Vermin’s just another word for nothing left to lose
And nothing’s all my drawers left me.
Vermin good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my mousies, you see.
La de da
La de da de da de da da
I like mice, and mice like me. If you live in New Hampshire, any sane rodent is going to do her best to find her way into your house. Negative twenty-two degrees, or the spoon drawer? Duh. Eternal snowfall of the endless winter, or curled up in a boot in the basement? Honey, please. I like mice, and mice like me, my house, and the places formerly assigned to hold cutlery and kitchen implements. It’s not like I’m a mouse-hoarder, or anything – I don’t precisely collect them – it’s just that I don’t despise them and destroy them, either.
A few times we used a hav-a-hart trap in the middle of winter. There would be a sweet brown field mouse in the morning, bright eyes, little delicate hands and feet. Now what? I would scoop up the cage, an old sock full of walnuts and raisins, and head up to the forest at the top of the hill. We would scout out a hollow among tree roots – I’d stuff in the woolly bits and food, do a little chanting, and release the creature with best wishes.
That was all pre-dogs. Now the mice don’t leave the cover of their wall-dens and cupboard-fortresses. They hunker down and do their dances far from where we can see. I know they’re still around, because new turds appear in the drawer where we keep clips and rubber bands – things that are three-quarters of the way to being garbage, without ever quite arriving. Twice, we’ve reached for the glass pitcher we use for water when guests come to visit and found a dead mouse inside. Mostly what I feel, then, is sorrow. Dear furry one! What a terrible way to die. I hope you did not suffer, trapped, alone, for long. Now we keep the mouth of the pitcher covered in cling film. It’s a weird thing to have to remember, but not hard to do.
Vermin is a word that can only be used without an understanding of interbeing. You need a hard and fast (and false) understanding of life to be able to thrust any living creature into so toxic a category of Other. Is your toenail vermin? Your nose? Your mother? No? Well, neither is that mouse, who’s been your grandmother millions of times. To whom you’ve given birth. Who’s fed you. Vermin is as vermin sees.
My friend sent me a recording he made of Brian Turner's poem, “Hwy 1,” which evokes the convoy routes of the war in Iraq as the descendants of the ancient Spice Road, and scries traveling ghosts, both old and new. In the poem, a soldier casually shoots a crane from the road. Was the soldier seeing vermin? Did holding a gun put a vermin-filter over his eyes? Did going to war change what and how he saw? How did my condemnation and indifference bring soldier and bird together in this way? Before, I would never have asked this question. Being against the war in Iraq made me incurious about what happened there, and I didn’t want any of it coming close enough to my heart to contaminate it. Stay away! I put up a vermin-filter against Bush, the war, and military violence.
That is changing. Some kind of veil is lifting, pulling away with it my resistance to seeing male suffering and male experience. It’s risky, because my former anger and rejection were ways of shielding myself from experiences where I felt treated as a paradoxically seductive form of vermin. Not whole, not human, not interesting and complete and worth knowing. I decided over time not to come close to male worlds because approach felt unsafe. Not safe from the outside. Not safe from the inside either, harboring as I was a whole ancient, enculturated register of poor boundaries. Serve the men. Seek the men. Attend the men. Fuck all that. I would just stay away. I would vermin them: seductive, but dangerous. This is an exaggeration for sure, but it is a way of describing the Othering I engaged in. Mutual assured destruction, said the foreign-policy of my youth. Mutual uneasy distance, said the best strategy I could manage, for much of my life. And now, part of what I am working with in this moment is the courage to stand in a certain kind of brotherly tenderness with men, that also incorporates owning desire and its unpredictable flows.
I have a kind of creepy ex-cop neighbor – or at least, I’ve seen him as creepy ever since he came unannounced to my studio at night with his Doberman bitch on a short leash. She peed on my floor. No one else was home (again – pre-dogs), and as he explained how he’d been watching me build my space over many weeks, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Now I see maybe he thought he was reaching out to a fellow artist, and couldn’t understand how his behavior could be perceived as creepy. Anyway, I saw this same neighbor again today, standing outside our polling place, holding signs for himself as a candidate. As I walked up, he thanked me for coming to vote, and I greeted him. For the first time I could see the valiance of his endless candidacies in a staunchly Democratic town that will never elect him. I could see in his quest something akin to my own stubborn practices. True, I will never vote for him, or for anyone whose approach to abortion rights is that “women have the right to become mothers,” but I don’t see him as dangerously Other anymore. I see someone willing to be vulnerable and public about what he believes. My vermin-veil against him is thinning.
Is that what the woo-woo contingent means, when they say The Veil Is Thin? If so, I’m all for it. Let the veils thin. Let the cheering be for something other than separation and scorn. My friend, a veteran, spoke to me from outside a Trump rally this weekend. He wasn’t especially close, but I could still hear the roars of approval as Trump’s voice stoked and thickened vermin-veils at stadium scale.
Maybe tenderness doesn’t work at that scale? If you ask someone about Millions of Mice Invading Our Homes, or Those Immigrant Hordes Coming to Take Over Our Country, they’re likely to respond with more horror than they would to that little creature with the hands so much like mine, or that nice man who’s been feeding me all these many years. Contact, tenderness, and specificity, are all risky, and the work of building up confidence to embody them is its own deep path. I swing a sword, dance like a Valkyrie, speak up when it is uncomfortable to do so, and pay attention to what does not fit, all so I can come closer to interbeing with others, without being overwhelmed.
The air has been leaking slowly out of my tires for weeks now, and so last night just before closing time at the tire bazaar, I finally went in to have them checked. The man at the front desk sloughed me off. He called me, “Miss,” which, as a forty-six year old, six-foot woman wearing a mechanic’s jumpsuit with eyes sewn all over it, had me wondering about his veils. Then he tried to sell me on buying new rims. Whatever. Because I actually noticed the all-caps warning clause on the paper he asked me to sign, he grudgingly told me to come back the next day, to have the lugs on my wheels checked.
In the morning Front Desk Man called me “Miss” again, and then uttered a magical sentence: Ask any of the guys out there for a re-torque and a re-learn. Exactly, I thought. That is what I am after. I stood for a while, watching a man about my age whale on my wheels with a wrench, so hard the whole car shook with each effort. Something in me was touched by the physical effort he was making, the commitment of exerting his will so completely for something that was just a routine part of his workday. That was the re-torque. The re-learn involved a more mysterious and nuanced dialogue, which at first didn’t seem to be going anywhere. More men gathered around the car, clearly wondering about something. I left the safety of my observer’s stance and came forward with what I’d noticed in my own explorations. They listened. I listened. More checking. None of us knew. We huddled together not-knowing, noticing how similar our hands were to one another’s, taking one another’s side. In that moment, there was no space for vermin, only beings, tending to one another along the endless road home.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.