I killed a baby rat the other day. It was awful.
On our second night here, we heard ruffling in the ceiling and found that we had a rat roommate. We must have scared her by shining our flashlights on her, because she scampered off, only to return a few minutes later. She carefully navigated the rafters, and then the wall, and then quickly jumped to our closet and disappeared, to then reappear and run off with a lump in her mouth. After a few minutes she came back and did the same thing, and on the second trip we realized that those lumps were actually her babies. She had a nest in our closet and was hiding the babies throughout the roof now that she felt that her security was compromised.
(Rat roommates, by the way, are an inevitable side effect of jungle living. This place is teaming with wildlife.)
We told our host about the rat and he brought down poison. As endearing as it was to watch a rat protect her babies, and it was pretty darn cute, they are still rodents and they eat through bed mattresses and clothes and are a menace to have in a guest house. And I say this having fully enjoyed the movie Ratatouille.
By telling Jocean about the rat, I was taking the first step in what would likely turn out to be the death of that rat family. But I was taking a distant, aloof backseat role in the process. I set things in motion, but was otherwise ready to sit back and let the killing unfold in front of me, without my involvement.
Two nights later, I went to take a shower at night and there was a baby rat in the shower. Nowhere to go. Couldn’t climb out. The baby rat was cute and terrified, but I knew it would grow up to be an adult rat, one that would probably create future baby rats, and the rodent problem would only be worse. I hated what I had to do, but I knew what lay ahead of me. I had to kill the rat. Myself. With whatever resources I had around me.
After almost an hour of pep-talking myself in and out of things, with Giulia and I squirming in discomfort at every possible option, I grabbed a broom and flipped it around and when the moment was right I took a swift swipe at the rat with the broom handle. I was trembling as I went for it, my heart jumping in my throat. The fact that a huge spider was silently watching in his web overhead certainly didn’t help. I killed it on impact, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t a clean or silent death. My adrenaline kept me up for over an hour afterward. It was a tough night.
If we had found a rat in my shower in San Francisco, I probably would have called the landlord, who would have called an exterminator, who would have kicked us out of the house for a day or two and would have taken care of the job by himself. In his final report he probably would give us the satisfying body count tally, and I wouldn’t have thought much else about it.
But we’re not in the city. We are on a farm in Java. And on a farm, death is a constant presence. We kill weeds that invade the fields, we kill overgrown bushes that cover trails, and yes, we kill rats.
When you really boil it down, much of what I actually do here could be classified as killing. Weeding is killing. It’s purposeful killing, sure—we pull out the weeds that choke off nutrients from the crops that provide us sustenance—but it’s killing all the same. My favorite activity is to grab a scythe and clear out the overgrown bush. That’s obvious killing. I’m basically stabbing big bushes.
Death feels like it is everywhere. Without death, we don’t eat. I’ve never been so intimately connected to my food, and I’m realizing how much death it takes to get to my plate. “Death” is such a nasty word, but it really shouldn’t be. And although I’m identifying much of my work here as “death,” love is just as omnipresent here, if not more so. Love in the human relationships, like that of Jocean and his family, and in the natural relationships found in the bugs and the rats and the wind and the trees.
But it is inescapable that death is all around. While you might think that makes me feel dark or glum, it is in fact having the exact opposite effect. I’m more mindful of the fragility of life, and therefore, more prone to be focusing on what is really important in life, most notably, love.
When Giulia was acutely sick, death felt very real and present, more than it ever had during my life, and it was in that stretch of time that I focused most on love and gratitude. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that I tattooed a token of it into my forearms: gratitude for my wife, my family, my friends, my health, and most of all, the beauty of life. Love felt so goddamn important that I never wanted to let it go. I wanted to be reminded of it every time I looked down at my hands.
But in “normal” life in the city, or the suburbs, or wherever, death doesn’t feel nearly as present. We are distant from our food and its sources, and don’t consider the many, many sacrifices that went into its production. Death goes into the creation of the clothes I wear, and the car I drive, and the bike I ride, I don’t think about any of that stuff while I enjoy them. I’m just going about my business, focusing on other stuff, like whether or not to switch back to Verizon now that the iPhone is finally on their network, or who to invite to our welcome home party.
In “normal” life, it often takes the illness of a loved one to force death back into our consciousness. And then we go into the regret spiral: did I spend enough quality time with this person, was our last visit meaningful, was I as attentive to this person as I could have been? Death’s re-emergence rattles our thinking in profound ways and forces the big questions back into our focus, questions we otherwise leave aside. And when there is no news of illness? Death goes back into hiding as an aloof, momentary concern. The modern world has gifted us a cool indifference to our own survival, which has many, many tangible blessings, but on a metaphysical level, it has disassociated death from our lives.
But I’m finding on the farm, or maybe I should say re-discovering here on the farm, how liberating an acknowledgment of death can be. I read recently in a book somewhere that when we fear death, it means we actually fear life. We fear that we’re doing it all wrong, and need to fix it all before we die, and spend every day frantic that we might not have another day to wrap up all the loose ends. What a frantic way to live. The writer goes on to point out that the inverse is true: lose your fear of death, and lose your created worries about life.
If a metaphorical broom handle was to suddenly crush me against a wall, like I did to that poor baby rat, what phone I have doesn’t matter, nor what type of clothes I buy or how much money I have in my bank. Those don’t matter. Love, on the other hand, matters very, very much. Or to be more precise: how I love matters very, very much. I learned this when Giulia was sick, but the insight drifted as she improved and death drifted from my consciousness. The recent passing of a family member is re-teaching me this lesson. In every memory I have of her, which are mostly from my childhood, she was a source of happiness and love. I’m now left wondering if I was able to fully reciprocate that love to her. She’s family, so of course I loved her. But how I loved is important. The final reminder of this lesson comes from the farm and death’s constant presence. It feels like I’m being hit over the head, for what will hopefully be the last time, by some divine teacher as I hack down plants. “Just learn this lesson already will you? How many times do you have to be reminded, you bonehead.” And so I’m trying to loosen the many parts of me that focus on superfluous worries and just love the best I can.
When I consider many of the people I love, I realize that much of it is a selfish love. I love people but I want things for myself out of that love. I want their company, their consolation, their friendship, and the list goes on. But when called to be truly unselfish for someone I love, and support them as they pursue their happiness, regardless of how it impacts my own happiness, I often have difficulty. I still have much to learn on how to love.
And so here I am. Still farming, still surrounded by love, life, and death, and still reflecting on how to love less selfishly. Because how I love matters very, very much.
Strange. All of this has been stewing for a while, most immediately since the email arrived over a week ago with worrisome news about Judy’s health, but it took the death of a baby rat to finally sort it all out.
How I love matters very, very much.
Dedicated to Judy Zytka. You are missed.