A Lesson in Circles


On the outside of my window is an ash-gray circle. It is all that remains of a wasp's nest that was built during the summer. They began building it in early June. I say "they" because I can't believe it was the work of a single wasp and yet I only saw one at any given moment.

I watched him closely. It became an obsession. When I first noticed the nest, it was the size of a walnut. By the time I realized the window was down from the top and permitted entry into the room, it had spread to the window frame. To close the window would destroy the nest. I watched the construction so closely, I could not think of destroying it.

All day a single wasp moved along the perimeter of the latest shell, his legs moving so fast, I could not see them. He had nothing with him, no supplies, no materials. All day, day after day, he moved along the edge. I never saw him leave and then return.

The layers began to form. Each one identical to the one that went before. Each with a pattern of ripples and riges identical to the one beneath. Every layer was exactly one-quarter inch from the last. All were speckled throughout with something like mica and sparkled in the afternoon sun. Then some critical mass was achieved, and the work was stopped.

Henry Adams once said that the genius of Ulysses S. Grant was that he was a "smooth, hollow vessel": Action flowed through him unimpeded. Perhaps he was like the wasp, he had an instinct. He listened to that. He heard nothing else. Or, he had a vestigial brain, a throwback and it was not so much this talent as his ability to act, to do his job relentlessly. Any plan given undivided attention can succeed. This is the American myth. This is why I watched the wasp voraciously. I am a thinker, not a doer. Action is mesmerizing because it is so foreign, even alien.

Some years ago, I saw an opportunity to study at Cambridge. I saw the notice. I had a visceral reaction. I had to go. It did not matter that it was not a good time. It did not matter that I did not have the money. Nothing mattered. I was going. I wanted to go to England and see the layers of soil, years piled upon years, victory upon defeat, success upon failure, stratum after stratum. I wanted to plunge my hands into the English earth and pull up the cycles, see with my own eyes that life is cyclic, to feel with my fingers the limits and the possibilities. I wanted to see English stone circles and English cathedrals, to see the continuity of aspiration, to see themes etched in stone and existing through time. It was what I needed at the moment. Nothing could have prevented me and nothing did.

I have some concerns with the concept of "smooth hollow vessels," with the person of Ulysses Grant, and with the American myth. It is the same concern that I have with the wasp. He builds the nest and then he dies. There are sidebars to success, success on such a grand scale anyway. Genius has its dark side. Putting all your energy into one thing necessarily means you put no energy into anything else. You are one-dimensional. There are no footnotes about this in the American myth. At its best, it only serves others, at its worst it only destroys. It is how the gone pool achieves leaps of progress and then, only when things do not go awry. It sacrifices the bearer.

I had a flash of genius once, a moment of instinct. Once I was a "smooth hollow vessel." I went to England. It made all the difference to me and served no one else. It was terrible and swift. It served me well but I am glad to seldom be in such a state.

In the fall, a woodpecker discovered the wasp's nest and the larvae stash inside. He destroyed it within seconds. The shards of layers fluttered in the wind for weeks. Finally I shut the window, knocking loose the rest. All that remains is the gray circumference like the ash of Union campfires, like the stones of English circles.

*A. Zoland Leishear writes from Baltimore.

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