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Category: Free to Choose

On Monarchs and Meanderings

June 28, 2024

It’s mostly about the butterflies, you see. Monarchs, specifically. 

When I was young my family lived for a time in northern California, under the shadows of the redwoods, deep in the green of sheltering forests and winding streams in a series of small towns where my brother, my sister, and I spent days wandering the woods, walking down winding paths through the wild wilderness that bordered schools and homes and sidewalks, the scent of pine needles and damp earth and rain hanging heavy in the air. 

Photo credit: Kellen Riggin via Unsplash

We would return home in the evening, jeans damp from the streams we would stand in for hours trying to lure the wild tadpole into our awkwardly-clutching chubby childhood hands, arms and legs scratched from climbing up trees and under shrubs and around fences, clothes smudged in layers of mud in a rainbow of colors—white and gray and ochre and red—a map of our winding wanderings painted in sandy stains.

This is where my fascination with butterflies began, in this hilly woodland where we would creep through underbrush in every shade of green from sap to moss to fern to pine, where we would set off in search of frogs and insects and snakes, but especially the small creeping things that thrived under the canopy of trees, nestled among the stems and leaves of the milkweed that grew in abundance where we would find caterpillars inching along sticks and branches and leaves.

I did not know then that the small green caterpillars were the same as the larger ones, banded in white and black and yellow and green, the same but for the difference of a few days or maybe it’s a few weeks, did not understand that they were the same creatures that spun themselves into pods of gold-gilded green and hung there, a fascination of future possibilities. If we were very lucky, and if we came back often enough, we would be able to glimpse the butterfly exiting the cocoon, unfurling wet wings, and clinging for a moment before stretching wide and flying into the crisp blue sky we could glimpse just beyond the edge of the trees. 

Photo credit: Lasclay via Unsplash

In the fourth grade we took a field trip to a butterfly conservation station, a sunlit glade in the woods where the monarch migration began or maybe where it ended, and I did not know then, could not possibly comprehend, that the butterflies who hatched from the small white eggs in our grassy green fields and spent their short lives stretching themselves larger and painting themselves more ornate would not be the same butterflies that returned, that it would be their children, or their children’s children, and even now the thought of multi-generational migration is one that inspires awe, that makes me wonder, what is it that brings them back? How do they know where to return, if they are not the same winged wanderers who left so many months before? 

We didn’t stay long. A couple years, no more. We never did—stay, that is. My family, like the butterflies, wandered from Utah to California to Oregon and away again, eventually returning to Utah by the time I was fifteen. 

For a long time, that is all I remembered. The constant moving. The packing and unpacking and saying goodbye to old friends and worrying about meeting new people and getting accustomed to the way that, as a child, every decision was made by others, and there was very little I could do to change it. 

But today, I am thinking about the monarchs. I am thinking about the wonder of wandering, of creeping through green forests and whiling away the long days. I am thinking about hours spent following small caterpillars along long sticks and checking every morning to see if a green and gold chrysalis seems ready to hatch. I am thinking about the last time I chose a new path simply because it brought me satisfaction instead of safety, and I am thinking about discovering delight instead of duty.

I have found, as an adult, that we grown-ups often talk about responsibility and we talk about obligation and we talk about cost versus value and we weigh one decision against another with the precision of an accountant balancing a well-maintained ledger. 

We so very seldom talk about making mistakes, or stumbling on a path we had long ago decided to walk. We don’t talk about change and fear and uncertainty and we never consider the unwelcome blessings of the unexpected. We forget, or we ignore, or we choose not to see the opportunities we find ourselves confronted by, chances that we never could have imagined in the limited view we had of life as children, as teenagers, or even sometimes as adults. 

We don’t talk enough about the unexpected nature of joy. 

Life so very rarely goes to plan. And wouldn’t it be a shame if it did? If we got exactly what we once thought we might have wanted out of this strange and wonderful life? 

No, I have made plans and I have made choices, and I am willing, as a result, to embrace the consequences of those opportunities, many of which are completely and unexpectedly unanticipated and amazing. 

I chose to become a mother—I never expected the way parenthood winds around your heart, the way it fills you so completely with joy and despair and laughter and tears you think at times you might burst. 

I chose to go back to school to get my masters degree—I never expected teaching, and mentoring, and finding a new community of like-minded people to share my thoughts and hopes and dreams and goals.

I chose to write—I never expected the opportunity that has been thrust upon me suddenly through a required semester off my teaching responsibilities, the suddenness of hours to dedicate to my craft, a brief and terrifying chance to try to become the writer I think I might really be.

Choosing new paths is like learning new things—and I have always loved to teach myself new things. I taught myself to knit by watching hours of video lessons after a memorable lesson in my mother’s impatience with my fumbling fingers. I taught myself to paint after a summer school class in art, walking back and forth to a nearby elementary school in the stifling summer heat. I taught myself to sew, to cook, to have the patience to sit and read books to my children and then to learn to read to myself when they outgrew our time together. I have learned to sit with both my successes and failures, to hold space for wondering and wandering. I have learned to figure out the way forward, as well as what detours might be interesting along the way.

In Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, one character says, “I’m learning to fly, to levitate myself. No one is teaching me. I’m just learning on my own, little by little, dream lesson by dream lesson.” 

I like that. I like the way it rolls off the tongue, I like the language of it, but I also love the sentiment. At the end of the day, that is what I want to do, what I want to be, what I want to choose. It’s all about the butterflies, you see. We are each of us small caterpillars, inching along rough branches, while we look up past the green of the trees to the wide blue sky and try to figure out how to fly.

Lead photo credit: Sonika Agarwal via Unsplash