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I always thought ‘chrysalis’ was a beautiful word. . .

May 8, 2008

I SPENT MONDAY IN WASHINGTON, D.C. with two of my closest friends.  We decided to take a day trip, like the dozens we’ve taken throughout the last four years (generally, to visit the “Nash Gal” (national gallery), as my friends are Art History majors, and I love/produce art…).  We decided, without discussing it, that a trip to the National Gallery or the Freer-Sackler would be too painful, too reminiscent.  So, instead, we spent the day first at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and then at the National Museum of Natural History, by way of a hot-dog stand.  

I don’t often use this blog as such an explicitly cathartic place, a place of emotional release, as well as creative.  But, I need it now.  You see, my friends are graduating on Saturday morning, and dispersing immediately afterward from our college town.  I, on the other hand, due to my maladjustment back to collegiate life stateside (post-study abroad in London) and lingering, sometimes dormant, lately overactive issues with mental health (i.e. depression, panic and generalized anxiety disorders), am sticking around for another 5 weeks of classes before I can be deemed an Alumnus.  I’ll be on the sidelines Saturday, though I get to participate in all of the other rites of passage occurring this week: “dead week” trips to the beach, the city, parties, proper shouldering of tears, graduation ball, a reception of senior English majors, etceteras.  One thing is missing: my family.  My friends are even insisting that I bring my cap and gown to the festivities in a bag, for the sake of picture-taking afterwards.  I traded receiving that piece of paper in a few days, for retaining my peace of mind (to a higher degree) over the past several months, and don’t regret the decision.  Though, I inhabit a completely liminal space for the time being, everyone assures me that this is mere detail, unimportant on a larger scale.  I’m young– it’s hard to see that far ahead.

As a pretty young child I remember my mother telling me that I had my father’s penchant for disliking and clumsily negotiating transitions.  This one is no exception.  I have events and dresses lined up for the next few days, followed by Mother’s Day (and visiting the closest mother possible, Mark’s), while calling mine with the sure result of a flood of tears.  When I was a child, I got in the car everyday after school and melted down, just tears.  My personality is an extreme one: hypersensitive, creative, overwhelmed, empathetic.  I don’t know an existence that doesn’t involve feelings of shouldering the whole world, or of having paper-thin skin.  It is an affliction every bit as much as it is the most beautiful part about myself.  Not that I am a biological essentialist, but my personality bleeds through even to my physical and biological make-up: I am thin as if my resources are primarily mental and spiritual, not physical, my skin is extraordinarily sensitive to touch, I’m hypersensitive to temperature, my hunger comes on as extreme pangs, and is satiated almost immediately, and I could go on. . .  I contemplate often why some cave-person such as myself would have been preserved through natural selection.  How did society deem my particular breed of human being worth preserving.  I feel things so deeply, and it has caused me extraordinary pain and suffering.  But, it is the well from which my creativity stems.  

And creativity is my true joy, like a mantric trance, of gliding brushes, shaving words, sculpting visions and language, and cloth into things, into beauty.  I’m not superior to persons-at-large by any means.  I’ve meet others like myself occasionally through the years, and have held them as dear friends and admired acquaintances.  My very dear mentor here at school has a five year-old daughter who “collects” things.  It is imperative that she knows every day whether or not she has pockets in her dress.  Otherwise, the collected treasures are tucked into her socks and shoes, stowed in her pencil box, etc.  They are broken hair barrettes, buttons, particularly beautiful rocks. . . in short, anything that strikes her as beautiful and discarded.  I did that as a child, and proscribed these particular objects with spiritual weight.  What is beautiful is necessarily transcendental– a little shard of “God” or whatever denotation makes you feel comfortable.  I hope I live my whole life never losing that wonder, that appreciation for the ordinary beauties.  Coincidentally, this same child, has professed her intent to become “an artist who draws bugs” when she grows up, so enraptured is she by their delicate beauty.  (I too was a bug kid, a flower kid, a down-in-the-dirt, hands on animals, unafraid and not squeamish– which I attribute to my father, who (as a science teacher), was forever exposing us to the names of things in nature, to the way it ticked, to its mysticism and its science.

So, at the Holocaust Memorial Museum on Monday, I am ashamed to say that I tucked away only a very few things which stirred me deeply.  I am even more ashamed to say that the crowdedness of the museum, and the obviously disrespectful behavior of a group of middle school children who were moving through the main exhibit at about my pace, inspired the opposite of compassion in my heart, until i checked myself, wanting to reach out to them instead.  Or, at least, quiet them.  I need the contemplative quiet.  I did find a few things I hadn’t noticed on my previous trips to the museum.  For one, the photography of Roman Vishniac, which capture 1930’s Berlin, entranced me:

As did a couple of poems scattered throughout the exhibit.  One of which, as it turns out, is a segment of a longer poem by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (b. 1933):

 

"The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
                      like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
                               and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
                    turning gray.
And I myself
            am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here."

