I don’t need a spider named Charlotte to spin words into her web to teach me the importance of a pig. The banana spider outside my kitchen window taught me that truth — and more — without silky words.
In the book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Charlotte is an intelligent spider who spells words into her web in an attempt to save the life of Wilbur, a humble (and, reportedly, radiant and terrific) pig. (Spoiler alert: It works.)
What follows is what I learned from a spider not named Charlotte.
Within view during my many exploits in the kitchen is a banana spider in a large, often messy web. She reminds me of myself — except for the fact that I’m fairly certain she ate her husband last night.
Summer and spiders go hand in hand in Florida. The days start warming, and almost overnight, spider webs appear all over the yard and house.
Though I prefer freshly swept walls and clean windows, I leave the spiders and their webs alone. Only when a spider makes the mistake of building a web in my path do I take action. Even then, I merely brush away the web and carefully remove the spider to another location (which is determined by how far I can get before the spider starts walking the broom handle in my direction).
(Spiders that venture inside my house may experience my broom in a less sympathetic manner.)
I don’t like spiders. But I understand that they are a natural form of pest control (unless you consider spiders pests, of course). Spiders outside my home mean fewer bugs inside my home, and so I leave the arachnids alone.
As it turns out, spiders are more than pest control; one, at least, is a teacher.
‘We’ll leave the light on for you’
This year, a spider has provided the equivalent of reality TV — except this programming has value for the viewer.
It built its web right outside our kitchen window, where a light is always shining. This one room in our house lives up to Motel 6’s slogan, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” and it draws unusual guests who pay with their lives. Leafhoppers, butterflies, and even dragonflies have met their doom as I watched from the relative comfort of dish duty.
The light is a fatal attraction, but the bugs meet their doom not by getting too near the light but by getting caught in the banana spider’s strategically placed web. The spider pounces and then eats the prey, head first, from what I can tell.
The result is an enormous, well-fed banana spider and a messy web. The insects leave giant holes in the web — and they often leave behind some of their less-tasty appendages; the web is often a mess of holes and debris.
Some nights, just before I go to bed, as I’m doing a final tidying, I’ll see that the spider has rewoven the web neatly; by the time I awaken the next morning, I can see a number of large holes in the web where guests have disturbed the nest in the night.
The holes aren’t letters woven by a munificent spider in an attempt to save the life of a pig by advertising his assets: “SOME PIG,” “TERRIFIC,” “RADIANT” and “HUMBLE.” Charlotte’s Web is not being reenacted here.
No, but the holes — and the ever-growing banana spider — remind me to appreciate the “pigs” in my own life. That was the first lesson this spider not named Charlotte taught me.
‘Some pig’ and other adjectives
Don’t tell them I said so, but the people (and cats) in my life are pigs. They often are messy, make life complicated, and make “holes” in my home and office and heart — but they also make life worthwhile.
“People are messy,” I told a friend at lunch the other day. We were catching up on life and sharing prayer requests. My prayer requests often center on the pigs in my life — or, rather, the character I lack in dealing with these pigs.
My friend gets it, because though the Bible says we “wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers,” it sometimes seems as if we do wrestle against flesh and blood. Sometimes we wrestle with our own “flesh and blood” (family); sometimes we wrestle with unrelated fleshly people who make our blood boil.
“I’ve set the alarm on my phone for every day at 3 to remind me of this,” my friend wisely shared, “‘Marriage and family aren’t for your happiness, they’re for your holiness.'”
I would add work relationships and friendships (and, maybe, 5 o’clock drivers) to my friend’s reminder as well. Basically, my beloved pigs, who do often make me happy, are for my holiness.
‘Holey’ness and holiness
Sometimes I just want to be alone. I wonder what it would be like to clean my house — and have it remain that way. Or to work in solitude — and have no distractions, no additional requests, no misunderstood conversations. To stop guessing how best to please someone else, to make decisions solely based on what I want or think is best.
Just me as the center of my day-to-day life, much like this spider lives in the hub of her web.
Hers is a messy web, an active web, a thriving web of deceit by which her camouflaged web captures insects bent on suicide by light.
But this spider doesn’t teach me to weave a web of deceit (or kill and eat my husband). In addition to reminding me to fully appreciate the pigs in my life, this spider not named Charlotte teaches me four other messages:
- Attend to what’s important now (you can tend to your house later)
- Never forget that you’re one of the pigs
- Stay close to the light
- Make your life count
Attend to what’s important
I’m a visual person. Messes disturb me. That doesn’t mean I’m perpetually tidy; it usually means that if I have a messy office or house, it’s a reflection of my state of mind or a schedule so full that visual satisfaction can’t be the priority. (Or some pigs have made a mess while my back was turned.)
One reason the spider attracted my attention was that she had made a mess of my view. My annoyance at having to embrace a spider’s web for the summer was soon transformed by my fascination with that spider and her web.
As I’m washing dishes in the sink below the window, I watch the spider outside. She might be rebuilding her web, moving rapidly along, when the web trembles, signaling another catch. The spider quickly drops to her prey.
Rebuilding the web can wait, apparently. This spider has a guest to eat.
She bungee jumps to whatever section of her sticky web contains her next meal, humanely injects some poison to knock out her captive, then carries it to her hub to consume in peace.
Only after she’s had a meal and some time to digest it does she get back to the work of repairing the web. (Fun fact: Banana spiders make the spokes or frame of their web using non-sticky silk; they use sticky silk to make the spirals.)
