Yesterday I went for a walk with a friend. At the beginning of the walk, from afar, I saw a duck standing still in the middle of one of the lanes. I alerted out loud that it would get hit if it stayed there. I approached it slowly and hesitantly, and as cars approached it, they went around, while I flinched at each close encounter. I didn’t want to startle it and get it accidentally hit. Finally when the coast was clear, my friend and I shouted at it to move, and so it went on its way toward the bay.
My friend and I continued on our walk, stopped for breakfast, and when walking the last portion of the route, I noticed a hairy caterpillar crossing the sidewalk in front of us. In part I noticed his fragility as the wind made him tilt over just a little bit, like a piece of paper. But I also observed as he walked on with such determination. As we moved a few feet from him, we turned around and saw that he had made it down the side walk onto the street. He was going for it!
There he was, this tiny, delicate being crossing a vast sea of asphalt. Something urged me to keep watching, so I turned around, told my friend to wait so I could see the caterpillar’s journey. I saw cars turning onto the street, but only to turn into one of several parking lots in the marina park. We stood there with wonder, watching how the potential obstacles were diverted one after the other from the caterpillar’s path. All of a sudden a car began to approach, but missed him. Then a motorcycle. I walked urgently closer to him, telling my friend I wanted to help him get to the other side. But my friend advised to let him be; she said it was his destiny to journey on his own terms. And a part of me thought he would make it. The universe had conspired on his behalf so far, and he was 3/4 of the way.
These caterpillars are known as bag shelter moth caterpillars, and stay sheltered in a big silk bag at the base of wattle or eucalyptus trees. They feed on leaves all day or all night. Characterized as determined and persistent, they line up, single file, and head off to find another tree, crossing any terrain, when searching for more food. Sometimes the thread of caterpillars gets broken and caterpillars near the end of the convoy may get lost for a while, journeying alone.
Maybe the caterpillar was lost trying to make it back to his community. As I stood there cheering the caterpillar on, a car ran it over. (It’s okay if this made you chuckle – there something humorously dark about this scene). My heart sunk. I stood there in disbelief. I went to it, hoping, maybe it had been spared, but it was completely smushed on the asphalt. As I walked back toward my friend, with resignation, I said, “I guess it wasn’t in the caterpillar’s destiny to make it. And in that same breath, I wondered, “But what if I noticed him – what if I was placed in his path in that exact moment so that I could help him across?”
My friend then interrupted me and said there was still a lesson in it all. She said her advice to leave the caterpillar alone had come from a place of fear. That I had noticed the caterpillar, just like the duck, earlier, because I had developed a connection with nature, and that connection should have given me the drive to act on what was in my heart. She told me the lesson for me was to listen to my inner voice, no matter what anyone else around me thought; to never let anyone, no matter how close they are to me, dissuade me from my heart’s calling.
I went home and thought about that little caterpillar for the rest of the day. I realized that whether it was in that caterpillar’s destiny to survive or not, I was there and had I helped him across, he would have survived that part of his journey. I thought about how many times in my life I had struggled and kept going through sheer determination, finding along the way folks who supported and lifted me. I don’t know if it was my destiny to survive and overcome, but those who noticed me on my journey did not leave me to be smushed by my circumstances. If that caterpillar had been a child, I would not have stood there to observe. Our interconnectedness requires that we value all life as sacred.
Just as I was finishing up this reflection, it hit me – there was another lesson that was asking my friend and I to pay attention. Our conversation that morning began with us discussing our students who are having a hard time figuring out what they want to do with their lives; leaving high school without an idea of what they are passionate about or how they want to serve in the world, and many don’t even think they have a gift or an ability. I then confessed that the last dream I had for myself was to become a teacher, but there was a yearning to now pursue something beyond teaching. I left teaching, only to come back part time, so that I could pursue other goals and experiences. And I have, but none of them feel like I have a dream to run after, so like the students, I feel dreamless. I’ve been working on many projects, none of them my own, helping others pursue their vision. I watch in admiration as many people who I am surrounded by pursue their dreams relentlessly and are manifesting their creativity on their own terms – from a friend who was a teacher and now runs a shamanic healing center, to a young woman who sells Mexican pop culture nail decals inspired by the art and beauty of being Chicana and Mexicana and uses her art as an education platform, to an artist whose drive has made her into a renowned activist across the country. My friend shared examples of people whose journey she has been following and admiring as well – from a woman who used writing for self-discovery and healing who now uses her skills and abilities to teach workshops and inspire other women to use writing as a healing tool, to a woman who started tweeting “Notes to Self,” and went on to write several books and teaches personal growth workshops.
I’ve been wandering for a few years, wondering what I am supposed to create. My friend talked about having similar experiences. She knows what her gifts are, knows her purpose in life, but doesn’t have a clear dream to run after. Both her and I have envisioned having a center for youth, but we wondered, if that is truly our dream – why don’t we feel the drive that so many people who have followed their dreams talk about. We explored possible answers, but did not find a resolution to our questions.
The caterpillar symbolizes pure potential. It has to do with the promise of a new life indwelling their bodies, the way hope resides in the seat of our souls promising us a better day tomorrow. It is a constant reminder of birth, transformation and opportunity for new life. In Alice in Wonderland, the caterpillar is the first character who really makes an effort to guide Alice on her journey. He reminds Alice that changing isn’t a bad thing – after all, one day the caterpillar will transform into a butterfly and it will be a masterpiece. He teaches her to not be afraid of her imagination and how to cope with the obstacles in Wonderland.
I found the following excerpt as I was trying to understand the significance of the caterpillar:
“Are you in a creative huddle? Suspended in a state of cogitation? The caterpillar is a good metaphor for you. It is a reminder that at some point, all your mulling, processing and soul-searching will unfold into remarkable results. Caterpillars are a blessing on new ideas. They indicate promising outcomes to projects in their initial stage, and offer good juju in terms of fruitful completion of goals.
Because of their dynamic process of metamorphosis, moths and butterflies are symbolic of transformation. By association, the caterpillar is a symbol of evolution and transformation too. Specifically, they convey a unique level of patience as they surrender to the process of transformation. Let’s face it, once a caterpillar begins the process of transforming into a winged beauty…there’s no turning back. In essence, caterpillar is a symbol of never looking back on the old versions of ourselves. Rather, the caterpillar encourages plowing forward with ever-evolving, more brilliant versions of our beauty and potential.”
That caterpillar crossing the street represented our dreams and our ability to always begin anew and fulfill our greatest potential. My friend acted from a place of fear. I acted from a place of hesitation, rooted in indecisiveness and insecurity. I believe these things are what kill dreams. On that morning walk our action, or inaction, resulted in the caterpillar’s death, in much of the same way these feelings can stand as obstacles to discovering and fulfilling our dreams. We must pay attention.
So here’s my final reflection: Like the caterpillar, regardless of the end result, I want to cross with determination. I want to go for it! I don’t want to come to the end of my life and wonder if “I could have. . . ” I will continue my commitment to listen to my heart and strengthen my relationship with my inner voice, so I may not feel the hesitation I felt standing by the street watching the caterpillar cross.