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It's a Bug's Life (cont'd): Courage the size of a mustard seed

(PART II of “Seattle girl's harrowing move to Southeast Texas” blog post)

If you read Part I of this two-part blog series, you likely came away from the read with frightening detail about our funny and traumatic cross-country move and some memorable encounters with Texas-sized creatures. If you could use a good laugh, check it out here.

Armadillo photo courtesy of a neighbor.

Moving from Seattle to Houston from a climate perspective makes global warming look like a walk in the park. Thankfully I’m a hard core sun lover, so I’ll start by saying that the people and the sunshine of Texas have been the beautiful part of our relocation. I strive for honesty in my writing, so I can admit that almost every day for close to two years trying to survive a significant bug phobia was exhausting. The hyper-vigilance of scanning the sheets with a black light looking for a possible rogue scorpion and being ready to jump at any moment when outdoors was wearing me out! Eventually there were some days when I felt a false sense of security—moments I put on an imaginary cape of bug bravado. But in all reality, as I tried to muster my courage in the world of Texas where everything is BIG, I found I only had courage the size of a mustard seed.

I slowly stopped obsessing about every urban legend I heard or video I saw on YouTube. I stopped watching videos of snakes slithering out of air conditioning vents while drivers sat lashed to their seats. Like any growth process, there were good days and bad days. There were a few times I attempted to “relax” on the couch, my momentary peace interrupted by a spider crawling across the top of my foot. It took weeks to recover from using the restroom and finding a scorpion in the toilet when I went to flush! In an instant my chronic case of the full body heebie-geebies returned, and I sought distraction at the neighborhood pool, thinking the bugs couldn’t get me in the water. Wrong! The pool area had a beautiful flowering tree, but it was teaming with dozens of wasps, and I couldn’t relax. Apparently once some wasps decide to aggressively investigate something, they have been known to wait above a body of water for their victim to resurface for air! Don't believe me? Check this out. The wrestling match of fear in my head was exhausting, as I silently spoke rational thoughts to myself that whether they had stingers or venom, most bugs are still 750 times smaller than the human body. Armed with logic, I had a few nice afternoons soaking in the ice blue refreshment of the well maintained community pool, until one afternoon some pre-teen boys were laughing and floating on inner tubes, and I became enraptured as one of the kids related a story of lying in his bed, eyes closed, when he felt something fall onto his face—a scorpion had dropped down through his heater vent like a Mission Impossible character! I tried not to faint, but instead sunk under the water in search of silence. Perhaps the pool floor was the one place I could escape the daily stories of crazy creatures. Too nervous to keep my eyes closed under water, I opened them to look down at the pool drain, revealing a large pile of dead insect carcasses too large to be sucked into the filter. “I gotta get outta here,” I thought as I expeditiously exited the pool, grabbed my belongings, and headed to the false sense of security of my car to drive home.

My adjustment to the occasionally extreme weather in the South didn’t take long, and I began to love thunderstorms (something I previously feared). I found myself pulling off the highway to take pictures and videos of stunning clouds and majestic lightning bolts. This Seattle girl who cried through the first nights of violent Texas weather, was quickly becoming a storm chaser. While this new-found confidence didn’t transfer to the world of entomology, it began to give me hope that perhaps the gift of time would eventually ease my fear of bugs and snakes. Knowing how many species of snakes exist in this part of Texas and having witnessed first-hand the ghastly average size of many of the local spiders, I held my breath each time I saw a native Houstonian neighbor walk over to our house barefoot through the grass. I knew what was waiting for them under the false carpet of lush and green St. Augustine —an entire ecological system of venomous and non-venomous bugs ready to launch their natural defenses against innocent toes. I had spent my entire life walking in the grass with confidence and ease prior to moving to Houston, and now I was certain it was something I would never do again.

I knew I needed to work through my issues, and I began to push the limits of my comfort level, systematically testing whether or not I would be attacked just putzing around our yard to maintain the pool or pick up sticks.

Over time, I began to be prudent but not paranoid.

Is it wise to stick a bare hand into a wood pile? Of course not! Is wading knee deep into bushes in shorts and flip flops to pluck a solitary weed a recommended practice? No way! However, I began to try a more relaxed style of moving about this magical world of zoological diversity, practicing an “always look twice” method to ensure my next step was clear of any fantastically camouflaged animals.

There have been many days of one step forward, followed by two steps back. Miraculously, I can now be seen walking barefoot on the concrete driveway when taking trash to the curb or watering, granted I watch every step that I take. In a state of hurried overconfidence one afternoon I bravely walked shoeless across the grass to the pool equipment, making it safely to the slate pavers – one step forward! Later that night as I made dinner, my feet began to itch mercilessly. I repeatedly looked down to see if any bug bites were forming, but there was nothing to see but bright red fingernail marks from my tireless scratching. As I got into the shower the next morning, I was shocked to find several bright red, ringed wounds with open lesions directly in the center. The telltale calling card of nearly invisible fire ants, and one of these welts left a permanent scar. One step back.

