Part the Eleventh: Wherein winter continues, but Color intervenes—Endings and Beginnings

Winter sky rainbow, The Crossings of Colonie (Albany NY)

Winter sky rainbow, The Crossings of Colonie (Albany NY)

Friday, March 6. Winter and weeping are wearing me down, along with the monochrome light, and dirt-infused precipitation on everything. I used to say Chicago street snow looked like the bottom of an ashtray. After this long winter in upstate New York, innumerable cigarette pellets of gunmetal ice and ashy road salt line our avenues–and spirits.

Even where the snow is still blank white, it has grown dull to my eyes. It’s been months since the amaryllis bloomed, and a week since my pale yellow butterfly faded away.

I travel in search of color, to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA). Once again I am surprised by serendipity.

Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, Mass MOCA Winter 2015

Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, Mass MOCA Winter 2015

Swirling, spraying, wiggling: wall after wall after wall of gorgeous and intense paint by Sol Lewitt swims around me.

More Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective

More Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, Mass MOCA Winter 2015

Liquid looking gold and black (Teresita Fernandez) flow over me.

Teresita Fernandez: As Above So Below, Mass MOCA Winter 2015

Teresita Fernandez: As Above So Below, Mass MOCA Winter 2015: window reflections in her black and gold sculpture.

On the way to Massachusetts, a friend and I crunch through snow to meditate in the icy stillness of a small temple at the Grafton Peace Pagoda.

Golden peace cranes at the Grafton Pagoda.

Golden peace cranes at the Grafton Pagoda temple.

We are surprised by a Japanese Buddhist nun wearing a headlamp, who pops out from behind the altar where she’d been organizing items. She is startled by us. So cold! So cold! Come and have tea when you are done.  

After sitting zazen in the frigid air as long as we can stand it, we find our way to the kitchen, where we nibble a cookie, sip hot brown Kuchika Twig tea and get to know her—Jun-San. We speak of peace walks and meditation and the essence of the Lotus Sutra.

My companion says, Ever since I first heard Na-Mu-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo, I have wondered what the words meant.

She answers that it comes from the Buddha’s last teaching, where he moved from the internal, concentration on just the self, to concentration on the other, the community  (something about the Golden Rule). She added: But really, you should not look to others’ translations because then the meaning does not come from within.

The acts of chanting, breathing, sitting with its sounds reveal the sutra’s message for each individual.

We laugh over it later: Here you spent forty-some years pondering, in search of what you thought was a mysterious, erudite, complex and distant definition, and she tells you you’ve had it inside all along!

My acts of weeping, seeking color, meditating on life, breathing, walking and sitting with moments regardless of their pain or joy—reveal the meaning of those acts and moments for me. Wisdom inside of me all along. Color inside of me all along.

Now my stomach and heart don’t go sour when I see the gray light over the gray hills and gray snow. Spring will come.

Buddha statue at Kripalu, October 2013. The answer is inside of you.

Buddha statue at Kripalu, October 2013. The answer is inside of you.

****

Accidents happen. Living long doesn’t always happen.

I think of the children who come into our lives, how we are often trying to save them, sometimes not able to: horribly, sadly, naturally. We have saved them so many times to start with, watched over them, cared for them, taught them. And if they live, if it all goes as it often does—they can grow into gorgeous young people we adore, full of creativity and angst and love.

We are called to pay attention to each day and moment, and to love: love and care for our individual selves as best we can, love the people we love, deeply, honestly; and not search way-out-there for meaning but find it right here next to us, in us, shining through us with unexpected color.

Spring comes. But sometimes it is bittersweet.

****

In memory of one Dainty Sulphur, who appeared unbidden in my apartment on February 11 and exited on Feb 28.

In memory of a creative soul I never met except through his mother: photographer, student, beloved son, brother, and more, Max Maisel, who went missing Feb 22, whose memorial service was March 27 and whose body was finally recovered April 17.

Winter bittersweet.

Winter bittersweet.

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Part the Tenth: Wherein the butterfly lands

The amaryllis I theorize brought the Dainty Sulphur into my winter apartment.

