For years I’ve had a bad little habit of not attending to (or actively ignoring) parts of my body that are experiencing low levels of discomfort or pain. It isn’t a let’s-put-off-seeking-medical-help-for-as-long-as-possible thing, although like almost everyone I know, I have that going on too. What I mean is that if, for instance, I happen to sit, stand, slide, or snooze myself into a position where my neck is bent at an awkward angle, a shoulder is shoved against too tight a corner, or a shin strains against too much weight-bearing, I’m very likely to stay right where I am, just as I am—even if all it would take to be perfectly comfortable is the tiniest, most simple of movements.
I sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) plunge into a similar kind of stasis when I’m thirsty, too: refuse to pick up a glass of water that’s on the table in front of me. Does that seem odd to you? It does to me. I’m wanting in the most primary, most organic way, and life, satiation, clear relief stand right there waiting. What sense does that make?
It’s interesting, this tendency toward inertia, because it often feels simultaneously masochistic and involuntary. There is a determination, a weird diamond resolve that keeps me stiller-than-still, as if I’ve begun playing a staring game with my own anatomy. And yet there’s also a heavy sense of paralysis in the whole affair, as if an incubus is sitting on my chest. Rational thought makes no appearance in these moments—not, at any rate, until the self-cast/else-cast/tangible/imaginary hex or curse or anathema lifts, and I make move toward some greater ease.
All that exists is my strange and stubborn unwillingness to stir, even or especially for the sake of my own well being.
I thought of this a week ago today, when Ross and I drove north from Tel Aviv along the coast to land on sands that Herod walked on, once. We wanted to see where he’d built a little kingdom by the Mediterranean—where moneyed Romans soaked in baths kissed by sea breezes, cheered on chariot racers turning on tight pivots in the sand, watched moody actors play out Senecan tragedies on the stage below their great amphitheater. At this instant, though, it wasn’t Romans I was contemplating. It was bats.
Ross was wandering down into an ancient shrine when I heard squeaking from the vault next door to it, and wondered if it was birds nesting in the dark. The cries grew louder and more irritated as I made my approach, but for a time I couldn’t see a damn thing in the narrow cavern, its entrance (perhaps crumbling a little after these thousands of years) now held up by wooden beams. Eventually, I crouched to pass beneath a beam and lifted my head up as I moved forward, and hey—there they were: a colony of bats.
Here is the thing about the bats that was surprising to me. Here is the thing that makes me tell you this not-very-weighty story after all my rambling up above about inertia (obdurate inertia, making me so careless of my own simplest and most important needs). It was the middle of the afternoon and these bats, by my lights, were all meant to be asleep—but they were not asleep.
Well, some of them were. Some asleep and quiet and unpended, hanging from the ceiling just like bats in your imagination hang: with folded wings and stretched-out feet. But like I said, there was a great deal of squeaking going on, and each squeak was accompanied by lots of movement. Bats flew this way and that, flapping right to left and left to right; one would nudge another out of place and set off a small domino line of shifts, and only a few moments would pass in between the flurries and exchanges of position.
“They’re so chatty!” said Ross, who had come up from the shrine to find me rapt and glowing, taking video after video on my phone. “I know!” I said, and we both wondered at the inexplicable bustle.
Later I looked it up, and as best as I can understand it, this was not a colony of outliers who had learned to be diurnal. Roosting bats will often, it seems, change positions through the day. Sometimes (usually when roosting outdoors, though, in trees) they’re moving to escape from concentrations of the parasites that often plague them, like biting fleas and mites.
And sometimes (this is what I think was going on in that cool, time-worn vault) they’re moving in response to tiny fluctuations in the ambient temperature, following pockets of warmth as they occur and disappear. Roosting birds do this, too, although I hadn’t really thought about it much before that day: They spend at least part of their sleeping hours seeking finer rest.
To sleep, or maybe just to be alive, if you’re a bat or bird or probably most any other creature in the turbulent, immense cacophony of living things that fills the world, is to be always taking care of your own needs. You don’t need to consider much, to make this happen—your body answers to necessity and the environment without your making any serious judgment or decision. You just fly after what will change your situation for the better. You’re always in motion of one kind or another, making incremental shifts toward an unachievable, but useful, perfect state.
I, apparently, do not. Am not. Shift not. I see what would improve my lot and lay my energies toward failing to improve it. It’s not just cricks in my neck and popping knees I’m talking about here, friends. (You know.)
The bats have squeaked. I, they have said, am quite ridiculous. I should insert smiley face here, because I’m smiling, rather, at this batty pattern.
What to do? Ah, raise my capsized head and shove my way into a better place, of course. The bats have squeaked.
(Here is a video of Caesarea’s bats. I wish I could tell you what species they are, but Israel has several dozen and I have almost no mammal taxonomy. Maybe one of you can tell me.)