My friend Tom once shared a story of a woman he knew who kept a journal about gardening. One entry that always stuck with him was a short observation on a day when the slow transition from winter to spring seemed to sharpen into visibility. She wrote: “Things mostly green.”
While we can definitely feel the return of life to the ground here in east central Illinois, things are mostly not green. The air has been more forgiving, the sunlight gloriously welcome, and yes, there are a few tiny shoots poking through in the yard, but this is the time right before the green, the time between.
Some people get the winter blues as early as October, some can make it until January, until after the holidays, and some just lose it completely in February because the whole damn season has lasted too damn long. For me, March is often the most challenging month, just as the end of winter is actually within sight. It’s a little bit like when we drive the 800 miles to New Jersey to visit my family, and somewhere around mile 747, I am absolutely sure that we will never get there. I say this to Martin every single time, somewhere around the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, “We are never going to get there. Never. Not ever.”
My sense is that this has something to do with transitions, and the fact that they require us to make a choice. Winter is winter–you can go right ahead and feel like crap if you want to, and no one really judges you. In fact, most people are happy to join in, which is comforting. You can go to sleep at 8:30, complain a lot, stay inside most of the time, even stand in your driveway and throw things at your frozen car doors, as my friend Elizabeth did last year, and know that there is a force greater than you that is responsible for your miserable mood.
But spring requires more. Spring is about waking up. You’re supposed to be happy in the spring. It’s time to choose.
One of my most dear friends Ruth who died three years ago loved butterflies, and she kept a card on her desk that said, “You can fly, but that cocoon has got to go.” I visited a butterfly house once and there was a display area where you could see butterfly chrysalises at different points of development (brief summary of butterfly life cycle=egg/larva, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly. See also: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle). The chrysalis is what we think of as the cocoon; it’s the transition stage. Special cells that were already present in the larva grow inside the chrysalis and become the legs, wings, eyes and other parts of the adult butterfly. The process can takes weeks, sometimes longer.
I remember standing there for a long time watching the tiny hanging cocoons–they were varying shades of green and gold. The ones with butterflies that were almost ready to come out made little jerky movements. You could almost feel each one’s individual labors behind the glass. I remember wishing I had some profound thought about what I was seeing, but honestly, all I could think was, “Man, that looks like a ton of work.”
And of course, it’s the work that makes the butterfly strong enough to make it out of the cocoon. There’s a heartbreaking story in Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, one that clearly made its mark on her even, or perhaps especially, as a young child. It’s about a moth that stands in a mason jar on her teacher’s desk until it is ready to come out of its cocoon. But the jar is too small for the moth, and when it finally emerges from the cocoon, it doesn’t have enough room to spread its wings: “When it spread those wings–those beautiful wings–blood would fill their veins, and the birth fluids on the wings frail sheets would harden to make them tough as sails. But the moth could not spread its wide wings at all; the jar was too small. The wings could not fill so they hardened while they were still crumpled from the cocoon.” The teacher takes the class outside to let the moth go, but it can only crawl away, on its six frail legs, heaving the “golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been.”
I’ve cited this before, but it’s worth repeating. Parker Palmer, in describing his own experiences with depression, writes, “One of the most painful discoveries I made in the midst of the dark woods of depression was that a part of me wanted to stay depressed. As long as I clung to this living death, life became easier; little was expected of me.”
He quotes the Bible passage: “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Therefore, choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). And why, he wonders, would God tell us something so obvious? His answer is: “I had failed to understand the perverse comfort we sometimes get from choosing death in life, exempting ourselves from the challenge of using our gifts, of living our lives in authentic relationship with others.”
The message of this time of transition, the time before the green is this: “Therefore, choose life.” Do the work. You CAN fly, but that cocoon has got to go.
When I drop Gabe off at daycare, we always park in the same spot which is called, “Our Little Spot.” There is a little tree next to Our Little Spot that I’ve started photographing for evidence of its transition from not green to green. I don’t know what kind of tree it is, so if anyone reading knows about these things, I’d love to hear your thoughts. But in the meantime, we’re watching and waiting, and we’ll be keeping you posted.
A short but popular quote today from Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
P.S. I truly love all of your comments, your sharing your thoughts, and letting me know that you exist! Thank you!