Skillful Means

Skillful means.  Wham.  Wham.  Three at once and they’re not even twitching.  Since she turned sixty, Gloria had spent her much time thinking about what skillful means were in relation to life, listening to multiple Buddhist masters and yogis about the necessity of becoming a craftsman of one’s own life, of nurturing the wholesome, compassion, and equanimity – all within the rules that the Buddha had set out.  Over the past four years, Gloria had spent an annual week on retreat, attended weekly sangha meditation sessions, and learned all the prayers and precepts in English and in their original Pali.  And, of course, become an (almost) pure vegetarian.

Of course, the first precept was Panatipata – to refrain from killing living beings.  Which meshed with the Buddhist imperative of loving kindness towards all beings.  Somehow Gloria didn’t think the Buddha would count her growing adeptness at murdering yellow jackets as an example of skillful means.  But here they were pouring into the bathroom, escaping the toxic chemicals Paul had sprayed into the walls to eradicate what must be a huge hive.  It was amazing that she had not gotten stung yet.  Skillful means.  Wham.  Scoop it up and dump it into the toilet with the rest of the floating carnage.  Over two dozen since the sun came out. 

But this is how is seemed to go.  She would seem to be getting the idea of peace and calm and equanimity and something would blow her out of the water.  Sometimes it was something small, like a sprained ankle.  Actually, since she had started all of this a couple of years ago, there had been no real tragedies.  No major accidents.  No terminal illnesses. No divorces or arrests.  Not even any traffic tickets.  Just a lot of bad teeth, bad visits with the kids, bad weather, and yellow jackets. 

“Predatory social wasps” was how yellow jackets were defined according to the internet.  Can someone be predatory and social at the same time?  After reflection, Gloria realized it was also a good description of the human race.  In any case, there was no way she could live and let live with the wasps.  No way.  And yet the carnage in the bathroom depressed her.  In a way, she wished she didn’t have to think about it.  She took up Buddhist meditation to make her life simpler, not to layer on even more layers of guilt.  Wham.  That was the last one for this visit to the toilet.

“Four more,” she announced to the cat who just lifted her head to see who was coming through. 

Gloria had been good lately.  She had been very good before the yellow jacket invasion – at least in relation to the lesser creatures.  She had picked stranded worms off the sidewalk and returned them to the sod; she had stopped the car for indecisive squirrels.  And then came the wasps.  First one, then three, and then the swarms.  Equanimity was hopeless.

Actually, the wasps were the least of it.  She might even begin to convince herself that wasps were not sentient beings.  But you couldn’t do that with the people in your life.  And skillful means did not seem to be working.

Gloria wondered if skillful means were harder because she was working on both ends of the age spectrum at the same time.  There was her mother, who was eighty-seven and refused to accept the realities of age.  Gloria had been working with accepting her own limitations at sixty-four, but acceptance was something that her mother knew nothing about.  Having just demolished her car in an accident in which she had escaped injury (and even more thankfully failed to hurt anyone else), Mom was insistent that she needed a new car.  Now.  And that she needed help in buying one.

And then there were the problems of a three-year-old.  Gloria had just come back from what she internally labeled her “grandmotherly obligations” – seeing her daughter and her partner and the kids.  Annie was five and a handful and spoiled, but you could talk to Annie.  You could only listen to Desmond scream while his two mothers tried to figure out what was the problem (this was an impossible task as the squalling Desmond quickly lost sight of what the problem was, if he ever knew) and then resorted to bickering between themselves as to what was the best way to handle their earsplitting problem.  Their arguing made the problem even noisier and just doubled the things that poor trapped Gloria could do nothing about.  She had so looked forward to returning to Paul, her cat, and a quiet house at the end of her obligatory five days, and then came the wasps.  First there was one, then two.  For the first few days she caught them with a drinking glass and sheet of paper and let them go outside.  But soon they were coming in sixes, sevens, dozens.  Apparently, the nest was in the bathroom ventilation.  They had sprayed; more wasps arrived.  Terminix was coming later in the day.  But, in the meanwhile, there was no alternative but to kill them.  Luckily, there was another bathroom as the downstairs one was now full of wasps and insecticide.

Paul was sitting at the kitchen table.  “I got three in one swat,” she said proudly, then realized she probably shouldn’t be proud of destroying living creatures.

“Well, aren’t you the Brave Little Tailor,” her bath-robed husband saluted her with his coffee cup.  “Did you close the bathroom door?”

“Yes, but they find their way underneath.  What does a tailor have to do with it?”   Gloria poured herself a cup of coffee because Paul’s explanations were always long; she wondered if she had made a mistake in asking.

