Grief is a sacred journey

Mothering Monarchs, Mothering My Soul

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I carry the glass jar outside to a shady patch of white asters. The earth smells musty and moist in rising heat. Too hot for late September, plus a south wind when the butterfly migration depends on winds from the north. There’s always some climate disaster to be alarmed about, so I bring my mind back to this pristine moment.

I lift the loose lid and extend a finger near the stick where the butterfly rests. It climbs on. Footsteps light and soft as feathers move toward my wrist. Its dry gentle wings caress my skin. It pauses with each step as it meets the world.

It clings and lingers as I move my hand toward the autumn asters, a favorite nectar plant. Exploring with its black antennae, it climbs a tiny flower cluster and waits.

I collected this beauty on a milkweed leaf, a tiny caterpillar, 3/8 inch long. I fed it and 15 others a daily diet of fresh milkweed leaves. Its caterpillar skin was cool and smooth, black with art nouveau gold and white stripes to warn birds away. In the field, ants, aphids, praying mantis, and disease ignore the warning.

On a windowsill in its glass jar, it devoured leaf after leaf with ravenous passion. In a few weeks it was 100 times larger than the little one I’d brought in. Then it stopped eating and dropping dung to hang from the lid in an uneven J. One day, two days. Until the caterpillar skin split and a magic pupa, green with glittery gold flecks, appeared. An exquisite jade jewel.

 

 

 

 

I waited. One week. Nearly two. I meditated on the living gem as it darkened. It blackened until I wondered if it was dead, but vibrant orange patches reassured me. I carried the jar from desk to kitchen to bedroom, hoping to see the birth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late afternoon, it emerged in a snap. Splitting its clear fragile chrysalis that seemed too small for the body it held. It squirmed and wiggled, rotating on its silken thread. Scrunched and moist, it unfolded like an accordion in an abstract dance. First body, then wings, rocking and swaying to its own rhythm while little feet held it upside down. In a few hours, it opened its wings and beat them once, then twice. Then more.

After it released the pupa case, I turned the smaller jar upside down over a gallon jar with sticks inside. I was a midwife now. The Monarch dropped down, just like I’d hoped, and touched its world with black antennae. Slowly, ever so slowly, it traveled up the stick, wings opening and closing like geisha fans.

It hardly moved that night.

This morning, it flutters again. Time to set it free. Is the heat a problem? I decide it’s OK as long as there are lush patches of nectar plants. It will feed, fatten, and wait to ride south on the next north wind.

How can this featherweight magician fly 3000 miles to Mexico?

Ten minutes later, it’s off.

I need to learn that slow rhythm of opening and closing. When is it time to air my wings and fly? When is it time to pull in, nurture, and wait for favorable winds?

In nature, only 1-2% of Monarch eggs survive to become butterflies. I’m grateful to nurture this one and others I collected, the way Nature, my Divine Mother, nurtures me.

Like the butterfly, deep within, my Soul knows what to do despite my doubts. I see why ancient Greeks called butterflies Psyche, a word translated in English as Soul.

***

After writing this, I released nine monarchs one day and one more the next. The kids are on their own. Six weeks ago, I sank under the weight of caregiving, the state of the world, and more. In a blog posted then, I wrote I needed joy or delight. The next day, a stranger emailed saying she heard from a mutual friend that I have abundant milkweed on my land. She wanted a place to release Monarchs she’d raised. Yes!

I began inspecting milkweed leaves, searching for caterpillars. My Monarch Mentor shared tips for raising them. I found 16 caterpillars, fed them, and released 14 so far. The other two should fly in a day or two. My adventure helps Monarchs, plus I’ve learned so much about their beautiful transformations. The key word for me is Delight.

How do you create joy in your life? Does Nature bail you out of rough spots? For other blogs about nature and healing, see Planting Life at a Time of Sorrow or When the Bluebirds Fledged.

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28 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, Thank you for sharing your beautiful butterfly stories with us. I love your arresting, poetic title! And as I look to your wonderful photos I can’t help but notice you witnessing your own (re)birth (as above so below!) as the enduring midwife and loving mother step forward. Within nature’s life-giving arms, many transformations take place.

