Life in The Chrysalis

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Maya Angelou

Tucked in amid the profusion of perennials that surround my sister’s house you will find a huge milkweed plant. Often relegated to roadside ditches or borders along the back-forty, milkweed is dwindling in number along with the Monarch butterflies who spend their caterpillar phase living and feasting on the host plant’s bright green leaves.  This particular milkweed did not suddenly appear in my sister Kelly’s garden unbidden and unannounced. It was planted and nurtured there with intention; an invitation to passing Monarchs looking for a place to lay their eggs. “Please, come. Land here. We want you in our neighborhood.” The hardy plant grew tall and strong, full of broad leaves, but not a single Monarch flew by to check out the menu or the accommodations.

Finally…a couple weeks ago, my sister, called to say that she had discovered a Monarch caterpillar feasting on the milkweed. “Come on out. You’ve got to see it,” she implored with great excitement. “It’s amazing.” So, with my mask in place and observing social distancing, I  went to watch this remarkable little fella sprint from the bottom of the stalk up toward the buds of the blossom at the top.  He was a voracious eater and quite the little gymnast.

The First to Arrive (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Then, just as suddenly as he appeared he was gone.  Apparently, Monarch caterpillars are considered a delicacy by the Orioles who nest nearby. Kelly was heartbroken as she imagined her little friend being the main course at an Oriole summer picnic. Perhaps, however,  her striped buddy had escaped the birds and traveled to find a more safe and secure place to construct his chrysalis. Monarchs will often hike as far as ten meters in search of the perfect spot, but whatever his fate…lunch or location…he was no longer present on her milkweed.

In the coming days, she searched the remaining leaves, waiting and willing another caterpillar to appear on her special plant, vowing that if she found other she’d bring it in and rear it, keeping it safe from predators. No one came.

Imagine her joy when days later, while exploring the back fields near her rural home, providence placed her right next to another milkweed where a beautiful orange and black queen of the sky rested quietly on a leaf. As she watched, the regal butterfly appeared to shudder slightly, pause and then fly quickly away leaving behind a very tiny, cream-colored egg. Once she knew where to look and what to look for, Kelly found many more of these pearl-like spheres no larger than the head of a pin.

Led by Providence (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Originally, Kelly had hoped to watch a single caterpillar progress from larva to pupa and then butterfly, instead, my little sister was rapidly becoming a Militant Monarch Mama caring for her tiny charges as they grew and she learned more about how to nurture, protect, and defend her growing army of caterpillars.

Humans have always been drawn to butterflies. It is mesmerizing to watch one of the delicate, winged creatures flit from flower to flower gathering nectar knowing that our momentary pleasure will end too soon as they hurry off toward the next stop on some ancient instinctual travel plan. The way butterflies float and drift on the currents, alighting momentarily just beyond reach is magical. Our eyes trace their carefree journey across the sky and we marvel that such fragile wings can carry them about the clouds.

On the Migratory Path, Vinalhaven, Maine, October 2019

Of course, there are many dangers and obstacles that threaten our wee friends…lack of habitat, climate change, rain, dust, pesticides, and birds… but these flying Buddhists don’t worry about such things and are not troubled with thoughts of the future. Always living in the present moment their short lives are unencumbered by responsibilities and are filled with beauty and freedom.

One early evening a few nights later, I heard the ding on my phone alerting me that I had a message. I was delighted to receive an update complete with photos. There on the screen was a close-up of a small, silky, green chrysalises and a buddy about to create one of his own. Two of Kelly’s charges were one step closer to becoming butterflies.

Caterpillar to Chrysalis (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Watching a lowly caterpillar snake off his jester’s garb and shimmy into a silky green changing booth only to emerge dressed in the bright orange raiment of a sovereign it’s easy to understand why butterflies often symbolize the soul, transformation, or rebirth. Their metamorphosis is the epitome of second chances and new beginnings.

While there are many references to caterpillars and butterflies when discussing change and transition I find little mention of the chrysalis or the time spent within it. What’s going on in there? How does a caterpillar grow wings? Biologists have studied the changes that occur within this hidden realm, but to the casual observer…people like me…it remains mysterious and miraculous.

