I got three mosquito bites sitting on my own deck the other evening, and I texted my friend WTF, because I thought mosquito-free summer was what we left the East for. I used to have an essential oils recipe for a bug spray potion, and I have to conjure up the witch doctor I used to be, when I could fight off bugs and pollen with just a few drops of oil. Now, as the pollen wafts across the canyon in marigold clouds or seemingly spontaneously explodes from the trees, it takes a regimen of Zyrtec and double propolis honey to only soften my kids’ itchy eyes and sneezing fits.
I think about how I used to fancy myself an alchemist with my oil droppers and Epsom salts, and how that person was a product of her curiosity and burgeoning values, but also just of her environment, of the times and of what was necessary then. I’m a different person now than I was then, but I still see threads of her, and that’s more a comfort to me than anything—that none of this life is ever in vain—that, to paraphrase Madeleine L’Engle, we are all the people we’ve ever been.
Once, when my little family of four was traveling, waiting to find home in Evergreen, we spent several weeks on the southeastern coast of Sicily, in the off-season. It felt like the end of the world, and we were practically the only people who had made it. It was us and the man who ran the café on the edge of the Mediterranean, where the blue waters lapped up onto our feet at the patio tables each morning; and it was the mosquitos. Tens and hundreds of mosquitos that swarmed that otherwise perfect little open-air house we rented. We tried everything—all the candles, all the sprays, even the DEET, if you can believe it—and it was futile. The mosquitos would win. Our only choice was surrender. My youngest was appalled. She, like me, has sensitive reactions to most of nature’s phenomena, and we sat together on the couch at night watching our bites swell into magenta welts, more painful than itchy, immune to soothing lotions. There’s no choice but to see it as a test of willpower: don’t scratch, don’t scratch. And suddenly I was 10 years old again, always barefoot in a sticky Indiana summer, legs swollen with bites and heart hardened with the will to resist temptation. That was the core of my upbringing: resist temptation.
For my child, with no such training, the bites were torture, practically ruined Italy for her, which would be a great tragedy in my mind. After a few days of this sitting, I took to their room before bedtime, cornering the bloodsuckers and swatting them with old magazines. I’d sit in stillness, lying in wait, then—thwack, thwack, thwack—take out three at once and bask in the victory: woman versus nature. And as I collapsed to the bed, confirming I’d murdered every last mosquito before tucking my children in, I would wonder why I hadn’t taken more action against the enemy when I was younger. Why I’d succumbed to that’s just the way it is and learned only to live with the wounds.
This summer, the world is different. I’m deep in the existentialism of it, wondering how much of it is the result of a tumultuous year full of sickness and fear and in-fighting, and how much of it is just another shift in myself. The woman willing to resort to over-the-counter medications for allergies now also sees a few other things differently. I think about how this could harden me, how I could resort to resisting change, pretending the pain searing in my soft fleshy parts simply isn’t there. Like that’s a good thing. Like I am righteous. Like I have mastered my own will and I resist temptation.
Mosquitos are so tiny, but they’re so annoying. They’re quite literally only specks in the world, and yet they wreak great havoc. In this, nature is a mirror; and I find the smallest annoyances are the boiling points. We fixate on the small to avoid the strain of adjusting to a new world. I pretend a few mosquitos are enough to drive me back East, but maybe that’s only resisting the temptation to mourn what I still miss there—who I was then. I will curse the tourists invading all of our town’s quiet places like I’m helpless against an enemy invasion, but maybe I just want to be selfish about something. I want to feel like it’s fair to lay claim to a thing meant to be shared.
This is just to say that to know yourself, to stand up for what you believe in, to cultivate a certain self-discipline is all well and good, but it doesn’t stop what’s buzzing around in the outside world. In fact, it makes our experience that much smaller, so that having the Sicilian coast to yourself shrinks to the experience of a battle against bugs in a 10×10 room. So that you’re willing to shut yourself up in the house for the whole month of June thinking you can resist allergic reactions without medical assistance. So that your own self-righteousness is so right, so pure, it’s better to hold onto it than to bother considering anything else.
Frankly, the world is changing. Our town is changing. Guess what? We are changing. You can sit on the couch and exercise your personal strength—resist with all your might. That doesn’t change the changing. Sometimes it feels good to scratch an itch, even when you know it’s not the right thing to do. It’s the consequence of that which gets your creativity juiced—what can I do instead? How can I be productive? Make a potion. Roll up the old magazine and swipe away at those pesky buzzers. Meet a neighbor or try something new. Face the fears you’re avoiding by resisting. That sense of accomplishment is a much sweeter victory.