Thursday, September 22, 2011

Caterpillar Wisdom

Caterpillars follow me. When I lived in New York City, I lived in a first floor apartment near Times Square and had the luxury of a back door that opened onto a small wooden deck. With my access to the "outdoors," I planted some basil and parsley in a window box so I could clip fresh herbs when I needed them. My hopes were dashed by fuzzy green caterpillars who devoured every last leaf of the plants. In fact, the single tree that grew in our courtyard attracted so many of these caterpillars that when they weren't eating my plants they would have races on the power lines that ran between the buildings. And on some days the caterpillars would rain down on my head when I was trying to enjoy some fresh air.

Our last home had a great space for a garden, so I planted my basil and some green bean seeds so my daughter, then a toddler, could watch them grow. And, of course, the caterpillars arrived. My daughter and I watched them crawl up walls, counted chrysalis hanging from the eaves of garages and marveled at the orange butterflies that arrived soon after. Let's just say we did not have a banner crop of beans that summer.  

Photo by Shawn Keagy
So when we arrived at the beach, I thought maybe I could escape having my succulent green herbs eaten before I got to them. But the tiniest of green inchworm caterpillars have turned my basil into Swiss cheese leaves.

I mentioned it to my sister. “You know, caterpillars are a symbol of transformation,” she said, sharing in the humor and trying to give meaning to the phenomena. I could hear her smiling on the other end of the phone. Yes, that would describe me—in a constant state of transformation. I don't dock my ship for too long in any introspective location--always diving for the next oyster to see what pearls might be hiding inside. Swimming against the current to find the places where I became what I am.

I imagine that living with me is both a fabulous journey and a continual process of trying to catch up to the place I have just departed. Lucky for my husband that these locations are internal. Or maybe not so lucky. Because they are not usually sunny locales, but dark places where I need a pick ax and a head lamp to find my way. Cavernous and womblike—just like that caterpillar's chrysalis. And just like the butterfly—the moment of flight is glorious, but short-lived. Soon eggs must be laid for the next generation of transformation. Back inside I go.

So I've decided to take a different approach to my garden. I read in a local newspaper that the milkweed plant is a primary food source for monarch butterflies and that many monarchs have already laid eggs on the milkweed plants in local nurseries. So I'm going to plant milkweed in my garden and embrace my affinity for caterpillars. Maybe watching their life cycle can help me appreciate my own. Right now I've got the munchies. Just like those caterpillars, I'm hungry to explore. Soon I'll be going inside to digest what I've been eating up. And then something in my life will transform. But until that butterfly moment arrives, I'll have the milkweed plant to remind me of what it takes to get there.   

Friday, September 16, 2011


It's been an emotional transition to kindergarten for both my daughter and me. Yesterday I took a walk on the beach to try to wash away the look in her eyes as she announced in the morning that she did not want to go to school. I remember that feeling all too well. Leaving the comfort of my mother's knowing gaze and her arms that when wrapped around me made the world melt away. I ended up standing in the surf of the Great Mother, my pants wet up to the tops of my legs. She wrapped herself around me just like my momma did when I was a little girl.

I found one of those places on the shore where the shape of the sand causes the waves to hesitate for a moment and wash sideways before rolling back down to the ocean. I had waves rolling in behind me from both sides, the weight of the water almost knocking me down. I was grateful for that little nudge, which brought amusement to my morning.

Photo by Kathleen Keagy
But what struck me most about those waves was the hesitation. Before they accelerated back down to the ocean, the waves luxuriated in a moment on the sand. That's how I feel these days. Like it's time to luxuriate for a moment and reap the rewards of the work I have already done to let go of what is not mine and what is no longer useful.

I have a tendency to fill my days with doing, but some of this has been about running from what I knew would creep out if I allowed myself to stand still. Lately I'm feeling a little empty. I've felt empty before, but this empty has a magical quality to it. This time I am not a balloon. I can hold my shape without being filled from the outside. This time I feel like a classical urn, my curved walls rising to define me whether empty or full. And I'm not sure I want to get filled up yet.

There are projects brewing in the background. Stories to be written. And I still have a 5-year-old who wants my attention. But for now I'm feeling okay with taking time to feel the sand between my toes. To sit and watch the sun arc over my head minute by minute.

