My neighbor raises Monarch butterflies. She is passionate about it and knows what appears to me to be everything about the process. A couple of weeks ago she brought over a small milkweed plant with two tiny eggs on it's leaves. She thought I might be interested. I was. I watched those little eggs like a hawk. They were the first thing I looked at every morning and the last thing every night. Like most well watched things, mine did nothing until I went away for the weekend. She sent me a photo of one microscopic caterpillar and when I got home I grieved the egg that did not hatch and proceeded to watch the little Caterpillar in the same way I watched it's egg, perhaps with even more intensity. I was astounded at how quickly it grew, doubling and tripling in a week. We had a cool night and I came out in the morning to find my Caterpillar curled up in a circle in the dirt. I was heartbroken, sure it was dead and knowing for sure that I was not meant to have anything to do with animals. When I touched it there was a tiny reaction so I did the only reasonable thing and began blowing on it. I take full credit for it's getting moving again and an hour or so later it was back to eating the milkweed. I made sure to bring the plant inside for the next three nights.
I was told that at the right time it would attach to something, make a J shape and then it's skin and eyes would fall away and it would spin in circles until it spun a cocoon. I desperately wanted to see this so I began watching even more carefully, checking every time I came home from work. One morning I woke to find my caterpillar hanging in it's J shape. It stayed there all day and I watched obsessively. Nothing happened. All day long, nothing happened. Although if I looked closely I could see it pulsing a bit. I wondered if it hurt to make this transformation, if it hurt as much as human transformation often seems to? I went to bed that night hoping it would hold off until morning but I awoke to an exquisite cocoon.
Do you know what they look like? They are jewels, that lovely sea green that artists call Celadon, the color of the shallow ocean in some exotic place. They have a row of what looks like molten gold drops all along a ridge at the top with a few more gold drops here and there near the bottom. At the top where it is attached to it's stick are two tiny lines of black dots, regular ones mean a female and irregular ones are male. So beautiful it is tempting to think that they cannot possibly be real.
Now, here's the thing. The color and beauty comes from the caterpillar that lost it's skin. The chrysalis is clear and that amazing green is the guts of what has died. Watching over the next week and a half as something new is created from the old I can see the wings forming and the orange and black beginning to peek through.
This extraordinary process has me thinking about life and death and rebirth. I find it interesting that it is also Holy Week, the Church's story of life, death and rebirth. The end of something both common and extraordinary brings the birth of something new and equally extraordinary. That story is a cliche and it can be hard to wrap my heart and head around, but watching it happen before my eyes has made it real in a new kind of way. That caterpillar probably has no idea what is in store for it, it simply is born and eats and then follows some inner prompting to spin into a jewel. To die to what it is. I doubt that it approaches it with the apprehension we do, I'm pretty sure it doesn't spend most of it's time worrying about what it will amount to or what to do next. It simply follows the voice that leads it on. And then it is born again as something new, an endless cycle put in place simply for the glory of the grace and beauty of it all.
Don't even get me started on all the things that can go wrong in this process, suffice it to say that they are many and heartbreaking. Not really so different from the miracle of our birth or life or death.
And I keep thinking that I should take heart during the times when I simply seem to go from leaf to leaf eating, eating, eating. There is always something more to come. The process of becoming may not be pretty or easy but I was born for whatever it is and at the end of one death is always a new life, equally as common and unknown and beautiful.
For me this is the real story of Easter, it is the story we see in the world around us and in every faith tradition there is. Life is common, life is unknown, life is hard, fine, beautiful and death is not the end.