I wonder if the caterpillar was surprised to find that it was slowly twisting and turning itself into the strange vessel that was to be its new home. Does he have an idea of how long he’ll be hanging there or why or what he’s supposed to be doing? Does he know that he is in the world, yet secluded from it?

No. Probably not.

“The caterpillar does not become a butterfly by telling everybody it has wings. It actually buries itself in darkness and grows those wings.”

C. JoyBell C.

Lately, I have had the feeling that I, too, am living in a kind of chrysalis…isolated, waiting, expecting, and hoping for change.  How long will this last? Will I emerge better and stronger? Will I find wings with which to fly? Will my former life on the milkweed be recognizable when I reemerge into a post-COVID-19 world. Some things, when they change never do return to the way they once were and butterflies reassure us that that can be a good thing.

“When you find yourself cocooned in isolation and you cannot find your way out of darkness…Remember, this is similar to the place where caterpillars go to grow their wings.”

Nicole Stephens

And so…we wait.

We hope.

We remind ourselves that even life inside a chrysalis is a gift.

A few days after the first two chrysalises appeared Kelly sent me another text message with yet another picture of her two charges. I had no idea that with time a small, silky, green chrysalis would become so amazingly beautiful.

Gold and Jewel Tones (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

And…it would continue to change before the butterfly would break free and unfold its wings.

Almost Time to Break Free (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Like butterflies, we have the power to modify our own chrysalises. Yes, it’s true we’re still confined by limitations but it is amazing the many ways we are finding to bring beauty, connection, and joy into our lives? We attend family gatherings over Zoom; we live stream theatre and comedy shows; we create virtual choirs; we visit friends at a distance of at least six feet; we spend time outdoors, and we use our eyes to smile at strangers over our masks.

Not all chrysalis hatch you know. Sometimes they are destroyed or eaten or just don’t make it. Nothing is guaranteed. Let’s not wait for our wings. Our life is now.

Before he took flight, the first glorious Monarch to emerge, landed briefly on a milkweed blossom Kelly held in her hand. He paused for a few sips of nectar and a momentary fluttering of his wings in gratitude and affection…I think. Then knowing that he could…he flew away.

“Sweet freedom whispered in my ear, you’re a butterfly. And butterflies are free to fly. Fly away. High Away. Bye. Bye”

Bernie Taupin and Elton John, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
And Butterfly are Free to Fly (Photo: Steve Forsgren)

A special thank you to my sister, Kelly Daab Green for sharing her adventure with me and for allowing me to share it with you.

The Stars Shine Even in The Daytime

Recently, I was asked, “Where do you find beauty?” I didn’t answer right away, but thanks to stay-at-home orders I’ve had lots of time to ponder that question. It’s a good one, for I can think of no other time in my life when I needed the transcendent power of beauty more than in the last few months.  

“A world without beauty would be unbearable. Indeed, the subtle touches of beauty are what enable most people to survive”. 

John O’Donohue, Irish Priest and Poet

Everyone experiences shimmering moments of beauty that catch us off guard and take our breath away. We delight in moments that arrive without warning as suddenly as butterflies that spring from the grass on a summer afternoon or as gradually as blossoms that swell into apples.

When the ordinary suddenly becomes the extraordinary we are filled with wonder, awe, and a heightened awareness that the world around us is bursting with hidden beauty.  Beauty doesn’t save itself for special occasions but is already present in everything.

Beauty is so finely woven throughout our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.

John O’Donohue

The colors of the sunset, the sound of wind through the trees, or the trust in a child’s eyes will be there whether we notice or not, and though we’re almost never aware of it the stars shine even in the daytime. It is up to each of us to pay attention, recognize, and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. 

Reflections of Star Island, Isle of Shoal, NH

It was serendipity that brought me to my first photography workshop on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. I sat in the back of Sandpiper at the end of a long, narrow table, with my tiny Canon point and shoot tucked in my pocket trying to blend into a world of SLRs, tripods, and assorted lenses. Any notion that I actually belonged there didn’t last much longer than the first part of my first question.

“You know that button?  You know the one? The one you push to make things bigger…?”  

As if they were marionettes controlled by an invisible puppeteer a matched set of curly-headed New Yorkers sitting in the front of the room where the good students sit, turned in unison and replied in a single voice filled with great incredulity.

