The Gift from the Common House Fly

house flyThis is a topic I never thought I would write about, the common house fly. I hadn’t thought there was anything interesting about the pesty house fly.

You know the ones, they are big with large bulging eyes and shiny green on their wings that cover their backs when they are walking about. They make a noise when they fly by, and they are attracted to my pet’s food.

For the last few months I have had a yearning, a force if you will, to face the east whenever I meditated, wrote on the computer, or journaled. Through meditation, I was “moved,” figuratively and literally, to move my “office” from upstairs facing west, downstairs to a large window facing due east. This looks out on my front yard with the front door to the left of my now makeshift desk.

I say makeshift because it is actually a 19th century wood sewing table, not a sewing machine table, but a table with a yardstick carved into the lower section of the flat top which is about 18″ deep. The legs fold up to make it flat for storage. I digress … back to the flies.

Lately, its been hovering around 100 degress here in Southern California, requiring the curtains to be drawn and windows to be shut, and most days, the air conditioning to run long past sundown. Flies can get caught between a closed window and the screen. They stay alive for day or so walking the screen and resting at the bottom. Another fly or two or three float around the window in front of my old desk, hoping to go through it to get outside.

This morning I put my cereal bowl on the window sill with some soy milk left in it. A sudden movement inside it caught my eye — a fly had fallen into the deep milk ocean. His or her legs were up wiggling around, and when I turned her over with the spoon, to put her out of misery for her remaining minutes of life, she stopped moving and drowned.

Another fly had been hanging around with her (or him). He was still flying around freely until he landed on the side of the bowl. When I looked over, I noticed his friend in the milk, floating and moving her legs again! She had moved to the opposite side of the bowl where I could see her black body moving. She was alive!

For the second time I saw the free fly land on the side of the bowl, slide down the side a ways and hopped over the milk to the spoon. Then he walked down the curve to where it met the milk and stuck his foot into it and licked it off. Then he did the same with his other foot. After that, he walked up the curve to the side with the view to his pal, who wasn’t moving now. The free fly seemed to ponder his choices. I felt sad for both of the flies by now. Clearly they were friends. I decided to help them out if I could still save the life of the floating fly.

First, I freed the floating fly by pouring out the milk into the dirt in my front yard and leaving the fly resting there. She moved so I felt good about that part. Then I tried to gently get the free fly into the empty bowl, by putting it against the window where he had landed, and sliding paper over the top capture him inside long enough to get him over to his friend in the dirt.

But the free fly had learned to be cautious — he wouldn’t be trapped. No way! A smart fly, he was. this meant his friend remained outside and he remained at the window as if unrequited lovers. Even the open door nearby didn’t lure him to his pal, but their relationship was evident.

This brought my focus to the closed window that had two flies trapped between it and the screen. I decided to open the window for them in an effort to assuage my guilt over the aforementioned breakup.

I opened it all the way, stepped back … and nothing! The flies remained as before, clinging to the screen searching for food, for water, and for freedom. They walked close to one another at times, stopping ever so briefly, looking at each other as if to pass along information about the change in atmosphere and what it might mean. For over an hour they were unaware that they could fly free. After hours of being trapped, they learned they could not get free through the clear solid glass or screen, but the metal squares on the other side let in air. So, they clung to the air and didn’t try to leave when the glass was completely removed. This is a case of what psychologists termed “learned helplessness.”

As I recall, this phenomena was first identified in a study of prisoners of war, and later with battered women … or maybe it was Skinner’s behavioral operant conditioning studies that came first. Chicken or the egg, they discovered the same dynamic. If you learn that nothing you do can feed you (Skinner’s pigeons tapping on the food release lever) or set you free, you acquiesce from that point forward. Skinner’s pigeons did not continue to press the lever after they learned they were helpless, even when they were starving to death and the lever would have released food immediately if they had tried once more.

Back to the flies on the newly-opened window. I missed the point of their realization that they were free to go. I wonder if they flew into freedom together; if one realized the way out first and notified the other before going onto flight, like a team lost in the desert would do if one of them saw water in the near distance.

There is evidence that they ate or attacked their dead comrade once imprisoned with them. He lay at the bottom, his legs were unattached, lying crisscrossed a few inches away. His stomach (if that is what they call the underneath part where the legs attach) looked ragged and decimated.

Why am I writing this in a blog about meditation and conscious living? I asked that to myself when I knew I wanted to open the blank page. I think it comes to this — never had I ever considered the possibility that files could love.

Being mindful of the flies in my window today, instead of shewing them away, awakened me a little more to nature. “We are all one” has deepened in its meaning.

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