An itsy-bitsy inchworm planted itself on my sleeve. It crawled up my arm to get a good look at me and decide whether any part of my human self was edible.
I disappointed my little friend, however. Apparently, I was not carrying the sort of inchworm that is carnivorous. (Some members of the species do enjoy dining on meat. They live in Hawaii.)
All my life, the sight of an inchworm has called to mind the idyllic scene and the innocuous, unforgettable tune delivered in the movie Hans Christian Anderson. In the film, Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminski in Brooklyn to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants) plays the famous Danish fairy tale author. Jewish boys play Aryan boys more often than you might imagine.
In the scene that comes inevitably to my mind, David Daniel Kaminski sings sweetly at marigolds (and worms) in the company of a young boy who looks with adoration at all three.
I placed the inchworm on our porch, entered our humble home, and sang:
Measuring the marigolds,
Seems to me you’d stop and see
How beautiful they are.
I had no idea.
Just days later, I noted that there were a good many inchworms about the trees and house. A mere forty-eight hours later, there was no part of yard, gardens, car or home that was not covered in their stringy detritus. We couldn’t go out the house or into it without carrying the critters with us. We found them in our hair, in our collars, down our backs, underneath our pant cuffs.
My office window was so bedecked in strings and webs it looked like Halloween had taken up residence in my nicely modest Jewish home as a belated April Fool’s joke. The only thing missing were the skeletons issuing battery-powered screams.
According to the all-purpose Wikipedia article on inchworms, the creatures “hide from predators by fading into the background or resembling twigs.”
Ha. These guys were taking over the world. Narf.
As the next two days passed, hundreds of inchworms gave way to thousands and ten thousands. It reminded me of plague of frogs which begins, according to Torah, with the appearance of one single amphibian. (Yes, I know the English translations gloss over this fact, but after God commands Aaron to haul the frogs out of the water in Ex. 8:1 only one frog actually appears in 8:2. Rabbis have had a wonderful time trying to explain the appearance of the singular beast for many centuries.)
It was my last cleaning and cooking day before Pesach was to begin. We were having guests for first night seder. I imagined my friends entering our abode covered in inchworm weavings. Even Elijah would not have set one mystical foot on our deck.
My husband, Ralf, and I began cleaning.
There was no place free of the inchworms. Thousands of the beasties were crawling about the door frames, the soffits, the windows, the deck flooring and fencing, the patio chairs…
For the next three hours we used a hose and a hard bristle brush to clean off the doors, the narrow front patio, and the deck. After a while, the sludge of dead or dying inchworms grew to almost three inches high. The task had the same appeal as cleaning a dormitory toilet – on the men’s side.
As we hosed and brushed and hosed again, I alternated between the guilt that rises whenever a creature of nature dies and the horror of the muck, the grunge and the gross before me. Predictably, the guilt subsided under the weight of the horror.
Over the years, I have come to see Pesach as my annual attempt at liberation from some piece of the muck and the grunge and the unwanted stuff I have accumulated and carried around with me.
Like the inchworms, the ick that we carry around is resistant. Like the inchworm, it sneaks up on us. They are persistent, those old hurts, the old patterns, the way we shlep stuff from dysfunctional systems that can mark an infant’s soul within days of its arrival on this earth.
The Hebrew for Egypt is mitzrayim. It means “the narrow space.” We all want to be free of narrow spaces, the tight constraints of past patterns and old pains.
I brushed and hosed in the bright spring sunshine, mourning the new leaves the inchworms had so merrily consumed on all the variously beautiful trees around my little home. I resolved to band them, to protect them next fall, so that they could freely unfold in spring.
I asked myself: What could I leave behind me?
For most of my adult life I have worked between ten and fourteen hour days. I have known what it is to balance six part-time jobs to make some excuse for a living. Even now, I have two and a half jobs. One is supposed to be full time and the two others part time, but the hours I put in each week, as I recently measured, come to at least thirty for just one of my part-time jobs. I have been plagued by a never-ending list of tasks scrawled in the middle of the night, collected during the day.
I want to stop working like this.
I want to go outside and take in the sweet clarity of a Carolina spring. I want to have time to rest in my husband’s arms and in my friends’ good company. I want. I want.
The inchworms are gone. Those that survived our onslaught are busy turning into moths, I suppose. I know that despite all my efforts, there are many days in my future which will start around 8 am and end at midnight.
But the longing I feel is not as easily ignored or dismissed as it once was. I feel some fierce desire, some insistence rising. I feel a certainty; I must leave this narrow space.
Check in with me in a year. I’ll let you know if the inchworms came back.