Pillbug Soul
Photograph by Elsa Lichman

 

Pandemic year 2020 has me digging down in the soil of my life, sifting through layers for understanding. I once thought I would always be whole, my body would always be strong, and Chicago would always be home. Now half the city is fault lines under pressure ready to rupture; the other half breaking down, sliding into itself, decomposing. Lockdowns, protests, elections, mask-violence, gang tagging, dents kicked in cars, carjacking, catalytic convertors gone, bikes gone, people gone, and oh yeah, Covid. When asked, I say I am okay. But I’m not. This is the year I curl up into a little ball and roll away.

 

      Pressure squats on my chest. Overhead, helicopters approach and recede in low circles with a deafening heartbeat. Is this the second night or the third night? My eyes sting from no sleep; I push the heel of my hands into them for relief and read the neighborhood Meta feed. “Look around your property. What can be used to smash a window or set on fire? Take planters off of porch. Put trash bins inside back gate.” Legs and arms encased in amber, I slog to our back yard and drag the 96-gallon cans inside the gate. On this May evening, lit by alley lights, the network of branches crisscrosses overhead, tender green leaves barely unfurled. I hold my phone, age lines crisscrossing the skin on my hand, and go back to doomscrolling.

“jeez! It’s getting real out there”

“this is mentally exhausting”

“I keep hearing explosions. Gunshots or fireworks?”

“It never goes away. It’s tragic.”

“this is insane, sirens all day.”

      Pressure squeezes boa constrictor-tight around my ribs. Lowes boarded up. Home Depot boarded up. A few blocks away, Clark Street boarded up. My brain is boarded up. I switch to the police scanner app and follow the radio calls real-time. Downtown, the crowds eddy into stores, encircle police cars, slash tires, smash windows. I listen with alternating tension and relief as a tsunami of people flows towards our home, then away, then towards. Exhausting. Dread oozing at the edges of my brain, I check my phone and see a message from the alderman. “I have been in communication with district commanders throughout the evening. They are reporting coordinated looting in some commercial/business areas in the ward. Be on the lookout for multiple vehicles (caravans) and U-Haul trucks.” I push forward through the dark narrow gangway to grab the large garden rock by the front porch and haul it to safety. Time slows as I reach for the stone. My hands a complex pattern repeated at different scales. Bony-knuckled fingers, smooth teenage hands, childish wiggling worms of curiosity.

*

 

      The roly-poly is a half-inch long, slate grey; she does not bite, sting, or destroy. Segmented hard plates protect her vulnerable underside when threatened. Not an insect but a crustacean with gills like a lobster or shrimp, curling in dry environments to conserve water to breathe.

*

 

  I push my 4-year-old fingers into the earth. The ground rough and yielding as triumphant fists pull up worlds of dark rich soil. It waterfalls into little piles that spill and create new and smaller piles. Connected to life. I have always been digging in the earth. A seed in sun-warmed grass, I lay flat and feel the pull of gravity on my body. Remembering the moment when a boy shows me the hidden world of insects. “Look, under rocks, under logs, if you lift them up.” He lifts a rock revealing shiny crawling bits of life in damp darkness. A universe I never knew existed. The boy picks up a roly-poly and shows me how it curls into a ball. I hold one in my hand tenderly. Wonder. Gratitude. A joyful secret under every rock seen in the brilliant detail of preschool eyes without the clouds of naming. It is just what it is. No judgment. A bug-like longing for the soil. The satisfying sensation of crumbling, damp clods, and something deeper. A magnetic pull towards the center. I belong to the earth.

      I enter kindergarten during the Cold War. Trust cracked open in irregular but familiar fractures. Weeks into the new year, the Cuban Missile Crisis inspires duck-and-cover drills. Shown a happy cartoon home and tree blown away by fiery winds, debris flying through the air. Our teacher dutifully drills us as we drop to the floor under our desks and wait for the world to end in a fiery explosion. The synapses of my four-year-old brain pruned like branches of a bonsai. I hug myself into a ball, squeezing my legs and arms as tight as I can. Trying to make myself small enough to exist between atoms and survive. The rest of my school days spent gazing through windows at the trees and the smoothly piling swirls of cloud-flows, part of me still huddled on the floor. Disconnected. Dormant. Cities with greatest likelihood of being nuked in the 1960s: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, D.C. No easy way to evacuate a large city.