The amaryllis I theorize brought the Dainty Sulphur butterfly into my winter apartment.

The bud formed...

The bud formed…

The flower formed.

…then the flower…

...blossomed into gorgeous color...

…which blossomed into gorgeous color…

...and caused me to study the tiny details intently, while I could.....

…and caused me to study the tiny details intently, while I could.

Friday, February 28. I put her in the yoga room, the sacred space, two days ago on the 26th, resigned that she was almost gone—but yesterday, I literally leapt for joy; she’d only had her antennae tangled! Parts of her were not in as bad a shape as I had thought.

Of course one of her legs was still detached, and her energy very low. Then last night I couldn’t find her. I looked under the radiator again, all over the floor, worried I’d step on her accidentally. Finally I figured she was, well, gone. This morning I found her in the stones again—was she there all along and I couldn’t see her? or did she go someplace and then come back?

However, she was barely there, not responding much to air movement or things around her.

Later, nothing: the end. Death.

Dainty still faced the sun, wings folded, but slightly fallen over. I’d felt such surprising happiness the day before; just to have her there, alive, made me feel hope about the missing boy, too. But then the next day–today–she’s done.

It is empty in the kitchen by the window. It is empty in the bedroom. It is quiet, as quiet as it was before, but different.

I live alone, again.

Yes, there are plenty of bugs in my house I don’t see. Outside: squirrels and starlings, crows and chickadees; robins yet to come.

But no one else just showed up uninvited, spent time alongside me, and gave me so much to think about in the iced over, snowbound, super chilled air of this February.

What feels miraculous, and is yet usual: life, and death.

***

Max is still missing. I ache for his family, I ache in their exposed place—exposed in the media, in search of possible information—exposed in their pain and mixture of hope and dread. I admire their courage and ability to appreciate those who assist and accompany them.

I fear writing the saccharine, the simplistic. I don’t know what this feels like for them.

I dance around the edges of it, and even that makes me stagger in grief.

Even where snow has melted, frost covers everything. (Laingsburg, MI)

Even where snow has melted, frost covers everything. (Laingsburg, MI)

 

Part the Ninth, wherein hope waivers on multiple fronts

Winter sun, and winter sun, and winter sun.

The bowl of winter sky and winter sun and winter trees and winter snow, when it was at least warm enough to get outside.

Thursday February 27. Oh my god I am so tired, and everything feels a mess. I stomp around my apartment because it’s too cold to hike; I’ve pulled out papers to sort and they are scattered all over the floor and dining table and front room and I am so mad and sad. My logical mind knows that Max probably drowned, falling off the pier into the lake. He might have accidentally slipped; it could have been on purpose. Regardless, he has not been found, and I feel worn out by the weight of all of it.

I want to get ready for another friend’s upcoming visit, but I can’t cook anything, even with that new equipment I bought the other day. Instead, I cry.

What do you do, as a parent, thinking of another parent’s pain? I Google-chat with my son across the country and he is ok and I’ve texted my daughter and she’s fine, and now I sit with my dying butterfly.

Fallen sideways, scraggly like the window paint and the snow outside.

Struggling against the cold, scraggly like the window paint and the aged snow outside.

Dainty was at the window, fallen sideways and I offered her sugar water on a Q-tip but she wasn’t interested. I noticed she was missing an antenna, maybe one of her mid-legs too, and she could still flap around but is clearly leaving this life.

So I brought her into the yoga room, a sacred space and a warmer one too. She is resting in the rocks of my newly blush-tipped holiday cactus. Dainty still wiggles her remaining antenna around and holds onto some pebbles while propped up slightly by others, facing the window where there is only gray clouded light, as there has been all day.

I hate the metaphorical consonance, of the butterfly fading away and this young man and where he might be. The thousand thoughts of what might have happened to Max bombard me, shred my breathing. He wasn’t meant to be like a butterfly, and he wasn’t meant to die before his parents.

I feel trembly with fear and uncertainty, on so many levels—for his mom and dad and siblings, even for myself and my own future. I have to wander my living space or just watch the world out the window, and in this moment, not worry about getting work done.

Yes, the sun rises over the hill.