“Actually, it was the Valiant Little Tailor, according to the Brothers Grimm.  Apparently Disney didn’t think that the American public knew what “valiant” meant, so he changed it for the cartoon version where Mickey Mouse played the little tailor.”

Gloria looked amused.  When Paul was not boring he could be very interesting.  “I guess I missed that one.”

“Anyway, the little tailor has jelly on this toast for breakfast and the flies start to gather.  No screens in those days.  Or Raid.  Anyway, he took a piece of cloth and killed seven flies with one swat.  He was so proud of himself that he made himself a sash that said “Killed Seven with One Blow” or something like that.  People thought he meant warriors or giants or something, so they sent him off on dangerous missions which he always managed to trick his way out of.  I think he ended up marrying the king’s daughter.”

“Lucky him.  Well, don’t send me on any dangerous missions.  I am sick of killing wasps and visiting relatives and worrying about my karma.  I just want some peace and quiet.”

Paul laughed and got up.  “Well, I’m off to get appropriately dressed for the halls of justice.  Housing court this morning.   I assume you’ll be around for the bug guys.  I don’t care what kind of stuff they have to use, just tell them to get rid of the wasps without tearing the wall down.  And there’s another one.”   A bewildered wasp was propelling itself across the kitchen floor slowly enough for Paul to crunch it with his slipper.  He picked the remains up with a napkin and deposited it in the trash.

Paul was a lawyer who had retired from private practice and volunteered part-time for a legal aid agency.  He spent most of his twelve hours a week fighting evictions and asking for restraining orders.  Gloria reflected that maybe he knew enough about suffering people that the murdering of nuisance wasps wouldn’t give him a qualm.

The Terminix guy, with his truck full of poison, showed up at ten.  He was affable and Gloria found it hard not to like him.

“I’m going to have to drill a few holes in the siding to make sure I get the nest and impregnate it enough that they won’t come back.  I’ll patch the holes; you won’t probably notice them, but you might want to touch’em up with some paint if it bothers you.”

Gloria agreed, but thought “impregnate” was a strange term to use for the holocaust of insects.  “Do we have to stay out of the house for a while?  How about the cat?”

“No problem unless the smell bothers you and just don’t let the cat eat the wasps.”  Nelly, their old tabby, had been sleeping under their bed since yellow jackets initiated their assault. 

“No problem.”

 Burt from Terminix finished his work quickly and left.  Gloria thought she was ready to restart her love for all creation when she heard a tremendous thud.  Before she even looked she knew a bird had hit the glass sliders in the kitchen.  Sure enough, a poor mangled Towhee was on the deck.  Sometimes the birds were just stunned; Gloria left it for a while just in case, while she rounded up yet more decals to plaster on the glass that was already festooned with hawks and owls to deter bird fatalities.  Then she sat down to meditate.  Surely this was the end.

Panatipata veramani sikkha-padam samadiyami was the first of the five precepts that she murmured to herself once she was cross-legged on her zafu.  “I undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings.”  Well, she was “undertaking the training,” but she was being mightily tested.  Surely, things would stop dying soon.

Gloria felt better after an hour on the cushion and decided to check on the bird before Paul came home.  However, not only was the bird carcass still there, but basking in the midafternoon sun was a big snake dappled with suspicious patterns.  She took a photo through the glass with her phone and then grabbed a broom and reached out the sliders to beat aggressively on the deck.  After a long minute, the snake slithered off the deck to the crawl space underneath it.  The damn thing is living under my porch, Gloria fumed.

After a review on the internet did not conclusively prove or disprove it was a rattler, Gloria called Terminix again.  It was the plagues of Egypt being showered upon her, she moaned to herself.  She knew how the Pharoah felt.  But surely, she wasn’t expected to live with wasps and snakes or without glass windows? 

Paul was sympathetic when he came home, even if he did find her story more than a little humorous.  The Terminix guy wasn’t coming until the next morning, so he took a flashlight and the broom and went to look under the deck.

“Nothing there that I could see.  Be sure to show Burt the picture – maybe it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Not sure I want any kind of snakes cohabitating with us.  I feel awful about all of this – we are just brutalizing nature.  How am I supposed to practice non-harm?”

“Impossible,” answered Paul.  “We kill more critters filling up our gas tanks and grocery carts that you’ll ever get rid of around here.  We just don’t see them.  You do the best you can.  Bad day for you though.”  He could tell she took it seriously and was obviously trying to sympathize, but he couldn’t help smiling.

“You’re right.  Maybe it’s good to see it up front and personal sometimes – realize what hypocrites we are – or, at least, I am.”

“You’re just human.  We all are.”  Paul paused for a minute.  “And look where it’s gotten us.”

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