The few hours spent there were as sobering and spiritual as always.  I came away, remembering a lot of things discussed in my Religion Seminar on Elie Wiesel (which I took in Fall 2006), and I purchased a book in the bookshop about the contemporary genocide in Darfur, from an interesting new series called “African Voices” (essentially, condensed histories of African conflicts designed as introductions to better educate Western readers).  The experience also reminded me of a stirring memorial I saw at The Great Synagogue in Budapest several years ago, that was really impactful:

But it was the butterflies, at the Natural History Museum, that really provided a spiritual, joyful, powerful experience for me.  I have always thought that ‘chrysalis’ was a beautiful word; and, like many middle class kids, my third grade classroom had a butterfly garden in which we watched the full four stages of monarch’s.  My strong emotional tie to butterflies stems in part from this experience.  I remember releasing the monarchs on the school lawn, and later finding one whose wings had not been properly unfolded, and couldn’t fly.  I named him “Crumple” and took him home, where he lived in our upstairs playroom under the constant care of my little brother and me for his full two-week life span.  I memorized everything about his movements.  We fed him sugar water in the lid to a jar, and I loved to watch his “tongue” uncoil to take in the artificial nectar.  To me, he was fascinating, and ethereally beautiful, and one of my very favorite pets (though the mammal, reptile, crustacean, and fish companions were many when I was growing up).  

The incredible spiritual experience I had in the indoor butterfly garden was exactly the kind of contemplative, uplifting, inspiring, energizing event that I need at this moment in my life.  I am only saddened that my film malfunctioned somehow and the photos were lost.  However, I intend to revisit the butterflies soon, like a mecca, and spend the better part of the day in the entire museum (taxidermy is also one of my latent interests, as the incredible art form that it actually is.)  Both are good raw material for metaphors, of course.  It’s getting awfully late, and this post is winding down.  I only wanted to share the Wikipedia article about Butterfly life-cycles, in particular, these passages about chrysalis, which bear uncanny, and almost too-obvious-to-mention, resemblance to the kind of presipice I find myself faced with at the present time:

chrysalis (Latin chrysallis, from Greek χρυσαλλίς = chrysallís, pl: chrysalides) or nympha is the pupal stage of butterflies. The term is derived from the metallic gold-colouration found in the pupae of many butterflies referred to by the Greek term χρυσός (chrysós) for gold…

Like other types of pupae, the chrysalis stage in most butterflies is one in which there is little movement. However, some butterfly pupae are capable of moving the abdominal segments to produce sounds or to scare away potential predators. Within the chrysalis, growth and differentiation occur. The adult butterfly emerges (ecloses) from this and expands its wings by pumping haemolymph into the wing veins.[2] This sudden and rapid change from pupa to imago is called metamorphosis.

 And, I’ll leave you (brave readers who have made it this far) with an image of a vacated luna moth cocoon:

and a brief quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet:

Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist.  Then take your fate upon yourself and bear it, its burdens and its greatness, without ever asking for that reward which might come from without.  For the creator must be a world for himself, and find everything within himself, and in Nature to which he has attached himself.  (13)

 

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. A-man-duh permalink
    May 8, 2008 7:37 pm

    Whitney,

    you know i can relate to you on many levels….beyond simply english major-tude. I understand. I know the absolute pain of graduation….how it seems almost unfair for them to nurture us for four years and then simply turn us out into the world. One thing i’ve learned, not simply from college graduation, but from my own personal emotional crisis is that you can’t lose people. I’ve spent my life collecting people (like you collected nature) only the best and kindest that my life has lead me to meet. The flaw in my plan is that there are no pockets in which to tuck my treasures and so I keep tabs on them relentlessly through e-mail, phone calls, letters, facebook, or whatever way I possibly can. I have a list that ticks round and round in my head constantly making sure that it’s been less than a month since i’ve been in contact with my nearest and dearest. I don’t care if i come across as annoying because in the end they know that I’m there for them always without question. So, at the risk of adding an irritant to your existence and for whatever it’s worth….you’re on my list and I won’t lose you….

    also….you need to take me to see these butterflies….let’s make a DC date because i’m pitiful about getting up there considering how close i live.

    See you saturday!
    Love
    manda

  2. May 8, 2008 7:56 pm

    It seems that between you and my brother the whole of metamorphoses has been covered, almost 😉 Here is an egg for the sake of completeness:

    This line made me laugh out loud, and then almost cry:
    “…this same child, has professed her intent to become “an artist who draws bugs” when she grows up…”

    Haven’t seen any butterflies down in Georgia yet…

  3. August 1, 2008 7:06 am

    what a beautiful post. i live in Australia and have a blog called chryslais kid. perhaps opne day you may read it.

    I can identify with you on many levels. it is always a pleasure to read and hear from other sensitve souls who do take time to stop and smell the roses, listen to grass grow, watch butterflies and find beautiful treasures.

    All the best
    ck

Trackbacks

  1. My (second) Pilgrimage to see the Butterflies, The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. « { The Green-Eyed Muse }

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