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.

I Need a Technicolor Coat

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”

Probably not…Sigmund Freud

As a student, I struggled with the use of symbolism. I understood the concept but just couldn’t seem to recognize it in the text. If by some miracle I did realize that the author was using that technique I seldom had a clue what it meant or what message was hidden there. How reassuring when in a master’s level seminar, after the class had spent over an hour prying all the possible symbolic meanings from The Old Man and The Sea our professor warned, “Remember don’t get too caught up in symbolism. Sometimes it’s just about a fishing trip.”

Ducks at Chip-a-Waters Park, 2020

Shortly after my mother died, I began to have a reoccurring dream. It returned night after night. In the dream, I’d grab my computer or my phone and in panic and terror, I would plead a desperate warning: “Don’t delete the program! Be careful. Don’t hit the wrong key. Don’t delete the program! Just don’t delete the program.”

If dreams are merely stories we tell our unconscious selves why did I keep repeating this one? Knowing my struggle with symbolism I surprised myself by how quickly I came to understand the message of this nighttime vision. It seemed obvious. The program I didn’t want to delete was my mother.

The dream returned when Dave died.

It came again last week.

I woke myself up in the middle of the night, grabbed my cellphone and had it in my hands trying to find which keys I needed to push when I realized that I was once again in the dream and there was nothing I could do to keep the program from self-deleting. The symbolism had changed only slightly. It was not my mother or my husband I was trying to keep from slipping away; it was my life as it had been before COVID-19 snatched it from my grasp.

I recalled the dream the next morning when I was fully awake and had to admit that in many ways I am right back in the early stages of grief. This time, of course, I’m not alone with my private pain. This time the entire world is collectively grieving. Each of us, whether we acknowledge it or not is in one of Katherine Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief…denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance.

Being sequestered in my home, I see grief being manifested in the roller coaster ride of posts on social media. Friends share silly videos, humorous graphics, and uplifting messages of hope one minute and posts full of anger and frustration the next. I feel it in my own life too. I am often filled with fury and despair at the calamitous situation in which we find ourselves. At other times, I am nearly paralyzed with sadness; my eyes welling with tears and a lump in my throat that I am unable to swallow away. I am overcome with the mirrored emotions of fear and apprehension, and yet, when I notice small green shoots poking through the pebbles reaching for the sun or watch the Mourning Doves build a nest in the big pine tree I also feel a sense of calm acceptance of things as they are. Grieving is a complicated business.

“In times of grief and sorrow, I will hold you and rock you and take your grief and make it my own. When you cry I cry and when you hurt I hurt. And together we will try to hold back the floods of tears and despair and make it through the potholed street of life”

Nicolas Sparks, The Notebook

As we walk this unfamiliar valley together…at a distance of six feet…we are aware of our interdependence and connectedness. We are all in this journey together…holding each other’s sorrow, listening to each other’s story, and taking turns soothing each other’s bouts of fear and distress. Instead of bringing brownies, lasagna, or pots of soup to assist those in mourning as is our normal custom, we are supported by courageous strangers who perform the unseen but necessary tasks that keep us fed, safe, and secure. Our hearts are full when we consider all the simple kindnesses that grace our lives on a daily basis. We worry and pray together for all of those on the frontlines doing battle on our behalf. It’s such a paradox that as we hunker-down, flatten the curve, and stay inside we are alone and yet the world entire is walking the same crowded path.

Recently, the songs of the early morning birds crept into that space between dream and waking as I tried to squeeze a few more minutes of sleep from what had been a restless night. As I slipped into my dreams once again, as often happens in dreams, one of the birds began to speak to me, “Follow me”, he said in his little bird language which amazingly I had no trouble understanding. “Follow me and everything will be all right.” I watched as the wee fellow flew into a dark, narrow cave. “Don’t be afraid,” he continued to chirp. “Follow me.” I took a deep breath and began to follow. I hadn’t gone far when, although still surrounded by impenetrable darkness, I could see sunlight bouncing off the walls ahead. Then, as in any good third-grade story…I woke up.

Once again, the symbolism seemed quite clear to me. My feathered buddy was telling me that as we enter this time of tremendous uncertainty and yes, grief, we should remember that there is the promise of light up ahead. Spring is here and summer is coming and even in the midst of great sorrow, fear, and disappointment there will flowers blooming, trees leafing out, and moments of great joy.

Hey…I’m finally getting good at this symbolism stuff, however, in case the universe is wondering, I’m perfectly happy to simply savor a night of deep, peaceful uninterrupted sleep.

Please be safe, be well, and do what you can to flatten the curve.