Yes, the sun rises over the hill. Every morning.

The blizzard of papers has blasted my household white inside to match the outside world: a bin or two of memorabilia, trips taken and ticket stubs from movies, but also official forms for insurance, old records from my divorce attorney and previous illnesses and surgeries, a health care proxy yet to be filled out. Wondering about choices, mistakes, missteps, amid the things that just happen.

My mis-steps, Max’s mis-step. Things-that-just-happen.

Concentrating on seeing the beauty in the dark and white--

Concentrating on seeing the beauty in the dark and white:  Chance blows snow this way, melts it that way, hardens it into curves and blops.

When I first brought the butterfly in the yoga room and then left, she must have fluttered and fallen to the floor. I brought her back up to the light. I hope that wasn’t too meddling; just didn’t want her in the dust and dirt, in the dark. Can a butterfly sense such a thing in the same way we do? Does it yearn for light, instead of seek the shadows to die?

I smile that she has her single antenna up strong and even moving a bit, feeling the air, moving her fore-legs slightly. She is alert, in the world, yet. BE-ing. Even as she is dying.

Aren’t we all, as we age and change and become “less able,” still very much here?

Aren’t we all, as we develop into elders, crones, and Wise Ones through our aging, becoming masterful and more able in other ways– and still very much here?

Even if we aren’t “very much” presently, we HAVE BEEN, and ARE here; we create ripples in the world, into the time when we are not here.

My candles are lit, and I continue to sit with aching muscles and aching heart.

The blur of butterfly in the dark, and a fallen cactus flower.

The blur of butterfly in the dark, and a fallen cactus flower.

Part the Eighth, wherein the outside world grows harsh, and I must remind myself of lessons already learned

February morning sun over the hill.

February morning sun, deeply clouded, over the hill.

Wednesday, February 26. My mind whirls, I am weeping. I tell myself to listen to my body and spirit, and be gentle, to myself and others.

My mind whirls, frenetic and shocked: the college-age son of a yoga colleague of mine is missing, has been since Sunday, last seen at a favorite pier on the lake. My mind whirls in circles with and for Meg and her family and her son Max.

This news makes everything feel minuscule and unimportant, like I have been wasting my time on frippery. Isn’t that odd? Learning how to be in the moment, to write and practice how to live fully into my life is somehow frippery?

My activities are vitally important, don’t warrant justification.

I answer angrily to this self-compassionate voice: But you haven’t been out saving the world, doing Big Things; instead, you have concentrated on butterfly anatomy, meditating and stretching your muscles—even yesterday, you shopped for silly kitchen tools!

Stop. Breathe.

Think more about accompaniment. It’s easy to talk about death and loss in the theoretical. Though it’s not like I haven’t had serious loss, and some deaths. But I can be too philosophical, I worry, or it feels that way right now. (Remember how you wrote last time Worry is a Waste of Time? Easy to say, hard to live.)

Pine needles on snow, under snow, at the Plotterkill Preserve.

Pine needles on, in and under tree-shadowed snow, Plotterkill Preserve.

What to do, how to accompany? The butterfly first, and now this situation with my colleague. How can I not be torn apart by all the loss and pain that surrounds me? I want to sit in the center of it, not not-affected, but myself; whether that is calm, or sad, or screamingly angry.

Meg was so kind to me at yoga school, encouraging along with the rest of our sangha community, to modify my learning when I got sick, and later when anxiety and exhaustion were high for all of us. I can only encourage her now from afar.

You see, Meg and I are not friend-close, don’t write or talk, but shared a deep experience together, this yoga training; having shared that, we can and have slid back into its intimacy when we return for teacher conferences and trainings. For now, I write a brief note; I send support through friends who live nearby.

Monk's Pond at Kripalu, the fall when we were together last.

Monk’s Pond at Kripalu, the fall when we were last  together.

I am so impressed with her and her family—their willingness to share publicly, and then their gentle firmness when they didn’t want to. Their most recent, clear-eyed statement, the acknowledgment of what others and they know; and yet they will hope, and yet they know.

My butterfly rests. I await news. I weep more. I accompany them all.

