Incipience: The Mystery of Becoming

Last week, I arrived back at work from a lunchtime errand to discover surfaces everywhere topped with clear plastic take-out containers. In each container was a bunch of milkweed leaves and a caterpillar. Accompanying each was a handout, introducing the creature inside as an incipient butterfly. I’ve never watched a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, so I was fascinated to have this opportunity placed in front of me.

The first thing I learned is that caterpillars poop a lot. Seriously, they were productive little things. For a day or so, I watched them eat away at the milkweed, filling their containers with caterpillar “mulch”. Then I got used to their presence, busy with other things, and didn’t notice when a change took place. Suddenly, there were no caterpillars, just bright green pods hanging from the tops of each plastic container – they had become chrysalises while I wasn’t looking.

Each chrysalis started out bright green with a small line of metallic-looking gold dots across it (which I will come back to later). By this point, I was determined not to miss the remaining steps of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. I checked on them throughout the days, finally noticing that their color was changing. At first, it appeared that the chrysalis was turning black, but over time (and upon closer inspection) I began to see the colors of the butterfly emerge within the clear casing of the chrysalis.

Image

And then, not too much longer and this happened:

Image 1

 

Many people have rhapsodized about the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies. It is an image that has been used as metaphor many times, and watching the process is endlessly fascinating. I can’t even begin to speak about it as beautifully as so many others already have. But what I loved about watching this transformation was knowing that the seeds of evolution were inside the wriggly caterpillar all along.

Science tells us that there is no structural commonality between caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillar literally dissolves into a kind of genetic goop inside the chrysalis. Cells which had remained dormant within the caterpillar, poetically called “imaginal” cells, take over:

These little groups of cells that start developing very early in the caterpillar’s life but then they stall, and so they’re just in there waiting, and they don’t start growing until the very end of the 5th instar (the last caterpillar stage). —Journey North: Monarch Butterfly

What emerges is something completely different. But those imaginal cells? They were there from the beginning. From this I take two lessons for myself:

  • Within each of us resides the seeds of what we can become – and we can literally change our form (transform) from within.
  • What we have the potential to be is radically different from who we already are.

Remember that line of metallic dots on the green chrysalis? (If you look closely at the photos above, you can see the dots in both.) They intrigued me, so I did a little research and discovered this: they are a mystery. Science has not yet explained them. I take great pleasure in knowing this. We can transform our lives, our very sense of who we are – that potential, that incipience, exists within us. But there’s mystery in us, too. The beautiful, shining mystery of creation that defies human understanding.

This past week, everyone who stopped to look at, discuss, celebrate, and set free our butterflies noted not only the incredible biology of the process, but also the deep mystery. And we all shared, if briefly, in the joy of transformation. I can’t hold on to those moments, but I want very much to remember them. Especially at those times when I begin to feel, “This is it. I am finished becoming. I’m set now in this form, in this way of being in the world and in my own body, heart, soul.”  Because those moments are the ones when I need my own imagination (my imaginal cells, if you will) to kick in. That is when I need to remember the joy – and the beauty – that is activated with the conscious choice to change and grow.

“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed…If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another.”  — Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life

 

Advertisements

Anti-Rage Road

My alarm went off at 5:50 this morning, and I only hit snooze once.  I quickly dressed for the gym, grabbed my water bottle and bag, and headed out the door.  It was crisp and cold, very dark with a barely orange line on the eastern horizon.  Inside my car, heat blasting and radio up, I heard several hateful and factually incorrect campaign ads (from both ends of the political spectrum) within minutes.  I drove as if my speedy arrival would save a life, when in reality it merely ensured I would arrive on time for my morning fitness class, “Whole Body Torture”.  Other drivers kept getting in my way, moving slow, braking when the wind picked up.  I caught myself thinking the most terrible things about them — name calling in my head in a way I never do unless driving.  I mean, really vicious thoughts about people I would never voice under any circumstance…except when they piss me off while I’m driving.  The environment in my silver Saturn was toxic with the invisible smoke gushing out my ears like an old Yosemite Sam cartoon, a telltale sign that my head was about to explode.

Now, some might say this was an inauspicious start to the day.  Others that I need to exercise better self-control. Still others might just consider this normal, workweek angst.  I took it as a sign that today would be one of those days: the kind where external messages coming toward me from the world get magnified, and reflected back.  Vile and hateful messages on the radio, viler and more hateful messages in my head.

Today many people chose to wear purple as a statement against anti-gay bullying and the recent suicides of youth who couldn’t live with the bullying any longer.  Though I was heartened by the number of people I saw sporting purple attire, I was discouraged by the need for such a gesture.  I couldn’t shake the many images that came to mind of young people I have cared for who have lived with these experiences.  I couldn’t shake the anger that flared inside me — nor could I stop myself from resorting again and again to violent thoughts and name calling toward the bullies.

As I was leaving work for the day, my friend Sarah mentioned her intention to go for a bike ride and I weaseled my way into her plans.  I ran home, changed, and within minutes our bikes were in the back of Big Red, Sarah’s truck, headed for the Boyson Road trail access.  The trail was sparsely populated with a mixture of runners and cyclists.  The first four miles are paved, winding through suburban back yards and crossing streets busy with families returning home after work and school.  Once we flew through the tunnel beneath County Home Road, we hit the unpaved section of the path, otherwise known – tonight at least – as Nirvana.  If I could have gotten the camcorder on my phone to function, I would have taped the road ahead of me.  Sun trickled through orange, red and yellow leaves still on the trees and scattered on the trail.  Suddenly, the view would open to rolling fields still being harvested and a sky first blue, then pink and blue, then pink and gold.  Sarah rode on ahead as I fumbled with my phone/camera, leaving me alone and surrounded by beauty.  I rode in silence, soaking up the sights and smells and quiet sounds of the woods and fields.  Geese honked overhead, my tires hummed below me.  When I turned around, heading back only because of impending darkness, I marvelled at the sunset on my right hand, the moonrise on my left.

In his treatise on beauty, John O’Donohue writes, “The wonder of the Beautiful is its ability to surprise us.  With swift, sheer grace, it is like a divine breath that blows the heart open.”  And that is what happened, beauty cracked me wide open.  All day I had been like a balloon, filled with gas almost to the breaking point, impermeable mylar skin causing me to be buffeted about.  Whenever I entered a space containing some external emotional currents I would float in that element and become part of it.  At last, the stale air inside me escaped and dissipated in the cooling breeze.  Any lingering morning rage, any purple haze remaining from the day, disappeared.  And I became permeable, no longer reflective like a mirror.  I could feel gratitude, and hope, and love.  I could feel the beauty surrounding me, and knew that I could take it inside myself and use it to learn the art of thought control — because violence done inside my head is still violence, still adds to the measure of rage and unrest in this world.  And I don’t want to be part of that anymore.  I prefer to add to the beauty of this world, and am making that my path through the woods of this life.