I was steeped in writer’s block, boosting my self-esteem by rescuing bears in Candy Crush, when my daughter phoned with the news. You’ve probably heard by now, but I just have to write it down myself: Scientists have discovered that when dung beetles roll their balls of animal feces at night, they navigate by looking at the Milky Way!
I know what you’re thinking: Thank God some intrepid scientists asked themselves, as we all do, “How the hell do dung beetles navigate at night?” And thank God these scientists did not remain on the couch playing Candy Crush! No, they took a bunch of dung beetles to a planetarium, where they let them see different simulated night skies: some dark, some with stars visible, some showing only the Milky Way. And here’s what they found out:
*Dung beetle path illustration from Current Biology (Volume 23, Issue 4). http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212015072
Is this not cool, I ask you? Dung beetles who can see the stars (specifically the Milky Way) roll their poo-balls in fairly straight lines. Those that can’t just wander around haphazardly, probably trying to think of something interesting to write.
I take great comfort from this information, because I basically spend all my time rolling around a big ball of poo called My Life. I arise, make the bed, brush my teeth, and sometimes show up at my computer to work. But most of the time, like today, I don’t feel I’m making any significant progress toward anything. I’m just pushing my poo-ball around, hoping no one notices that I have no idea where I’m going.
Today I have a gimpy back and not much pep. In five hours I’ve written maybe a thousand words on my current book. A few hundred of them may even be useable. Today the ball of poo feels huge, and my progress infinitesimal. It’s enough to make you just stop rolling.
I had to lie down to process all this, which of course means I’m accomplishing even less than before. But then I had a thought. I am not only a dung beetle pushing a sphere of crap; I am also a human, who can take the beetle to a planetarium and show it the stars.
I know how to do this, I’d just forgotten. I forget all the time, even though it’s a ridiculously basic instruction. When I’m moving in random patterns, not getting anywhere or accomplishing anything, I have to stop pushing my ball of poo. I can leave my life alone for a minute—I’m not making any progress anyway.
Once I’ve stopped pushing, I have to go to the planetarium, and the door to the planetarium is stillness. In stillness, we humans can do all kinds of magic our dung beetle selves can’t even comprehend. Once I get still, I can feel for the action that—right here, right now, for me—will turn on the stars. I can recognize it by my feelings. Anything I can think of that lifts me, that makes me feel relief, or relaxation, or just a little bit of joy, is the starry blur of the Milky Way. It may not be very clear or very bright, but I can navigate by it.
Today, the Milky Way appeared when I confessed my fear of accomplishing nothing to a loved one. I got a wonderful hug, and a comment: “Honey, you’re thinking work is important. But that’s not what you’re feeling. What are you feeling?” And just like that, I knew that watching a movie with my family and cuddling our new dog was my path. And here’s the funny, counterintuitive thing that always happens when I turn on the stars: as soon as I committed to doing what brightened my inner world, my writer’s block went away.
I am steering this poo ball like a mofo.
I know I’ll lose the stars again. I know I’ll wander aimlessly, feeling exhausted by all my shit. But I swear next time I’m going to do better. I’ll get still sooner, feel for my own joy more carefully, and do whatever lights up the Milky Way in the little messed-up planetarium that is my mind.