Editor’s Desk: Serenade of the Flies

One spring, my friend, the late Sedonia Cahill invited me to join her on a vision quest she would be leading the following summer. It was pretty easy to say yes because I knew that any adventure headed up by Sedonia was bound to be exciting. Besides, spending a couple of days in nature seemed like a good idea—some of my fondest memories are of camping in the mountains with friends and family—so, at the very least, the invitation held the potential of a very pleasant trip. 

I got my first inkling that this trip was likely to be more than a holiday in the desert when Sedonia cautioned me that the quest would begin as soon as I accepted the invitation. She further reminded me that a decision to go on a vision quest is not something entered into lightly. She hinted that I might notice a shift in the content of my dreams, and even of my waking thoughts as soon as I made the decision, and asked me to take particular notice of them during the months preceding the trip. She was prescient in her warning. Once I accepted her invitation, long buried emotions started creeping out from their dark corners and playing havoc with my mind. I began to ask myself, “What have I gotten myself in for?”

It turned out to be an arduous seven-day quest. The first day was devoted to caravanning to the desert, the second day to setting up base camp. The third day we were acclimated to the actual quest, sent out to find our spots, and establish a place where we would not see one another and yet still be able to let our leaders know we were okay. The fourth, fifth, and sixth days were devoted to our solo time in the desert with the instruction that during the last night we were to stay up all night praying and being receptive to receiving a vision in answer to our prayers.

We fasted for those three solitary days and were allowed only water to drink. Our equipment was the bare minimum: rattle, journal, pen, tarp, and a sleeping bag. The first morning I wondered, with real concern, what I could possibly do to entertain myself for the next seventy-two hours. I thought I might catch up on some long overdue sleep but soon discovered that it was much too hot on the desert to enjoy a good snooze during the daylight hours. Sedonia had suggested that we pay close attention to any animals that might show up. I looked forward to spotting coyotes but was more than a little apprehensive of running into rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions.

Much to my disappointment the first animals that showed up were flies—relentless, wicked, buzzing flies. There were at least a dozen of them circling my head doing their fly thing, making the most distracting sounds. I waved my hands, but that seemed to excite them even more, and their grating whirr went into overdrive. Nothing I did would discourage them or make them leave. I briefly considered getting under my tarp and just sweating it out for the duration of the quest.

I soon became convinced I would be driven completely mad by the end of the three days. My fellow questers would find me wandering around in the heat babbling to myself, “The buzzing, the buzzing.” This definitely wasn’t the Zen adventure I thought I’d signed up for. There was no place to hide, no screen door barrier to slam shut. I was in the flies’ living room and they were determined to entertain me as their “honored” guest, no matter how insistent I was to the contrary. I was their captive audience, their revenge for every spider that trapped and devoured their cousins in her web. I was wrapped in a buzzing net of sound and no amount of struggle was going to set me free.

Exhausted by it all, I finally resorted to my meditation practice. Sitting straight with my legs folded, hands resting relaxed on my knees, eyes partially closed, breathing easily in and out, I began to calm down. The cacophony of the flies began to calm down as well. It didn’t go away, but either I started to get used to it or it actually became a mellower hum. Soon my aggravation was displaced by curiosity. Was I hearing individual flies? Were they buzzing on different notes? Were they making melodies, complete with harmonies? I imagined myself with a set of the finest Bose headphones over my ears as I began hear a blended ensemble of the music of the flies. Like a Mariachi band, they were serenading me.

Smiling, I realized these tiny beings were bringing me a gift. It was simply a matter of focus. I could continue my fruitless efforts at trying to control that which could not be controlled. Or, I could relax, be curious, and stay open to a new experience. What had been intolerable only moments before became pleasant and enjoyable.

I enjoyed the serenade for a few minutes, then decided to take a walk. As I stood up, my tiny companions went into an ecstasy of excitement and burst into a jumble of jazz and I laughed out loud as I imagined them acting like a bunch of excited puppies getting ready to go out for a walk. I even said out loud to them, “Yes, indeed, we’re going for a walk.” A short distance down the path they left and didn’t return.

When we all gathered together at the end of our solitary days, the other questers reported being visited by all the animals I expected to see—coyotes, vultures, even a rattlesnake or two. No one reported on being visited by a flight of flies. It was my singular pleasure.

When we decide to take time out to listen and pay attention to what’s most true and sacred in our lives what shows up can be surprising. Even a “lowly” creature we rarely pay attention to, like a fly, can be a teacher.

-Justine Willis Toms