What I learned from a very hungry caterpillar.

Where my butterfly dream began

When I was a little kid, probably like many of you who read this blog, A Very Hungry Caterpillar was my very favorite book, so when I was pregnant and preparing for my daughter’s life outside of my belly, this book was of course one of the first things I bought.  Nearly every night since my daughter was born I have read this story, and I still love it just as much as I did when I was young.  I love the holes in the pages and I love looking for the little caterpillar coming out on the other side.  I love eating ice cream and sausage all in one breath, and I am just as in love with the butterfly as ever.  Most importantly, though, I love that every night I learn the story of life’s ebbs and flows and big surprises.  Every night I am reminded of these fundamental lessons to live by.

Even when we are alone we are not alone.  The sun and the moon guide everything we do.  The sky, the grass, and the air are our constant companions.

When I was growing up I spent a lot of time by myself, but I never felt alone.  I would build imaginary cities in the bushes around my house, I would watch the ants sprinting around hard at work, I would wave to the giant carpenter bees doing reconnaissance of the secret neighborhoods I had built.  I do it even now.  I grab hold of the branches that I pass when I walk in my backyard or when I run on the trail, I teach my daughter to smile at the big black bugs that won’t do her any harm.

Or I do it when I remember to, I should say, because the natural doesn’t come quite so naturally anymore.  More often then not I find myself staring endlessly out of the living room window at the leaves in the sky instead of going outside to get to know the trees that they sit on top of.  I am always just so busy with life that I fail to see the LIFE all around me.  But even when I forget to remember, I never cease to feel that I am never alone.

It’s okay to let yourself go now and again.  Whether it’s eating too much, drinking too much, or in my case doing too many drugs and dropping out of real life for a half-decade or so, sometimes in order to find your way you need to just give in to your debaucherous side.  In the process you will learn about yourself and you will learn about the world, even if what you learn is what not to do again.  The most important thing is that the day after your bout is done, you clean yourself up, you eat a salad, and you get yourself centered.  You take the lessons you have learned and then maybe you will return to life stronger and wiser.

For now my debauchery is limited mainly to allowing ten minutes of hugging and tickling and screeching laughter with Koukla in the evening when I know I should instead be winding her down for bedtime – though we did get very drunk and make pot brownies at my baby-free birthday party.   But whether it is a spontaneous and poorly timed few minutes of unbridled baby joy, or a weekend requiring planning and packing and paying the babysitter, the result is the same – the relief and the reward of release, and the strength you find when you again find your center.

To cocoon is natural (and necessary).  My experience has been that when I most need to be alone with my feelings is when I do the most work to avoid them.

My headfirst dive into the club scene was a years long example of this – I didn’t want to think about what had happened in Spain, and I didn’t want to think about what I had lost by choosing to leave Spain behind.  So I went out dancing or partying or just hanging around with friends.  I was only ever alone to study (when I was in school), or to sleep (I wasn’t one to bring people home with me).  On the odd occasion that I was home alone during waking hours, I would drink beer and smoke weed and have my own private party so as even then to not feel alone enough to actually think.

It wasn’t until I put an end to this endless chaos, not until I created quiet and lived only with myself for a while that I was able to return to my real life unhindered by everything I had been running from.  I spent a year in isolation in a quiet little one bedroom apartment just south of Silver Lake, listening to early Radiohead and Elliot Smith, reading books, staring at the leaves through the windows.  There were no more clubs and no more of the drugs that went along them, even early bar nights with friends were infrequent unless there was a literary event attached.  For the most part it was just me and my cat, and the book I was writing about that time in my life I had tried so hard to forget.

Cocooning happens at a smaller level, too, of course.  We require rest in order to heal and to grow (it’s the reason babies sleep so much and why we confine sick people to their beds) and we instinctively turn to the cocoon after certain experiences, good and bad, that take a little extra time to process.  Now that I have a husband and a child, it is rare for me to find even just a sliver of afternoon to spend with myself, let alone a full blown cocoon state.  And while it is the rare occasion that I miss the club scene in a noticeable way, I yearn for that cocoon almost every day.

Transformation is a part of life.  When I got into the club scene in my early twenties, I always felt somehow inferior to the OG clubbers who seemed to have been doing this since the beginning of time – they were the real deal, and I was just pretending for a while.

I worked with all my might to burrow myself as deeply as I could into the most extreme, obscure corners of the dance scene as a way of making up for lost time, as a way of proving myself.  I thought that all the people I knew and all the places I had been, that all the hair colors and the piercings and the clothes could make up for my having been someone very different before.

And yet just about every person I met in the club scene would at some point get around to talking about how they had been converted to this lifestyle, even the oldest of the OGs had their stories.  Techno wasn’t something we were born listening to, and it wasn’t as though we could just happen upon this music on the radio.  We all at some point had sought out this lifestyle because our previous lives had not been satisfying to us.  We allowed the transformation to take effect in an effort to find happiness or peace or acceptance.

Transformation is a part of life, and just as I had transformed into that identity, I would transform out of it, and I transformed yet again when I became a mother.  My life is better for all of these transformations, and will be better for the transformations yet to come.

We all can be beautiful if we allow ourselves to be.  Our natural state is beauty.  All we need to do is stop getting in the way.  We go overboard with escapism and debauchery of all sorts.  We avoid the quiet of the cocoon that we cannot thrive without, we struggle against the inevitable transformation of aging.

But some of us (most of us, I believe) do find a way to follow the natural stages of life – to breathe, to experience, to cocoon, and to emerge at last as a butterfly.  But not all butterflies are beautiful.  Some butterflies have holes in their wings and fly lopsided, some butterflies are not much more than moths.

I think that this is where I am now, trying to make these broken wings work.  I feel more and more every day, though, like another true transformation is what I really need in order to find the beauty that I want to live.

Lately my daughter has begun learning to recite a few of her favorite pages from a few of her favorite books.  Up, down, big, small she says, flipping through the pages of her thick board books.  And though The Hungry Caterpillar is still a bit advanced for her, every night when her dad gets to the second page she interjects the pop! that used to be my job.

I wonder what my daughter is learning from this book beyond her first words, I wonder if even at her age she understands the life lessons laid out on those pages.  Maybe seeing that beautiful transformation helps her to better understand and be at peace with the daily changes she is experiencing in herself.  Maybe seeing this story each day helped ease her transition from newborn to infant, and is helping now to ease her transition into toddler – maybe that is why everyone is always commenting on what a calm baby she appears to be.

Or maybe it is nothing more to her than another favorite picture book, and that’s okay.  What matters is not so much what the book is teaching her, but what it has taught me.  Because every time I get closer to becoming that beautiful butterfly, I get closer to helping her get there too.

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3 thoughts on “What I learned from a very hungry caterpillar.

  1. What a beautiful, spot-on, wonderfully written post. There’s an Eric Carle museum in western Mass…maybe I’ll get out there and do some thinking amongst the tissue paper and big antennae.

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    1. I can’t believe there’s an Eric Carle museum! And that I didn’t know about it! Is there a Buddhist meditation room there for caterpillar obsessed adults? I wish I still had family on the east coast so I could find a legitimate, grown up reason to plan a trip…

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      1. There are all kinds of reasons! Lovely Berkshires, dead writers’ homes, actual retreat centers, etc. All sorts of nice places to run, too (:

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