    All at once I’m transported back to an old classroom where several years ago I anticipated, alongside my four and five year olds pupils, the pure joy and wonder of watching a few hidden and concealed butterflies emerge. Oh how the years roll on, all too quickly! With many a miraculous moment forgotten until the soul, happily, is nudged again by another.

    It’s so delightful what you’ve done here. By recording your “Mothering” you open the eyes of this poet’s heart! It’s a virginal moment, if that makes sense! How I love the way nature nurtures, if we let Her. I’m so happy that birthing your butterflies has brought you such joy and delight, huge gratitude for your willingness to share. Love and light always, Deborah.

    • Deborah, you awaken the poetic side of me. Raising the Monarchs felt like living in a poem. The quiet of the experience was interrupted occasionally by noisy anxiety about “doing the right thing,” keeping them too long, releasing them when it was too cold, and on and on. My Monarch Mentor and readings from helpful websites devoted to raising Monarchs reminded me that these little ones are tough. They live over 6 months and fly for 2-3 months to get to Mexico. They winter over there and leave when the weather warms a little (late winter here, I imagine) to fly a while, lay eggs, and die. Their summer progeny only live 4-6 weeks. They sip nectar, fly, and lay eggs along the way. Then those eggs become butterflies to continue the journey north. Finally, the last butterflies of the summer, like the ones I’m raising, join the migration south and the cycle begins again.

      Their metamorphosis is so mysterious and unfathomable that it feels like taking part in a miracle. All 15 I raised were strong and ready to feed on later season nectar plants before taking off. There’s one chrysalis on my desk still. It’s darkening, so there will be a butterfly by tomorrow night. After this one flies, I’ll have to find a new way to find joy in my daily life, although the flavor and blessing of this will last a long time. Blessings back to you.

  2. Thank you for your gift of the most sensory-rich science lesson I have ever read. Soul food indeed. What I see here enriches all the gorgeous Facebook photos you post. Did I know about the butterfly tender who wanted to release butterflies into your meadows because of the milkweed? Well, I do now. What a lovely sign of serendipity! And you ask, How can this featherweight magician fly 3000 miles to Mexico? God only knows.

    Does nature bail me out of rough spots? Yes, indeed. Daily ducks on the lake teach me the grace of gliding. I’m a slow learner, but I get a lesson every day, even more meaningful since Irma’s irritating blast.

    You have a lot on your plate these days, but I’ll not worry about you as long as you find a balance with Delight!

    • I love thinking of your Graceful Gliders, Marian. If people doubt the existence of a Divine Power, a Divine Intelligence, God or Goddess or whatever we want to name the Unnameable, they should raise Monarch butterflies. Every few days something new and spectacular happens in these little lives.

      This morning, I had to drive a long distance for an emergency hearing aid repair, just as I’m getting preparing to fly to IL tomorrow for the conference. First I stamped my feet. Then I felt sad, but who can feel sad when I live in a peaceful and beautiful local world without floods and hurricanes? So off I went for my 4 hour round-trip drive when I should have been packing and, when I returned, Monarch #16, the last caterpillar I collected and the last to become a chrysalis was waiting for me. I released it from its smaller jar to a large mesh butterfly cage where it’s protected and can dry those wings. They don’t eat for 24 hours after emergence (new Monarch fact), so tomorrow, when I’m flying west, my son will release this little one to join the tail end of the migration. Give those ducks something delicious from me.

  3. Thanks for sharing your wonderful delight in this miraculous tale of nature,transformation and Elaine. Your writing, photos, and spirit are a great gift!

    • thank you, Peggy. What a gift it’s been for me. The last emerged this morning, to be released by my son Anthony when I’m on a plane heading for the Jung in the Heartland conference. Good timing all around.

  4. Thank you for sharing all the beauty and mystery of your midwifing the butterflies. Talk about unbearable lightness of being!
    Happy full moon coming–looks to be a gorgeous one!
    Never too late to be reborn.