The purpose of her web isn’t visual attractiveness. It is to attract and capture insects to feed her. Spiders grow and molt, eventually mate and birth babies to propagate the species — and to do all that this spider needs sustenance.
Her priority is food. Her web is her means of catching that food, and she knows to maintain her home for that function. She balances the intermediate goal (functional web) with her end goal (food, growth, children).
I’m in the midst of planning an event to which we’re inviting nearly 700 people but planning for 200.
“What if more than 200 people attend?” I asked, concerned about providing adequate refreshments and space for our guests.
“That’s a good problem to have,” my boss responded.
I liken it to the spider’s ever-busy web. She’s got a good problem, and she knows how to attend to what’s important now.
‘SOME PIG’ might describe you, too
It wasn’t until I’d stalked the spider for weeks from inside my kitchen, lamenting the holes that appeared in her fastidious web and admiring her ability to prioritize eating and growing, that I went outside, onto the deck and noticed the mess underneath her web.
Spider poop or droppings — call it what you will — had made quite a splatter painting on the deck beneath her web. Evidence of a prolific web and successful spider. (And difficult to remove, by the way.)
When I served as president of my class in college, I had the opportunity to give a speech during graduation ceremonies. Serving that year had made me realize that the idyllic college campus wasn’t what it appeared.
My drafted speech included Proverbs 14:4: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” My point was that with hard-working oxen comes a great harvest — but also a bunch of manure. I was able to make parallels to the student government that year.
It was my honest appraisal of a year tenderly, lovingly remembered, but my speech teacher made me edit it anyway.
I wasn’t trying to suggest that everyone except me deposited manure in the production of our student government crop. (No one has ever accused me of being poopless.) No matter how wonderful a president I was, I’m sure I created a mess for someone. My iron likely sharpened another person’s iron — and likewise.
I counted myself among the oxen, just as I count myself among the pigs in my life. Because no matter how much I might relate to the spider’s attempts to keep an orderly house and be productive, I recognize we both leave droppings.
Stay close to the light
The spider built her nest near the light. She doesn’t produce the light. She doesn’t control the light. She recognizes the source of light and builds her web around it.
For the spider, living in the light is beneficial, but it is also “holely.” Light attracts, and she uses it to attract breakfast, lunch, dinner and multiple midnight snacks. Those meals keep her well-fed but keep her web in “holey” tatters.
In my more humane world, the one in which I purchase food from stores rather than build a web to catch my own and eat it somewhat alive, I still choose to build my life near the light.
My goal is holiness, not “hole-liness.” Jesus is the light of the world; the closer I am to him, the more I am able to reflect his glory to those around me. Jesus said that I should “Let [my] light shine before men, that they may see [my] fine works and give glory to [my] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Like the spider, I want to stay close to the light. Like the spider, I want the focus to be on the light (Jesus), not on me. (Of course, my desire is to draw others to live in Christ, not draw them to die in my web. Just to be clear.)
One more thing: Make your life count
Before I finished writing this blog post, the spider disappeared. I went to bed one night, the spider hard at work mending her web. The next morning, I saw the huge holes and figured she’d had a “filling” night — plenty of captives to eat. But rather than a larger spider resting in her hub, I saw an empty web.
She was gone.
Both my husband and I scoured the area in search of her, thinking maybe she was laying her eggs nearby. I did find what I think is a nest of eggs, securely woven and tucked just under the roof line, where it would stay dry and unharmed. But I never found the spider.
I’d been reading about these banana spiders, scientific name — Nephila clavipes; common name — golden silk orb-spinners; more commonly called banana spiders — at least in this post.
These spiders live 1-2 years, yet I notice them only during the summer months when they spin their dramatic webs in conspicuous places. Where has this spider been the other 9 months or more of her life?
Her sudden absence made me think deeply. Yes, the obvious “we’re not promised tomorrow” and “life is short.” But it also made me consider that no matter how this spider spent three fourths or more of her life, she used these last months to make a difference.
She birthed hundreds of eggs and provided what her children will need to survive without her. And she taught me some lessons too, though she’ll likely never know that (unless she noticed my rapt attention or my attempts to capture a quality photo).
It made me think of Jesus. Yes, his birth made the headlines, and he raised a stew when he went missing as a teenager. But, really, his time of influence happened during three of his 33 years (and forever after).
That’s like one eleventh of his life as a man.
Though I want my life to count for something, as did the spider and Jesus, I don’t have to spend the bulk of my life in the eye of the public in order to make a difference. And my life can continue to count long after my physical presence on this planet has ended.
I first noticed the spider because of her “hole-liness” and the mess she made of my view. Her initial message was much like the spider’s message in Charlotte’s Web: Appreciate the pigs in your life.
But studying her behavior in the web also communicated to me these truths:
- I need to keep in mind what is most important now (and it’s not necessarily a clean house).
- I, too, am a pig; I should treat other pigs the way I’d like to be treated.
- Stay close to the light; it makes you a lot more attractive.
- You don’t have to live in the public spotlight to make your life count.
This week, I’ve listened to a sermon (on repeat, apparently, because of a glitch at the radio station). The pastor closes every day with this thought: What message do people glean from watching you live?
And maybe that’s another truth I learned from a spider not named Charlotte: People are watching; live the message you want to share.