If I allow myself, I think I will learn a lot from empty.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What Is Buried

A storm surge caused by weather off New Zealand brought waves up to ten feet high last week to our little piece of the Pacific Coast that normally sees less than three foot waves this time of year. It brought water nearly to our doorstep while the impact of the surf pounded the sand like a bass drum, reverberating through our home. The churning exposed a striated rock-face of ancient tar compressed into black stone and tossed two inches of fine black sand--so soft and springy that it felt like walking in the clouds--onto the shore.

The beach is recovering—the black sand washing out to sea and the black rock-face disappearing under the sand. But there is something significant in this revealing of what is buried. It is much like the emotional landscape of my world over the last few weeks. Something long-buried was dug up and exposed. And it came up with fury, as if it had been trying to make its way to the surface for many years and then thrust itself forth at the smallest relief of the weight that had buried it. 

Photo by Kathleen Keagy
That passion has eased and the regularity of daily routines is slowly covering up its raw face, but for a few weeks I caught a glimpse of the anger that I am carrying that is so old it has been compressed into stone. Anger from lives so long ago that I would need to dig like an archaeologist to understand the culture that informed its creation--using the shards of memory around it to date its origin.

What I do know is that at the heart of this anger is fear. And with September 11th approaching, this fear is poignant. I was walking east across Midtown Manhattan from our apartment in Hell's Kitchen to my job near Grand Central when the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. And I was angry. Seething would be a better term. Caught between the demands of my relationship and my job. Fearful of losing both if I didn't figure out how to appease both my boyfriend and my boss, who were having a tug-of-war over my time. What I didn't see then that I see now is that my preoccupation with satisfying the demands of these relationships had caused me to neglect the relationship that should have been my primary concern. What was seething that morning was my self rising up and lashing out at what I thought was chaining me.

What I thought was chaining me. Somewhere below this victim mentality is buried a pattern from long ago. From a time when my survival was subject to the will of another—a wife dependent on the goodwill of her husband, a daughter whose future stood at the hands of her father, a servant who had to obey to be sheltered another day, a slave whose defiance would mean death.

This feeling of oppression is not consistent with my current reality. In this lifetime, I have the opportunity to experience tremendous freedom. How do I chip away at that layer of buried oppression when I can't see it? How do I set myself free from the old patterns when I don't know where they came from?  Or is it enough to recognize that the rock exists—a touchstone to set the past in relief--so I can transform my choices in the present.

I'm not sure. This one feels like the work of a lifetime. So I guess, only time will tell.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Loss of Hearing

There is something I am trying not to hear or something I am hearing that I want to deny. At least, that's what my body is telling me. 

Over the past three weeks I have had the most unusual illness. Nothing truly debilitating, but strange. It started after I visited my chiropractor and learned that all seven vertebrae in my neck needed to be set right. The day after having all those compressed vertebrae realigned, I experienced a flood of energy along the back of my head. Then the mother of all histamine reactions turned the skin on my sternum, neck and ears red. So I went to see Linda, one of my most trusted health practitioners, and after some muscle testing, we determined that the symptoms are related to a virus, which will have to run its course.

Photo by Kathleen Keagy
Throughout this viral adventure, all I keep thinking is...what is it I'm not hearing? I get sick when something gets stuck. And some emotion is stuck around my ears, head and neck. I could blame a myriad of recent stresses for my susceptibility to this virus, but I keep feeling that something much deeper has yet to surface. And until it does, the virus will linger.

Or maybe it's more simple than that. Maybe I'm listening too hard. I hear a lot of things. Maybe what I'm hearing has nothing to do with me, and I'm just picking up a lot of static. So much static that it's overloading my circuits. Or maybe my body is tired from straining to hear. Maybe I need to do less craning my neck to hear and allow whatever needs to be heard to make itself known in its own time. Did I really just write “craning to hear,” as in twisted, like my neck? Could be that I have been so focused on hearing something outside of me that I have forgotten to listen inside.

When I need it, my body is a miraculous storyteller. I guess it's time to sit still and listen to the story welling up inside. I'll let you know how it goes.