 “Do you mean….the zoom.” 

“Yes,” I replied.”That would be the zoom.”

Apparently, zoom is a basic photography term. I knew immediately that I had somehow matriculated into a master class without taking the required prerequisites. The instructor and my fellow students…especially those two New Yorkers…were kind, extremely patient, and always willing to help, so I returned the next day and the next. I remained in the workshop for the entire week.

It was one of the best decisions of my life.  I have taken subsequent photography workshops where most often, I’m still the one with the most to learn. I continue to use a point and shoot camera…up-graded…but still rather basic and now, too, I use the camera on my phone. 

I delete many more shots than I keep and I miss more shots than I take, but I came away from that very first workshop with something much more valuable than learning the difference between aperture and speed, or how to set the ISO.  I learned to see. To really see the beauty that surrounds me every day.

“Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.”

Rumi

During that first workshop, I became very aware of light. “Find the source, see where it falls and place yourself and your subject in relation to it,” Caleb said. “ Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light.  Reflect the light.  Be the light.”

Neither my camera nor I am fast enough to capture everything I see, but now I notice the way the light reflects off the water and dances among the leaves at the edge of the river; I marvel at the way the sun shines through the delicate petals of the bearded iris that line my sister’s walkway, and I find much joy in the twice-daily golden hour that momentarily highlights the ordinary with opulent splendor.  Beauty is transient. It doesn’t wait or linger. We must be vigilant and observant. The brilliant sunset morphs and fades even as we watch; the final notes of the song once clear and crisp dissolve into the evening air, and the eagle soars overhead and then is gone.

A few years after I took that first photography workshop I joined a photography group at the local senior center. The facilitator was very fond of Wabi-sabi, the philosophy that beauty can be found in the old, the every day, and the imperfect. Wabi-sabi is seeing the beauty in the worn, well-used, weathered, and decaying. It is seeing beauty in common items and scenes often overlooked simply because it is not where you expect to find it. That philosophy opened my eyes even wider.  

Shortly before his death, my husband and I spent four days in a ghost town outside of Arches National park in Utah.  I brought my camera along on hikes in the park where I was amazed by the natural beauty of the awe-inspiring arches carved in the soft red sandstone by wind, weather and time, but I was also able to appreciate the special kind of beauty that remained in the weathered boards, the chipped and faded paint and the sagging roofs of the once prosperous village in which we found ourselves.  Even in this place, I could still hear Caleb’s voice.  “Crop with your feet.” and paraphrasing Robert Capa…”If it’s not interesting, you’re not close enough”.  Through my lens, I saw the roofs now naked and shingle-less, and the abstract perfection of the staunch and upright nails who still remained at attention with no other purpose than to be beautiful. Streaks of rust from broken hinges, garden gates covered with vines, shattered glass, and tattered curtains also revealed their unique beauty.  What a blessing to be able to appreciate the wonder of such a place. 

Even in this strange time of physical distancing and self-isolation, we are discovering the beauty that has been hiding in plain sight…the light that turns the neighborhood windows to gold at twilight, the still life created by groceries on the kitchen counter, the smiling eyes that look back at us across a homemade mask. We dance, we sing, we write words on the page, we add paint to a canvas, we capture light through a lens, we rearrange pieces of broken plates, we read, we walk in the park, we sew masks,  and we bake loaves of bread. I believe our need for the beautiful…and the compulsion to create it…has enabled us to endure this challenging time of the pandemic.

“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful

L.R.Knost

Learning to see the beauty of the world isn’t the only lesson taught in those photography workshops.  For if you didn’t notice, the rules that Caleb taught me are also lessons for how to live in this world as well. Find the source of light…the source of love…the source of that which you call holy… and place yourself in relation to it.  Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light. Reflect the light.  Be the light and kindle the flame for another when their light flickers in the storms of life.   Wabi Sabi entreats us to see the beauty, the wisdom, and the divine in people who are broken, tired, old, and worn, as well as in objects or buildings and if they’re not interesting we’re not close enough.  Crop with your feet. 

“Where do you find beauty?” he asked.

“Everywhere.” I replied, with a smile. Everywhere

Originally shared as part of a chapel service during Virtual Star Arts Retreat. Star Island, Isle of Shoals, NH

June 26, 2020