Spring here in Texas seems to be dominated by the transitions of insects. Inchworms drop from the limbs of trees to inch across unsuspecting shoulders. Cocoons start appearing in the protected areas under leaves and logs. The butterflies are back, though not in their full migratory abundance. I have never felt such intimacy with the metamorphosis of insects. And I don't know whether I should thank my students for exposing me on a daily basis to their contagious childhood curiosity... or tip my hat to Texas for pulling me so far from my heart roots that I am desperately searching for any way to feel grounded.
A butterfly egg is the size of a small pebble or a large grain of sand. If you didn't watch the mother lay her eggs, you would probably never notice it. To watch this is a very intimate happening, a gift. As my students and I watched the black and blue wings of a butterfly flap from branch to branch, I felt as if I was witnessing something I wasn't supposed to see. Her abdomen touching down on the occasional leaf: the start of a life. If she hadn't chosen a leaf at eye level, we never would have seen the egg. I tried to memorize its location and sent a quick thank you out to the world. We so easily could have missed it: round and small, as green as the leaf but with a slight metallic sheen. I wonder how many thousands of butterfly eggs I have walked right by and never noticed.
Metamorphosis has a dark side. The idea may be beautiful, a symbol of growth and positive change, but the transition itself is violent, messy, disturbing. Do you know what you would find inside a cocoon? It is not a caterpillar. It is not a butterfly. It is nothing, really. It is a case of mush, primordial soup and a few vital organs.
I first learned this during a butterfly unit with my 5th graders in New Mexico. We read about how scientists placed cocoons at various stages into an MRI machine and now have photographic proof of how the transition takes place. But what does this actually mean? Does it mean that during this violent transition, this dissolving of the caterpillar and molding of the butterfly, there is nothing but mush? Unfeeling, indistinguishable mush? We can watch from outside the cocoon and imagine what that might look like. We can look at the pictures and say that we understand. But knowledge and experience have their differences.
A few weeks ago, I dropped a cocoon onto hard rock. I was carrying it from the chaos that is the playground to a safer place outside the fence. It was windy. The cocoon starting to deflate once it hit the ground, the mush oozing out of the crack in its side. And whatever was inside, be it caterpillar or butterfly or something else entirely, writhed in pain on the ground. I don't think I have ever caused anything so much suffering. It was horrible to watch and the image has haunted me ever since.
What happens to us when we go through transitions? Do we ever become as indistinguishable as the inside of a cocoon? Stuck somewhere between who we were and who we will become? Do we, too, writhe in pain as our old self dissolves or our transition fails? I know I have. But there are two sides to a metamorphosis. Don't we also have the potential to bring something beautiful into the world through our transitions? We can cringe at the violence inside a cocoon and also admire the egg of a butterfly. We can recognize and embrace every transition as a gift.