April is the cruelest month.–T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland
I have come with my mustard seed.–Tori Amos, “The Beekeeper”
This morning, I was the richest girl in the world. I had the sun and a clothesline to dry my laundry, and I had to walk across a carpet of violets to get to it. I wondered if any queen has ever been forced to walk upon flowers.
I’m guilty of complaining that “we’re poor” because some months it takes a lot of creativity to get from one paycheck to the next. Once I bartered zucchini to get milk for my kids. I garden because I love to, but we also depend on that food and the eggs from our chickens. But this morning, walking across violets to my sun-sweet laundry, I felt the full force of my own ridiculousness. I’m not poor. I don’t have cable or satellite or a flat screen TV. I don’t go out very often, and never to anywhere posh. My little paycheck from my part-time job is all that gets us by some months. But I’m not poor. I live in a safe home on a beautiful little piece of earth. My children do not go to bed hungry. I am simple enough to be delighted by this. And this morning, I was richer than any princess. I felt a little sorry for Kate Middleton. I doubt she will ever get to wear yellow wellies and carry a full laundry basket across a carpet of wild violets.
But April has teeth.
Today the wind ruffled the curtains. My boys took occasional breaks from watering each other to water the garden. My husband mowed around the little apple, peach and pear saplings we planted a couple of weeks ago. The tiny almond tree is blooming, starbursts of pink-and-white against stark branches. The loveliness of spring filled my eyes and heart nearly to bursting. And then I walked down to the beehives.
They stand ghostlike now in the twilight, patches of white against the gathering dusk. And they are ghost-hives. Every bee in them is dead or gone.
It was a harsh winter here. They may have frozen, or starved. I don’t know. The life of bees, in the forever-darkness of their hives, is a mystery. In the blackness, they play out dramas of Shakespearean proportions. The queen dwells in eternal night, a monarch and yet a prisoner. There is no guarantee that one of her daughters will not rise up against her. Rival queens battle to the death, workers toil all their short lives in loyal service to the good of their race, famine strikes and the indolent drones are cast out first, their wings shorn from their bodies so that they starve slowly. Robbers threaten the queen’s coffers. The diseases that can decimate a colony are chilling–eerie parasites that consume their hosts from within, siphoning off their life at a disturbingly glacial pace. Beehives are tragedy in microcosm.
All winter, the sight of the hives made me shudder. I wondered how a honeybee experiences cold–if a bee isolated from the warming cluster of bodies within the hive feels the frigid temperature in any way I’d recognize. Then, on the first warm day, a bee hovered outside the kitchen window, and my heart leapt up. I hurried to the hives–bees came and went, and I felt rich. We had all survived the winter.
But another cold snap came and went, and another, and today the hives stood silent.
There is a wrongness about an empty hive that strikes with as much force as an abandoned city. It is like a tiny Atlantis above water, a miniature Pompeii swept free of ash and dust. The music of the bees’ industry is silenced, the golden glimmer of their wings stilled. An empty hive is loss. And failure.
I’ve had enough loss and failure for one month. Since my grandfather’s death from Parkinson’s earlier this month, each new sign of spring has felt like a promise renewed, a little extra reminder that winter does not last forever, and that in death, there is life. And then, four empty hives. Four Lost Colonies. And T. S. Eliot is right again. The blazing spring sunset overhead felt like a consolation prize.
But beekeeping is like writing, and a hive like a story. I figure I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, and suffer many failures. My colonies didn’t make it. Sometimes my ideas don’t, either. Rejection letters, varroa mites, writer’s block, cold spells–they’re all the same thing. They’re the things that can stop you if you don’t love something very much.
If you love it, you keep going. Life finds a way. Stories find a way. Neither one can be stopped, in the end, because they are fierce and wild and indomitable. Where a city crumbles to ruin, trees grow. Nothing is exactly the same as it was before, and yet it’s all connected, inseparable, each moment flowing from the one before and into the next.
If there is a gift that springs from loss, perhaps it is this–that we learn. My M.A. advisor loved to remind her students that “a certain sense of discomfort is necessary in order for learning to occur.” I’m not comfortable with my grandfather’s death. I’m not comfortable with the loss of my bees. But I will learn to sit with these losses, because life is stubborn and so am I. I will break free of the fog of exhaustion and self-doubt and grief and wondering and second-guessing, and I will come out better, I hope. Stronger. And the one lesson I will refuse to learn is how to give up. To me, this is riches indeed.