*

 

      Pillbugs (or roly-polies) are symbols of innocence. They do no harm. Because they are arthropods with exoskeletons, the only way they can grow is to leave behind their protection in a process called ecdysis. The old armor splits and sheds leaving the pill bug vulnerable for a time as the new surface hardens.

*

 

    Nineteen years old, lost, empty. I am given a worn-out Bible held together with packing tape, which I toss along with some camping gear into my ’67 beige Plymouth Fury beater. Map unfolded, I aim for Michigan. A modern vision quest, during which I find my own wilderness on Upper Peninsula Power Company land. Each day filled with simple tasks of living. Fish-shaped clouds swim lazily in currents of sky so blue it hurts. Gather wood, build a fire, cook, read, and meditate. The pops and sputters as fire devours wood, shifting flames, shifting logs. The breath of tall pines and white noise of the river at the bottom of the bluff. In the quiet voice of deep woods, I gather and chop. Gravity does the work as the hand axe falls, chupp-chupp-chupp; it chews the deadwood I feed to the fire. In this life of dirt and river and trees, I am healing.

      In the silence of forest in the center of the world, the trees sing for me. Rising in roots from earth’s belly, bursting into the sky through infinite branches. A vibrating song of being and gratitude as old as earth. Entanglement. Energy surging and flowing in channels and filling up forgotten spaces. I remember who I am. Reconnected. I gather stones and place them in a pile to mark this spot as sacred. Time slows as I reach for another stone, and my hands exist in different times together in this moment. Energy flows through them like the songs of trees.

      Back in Chicago, I meet my husband-to-be and suddenly the idea of being married no longer seems like a punishment. He has deep roots. We walk through his neighborhood and he points out that here his grandmother held his hand on the walk to the grocery store, there his aunt had a beauty shop, here his grandfather stopped at the bar for a beer after work. He is fun, smart, grounded. I feel safe with him. I climb over barbed wire to pick sunflowers for him; he gives me jeans to replace the ones I’ve torn. I have someone with whom to share my day. He is bedrock for building.

      I attend a workshop on connecting with nature in the city. We are asked to walk in the nearby field and find something in nature to sit and observe. Told that if we listen and are open, we will be given a message. I gravitate towards the edge of the trees and sit in the dry fall grass. I wait patiently and watch an ant as he scuttles on the dirt between the grasses and disappears from view, leaving me without a message. Frustrated, until I realize that while I sit quietly, a spider has begun to weave her web between my knee and a tall stalk of grass. I am an anchor for her web. Part of the interconnected universe whether I realize it or not. I thank her for the gift and begin to find balance in my life as a caregiver and weaver of community. Happy to be rooted.

*

 

      A pillbug is sensitive to changes and provides information about the health of her environment. She can survive in contaminated soil and even cleans the environment for others by ingesting heavy metal contamination and concentrating it into small balls in her gut.

*

 

      Our son enters college as our last parents are being sung into the next world. Rootbound in a shrinking world, I see my path tracing clearly forward to a life without space. In a timeless moment at a stop sign, I choose for myself risking, reaching, mistake-making growth. A late bloomer. Doors fall open as I earn a counseling degree and become a healer. Helping others dig for meaning in the earth of their stories. Rich soil.

    Then a seismic shift, my husband of 32 years disabled by strokes. No rock to anchor me as the earth buckles and folds beneath me. I am a caregiver again, trying to balance home, family, career. I navigate sadness by ignoring my body until curled up in pain, I drive myself to the hospital, the ICU. Gallstones block fluids from flowing through my body, becoming dry ground. My body shouts, “I am not healthy.” Our 19-year-old son at home walking his shuffling father with a gait belt, and me with tubes and bags dangling from my body. A Hieronymus Bosch painting. A triptych of decay and regeneration and decay.

