an exotic genius, a design of brilliant simplicity and bewildering complexity at once.
I study flies; I am stunned by them. I love them, with a fleeting love—with the triad: love, logic, sensitivity. Did you notice how calmly I noted that there is a fly which lives inside spiders? Another that is parasitic on grasshoppers? This is a humming, buzzing world; we live in the midst of the ceaseless murmur of lives, a world of strange things whispering the poems of old Buddhas. The world’s constant rustling is like the rubbing of velvet between distracted fingers; it can drive one mad. Beside the cherry tree, under that bright sky, lives the sheep bot fly. It enters a sheep’s nostrils, where it gives birth to live young. The maggots crawl up the nasal passages into the sinuses, where they feed until they are grown—a process that lasts nearly a year. The sheep’s nose runs with pus; it shakes its head at this odd itch, shakes and rubs its nose into the ground, grits its teeth, jumps about, growing ever weaker. The condition is called the blind staggers. One day the sheep gives a great sneeze, and out shoot mature sheep bot flies. They are ready to mate, and make more babies.
It is right here with flies that I face a direct and potent challenge: What do I really believe? What do I believe about beauty and the ultimate goodness of this world?
Jean-Henri Fabre lays out his corpses by the open window. A few days later, he writes, “Let us overcome our repugnance and give a glance inside.” Then he lifts the bodies, counting the flies that have come, the eggs they lay, the larvae that form “. . . a surging mass of swarming sterns and pointed heads, which emerge, wriggle and dive in again. It suggests a seething billow.” He adds, as an aside, “It turns one’s stomach.” He examines and measures and counts, and then gently places a few hundred eggs in a test tube with a piece of meat squeezed dry. A few days later, he pours off the liquescent remnants of the once-hard flesh, which “flows in every direction like an icicle placed before the fire.” He measures it, and keeps careful notes.
“It is horrible,” he adds, “most horrible.”
I have been a Buddhist for more than 30 years, since I was a young woman. My avid urge to understand bodies didn’t stop at the bodies themselves; I sought for a way to think about the fact of life, the deepest query. Buddhism in its heart is an answer to our questions about suffering and loss, a response to the inexplicable; it is a way to live with life. Its explanations, its particular vocabulary and shorthand, its gentle pressures—they have been with me throughout my adult life; they are part of my language, my thought, my view. Buddhism saved my life and controlled it; it has been liberation and censure at once.
Buddhism is blunt about suffering, its causes and its cures. The Buddha taught that nothing is permanent. He taught this in a great many ways, but most of what he said came down to this: things change. Change hurts; change cannot be avoided. “All compounded things are subject to dissolution”—this formula is basic Buddhist doctrine, it is pounded into us by the canon, by the masters, by our daily lives. It means all things are compounded and will dissolve, which means I am compounded and I will dissolve. This is not something I readily accept, and yet I am continually bombarded with the evidence. I longed to know this, this fact of life, this answer—that we are put together from other things and will be taken apart and those other things and those things we become will in turn be taken apart and built anew—that there is nothing known which escapes this fate. When one of his disciples struggled with lust or felt pride in his youth or strength, the Buddha recommended that the follower go to the charnel ground, and meditate on a corpse—on its blossoming into something new.
We feel pain because things change. We feel joy for the same reason. But suffering is not simply pain: it is our peculiar punishment that we know things change and we want this to be otherwise. We want to hang on to what is going away, keep our conditions as they are, people as they are, ourselves as we are. In Buddhist terms this is variously called thirst or desire or attachment or clinging. It means that we hold on to the hope that something will remain, even as it all slides away like sand in running water, like water from our hands. Knowing the answer does not stop the question from being asked.
Desire is not always about holding something close; it has a shadow, the urge to push things away. Buddhists usually call this aversion— the desire for the extinction of something, for separation from it. The original Pali word for aversion, dosa, is various and shaded, translated sometimes as anger or hatred, sometimes as denial, as projection, aggression, repulsion, and now and then as disgust or revulsion or distortion. Aversion has as much force and fascination as the positive desires we know. It may be simply a reflexive flinch, a ducking for cover; it may be much stronger. Like desire, aversion is a many-colored thing, flavored by circumstances. It is a kind of clinging— clinging to the hope of something other than this.
When I began to study flies, I couldn’t seem to stop. Fabre wrote, “To know their habits long haunted my mind.” I think of the violence with which we describe such prurient obsessions—we say we cannot tear our eyes away. My eyes are glued to flies and it is as though they are stitched open against my will. I feel revulsion, I flinch, I turn away, I duck for cover. I get squeamish, which is a rare feeling for me. But I also feel curiosity and admiration and a kind of awe. The buzz of a fly’s blurred wings is one of the myriad ways the world speaks to us; it is one of the ways speech is freed from our ideas. I feel that if I could listen, if I could just listen without reacting, without judgment or preference or opinion—without reaching for a dream of how things might be otherwise—there is something I would understand that I have yet to know.
Compassion in all its flavors is woven through the enormous canon of Buddhist thought. Its root meaning is “to suffer with.” We are able to feel compassion toward those beings who look like us and those who are most familiar. (These are not the same thing; dissimilar creatures can be deeply familiar, as we know from our time spent with dogs, with horses—even lizards.) At what point do we extend this circle past what is known, past what looks like us? At what point do we suffer with what is completely strange? And how far must that circle extend before it includes the sheep bot fly?
This mix of push and pull I feel when I look at insects is akin to the way the tongue longs for an acquired taste. The first time one tastes certain complex flavors they are unpleasant, even offensive. But in time it is that very flavor, its complexity—the bitterness or acidity mingling with other layers—that brings you back. Whether it is wine or chili powder or natto—a Japanese delicacy of soybeans bound into a sticky, cobwebbed mold—one returns in part because of the difficulty. We are sharply, pleasantly excited by the nearness of rejection, by skirting along the edge of things, the dank and sour things that instinct reads as dangerous. These shadings of flavor ever so briefly evoke poison and rot—the urine scent of beer, the lingering oily bitterness of coffee, the rank tang of certain cheeses. There is a brief shrinking away, perhaps very brief, minuscule, but there nonetheless.
This is a little bit of what I feel toward flies. Let us give a glance inside—a glance, a gasp, a shiver, the briefest reactivity: and then another look, a bit sideways though it may be, and then another. Then there follows the need to look: interest turning into inquiry into passion: the desire to know, to see, and something more, something crucial—the need to bear it, to be able to bear it, to be able to look as closely and thoroughly as I can.
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