Looking for Spiders


Jack and Jill went looking for water.
It wasn’t worth mentioning until they fell.
Peter, Peter pumpkin eater
had a wife who let him beat her.
It’s a little tale we tell - how he locked her up in a prison cell.

You would trade your health and happiness for a story.
You would rather be remembered than loved.

Little Miss Muffett got bored one day,
went looking for spiders to scare her away.
The nemesis providing all the actionto incite her
story is the poisonous creature that’ll bite her.

What makes you interesting?
How does your story build?
And what’s your best excuse for being unfulfilled?
And aren’t there enough conundrums in this silly world?

Living on the edge of reason
looking for the sweet spot between silly and sublime
following the rising action
falling hard every time
bending to the strangest arcs,
you write yourself into a nursery rhyme.

You would trade your home and family for another life.
You would rather be a legend than somebody’s wife.

Mary, Mary in the corner plot
she planted a garden just to let it all rot
‘cause thistles choke and rabbits run and sunlight blinds her
and everything’s another form of failure that defines her.

What makes you interesting?
How does your garden grow?
And what’s your best excuse for being all alone?
And aren’t there enough conundrums in this silly world?

I was deep into my second set at the Acoustic Cafe in Johnson City, Tennessee, when a man walked in the door and began watching me intently as I played. I noticed him right away. He looked like a mountain man who'd wandered into town on a mission - old but somehow ageless, rough but gentle, disoriented but wise. His icy blue-gray eyes had a rich, warm center.

The tour that took me to Johnson City had been stupidly planned. It was July, it was the South, and my car's air conditioner was permanently broken. I was traveling alone, lugging my 40-pound keyboard (in its 30-pound case) in and out of tiny coffee shop venues, performing for meager audiences, usually playing for tips. I had already spent a week zig-zagging through Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Tennessee (again), logging between 7 and 14 hours of driving per day. I had probably freaked out a few venue owners when I showed up, road-weary and sweat-logged, and started loading my gear onto their stages.

By the time I arrived in Johnson City, I had accepted the tour for what it was: a total financial loss, but a potential mine field of stories. So when the strange, blue-gray-eyed mountain man invited me to sit and chat with him after the show, I delayed the solitude I was desperately craving and decided to follow the story.

During my performance, the man had been absorbing my lyrics - many of which could accurately be described as dark, self-punishing, angst-ridden, introspective, ironic and penitent - and now he had some questions for me. This wasn't the first time some poor fool had tried to rescue me after listening to my songs. I knew the drill - or so I thought. I figured I would spend a few minutes explaining to him that although most of my songs function as little explorations of life's futility, I am actually quite happy in my "real life." That delving into the darkness in my writing helps to keep it at bay in my life. That I'm not addicted to pain - it's just the universal human experience I know best how to recreate and express. But I quickly discovered that my pre-fab answers were no match for this man's questions.

His questions weren't particularly unusual or hard to answer, but I could tell he was using them to test out a particular theory about my life, about me. He looked at me kindly and skeptically as I fumbled through my answers (between mouthfuls of the black bean concoction I'd ordered for dinner). What was I doing here? Promoting my music. Building my so-called career. Was I married? I had no interest getting married, and my sweet, supportive boyfriend was cool with that. Did I think I was undeserving of love? I conceded that perhaps I wasn't maximizing my potential in that department. Didn't I want children? The logistics were too complicated. Didn't I want to be happy? I had never really concerned myself with happiness, per se, but I surmised that I was happy in my totally original way.

By the end of our impromptu Q & A session, the man seemed satisfied that he had proven his theory. "I think you've punished your inner child enough," he said. "It's time to let her out to play."

When he suggested I consider making my next album a collection of nursery rhymes and lullabies, I was intrigued. Nursery rhymes were an important part of my bedtime ritual as a kid. My dad and brothers and I would each recite one every night before we said our prayers. We were well-versed in the tales of Little Boy Blue (go blow your horn), Mary Mary Quite Contrary (how does your garden grow?), and Humpty Dumpty (sat on a wall, had a big fall). But as a grown woman, sitting across a table from this odd sort of prophet, I had a hard time envisioning nursery rhymes as a workable framework for my usual pain/angst/futility theme. I was fashioning my canned "thanks but no thanks" reply when the man started again. "You know the thing about Little Miss Muffett?" he said. "She was just sitting there, minding her business. If that spider hadn't come along, nobody would care about her or her curds and whey."

I nodded in polite agreement with him, prepared to move on to another subject (I was an English major in college; I know all about inciting incidents), when he started shaking his index finger at me. "But you," he said, his steely-soft eyes growing stern, "you're just looking for spiders."

I love a good story, but was this accusation true? Was my passion for storytelling interfering with my best interests as a human? I've never thought of myself as one of those self-destructive drama-chasers who repeatedly ruin their own lives to avoid being boring. But ten days into this total bust of a tour, I was feeling pretty vulnerable to every kind of criticism. I felt confident as an artist, but how many holes had I punctured in my life just to be here, singing my sad songs in this crappy little room? And what did I have waiting for me at home? A cheap apartment I could hardly afford. A boyfriend whose birthday I had missed two years in a row. There was nothing undeniably broken about my life, but neither could I claim it was really working.

The man gave me a very specific assignment before I left: write a new song, a different kind of song. Make it a nursery rhyme. Title it "Looking For Spiders." I hit the road for Nashville around sunrise the next morning. As I packed up my car, I had Miss Muffett on my mind. By the time I got to Knoxville, I was singing a catchy chorus. Over the next seven days of my tour, I stitched the song together in pieces.

In its final form, "Looking For Spiders" may lack the playful innocence the man had hoped I'd find, but I think it suits me better this way. And it only makes sense that a song about the seductive power of stories would have such a memorable story of its own.

For a sample of this and other songs visit Jessica Smucker on Reverbnation

About the Author

Jessica Smucker

Jessica Smucker is a reluctant Mennonite, a new mother, and a native of Lancaster, PA. She dropped out of Goshen College (twice) in the 90s but ultimately finished her B.A. in English and Creative Writing at Western Illinois University. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Spoon River Poetry Review, Potomac Review, Hawaii Review, Turnrow, The Dirty Goat, The Mennonite, and A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry. In her early thirties, she surprised herself by starting a career in music. Since then, she has performed in more than 20 states and garnered numerous accolades in songwriting, including first place in the Connecticut Folk Festival and SolarFest songwriting contests. She currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with her husband and 7-week-old son. Her second full-length album, Tumbling After, is due out in September. Visit her website at www.jessicasmucker.com.