Morning after morning, trees and clouds obscure the sun.

 

Part the Seventh, Wherein I Leave Town, Discover Mistakes I Have Made, and Worry

Bitter, bitter February cold and snow.

Dawn in bitter, bitter February: one window to the right glimmers warmly.

February 21. Right now I am out of town for a few days and in the course of deeper online research, discover I have been wrong—wrong!! Now I am kicking myself.

The appropriate recipe to feed a rescued butterfly: sports drink or sugar, soy sauce and water.

Will it be like when my kids were little, and I made what felt like grave errors? Or will the butterfly, like my children, be just fine? I am trying my best! I want to say. I didn’t know she needed electrolytes!

Was I more concerned about anatomy and theory, than the actual care of my Dainty? What about the potential exploitation (can you exploit a butterfly?) spending more energy in being excited, and telling people about it, than knowing what I am doing?

I was brought up to never make a mistake, because mistakes could be (probably would be) fatal: I was trained to pursue perfection while the attainment of it slipped further and further away. What a tightrope, and how exhausting!

Worry is wasted energy.

Lately instead I let go of worry, learn from missteps what to do next time, and concentrate on maintaining a sense of humor and curiosity.

However, I still can fixate about messing up, asking, “How could I have avoided this mistake?” when sometimes we can’t avoid, no matter what we do.

Away, snowshoeing to the base of the frozen sixty foot tall falls at Plotterkill Creek.

Away, snowshoeing with friends to the base of the completely frozen, sixty foot tall waterfall at Plotterkill Creek.

I acknowledge the ultimate end of the butterfly and the call to not be so attached. Not to be cold, but to be reasonable. I ask: What does “accompanying” mean? How far do we go? How do we hold onto who we are, and who/what the other person/creature is, and not inflict our beliefs about how things “should be”?

The Dainty Sulphur is in a holding pattern right now. If it flies away to where I can’t see it and then dies while I am gone, I will not know what has happened—like with so many people and creatures in our lives. If I find it dead, then that was its life; I will thank it for the gifts it gave and go on living myself.

February 25. I’m home again. Dainty was in the bedroom, ruminating on the rug.

This morning I moved her on a Q-tip into the sun-splashed kitchen, to the red dish-drying mat. She warmed up and opened her wings, but I don’t want to disturb her any more; already once she flew to the ice-cold window and beat her wings against it. Over and over the butterfly determinedly goes to the window, driven to get out. At least this afternoon she is sitting in the sun, wings out to absorb its heat.

Dainty lists a bit against the red mat.

Dainty lists a bit against the red mat.

She flies violently against obstacles to the outside world: the rug, the red mat, the glass. She is weaker, aging. But I can’t do much except offer food, and help here and there when she seems in a bit of trouble. Maybe she needed to clean her wings off or warm up. Looks like she’s kneeling against the window, into the light. Perhaps that is all she needs.

I hear birds chipping and twittering, like chickadees I saw in the pines the other day, chasing each other. This sounds like a bunch of sparrows or robins. I can’t open the window to look, since the butterfly is there. Is spring perhaps on its way?

Dainty flaps and flaps against the glass. I startle at the intermittent flitting beat of her wings, a soft sound. The warmth of the strong February morning sun enlivens her.

Meanwhile, plants on the sill silently absorb sunlight into their deeply green leaves, veins visible and almost pulsing, like the insect veins visible in the yellow of her wings.

She is so small on the windowsill.

She is so small on the windowsill.

The butterfly glows in the sun, near the plant that is glowing. She flutters, stops, flutters-flutters-flutters, stops. Is this an end-of-life push or just the brightness that draws her to move?

I can’t see it yet, but I feel drawn as well, to the possibility of snow melt and vegetation greening–out of the brown that waits unseen, underneath our current drifts of white.

February bird in snow, outside my window

February starling in snow, outside my window

Part the Fifth, Wherein I Am Surprised, and Meditate on Metamorphosis

 

Surprise! on the bedspread

Surprise! on the bedspread

February 17 2015. I can’t believe it—thought I’d lost the butterfly, that our short term friendship, for that’s all it could be, was done; but when I went into the bedroom, there she was, after two days, on my bedspread! I laughed out loud, even skipped a little, couldn’t believe it! How did she get there? Why was she there? Giddy, I got my spoon of sweet water in case she needed it.

