Random Thoughts of Crows, Butterflies and Transformation

Crow, Magnolia, and Moon by Julianna Paradisi 2019 pastel on tea-stained paper

Last Fall I watched a murder of crows scavenge through a city park, mingling with a flock of pigeons. One crow ambled closely behind a singular pigeon, comically mimicking its head-jiving gait.

It was molting season for the crows. Their normally sleek, iridescent black chests were marred by bare patches evoking the image of clowns dressed in rags. The indignity of their molting got me thinking about enduring molting as a process of transformation. Birds molt their feathers. Snakes shed their skins. These are transformations of self- renewal.

Some creatures undergo complete metamorphosis, however. Water-bound Tadpoles transform into amphibians, growing legs while their tails wear away to nothing along their journey towards becoming frogs.

Then the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies came to mind, and it occurred to me I had no idea how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly within its shroud of chrysalis.

When I was going through cancer treatment, the image of a butterfly was often suggested to me by others as something to consider. In fact, butterfly imagery is popular among survivors for its message of transformation from lowly caterpillar into a beautiful winged creature with the ability to fly.

While I liked this imagery, the truth is, with my bald head and surgery scars, I identified more with the imagery of an egg: something smooth, round, and hairless holding within it the dramatic creation of a transformed life.

After watching the crows for some time, I went home and looked up on the Internet the process of how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. It was startling to learn it isn’t like some quick-change artist act on America’s Got Talent.

It’s a pretty gruesome process. Caterpillars don’t spin a cocoon around themselves like silkworms do. They molt their outer skins and the chrysalis bursts forth containing their innards. Until recently, scientists believed the caterpillar was then digested by enzymes within the chrysalis into a soup-like yolk, with cells programmed to become the legs, eyes, wings, etc developing into their assigned organs.

Chrysalis (sketch book) by Julianna Paradisi 2018 Ink on paper

It was difficult for scientists to accurately study the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies because they had to cut open a chrysalis or x-ray it to see what was happening inside, thereby killing the embryonic butterfly and preempting further development.

The advent of micro-CT enables scientists to see inside a chrysalis without killing the caterpillar/butterfly, and study the metamorphosis without destroying it. It turns out the caterpillar does not actually self-digest into a soupy yolk, but its parts shift in size and form within the chrysalis, molding into a butterfly. At maturation, the butterfly takes breaths into its thorax, until its wings swell with air and the chrysalis bursts open, releasing it.

Last Fall, I began drawing and painting crows, attracted to the idea of transformation and how it applies to my life. I’ve completed a twenty-year cycle, a mini-lifetime within my lifetime since cancer treatment. It’s time to begin something new. I’m not quite sure what. I sense a shedding of old ideas and roles like the molted feathers of a raven, and an internal metamorphosis like the shape-shifting of a butterfly. I’m developing a stronger sense of self, a lighter heart, and healthier boundaries.

There is evidence butterflies retain the same aversions to noxious stimuli they were exposed to as caterpillars right before the metamorphosis, implying sentient awareness. I wonder if caterpillars have awareness of the end of life they as they knew it while molting their final skin, and the chrysalis envelops them like a grave?  Do caterpillars understand what’s happening to them, or do they “die” like we humans do, without concrete evidence of what happens when we no longer inhabit our bodies?

Does a caterpillar in its chrysalis dream of an afterlife with wings?

2019: Days of Miracle and Wonder

These are the days of miracle and wonder 

-Paul Simon

 

 New Year’s Eve 2018 marked the twentieth anniversary of discovering a lump in my breast that proved to be cancer. So began the days of miracle and wonder that shaped the next year and a half of my life, transforming it in ways I could not have imagined at the time.

The Star collage by Julianna Paradisi 2018

2019 marks the ten year anniversary of publishing my first short stories in an anthology, followed by creating and writing this blog, JParadisiRN.

2019 follows a year of internal transformation. Thankfully, none are as dramatic or terrifying as a cancer diagnosis, surgery, and losing my hair, but they are significant enough to have opened my senses to new perceptions and possibilities as I completed the last year of a twenty-year cycle of personal and professional growth.

A former pediatric intensive nurse who’s transitioned into adult oncology nursing, I’m humbled by my survival. I know all too well some people are born to live only a few hours, days or a handful of years, and that cancer kills without remorse or discrimination the young, the bright, the kind. Others go on to live with chronic illness or metastatic disease. To survive an average lifetime is a miracle and wonder. It comes with a burden, or more rightly, responsibility.

I’ve written before I don’t believe in living a balanced life if balance is defined as To keep or put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall. I still believe this. However, perceptions gained in 2018 have led me to expand my definition of balance to something more like a glass of world-class Pinot Noir: a thoughtfully crafted, satisfying blend of many parts chosen to complement the whole, and not elements distributed equally as though they are the wedges of a pie.

I don’t have a complete grasp of the concept yet, but I’m working on it.

At the end of cancer treatment, my transformation included selling or giving away much of what I owned, including my car. I sold my house and moved to Portland. I changed jobs. I took art school classes.

A couple of years later, I married my husband David.

I am very happy and comfortable in the life I’ve built during the past twenty years since finding the lump. Cancer turned into a catalyst for extraordinary personal growth. In 2018 it became clear to me that it is time to build on the foundation of that growth, moving beyond my comfort zone into whatever is next in my quest for growth and individuation. This time, the transformation is more of an internal thing, although there’s already been a couple of external changes reflecting the internal ones.

This blog post reflects an internal change too. I’ve written before that I write “To the So-What?” meaning in the past I began a post with a clear idea of how I would end it, and why I wrote it in the first place. Now I’m not sure I still believe the So-What is So Important. I am becoming enamored of process without attachment to outcome.

Let me repeat that last sentence: I am becoming enamored of process without attachment to outcome.

If you are a nurse reading this, you have an inkling of the size the internal changes. After all, what are nurses or health care providers without focus on outcomes?

Artists.