    • Thank you, Janet. I’ll miss seeing you this weekend. This has been the best science project the 9-year-old in me could imagine. She (I) needed the butterflies and I’m glad I could help them a little, too. Other than one that never ate so was likely sick when I brought it inside, 16 of 16 made it with healthy wings waiting to fly. What a symbol for hope, Psyche, and Soul.

  5. Wow! What an incredible journey of nurturing and birth. Thanks so much for sharing the journey of the butterfly with us Elaine. Truly enlightening, and no wonder it fulfilled you with a renewed passion. Butterflies are said to be gentle reminders of lost loved ones saying hello. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. When I get home from a conference I’m attending this week, I’ll research ancient Mexican-American mythology about Monarch butterflies and see what I can find. They knew the Monarchs and their mysteries long before we landed here. I know that at least one Meso-american Butterfly Goddess is associated with those who have died, but I know very little. I look forward to learning more.

      • I look forward to learning more about the butterflies from you. 🙂

        • They’re finally out of here, Debby. On a warm day last weekend (you likely had that warmth, too), I saw many Monarchs fueling up on my zinnas and heading south. The nectar plants are gone after our first frost of the season, so I hope they made it to fields of nectar in Pennsylvania or Virginia.

  6. Elaine, it’s so interesting and fitting that you are spending your croning years tending to the birth/death/rebirth cycle of life in so many daily, physical and practical ways: birthing your butterflies and blog posts, caring for and being a witness to the dying at hospice, nurturing the rebirth of caterpillars into butterflies. I love the way you are not only writing about the archetypal myths, but consciously living them. Wouldn’t Marion Woodman love knowing how you are carrying on her passion for soul-making? A passion she so lovingly and painstakingly lit in her own life and shared with us through her writing? Blessings on you and your sacred journey into the mystery. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Thank you, dear Jeanie. I had so much fun writing this piece, although I struggled over which photos to use. I have hundreds of butterfly photos, as you might imagine. In responses to earlier comments, I said #16 and the last emerged today. My son will release it tomorrow to catch the tail end of the migration (they do best with a 24 hour rest before setting sail). When the butterfly flies, I’ll be on a plane heading west to Jung in the Heartland. It feels fitting somehow.

      The paper I wrote for the conference says a lot about beloved Marion Woodman and how she showed up in my life and dreams. She would be delighted by the butterflies, too. She knew how to take life seriously and hold close to joy at the same time. I look forward to sharing that article soon, after it’s first published by C.G. Jung Society of St. Louis.

  7. Delightful indeed. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you, Ashen. Every morning instead of reading the (bad) news, I first checked in with the butterflies and watched a while. At one point, 9 emerged in a day and they all hung out inside in a net cage a few days until the weather warmed. They and I were glad when they could fly outside.

  8. Medicine woman, A Ho.

    Earth Mother. In all her erotic glory.

    You say “I need to learn that slow rhythm of opening and closing” even as you have transmitted the Idea whole. This is one of my favorite posts of yours. I am also touched by the commonality, so many of us attempting to use the web force to put out our messages. Or talking, just talking to another person, a person who will mirror you with love.

    These times are challenging. Mattering outwardly when your home blows away in a storm. Or your son is shot. Inwardly by the constant thought-stream. I think at least part of the reason I sit meditation-style most mornings is to escape from all that. But of course it’s more, a path to remembering the world mirroring me with love.

    F.

    • Dear friend Fred, this is a favorite of mine, too. How could it not be with those magic little fliers? When I began in late August, I didn’t know late fall Monarchs lived 6-8 months, flew to Mexico over a 2-3 month period, paused for cold weather, and then headed back north when the days got longer to lay eggs along the way. After the eggs are laid, they die. Those eggs, their summer progeny, become butterflies that live 4-6 weeks. Feeding and flying north before laying more eggs. Then those eggs become butterflies and continue the journey north, as many as 3-4 generations to get to the land where the fall butterfly began before laying eggs for the next migration. The natural magical mystery brings me a sense of hope and lightness at a time that often feels hopeless and dark. Yes, I loved them and I felt a Love mirrored back to me. You say it so well.

