Monday, November 15, 2004
Chlorophyll and Caterpillars
Out on another walk the other day, I thought about chlorophyll. It’s been on my mind of late because both of my children have been studying leaves and plants. The cycles of plant life, the components of leaves, all that stuff that left me in a spelling and scientific fog back in school. As I walked along the busy boulevards of South Charlotte, I looked both above and below me was a sense of awe in relation to all the leaves. Most of the leaves had given up the fight for everlasting life and had fallen to the ground, but some still clung to their respective branches in a desperate attempt to stay young and vital. One in particular caught my eye. It was lying next to the sidewalk as I strolled past. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it had been painted. In three evenly divided stripes, bright hues of red, green, and yellow imitated the flag of Mali. I turned around and went back for it, slipped it gently into my pocket, carried it home, and placed in on the desk in my study room where it is dry and crackled at this very moment. I thought about chlorophyll and how chlorophyll’s job is to keep the leaf green. With the water and nutrients drawn up from the root of the tree, sunlight, and oxygen that leaf had managed to stay green for all of the spring and summer and into the autumn. Once the season, climate, and nutrient-rich soil transitioned over to fall, the chlorophyll’s job was terminated, and those other colors began to emerge. I remember a science teacher once said that those colors are always there, it’s just that the green is the strongest one in the leaf’s spectrum. I began to reflect on how much I am like that leaf. All the nutrients in the soil of childhood, school, friendships, church, college, early marriage, and motherhood have kept me green for a long time. I have met wonderful people and formed lasting relationships. I have lived and breathed free in many a city, state, and nation. I have enjoyed the wealth of many cultures and languages, eaten good food washed down with clear water and fine wine, been relatively successful in competitive athletic endeavors, been strengthened and renewed by a deepening faith, and increased in hunger and thirst for more of the above. I’d like to believe I look younger than my 39 years. But the truth is that I am in the mid-to-late summer of my life. Mornings and evenings feel a little cooler than they used to; I need my robe more frequently and pull out my comforter earlier than I used to. My hips and knees don’t seem to recover from tennis and Tae Bo as quickly as they used to. The same noisy, sensational, violent television shows and movies hold very little appeal for me now. Reality television in no way reflects the reality of my life or of anyone I know. I’d much rather nurse a cup of tea and a good book than be nursed into a broadcast coma. When I am in Europe with friends, I am less inclined to head out for dancing and carousing after midnight than I used to be. A late supper, a stroll down a well-lit avenue, a cup of tea at a favorite café with a well-versed pianist nearby – those are the activities that satisfy me now. And as I enter this new phase, I find that I like myself a little bit more. I feel more colorful. The books I choose, the journal entries I pen, the conversations that interest me most are more varied and nuanced, reflective and open-ended, less shaped by sharp answers and more molded by meandering questions than ever before. How are you really? What has happened lately that has changed you in some significant way? What if I was wrong about that? How could I have done that differently? How can I respond to this difficult situation with grace and forgiveness and understanding – even if I am right? How can I be more but do less? How can I reach out to others without appearing desperate or clingy? How can I touch someone whose life seems untouchable? And when my life is over, when I am no longer around, what will be the legacy of my life? Whose lives will be changed because of how I’ve lived? Will anyone’s eternity be affected by the witness of my life? Attempting to answer those kinds of questions is far more intriguing to me than hashing out the potential resolutions to political, athletic, dramatic, or comedic dilemmas. Most of that stuff just doesn’t matter to me much anymore. As I approach the time of my life when falling from the tree is not so far-fetched, I long to reflect more of the real colors, the colors that have always been there but I have kept hidden behind branches of bravado, self-assurance, a loud voice, and many words. I yearn to display the deeper shades of love, appreciation, friendship, faithfulness, loyalty, graciousness, and Godliness that have always been there. I know that I haven’t always shown those colors. I know that I owe apologies to friends, acquaintances, and family members who have suffered because of my selfishness, greed, covetousness, arrogance, intolerance, impatience, and various other wrongheaded attitudes and behavior. I am reminded of the life of a butterfly. For many weeks and months, it crawls along the ground as a caterpillar, looking up, looking around, trying not to get squished. Like a caterpillar, I crawled around feeling intimidated, trampled, ignored, and threatened for years. I felt small and insignificant, so I looked for ways to be noticed, to not get stepped on, to not be taken for granted. Then the caterpillar enters the cocoon. It wraps itself up in its fine silky threads and waits. That caterpillar doesn’t even know what it’s waiting for. It doesn’t have any idea what’s coming next. I suspect that most caterpillars don’t know that they are caterpillars, nor do they realize that they are going to turn into something fantastic. In the same way, I have never thought of myself as someone who was hiding, not living up to my potential, or that there were other colors and shapes and adventures yet to be made manifest. Life wrapped me in education, marriage, childrearing, homemaking, homeschooling, and all sorts of other cocoons. But now I feel like my wings are beginning to unfurl, wings I never knew I had, and I sense that my spirit is just starting to soar to new heights. I am seeing my heart, mind, and life with new eyes, with new intentions, and with new compassion. I feel strength, joy, peace, and grace flow into, through, and around me as never before. Unfortunately the lifespan of the average butterfly is not very long. It floats on gentle breezes, lands on inattentive passersby, and pollinates countless flowers in its brief existence. While I may not have another 38 or 39 years to soar on these newly discovered wings, I will do everything I can with the time and power I have left to provide good nourishment, strong roots, and fresh air for the two young caterpillars I have been able to welcome into the cocoon of my home. I will do all in my power to exemplify the life of a butterfly whose wings are just drying, expanding, and lifting me off to new heights. I will continue to collect colorful leaves and remind myself that as the green of youth fades, the true colors will emerge. (Pardon the hopelessly tangled mixed metaphor here at the end…) Sometimes I am overwhelmed and always I am gratified by The Creator’s ability to teach me such meditative lessons, especially since I spend so little time out in creation. I never suspected that chlorophyll and caterpillars could teach me so much on this, my life’s journey. Here's to earth science and life science.