The Ants but not Only Ants, By Andromeda Romano-Lax

This blogpost, in slightly different form, appeared on the blog in 2016. The author has since resettled back in a northern clime, in Canada.

A person very close to me is dying. But that is personal, and hard to discuss, even parenthetically.
So I begin – I must begin – with ants.

Not one but three different species are running wild in our new apartment. Of course, we did decide to move to the tropics (Chiapas, Mexico). I was always aware, as an Alaskan, that one benefit of our colder climes is how few bugs we deal with on a daily basis, further north.

It could be worse. In rural Taiwan we had an even bigger problem: an entire nest of ants that had taken over some drawers inside our bed. Individual biting ants ran over my body, night after night, before we discovered the nest. When we did discover the nest, after many sleepless nights, and dragged the drawers outside (but not quite far enough), thousands spilled out and swarmed us, and the outer walls of our home, trying to run back inside. For a few brief but horrifying, slow-motion moments, ants which had crawled onto a porch overhang were raining down on us, as we stomped and screamed and brushed away the biting bodies.

Can an attack by ants cause shock? I now believe so. When we’d cleaned up the last of the ant invasion, I was shaking and suddenly, strangely tired. Though it was only two in the afternoon, I poured myself a gin and tonic with shaking hands and then fell promptly asleep in the relatively bug-free living room.

But I digress.

These Mexican ants – especially the two smaller species that are in love with our kitchen counters – don’t bite. They just crawl and search and gather in the presence of the tiniest crumb or the faintest trace of any food residue.
I have spent several days now, wiping down counters and re-spraying with vinegar (to neutralize the ant trails) and re-layering the window sill with fresh cinnamon (which evidently, ants hate) on an hourly basis. Yes, an hourly basis.
Every time I poke my head back into the kitchen, or go to refill my coffee or get a snack (I snack a lot on writing days), there they are: rallying the troops. And at dinner time, one can barely cut vegetables or bread on a cutting board before there are tiny ants rushing in to join the action. So, you have to fight back. Or at least try to keep the kitchen really, really clean.

That is one upside, I have decided – while looking desperately for upsides.
We used to leave a big pile of dishes in the sink. Tackling them would become a long morning job for my husband, or a mid-afternoon job for me. Now, we all clean as we go. If I use a spoon, even just to stir the coffee in my cup, I have to immediately wash.

Just as I am waging an hourly battle with ants, I am coping with a more serious distraction. It feels exhibitionist to share these details here, or on Facebook, but the facts remain: a family member, who has already battled breast cancer, has now been struck with brain cancer. It’s still fresh news. We are thousands of miles apart. I will be visiting to assist with 24-hour home care soon. But the facts – and the distractions – remain. Every day, there are emails, text messages, and some phone calls. Updates. Increasingly dire reports. Attempts to reach out. Attempts to hold it all in.
I want to do what I did after the Taiwan ant attack. I want to pour a gin and tonic, and fall asleep. I’ve been running a lot instead. Running, plus gin. A compromise, at least.

I am physically well, and I can’t claim that my own suffering in this approaches anywhere near the farthest-outside limits of the suffering of the person who is dying, but here at this blog, we are all writers. We don’t judge each other, I hope, for bringing it back to the writing. We talk about these things: about how hard it is to do the work, and especially to stay focused. I will be honest. Focusing has been a major problem. A family phone call may take 30 minutes, but I have found, pretty much like clockwork, that I’m no good for two to three hours after the phone call. An email shouldn’t take long, but I start writing back an email, to one of my sisters, say, and it turns into a long tome. Because we are all struggling to accept this news. To make decisions. To deal with our own feelings and the complicated nexus of relationships that surrounds this terrible diagnosis.

I am a metaphor maker. We all are. So each day, inbetween the dire emails and worrisome phone calls, and inbetween the hourly vinegar-wipe downs and ant battles, I ask myself: what am I learning here? What are the ants—and this other stupid, horrible, inescapable thing— teaching me?

Clean up. Stay on top of things. Be healthy; go for a run. Share the latest bad email news with family. Accept the terrible feelings.

Then try again. Go back to that essay one more time. Go back to that screenplay which is only 10 or 15 pages from the end. Try to work one hour. Try to work twenty minutes. Catch up on emails, and not just the family ones. Forgive oneself for not writing, or not writing well.

Resist the feelings of futility. Of course, those ten ants I just removed from the counter are a small loss to the enormous colony that must be living outside my kitchen window. (Shudder.) But I just have to work with the surfaces I can see.
Resist the feelings of futility. Who cares about my silly essay, about my experiences living abroad and earning a foreign language? Who cares about my crappy screenplay or my next novel. Who cares?
I can’t answer that today. I will hold off answering.

I will go back and wash my lunch plate and make sure the watermelon rinds are out of ant territory. I will go back and open that essay file again. I will submit this blogpost because it’s what I do once each month. I will notice the wordcount – look at that, almost 1000 words– why can’t I do that with my essay or screenplay? Maybe because I was writing about the real distraction(s), and not hiding from them. But I do have to hide from them, or nothing else will get written.
I will try again, as soon I end this blogpost.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of Annie and the Wolves, her fifth novel, called “Engrossing…a winning anthem of female power” by Publishers Weekly and “One of the 2021’s Most Anticipated Historical Novels” by Oprah Magazine. She now lives in British Columbia, Canada.

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