  9. Whoa! You’ve been busy, Elaine. I never realized how those butterflies actually completely rebirthed themselves. Their whole process, whole life is amazing. Thank you for taking us along your magical time with Monarchs through your descriptions and photographs.

    • It’s been my pleasure, Robin. The article doesn’t begin to touch on the details of the mystery, partly because I wanted to focus on the beauty and partly because my knowledge is limited. This last month, I felt I’d missed my calling as an entomologist, but it’s never too late to try something new and learn more.

  10. I stayed home yesterday with a cold as Chuck went to the Pacific Grove Butterfly parade to do a shoot for someone. The parade has been happening since the 30’s or 40’s. Kids pour down main street dressed in butterfly costumes celebrating their return. I remember as a child when the migration happened the peninsula was inundated with butterflies. They were so thick it created a carpet of those who were too tired to make it any farther. Now, Chuck said there was not one butterfly in sight. I have seen a few but nothing like it used to be.
    Where do the ones you midwived fly to? I know they end up in Mexico but do the ones from the east coast fly diagonally south to Mexico? Could one you hatched land on my hand?
    I too appreciate your ability to see something, some activity and ask the question, how can I know when to pull in, when to spread my wings. Connecting inner and outer is wisdom in action.
    Your pics are beautiful. I am always amazed that the pupa hangs from such a tiny connection.
    Thanks E once again for bringing us such a delicate and precious moment. A pleasure to read in these difficult times. It is hopeful.

    • Oh, Lauren. I’m sorry there aren’t many butterflies on the Western peninsula this year. I know there were many sightings in Boulder, but I’m not sure if they go to Mexico or CA. There’s been a butterfly resurgence here after many years of decline. We’ll see what happens next year. I read that the Western and Eastern migrations are full force in early October, especially last weekend. I’m grateful mine all made it to butterfly-hood in time to join the caravan. The ones I midwifed join up with butterflies from southern Canada and everywhere in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, from Minnesota to New York and points south. They head for Michoacan, Mexico–in the southern mountains of Central Mexico. California butterflies winter a few places on the Pacific Coast and originate west of the Rockies, from Canada south. In maps of their migration path, I see that none of them fly over the Gulf of Mexico, something many people have told me. From NY, they fly southwest through Texas, so always over land. There are many migration maps if you google it. Here’s one: http://geo-mexico.com/?p=11443

      Those little sink threads that hold the pupae in place are strong. I know because I’ve scrubbed them off jar lids after the butterflies hatched. It amazes me most that a full-sized butterfly is folded into that small pupae and then opens and unfolds like an accordion. I had never watched this unfoldment before. It’s clear why they’re the symbol of Soul and angels. Such miraculous creatures. So now what will I do to find delight? The trees are turning here and the acorns falling. New wonders will appear and I have lots of reading to do about pre-European invasion Mexican butterfly goddesses.

  11. I learn so many new things from you. I am grateful for our friendship. Thank-you sister!

    • Thanks, Dennis. I learned so much raising these beauties, first by watching and then reading on the many excellent Monarch websites. I saw a few Monarchs yesterday and one this morning, but it’s time for them to be on their way. It’s warm here (I hope that’s helpful for you), but the nectar plants are fading. Time to move south. One just floated by out my office window.

  12. Elaine you astound me

    • Joe, thank you for commenting. Nature astounds. I’m grateful I had a small part in the Monarch miracle. Hearing loss encourages a more vibrant visual contact with the natural world. The butterflies cooperated this year. I hope their descendants make it back next season.

  13. I went through this process when I was about seven years old and had found several caterpillars and brought them home. My mom, as curious as I was, helped me put them in a jar and feed them. Then the magic began. Thanks so much for bringing forth one of my most favorite memories!

    • What a great story, Joan. You never forgot the magic. I wish I’d known to do this with my sons when they were small, but we weren’t worried about Monarch survival in the 1970s. My local son watched as I tended them this year and helped with the release. Yours is a memory to write about!

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