Many of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my life come from unplanned interactions with bugs (insects, to be formal about it). For some reason, there’s always been a certain magical magnitude that comes with insect epiphanies. Of course, many lessons come from human teachers: mythic and everyday heroes, mystics and saints, and from purely coincidental crossing of paths. All Creation is one heckuva school.
Case in point: the drowned caterpillar. Sounds like a downer from the start, but let’s begin with my human companion. Ray-Ray was 12-ish, considered “at-risk,” and I was the oddest match to be his mentor. I’m a nerd, then as now my car was covered with bumper stickers that turn heads. Ray-Ray was cool, a ninja on the basketball court, lyrical, and incredibly resilient in the face of sinking trauma. Yet our odd pairing made for great progress and a strong bond. He called me a “rainbow chasing nature boy,” it’s my favorite title ever.
School was out, and we were at the Botanical Gardens, his favorite spot. Playing in the creek is the best therapy, right? The light was golden, shadows long, a day you dream about. He caught sight of something in the creek. “Mr. Jay, there’s a caterpillar drowned in the creek, we gotta save it!” My immediate response was rambling into the science of how lifelessness feeds life, but the young and oft-misunderstood swami of 5th grade persisted. “No! It ain’t dead! God gonna bring it back!” With tender care, he used a thin twig to scoop the limp body to the sun-warmed rocks, a heroic rescue. How often does anyone exercise such compassion? My head was still in the biology department, with another spiel planned while Ray-Ray waited, holding out hope.
It’s a holy image… a child, scarred by trauma, innocent enough still to consider a possibility that’s not in the script in a life governed by logic. We all could be that child, pleading on the rocks for one little miracle signaling that our world may not be cemented by doctrine after all, but is transformable by wordless acts. A child, boxed-in by a system built upon data and standards, is drawn to the impossible, while adults nearby check the time. We all could be that child.
“Mr. Jay, it’s moving, I swear, come look!” Certain it was wishful thinking, I ambled over. Sure enough, the caterpillar twitched. It was then that I tossed out my own script, watching in wonder, celebrating every movement, until the caterpillar made its way along the rock- shakily at first. A fallen caterpillar taught me that nothing, ever, is a lost cause. Ray-Ray taught me all those years ago to think first of what is impossible, and watch unexpected possibilities emerge from holy persistence.
A few years ago, Ray-Ray messaged that his life had been rough. As we signed off, he asked “You still chasin’ rainbows?” “Yep – still play in the creek?” “Not as much, but my kid sure does.”