Our first year in Texas found me resetting my safety boundaries back to zero every time a traumatic bug event happened or when a neighbor showed me the backyard antics of a giant rat snake crawling along the top of their fence. We have talented photographers in our community, and one night I couldn't look away from a picture of a snake eating a live and helpless frog. The snake has gotta eat, but the poor frog! I'll never forget the day my naive hope that snakes won't climb trees was entirely false. To this day, I generally glance up when walking under pine trees, because I know that in the unlikely event a snake drops on my head, an instant cardiac arrest will finish me off long before the snake considers defending itself.

Photo courtesy of Clayton Bownds (Hognose)

Instead of letting persistent fear rule my decision making and limit many outdoor experiences in our new community, I began to lean more firmly into my faith while garnering education about the common critters with whom I needed to more peacefully cohabitate. I focused on the animals here that I really enjoyed observing – stunning does and their delicate but athletic little fawns who daily visited our backyard and the pesky nocturnal armadillos (cute, but approximately 20% of the nine-banded variety here can carry Mycobacterium leprae, responsible for leprosy, though unlikely to be passed to humans). I often stopped to watch the hilarious squirrels as they chase their friends from tree to tree, even drinking from our pool. I took photos of the bright green geckos and lizards, later zooming in on my camera to study the patterns and detail in their "skin" (integument), following up online to learn about their habits. When you live in a literal cornucopia of insects, the upside is a breathtaking variety of birds who fill the morning and evenings with southern style symphonies. Our backyard pines often look like year-round Christmas trees, with bright red cardinals dotting the branches like ornaments. If you haven’t heard the evening call of a Chuck-will's-widow click to listen here. When neighbor friends put up owl boxes, we watched and learned about their mating and nesting habits, and with binoculars we inspected the darling, downy faces of baby owlets. Many steps forward!

But again, it’s Texas, so one setback was realizing that we have black buzzards as well as turkey vultures all around. When they are soaring, their impressive wingspan makes them look a bit like an eagle, and I’m grateful for how quickly they clean up carcasses before they even begin to decay. I liked observing them from a distance until one night a vulture repeatedly flew at and nearly flew through the open golf cart while a neighbor and I went for a sunset drive. Two steps back. When harmless bugs fly at my head now, I flick them away rather than screaming. One step forward. Recently dive bombed by a bald-faced hornet who kept trying to land on my bare legs for the final three blocks home, and embarrassed that someone was likely filming me, I had no choice but to cry out “help” several times, but no one came to my rescue in our quiet neighborhood. I kept walking sideways, and finally a hard swat to the hornet with my iPhone sent him flying off long enough for me to half run-half limp to my house. Two steps back (click here for a video short). As a twenty-year arthritis patient, my short daily walk meant a lot to me, and I felt that I was letting another insect steal my joy and freedom.

I had a choice to make - quit taking my walk and be a victim or find a solution and become a victor.

Amazon to the rescue, as I ordered a plastic tennis racket device, mildly electrified like a portable bug zapper. I no longer wonder what the neighbors think about the crazy lady who walks with a bright orange racket, because it’s what I need to feel safe. Thankfully I’ve not had to use it, because "the best defense is sometimes a good offense" (George Washington). Big step forward. I’m pleased to report there have been no recent fatalities of the winged kind.

My persistent entomophobia and ophidiophobia (fear of bugs and snakes) was too big for me to conquer in my own strength, and thankfully I have a big God who waits patiently for me to admit my need for His help. My fear was getting in the way of enjoying the kaleidoscope of beautiful wildlife around me, and I was tired of being afraid. The fruit of my countless conversations with God can now be seen in tangible behaviors as I wash down my front porch (occasionally dive bombed by mud daubers), but I don’t run inside. I take back little pieces of my life each time I zip around the yard on our riding lawn mower (under trees - ha ha). I thank Jesus for how good the warm concrete feels on my feet again, as I unload my car. I lean into the Father each time I hear something with a loud buzz approach my head from behind. And while I honor the creatures in their environment who leave me alone, if a scorpion or spider comes into my house, it gets to experience Jesus too, under the sole of my shoe! Luke 10:19

While I hope this piece has brought some laughter, even at my expense, on a serious note I want to say that what may seem an irrational fear to someone may be terrifying to another. We have all lived our own life stories, growing up in different parts of the world where we’ve adapted to our environment, whether easy or harrowing. We live among many of the walking wounded, ranging from honored and war-torn veterans to survivors of trafficking and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and crippling anxiety. We all have unique strengths and weaknesses, and while I try to leverage my strengths of compassion, speaking, writing, and serving others (I’ve totally got your back if you need rescuing from a mouse or anything with fur on it), I need you to have my back and the backs of others with unique weaknesses.

Sometimes taking back your life is a long process. But I promise you, healing through the hard times is always expedited when we submit our requests to the God of the universe who not only made all the creatures, but who made us. As I step deeper into His perfect love, He is helping me one day at a time to cast out all fear. John 4:18

P.S. As I wrap up this piece, I'm just coming in from rescuing this little guy. Progress!

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