She wasn’t quite so excited as me–or thirsty; perhaps she found other sources for nourishment in the kitchen when I wasn’t looking. I still couldn’t believe she was back. If she were on the bed in the night, I could have crushed her, but apparently she is busy taking care of herself, flying around my apartment, exploring and living her own short little life.

I want her to go back to the kitchen where it is safer but she is having none of it. Thank you very much, I prefer the rug under your bed. Like my children as infants who pressed their lips together to refuse more baby oatmeal, she knows what she needs better than I.

So she’s had a drink and her picture taken again, and I’ve left her to her own devices.

Resting on the carpet.

Resting on the carpet.

I didn’t know I’d missed her so much. Or rather, that I would be so excited to see her again. I’ve gotten to know more and more, as I’ve read about the butterfly life cycle, Dainty Sulphurs, and different families of butterflies. (Did you know that Monarchs have six legs like the other butterflies, but two of them tuck against the thorax, having lost the ability to aid in walking?) I fear showing too many photos of her to my friends and blog followers, like an obsessed parent incessantly pushing phone images of their cute child.

A friend came by, curious about the butterfly visitor and when I talked about feeding her, said, Oh I think you are not supposed to use honey; I know with hummingbirds you use white sugar. Just in case, I start mixing sugar and water….

I’m talking to a butterfly, in my bedroom.

A more external metamorphosis, of wood into nutrients.

A more external metamorphosis, of wood into nutrients, at the north end of Partridge Run.

The idea of metamorphosis now strikes me, all those grade school posters about caterpillars becoming butterflies, stories of ugly ducklings becoming swans. What being “ugly” meant to me as a child—a label I took on as a chubby kid with glasses. It still horrifies me that the duckling—actually a cygnet—was considered ugly and had to grow into some culturally defined idea of perfection, of others-judged beauty.

What if, instead, we felt perfect as we are, comfortable in our skin even as we grew into something else? That each stage, even in its clumsiness, was considered beautiful?

I was told once that in the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, its face melts. What a thought. In order to change, you will not be able to recognize yourself, because you change so very dramatically. Am I willing to take on that kind of scary change?

When I did research and found the original article, (by Ferris Jabr, at ScientificAmerican.com, August 10, 2012) I learned that it’s not just the face that melts—the whole caterpillar dissolves inside the chrysalis. Releasing enzymes, it digests itself, creates a kind of caterpillar soup, Jabr calls it, though with special organized cells called “imaginal discs” that help it reorganize to the next stage, into the butterfly with wings, antennae and mature sex organs.

What lessons for myself from this re-encounter with the Dainty Sulphur? To take time apart, build my own chrysalis for change, tuck in to look within myself, then take on the change, and emerge. Not to emerge too early. Not to do it without the structure and support I need. To know flying—whatever that means for each of us—is possible even if we can’t imagine it right now.

We have within us what we need for the next step. The taking of the next step can be messy, scary, and look disorganized, but it is exactly as it was and is supposed to be, when we move into it.

Yes (of course), to be continued.

Winter sun in the woods, waiting as things grow and change under the snow.

Winter sun in the woods, waiting as things grow and change under the snow.

 

Part the Third, Wherein the Butterfly Disappears and I Ponder Life, Death, and Survival

A different sulphur, this one either a Pink Edged or Cloudy Sulphur, observed on the slopes of Gore Mountain NY Ski Area, in the fall.

A different sulphur, this one either a Pink Edged or Clouded Sulphur, observed on the slopes of Gore Mountain NY Ski Area, in the fall.

February 13, 2015 morning. Yesterday, after I looked up all the photographs of butterflies I’d taken in the last couple years–I had no idea I had so many!– I took more pictures of the Dainty Sulphur at the window, from different angles, and in the afternoon she moved down next to the air conditioner. By evening she was hanging at the floor trim. This morning—gone! can’t see the butterfly high or low. She might have been eaten by a spider.

