Lifing Up

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
-Walt Whitman



I would first encounter this poem in my daughter’s science book, in search of orb spider facts. But instead, my heart slows at the line “Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space.”

While I have tried many times since, I have yet to find a more apt description of this post-COVID life. Of navigating an untethered, ever-connected swirl of news and voices and opinions and angst, flitting between far-flung theories and carefully spun judgments. Looking for solid ground. A place to land for a spell. To catch our breath, or dinner.

“Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space.”

Six feet apart. Enough to keep the germs – and everything else – at bay.

When I was in the trenches of panic attacks, pre-kids and a thousand years ago, self care was lauded as the antidote for anxiety. Take a nap, see the doctor, get some counseling.

Care for yourself.

It was a helpful message for me, in a time where I’d been in a habit of ignoring the fact that I held a body altogether. And then, it wasn’t. The methods amplified, and the offerings were plentiful: juice deliveries, hot stone massages, a nightly glass of peppery merlot. Squares of dark chocolate on the tongue. Pedicures. Hot lemon water. More collagen? Cryotherapy, aromatherapy, retail therapy.

Is it working, this self care? Are we getting better?

I have, since, switched tactics. I began practicing small deeds. Quiet things. Shipping sarcastic pencils and sugar to college kids. Writing long letters, the real kind. Wiping down the sink in my favorite coffee shop. Gathering up a wind-blown Tropicana bottle, throwing it into our own recycling bin.

These things have felt both monumental and completely unimportant, a trail of tiny acts that will amount to very little in the end. But I am forever reminded of Charlotte, the wise and beloved spider who said this: “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to life up my life a trifle.”

The deeds didn’t do much. But the lifing-up-my-life did.

A few years ago, I spoke to a roomful of mothers, aged 20-60. They were juggling nursing babies and aging parents, fractured relationships and strained marriages. They were tired. They were burdened. They were… joyful?

What I learned was this: a few weeks prior, a mother in the group had suffered the unthinkable – the loss of a young child in a freak accident. Within minutes, the group rallied. Mothers swapped babies and visits to the hospital. Ovens were preheated for lasagnas, breakfast casseroles. Funds raised, hands held. One woman watched another woman’s child while she sat at a coffee shop creating the funeral slideshow, and when she returned home, found that a different woman from the group had cleaned her entire home, floor to ceiling.

Each serving another.

It wasn’t self-care. It was others-care.

I don’t know what to make of it all except this: we can practice caring for ourselves, certainly. But if we practice caring for others, we’ve not only lifed up our life a trifle, but we’ve woven one heck of a web to fall into when the bough breaks.

I’m reminded, of course, of the ancient Ecclesiastes words: And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

It only takes one thread to start.

I remember a particular breezy spring morning years ago, cracking open the windows and doors to inhale the scent of lilac and possibility. I’d had the urge to shoo the littles outside and sip my tea, be in my own head for a bit. Instead, we all walked down the street to drop off a book for a neighbor.

It just made me think of you, I’d told her, and she smiled, invited us inside.

I’ve got a blackberry pie in the oven, she’d said as we walked to the kitchen. Would you guys like to stay for a slice?

Listen: we don’t need more peptides. We need more people (and probably more pie). We need generations spanning generations, weaving legacies of history and great deeds and small, quiet strength. The wise keep us young; the young keep us wise.

The wise need the young to climb the rickety stepladder to find the fancy lemonade glasses on the top shelf, the crystal ones on clearance from Elder-Beerman. And the young need the wise to marvel at their blackberry-stained smiles, to watch them light up the entire kitchen, make us all laugh, remind us to wonder about clouds and the Stegosaurus.

Yes, it is awkward. Yes, she’ll remove her Dentures. Yes, you will learn everything.

It’s no radical act to tether your life to someone else, to weave a web that reaches far beyond yourself and your own four walls.

But it also sort of is, specifically now, specifically in the face of a culture who worships self care, who preaches self-saving, who shouts at women, “Be your own hero!”

Better yet: be someone else’s.

Be a spider. Weave your mundane threads toward something, someday, somehow beautiful, and do it for someone else – lifing up another life, lifing up yours along the way.

Save Wilbur’s life, and you might save your own.



Your Turn: Who can you reach out today, stranger or friend? Who needs a hot meal, or a cold slice, a happy note to tuck under a windshield wiper? Get to work. See what happens.

  • Oh Erin, what a gift you have to weave words together to catch us, keep us, and provoke us to keep calm and carry on to find in doing so we too may live the abundant life.

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