Early autumn is the heyday of the orb-weaver spiders. A spider’s egg sac bursts open in spring, and the infinitesimal hatchlings spend all summer growing and hiding from predators. By fall, they are large enough to emerge from their secret places and spin their marvelous webs. Every night the female makes an intricate trap for flying insects, and every evening she eats up the tatters of last night’s web before starting in again on something new and perfect.
By mid-September, our house always looks as though nature has decorated early for Halloween, but I can’t bring myself to sweep the webs from the windows or out from under the eaves. I know the spiders are there, the few who survived the long, hot summer. They are crouched in the corners, waiting for nightfall, when they will again commence to wring a miracle from the world. For beauty, what tidy window ever matched a spider’s web glistening in the lamplight?
This year I’ve been watching an orb-weaver spider at uncommonly close range. She set up housekeeping by stringing her web from our basketball goal to the corner of the house. Just above the eave on that corner there’s a floodlight triggered by motion. Every night I carry our lame old dachshund out for her last sniff around, and the light blinks on, catching the spider mid-miracle. While the ancient dog does her business, I stand as still as I can in the shadows just beyond the reach of the light, and I watch the spider. If I’m still enough, she keeps spinning, and I can watch something unfold that normally takes place entirely in darkness. When she sees me studying her, she first holds very still herself. Then, if I don’t go away fast enough to suit her, she rushes up the lifeline she’s spun for herself and crouches behind the Christmas lights that dangle from the eaves, strands of twinkle lights that wink all day and warn birds who might otherwise crash into the windows when the slant of light changes in autumn.
Too many people I love are struggling now, and I think of them as I watch this spider carrying on the urgent work of darkness. Darkness never feels like a gift. Grief and loneliness and despair never feel like anything other than terrible tragedies because we are creatures made for joy. For us, loss and fear are aberrations, but they are also gifts. We may recognize them as gifts only with the benefit of time and only in the blindness of faith, but I have learned to trust that darkness harbors all manner of miracles. They are always there, waiting for some unexpected light to shine on them, to coax them out of hiding.