There’s part of the situation where I don’t have responsibility—how far do you really chase a butterfly? It follows its instinct.

Even though one of my own instincts is a tendency to care-take (“Hey, I’ve got food here, places you can rest, even!”), I have to let the butterfly go where she will. In the same way I learned to let my teenaged children venture out into the world, and then release them completely (well, almost). I needed to let them go, for my own sake and theirs.

This butterfly, like my own children, like humans, has its schedule of daily life, and of life and death.

Dainty Sulphur sips from the edge of a spoon. She really is dainty, isn't she?

Dainty Sulphur sips from the edge of a spoon. She really is dainty, isn’t she?

February 13, later in the day. The butterfly fluttered in the kitchen; it had been over by the stove. I made more honey water but I don’t think it’s interested or has to find it on its own. I’d almost been relieved it had been “lost,” that I had no longer felt the pull of keeping track of it.

February 14, 2015.  The butterfly is living its life cycle. I don’t have to save it like some protective “master” who has more power and more intelligence. How about we live our life cycles next to each other, not intending harm, but not fretting unnecessarily about it, like I do about most animals, and most people? To do the kind thing when I can, but not to wear myself away figuring out how to save or fix the situation? What is there to fix, anyway?

Before, I said that here in my apartment and in winter, “it won’t survive.” What does that mean? Of course it will survive—it is a alive, it continues to be alive. But life is not just survival, it is living in and through the moments. We are all NOT going to survive in the end. We all die.

How long would it live in a normal life cycle? Two weeks to a month, the internet tells me.

Another butterfly, this one from summer at Partridge Run: Fritillary.

Another butterfly, this one from summer at Partridge Run: Tiger Swallowtail.

The definition of survive: “continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship.” Isn’t living always a bit of an ordeal, under difficult circumstances? Is this life here in my apartment a hardship for her? Maybe, but danger is everywhere for butterflies: frogs, birds, getting trapped, getting smushed, parasites. Survival means getting through some situation—but both of us are not only getting through, but living in, our respective life situations.

I see me looking out the kitchen window, as the butterfly hangs on the glass today looking out as well into deep deep winter. Both drawn to what we are drawn to. I am not doing harm to it, not wanting it out of my life so I don’t have an obligation to it. Yes, I talk to the butterfly, Oh you don’t have to run so madly against the glass! but that is a message for me as well. I don’t have to fight against difficult circumstances, either.

If the tiny butterfly were sentient in the human way, perhaps she would wish things weren’t such a struggle for me, and even wish it could do something for me. As she hangs, rests, it reminds me of my meditation, in which I don’t have to get someplace, I can merely BE. On my yoga mat, feeling what I feel, thoughts wild or calm doesn’t matter, I note them and let them pass; I breathe. Perhaps she is just BE-ing, respiring.

A fritillary of some sort, also at Gore Mountain in the fall.

A fritillary of some sort, also at Gore Mountain in the fall.

We humans like to read meaning into things. For example, I was reading the All Over Albany blog, came across a link to a local writer, Amy Biancolli, and her blog, Figuring Shit Out, went to the blog, read some of it, ordered two of her memoirs from the library and then on a drive across town, happened to hear the beginning of her storytelling on The Moth Radio Hour. Ok, so I am meant to connect somehow with her or her writing. Or maybe she’s just out there, and I’m out there, and we intersect, like this butterfly who just happened to show up in my apartment, and I am learning things from the experience.

I fell in the love with the prologue to Amy’s first memoir, House of Holy Fools, where she writes about Death in her family as “an unwanted guest, oily and shrewd, with a stalker’s bad personal hygiene and pants that gave him a wedgie…”

I am thinking about the feeling of being stalked by death, what survival means, the role of death in our modern lives versus other eras (the 1918 flu epidemic, tuberculosis, recurrences of the plague through history). How unnatural death can seem, and yet it comes to everyone.

So here’s this butterfly to remind me: stop trying so hard; stop banging around. Just BE. It is valuable to JUST BE.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, swans with babies, be-ing.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, swans–symbols of fluidity, intuition, and dreaming–with cygnets, be-ing.