      I am invited to participate in an Anishinaabe cedar wash ceremony. Receiving indigenous wisdom and healing from tribal leaders and elders; four sacred medicines, the language of plants. Our group of visiting counselors sits as a community and meditates on letting go what is causing pain or holding back. I am led around the circle to stand on the brown fur of a bearskin with cedar branches under my feet. On the medicine wheel the bear aligns with winter, elders, spiritual understanding, and cedar. A white cloth, damp with cedar water, passes over me as I stand silent and open. Surrounded by raw songs and the heartbeat of drums we have made from deerskin. In this circle that holds me, the smoky smells of burning sweet grass and sage fanned by bird wings create tender currents of memory. The cedar-water cloth moves over my head and body, pulling my brokenness, disconnection, and fear down through me, released to the branches below. I do not cry or shake, I smile. Connected in shared ritual, beginning a process of change I will bring back to Chicago. Led back to my seat and given the branches holding my pain, I spread them near the lake. Returning them to earth, I say ‘miigwich,” and watch my hands bury a tobacco tie in the soil. Sixty-year-old hands that reach, hold, burn, pray, carry, thank, release, and heal. Time folds back upon itself in endless loops.

*

 

        Pillbugs are often used in experiments about risk-taking behavior because of their conglobation, rolling into an uninterrupted stony sphere when under threat. They also aggregate as a response to water loss, clumping together in social action to trap moisture for breathing.

*

 

      Chicago cracks open in irregular but familiar patterns. During the prohibition era, the Red Summer of 1919 begins with the throwing of stones on a segregated beach and erupts into fighting throughout the city. Thirty-eight dead. During the civil rights era, stones are hurled at marchers led by Martin Luther King. When MLK is shot two years later, Chicago has the second deadliest riots in the nation. Eleven dead. During the 2020 pandemic era, rocks and stones and pieces of asphalt are compacted anger thrown through windows and windshields, at moving cars, at parked cars, at police cars. Protests, riots, looting. Cracking open the windows of Michigan Avenue to fill our fractured emptiness with Gucci sunglasses and Prada bags. Two dead. Chicago continues to shatter in complex patterns of class, race, mistrust, anger, and violence. The city shouts, “I am not healthy.”

    The mayor enacts a curfew and draws up the city’s bridges, like a roly-poly protecting the soft financial underbelly of downtown wealth. Chaos driven into neighborhoods. National guard activated, SWAT teams patrol the streets. Listening to flashbangs and gunshots, checking ShotSpotter to find out how close. A tangled ball of anxiety, livestreamed on Meta. Received in my inbox: flyer for a chat on election anxiety, flyer for a chat on the rise of right-wing militias, notice of a property tax assessment increase of 17 percent. Life is smaller, ulcerous, more expensive. I teach counseling and see clients online from home, listen to increasing anxiety, fear, and frustration from others. My own anxiety skyrockets as I lose the adult day care for my husband, juggling work with caregiving. He wanders in, so I lock the door to the room when I am online and strain for worrying sounds from the other side. He will roam, so I double- and triple-check the locks on doors and windows so he cannot make his way outside, maskless, defenseless, blundering through a city on edge.

      I struggle to remember generative forces of tree roots pushing through earth, hidden universe of insects. How to heal when there is no space to be whole. I am a small scurrying bug, hoping my home is not suddenly exposed to chaos. Bug-out bags hang in the garage, packed with flashlight, first-aid kit, power bars, water, solar radio, masks, wipes, maps, rope, tarp, and a foldable shovel for digging. The four-year-old in me waiting for the flash of atomic light.

*

 

      How long a pillbug takes to uncurl and stretch out and how long she takes to become acclimated to changing environments varies by individual. Just as with humans each responds to the environment in a unique way.

*

 

      The decision to leave Chicago is a long time coming but happens in an instant. Four generations, resisting waves of history and gentrification. Leaving today, carried along by a flood of anxiety and a need for wellness. The walls of our home now blank, the floors empty. I have packed away, sold off, hauled to the alley, and placed on a truck lifetimes of accumulation. One hundred years of life dug up and wrapped in burlap. I am proud of the shining oak floors, of the white plaster walls and the wooden-framed sash windows. The house looks ready for new possibilities, new generations, new memories. I am thrilled for emptiness and our own possibilities. The layers of our past like ghosts in my mind. Here is the wall where my son stretched tall to record growth marks. The long wavy inchworm of pencil slashes now painted over with fresh white paint. Here sunlight filters through the windows and makes rectangles of peaceful light on the empty floor and walls. I hear the jazz I played on Pandora, holding my mother’s hand as she prepared to leave the world on her own terms.

