Rilke After Ants

The ants are gone.

They’ve been staging raids on our kitchen for months now, uneven ribbons of them unspooling along the wall and up the sides of cabinets and along the rim of the trash can. They seem to multiply every time the air gets warm or it rains too much, or maybe it’s the fog settling down, or the angle of light in this hemisphere at this time of year–some mysterious combination of perfectly normal weather events that we have yet to work out precisely. Whatever it is, some mornings I wake to find scads of ants, whole rush-hour commuter trains of ants, Sherman-marching through the kitchen and setting upon every crumb left on the floor or counter from the night before.

Oh, did I mention that we have a toddler? A lovely, boisterous, brown-eyed toddler whose job description (which I have never been allowed to read, let alone edit) apparently stipulates “the liberal sprinkling of crumbs on all flat surfaces before bed each night” as a requirement. The ants assigned to crumb patrol in our kitchen can really just phone this one in.

But they don’t. No, our ants want to work for their food. As much as I despise them, I will grudgingly admit that these ants are some industrious little bugs. (Are ants bugs? Google later.) I’ve found them in closed boxes of cereal, in a zip-locked bag of sugar. The latter looked like an ant farm when I discovered it, almost cool in a creepy-crawly way. I put it into the freezer, next to the Frosted Mini-Wheats, which as it happens freeze quite well. We’ve had ants in the butter dish, in a pile of my son’s used Kleenex, swarming out of a piece of fruit I’d just cut into.

It’s nasty, y’all.

And don’t think we’ve just been sitting around and watching them have their way with the space where we cook and eat. (Or, you know, just sitting around and blogging about it, which would somehow be worse.) There’s a bottle of Windex, which has never been used on actual windows, that we keep handy to rain death on the ants and wipe out their pheromone trails. (Science!) We keep the sugar bowl in the fridge now, and move the trash can around to make it harder to find, and I try, I really try, to sweep up after our little Hansel-Gretel impersonator with his pockets of crumbs.

The clincher, of course, would be to cut the ants off at the source. More than once I’ve followed the trail of antmen back to where they they’re entering the apartment, and sealed the hole with lab tape.

But it’s like Whack-a-Mole. They just find another opening. And recently they’ve discovered an entrance that is beyond the power of lab tape to fix, a long wide crack under the bedroom baseboard heater. (The bedroom! Two rooms away!) When I saw that crack, something in me laid down arms and gave up. Well, I thought, that’s it then. We’ve got ants. Some people have credit card debt or weird skin allergies. We have ants. My mother came to visit a few weeks ago and looked side-eye at the ants on the counter, scrabbling out the calligraphy that only they can read. She didn’t say so, but I knew she was shocked and disturbed. I’d felt that way once too, before the ants broke me in. “Yeah,” I said, “we have ants. They’re annoying.” Sigh. Shrug.

And then. And then? First thing last Saturday morning we discovered a particularly gleeful revelry of ants, contra-dancing along a smear of peanut butter on the kitchen counter. A thick line of them lead down the side of the cabinet, across the kitchen floor, down the hall, through the bedroom. I windexed the living shit out of them while crying tears of despair. And in that moment, somewhere between me and my husband, the thought formed: NO. No, we do not have ants. I mean yes, okay, we do have ants, but we are not people who have ants. It’s not, like, a character trait. It’s not a immutable burden simply to be endured. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The boys went out to the hardware store and were back in fifteen minutes with a tube of caulk. My husband smeared great thick gobs of it into the crack under the heater. It was not pretty. Our landlord may disapprove of it, if he ever sticks his head down there. But fifteen minutes after the caulk had dried, we noticed a difference.

There were still ants. But they seemed confused now, piling up at the end of their former superhighway and then wandering aimlessly off trail. As I windexed and wiped up the leggy little bodies, they weren’t instantly replaced by more leggy little bodies.

I didn’t hope too hard, at first. I’ve made fixes before that didn’t last. There were still ants in the kitchen, stragglers and slackers moseying across the tile and in the fruit bowl and along the edge of the sink. But later that day, we left for the weekend, and when I came back 48 hours later…

…the ants were gone.

It’s been a week now. I left a few pieces of granola on the counter last night, almost deliberately. This morning they were untouched. The ants are gone.

I’ve read Rilke. What young poet hasn’t? And I’ve found words to live by in his letters–like the command to love the questions more than the answers, to circle them like like locked rooms that you will one day have the key to enter, or like letters written in a foreign tongue that you may one day hope to speak. But Rilke’s famous ringing edict–you must change your life–has always put me off. Underneath it I hear judgment: your life is terrible, and it’s all your fault. I imagine Rilke sitting across from me at my kitchen table, spooning ant-laced sugar into his tea, saying sternly: you know, you really must change your life.

I can’t, I think to myself on bad days. I can’t.

It was this prison of thought that my husband broke through when he brought home the caulk and began, recklessly and messily, to fill in the cracks.

Forget must, Rilke. I love you, but I don’t need to hear anymore about what I must do. I’m thirty-three years old. I pay my own bills. I’m a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. I’ve read all those job descriptions, okay? I know what I must do, and most days I do it, and some days it’s all I can do to get out of bed.

And yet–and yet. We had ants, and now we don’t.

Say it with me: shout it: carve it into marble.

You can change your life.