On Watching a Caterpillar and Leaving Our Home

A week ago, perhaps more, maybe less, I spent an hour watching a caterpillar make its way from the dill plant he and his friends have been consuming all the way around our pool to the garden on the other side. He took the long way and the journey was arduous, full of terra-cotta pots and a privacy fence and the ever watchful eye of me. Inch by inch, I barely moved through the pool, holding onto the side and staring at his tiny legs and waddling body. I did not know he would be a monarch until a day later when I saw a metamorphosis of this same kind of caterpillar into a splendid butterfly. I knew for sure yesterday when there was no longer any sign of my dill-revenging caterpillars and instead the presence of four monarch butterflies fluttering around our backyard and front. When we moved in I planted as many bee and butterfly attracting plants as I knew would survive a Texas summer but, as the poet says, “things take the time they take,” and it’s only this summer that we’ve seen the wildlife in abundance.

We thought the pear tree in our backyard was stunted or simply ornamental. Turns out it just needed a good pruning. The pears are growing fat and fast this year. I hope the squirrels will leave enough for me to make a few jars of chutney. The curly willow was a straggly skinny sort when we bought our home and now it provides a canopy over half the pool, its tendrils creating a sort of sanctuary from the heat. Our front yard is absent a tree now. In its place a little wildflower meadow was planted, small, just five feet in circumference but it fills my bottles and pitchers with flowers every week.

For the past three weeks I’ve been packing and painting and planning and trying to find just one place in our house not covered in construction dust. I’m grateful for the dust because it means progress but progress never feels as nice in the middle of it. Still, “things take the time they take.” Yesterday we took a breath in the evening, after a few weeks of shortness and apologies and spending more than we planned and fearing everything we don’t know, and we reminded one another: we’ve invested a lot into this home, not just financial equity. We’ve laid floors, removed outdated features, replaced the air conditioner, gutted our bathroom, and so much painting. But we’ve also invested a lot into this home with our hearts. It was a nondescript brick rancher infested with weeds, a concrete backyard with no landscaping, and replete with eighties features throughout and we’ve loved her into something beautiful. Maybe she’s not beautiful to everyone but she’s been beautiful to us.

I am rarely sentimental. I think it’s in my nature to be, but the effect of having moved so many times, having had so many roommates, and having seen so few dreams realized is I have learned to cut and run and rarely remember. But I have always felt sentimental about our home in Denver. We loved that home, truly loved it. We would say to one another often, in spite of all that was wrong in the world around us, we could see ourselves growing old in that home. I have never felt that way about a home before and when we finally came out from beneath the rubble of her sale, I thought I never would again. But somehow this brick rancher in a small neighborhood in Flower Mound, Texas has waddled its way into something beautiful.

I am rereading Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms this morning again and here is what she writes about the process of metamorphosis, “This changes is so profound that the caterpillar transcends its previous existence to take on a completely different form with a completely different set of capacities. I doubt the caterpillar has much cognitive understanding of the process itself or the end product. Something much more primal is at work. Something in the very essence of this little being says, It is time. And so the caterpillar obeys this inexplicable inner urging and enters in.”

I often feel lost in the world these days. I feel startled by how “at peace and in place” my peers seem to be, writers, influencers, thinkers, preachers, teachers, podcasters, and dreamers. And I realize some of you might perceive that to be true of me, but trust me when I say that I wake each morning waddling the long way around instead of flitting beautifully between flowers. But it helps me sometimes to think of nature doing what it was created to do, without thought or even feeling. The pears are borne because the tree was pruned by a person. The wildflowers grow because we scattered their seeds. The caterpillars turn into monarchs because I didn’t feed them to my friend’s chickens when she asked. This home, as stale and impersonal as it was when we became her owners, has become our friend. And I, undeniably, grow too. It takes time but things take time. And progress feels slow and battered and worn and tired and dusty and takes the longest route, but eventually the monarch emerges, the echinacea blooms, the willow weeps, and the home becomes hard to leave.

Yesterday I took a shower in our new bathroom, its champagne fixtures perfectly fit, its beadboard the perfect shade of gray, every detail of that bathroom (even the ones we’re still scrambling to finish before we list the house next week) was thought about for years. We may seem impulsive to the casual eye, but everyone who knows us well knows when we spring a seeming sudden change we’ve probably been churning with thoughts about it for three months or three years. We budgeted for every fixture and feature and it’s not a fancy bathroom, but it’s simple and beautiful, the way we like. I leaned my head against the clean white tile for one moment and felt like crying. I know it’s a silly thing when there are wars and rumors of wars and there are orphans and refugees and rampant racism, but for someone who rarely dreams of what could be anymore, I felt sad that the realization of a thing came hand in hand with the leaving of it.

Did you know monarchs only live for a few weeks?

It is true, Mary Oliver, you are right, “things take the time they take,” but sometimes we think the time they’re taking and the thing they are or might someday be isn’t what they are at all. Sometimes the things taking the time they take are not the thing at all. Sometimes they are more and sometimes they are less. Maybe the thing isn’t the point at all but the time and the taking of it.

Her poem goes on,

Don't worry.
How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

How many indeed?

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