      I grab the wall for balance as I descend the too narrow, too steep, hundred-year-old stairs into the basement. In one corner is the coal room, grey metal door to the coal chute still working from the inside but boarded over outside. The ghost of the original coal furnace, later converted to gas, still visible in stains on the floor’s grey paint. The furnace squatted beast-like in the center of the basement until just a few years ago. My husband grew up with it, hunting down ever rarer replacement parts when it broke down. When I was the one needing to repair it, I had the monster broken to pieces and hauled out the cellar back door. Saving only the old ornate iron door, tucked like a memory into a dark corner. No regrets. There is a freedom that comes from the stripping away of extra things. We keep the old letters, photographs, and objects that speak deeply of family and release the rest. When the ghosts gather to say goodbye, I invite them to Idaho, but they choose Chicago. Man-made, crush-of-people, street-lit, music-filled, centuries old. It sounds so alive, but it has been fracked by 2020, leaving empty fissures filling with stress. We float out the front door. Weightless.

*

 

      Pillbugs break down dead and decaying material creating rich fertile ground ready for new growth. Decomposers. Returning essential nutrients back into the soil. Regeneration.

*

 

      Celebration Park, Idaho. Standing in the center of an immense stone bowl made up of hills, canyon walls, and mountains. Pale sky and clouds fringe low around the edges, the center poured full of intense blue. Boulders squat like herds of dark unmoving sheep in the surrounding fields. Shaking with excitement I take my husband’s hand and we lurch across the rough ground to the river. Crunch of gravel as we walk along the water’s edge covered with fallen trees and dry grasses. Decay sliding into soil for new growth in the spring. Hump-backed stones vary in size from melons to Volkswagens in this foreign landscape and I am filled with a profound sense of strangeness. Twelve weeks earlier we lived in Chicago with no plans to move. Suddenly, we are here. Almost another planet.

    Transplanted into a small neighborhood of new homes full of refugees from California and New York. Tucked away, with horses and sheep near one entrance, goats and chickens at the other. Our yard visited by finches, doves, quail, and magpies, while hawks swim in lazy circles overhead. When I stand in our kitchen to cook I see the tops of the Sawtooth Range peering over the fence. “Mountains!” I shout every time I round the corner and glimpse them. Amazed they are still there but always changing. My son and husband are patient, perhaps finding joy in my joy. Frantic urban pandemic left behind, time to lift stones and discover what is underneath. The debris of mistakes and pain creating new soil. I dig with my pen.          

    The boulders at Celebration Park were carried here in a massive flood 17,000 years ago. Water racing and squeezing through long narrow canyon walls with ravenous force. Ripping away basaltic rock, tossing boulders as playfully as pebbles. Rounded smooth. As the water roared into this place the canyon walls opened wide and the water slowed its pace, depositing these massive round stones. A place of letting go. Healing.

    There is endurance in the life of rocks. These hold traces of ancient art carved into their skin over a span of 10,000 years. Speaking in pictures of sun, water, wind, trees. Stories of earth and people in languages no longer spoken. Dislocation and location. Absence and presence. Decay and growth. I think about being here, about the city I left behind, about the ways we numb the pain of unhealed wounds. I place my hands on top of a huge round boulder, warm from the sun. The long low vibration of stone wisdom thrums through me. Hands full. Entangled. Some sleeping part of me wakes as I feel the energy of the earth rising under me. A coil of anxiety loosens and I take my husband’s hand. Powerful currents, complex and self-similar, have deposited us here in our new home. With gratitude, I breathe deeply into this moment. Breath in. Breath out. Slowly I begin to uncurl.

 

 

Author's Comment

We all have a 2020 story that longs to be told. I started that year as a lifelong Chicagoan and finished it living in Idaho. It was a year of movement from urban stress to the healing that can be found in communication with nature. “Pillbug Soul” is an exploration of the personal and historical currents that sweep us along and deposit us in new and sometimes surprising locations.

Bios

Leslie Contos is a Narrative Therapist living in Idaho, where she collaborates with clients as they reweave stories to promote healing. She has an M.A. and Ph.D. in counseling and is caregiver to a husband with cognitive impairment from strokes. She has recently begun her own journey of writing and expression around themes of loss and healing. She is grateful to have been accepted for publication this year by Atticus Review and Persimmon Tree. You can learn more at https://www.lesliecontos.com.

Elsa Lichman, MSW, LICSW, retired after 43 years as a social worker. In retirement she turned to the arts, becoming a newspaper columnist, poet, solo singer, choral singer, and photographer. Her love of nature has taken her on many magical adventures.

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