I heard that milkweed attracts Monarch butterflies. I heard that. I don't know. Monarchs are native where I live. They're endemic. Also, they're endangered. I heard that too. I don't know. It seems right. It seems like there used to be more butterflies.
So I plant milkweed in my garden. It's not like I have a longstanding interest in monarchs, or butterflies in general. It strikes me as sad. There’s a melancholy, thinking of endangered butterflies. Everything feels endangered lately. I feel endangered. Everyone feels it. Monarchs don’t know they are in danger. They can’t imagine their own extinction.
I'm curious how they earned a royal title. King Cobra, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Monarch Butterfly. It gives them a symbolic, almost mythical quality, more so than other kinds of butterflies, I think. I don't know. I can't really name any other kind of butterfly. I suppose the metaphor of transformation and rebirth applies generally across all butterfly species. A caterpillar—basically a worm—wraps itself in a cocoon somehow and sleeps in suspended animation, while nature transforms it into a new and previously unimaginable organism. It no longer crawls on the ground. It takes to the air.
And don't we want this for ourselves? I want this to be me. I want to believe that after this cocoon—the pandemic turned everything upside down, forced us into cocoons, our homes, our little tribes, even our own minds are cocoons. And I want to believe in a transformation, an emergence after the suspended animation. The caterpillar can’t imagine what will come out of the chrysalis. Neither can we.
Years ago, I visited the nature preserve at Ellwood Mesa, North of Santa Barbara: two or three hundred acres of coastal bluffs and eucalyptus forest, adjacent to Pacific, where monarchs breed and from which they migrate to Mexico. I was there in January, by chance on a day of hatching. I think it’s hatching. I don’t know. I saw one monarch, then another, then a third. I looked up and there were so many butterflies in the sky they blocked out the sun. A swarm or a murmuration or a kaleidoscope of butterflies that was altogether unimaginable. Thousands and thousands. I never forgot that. You never forget something like that.
I plant milkweed in my garden, 30 years later, during the quarantine. I do not see a single butterfly. Then one day there are caterpillars, eight of them, black and yellow-green, fat little worms, eating the milkweed, chomping it to the stem. How long have they been here? How did I miss it? Monarchs flew in and laid eggs. This is promise. It’s more than bugs on my patio. This is something that means something. I need something that means something right now.
I become a caterpillar whisperer. I watch them day and night. Their patterns of eating, sleeping, movement, social interaction, or what I think is social interaction. I don’t know. I visit every nursery and garden store in the city. I compare milkweed varieties. The leaves of the locally native plants are fine and light. The leaves of tropical and Mexican milkweed are sturdy and dense. Soon there are more baby caterpillars. I coax the little ones onto the local milkweed and the adults onto the larger plants. I buy more plants to sustain the food supply for these voracious insects. I count them several times a day, eleven now, terrified of losing one to the crows or seagulls. Should I build a screen enclosure around the garden to keep out predators? Shouldn’t I do everything I can to ensure they survive? Wouldn’t I want someone to do that for me?
I’m sitting on the ground watching the caterpillars. My back is hurting, sitting here like this, because I have a couple of herniated discs, and maybe sciatica, I think. I don’t know. Two friends and WebMD say it’s a good bet. I watch the clock all day, counting the hours until another dose of pain meds. Eventually the right leg starts to fail. It won't hold the body up. Now I’m laying on a yoga mat on the ground, not walking, like a worm. My doctor won’t give me a cortisone shot—I need an orthopedic guy for that—but he orders an MRI of the lumbar spine. The MRI is a metal cocoon of spinning electromagnets.
That's when they find the tumor. I read the report from the radiologist who examined the MRI. The radiologist made a mistake, I think. I don’t know. The word tumor, which I understand, is surrounded by other words which I do not: intradural, schwannoma, meningioma, et cetera. Or, maybe there is a tumor, but that's got nothing to do with it. It’s just bad discs. I think.
Now and then, if I’m up off the floor, I go outside to check on my brood, my little herd, counting to eleven. Google tells me that soon, driven by urge and instinct, the caterpillars will each find a spot to attach their little caterpillar butt and dangle itself upside down. It will look like a little curly letter J. (Hey—that’s my initial.) Then it will build a chrysalis. I don't know how. I watch them day and night. I need these caterpillars to make it. I need to know I can make it. I need to know we can all make it.
The tumor is inside the spinal cord, like a rock stuck in a garden hose. All the nerves that run down through the hose are being pinched and compressed by this rock. Treatment typically involves laminectomy—removing the bones of the spinal column—to access the dura, the sheath around the spinal cord. The dura is opened and the tumor resected, the vertebrae replaced, and the spinal column fused with metal rods. I will no longer have mobility in my spine. It is not the transition I was hoping for. I wanted out of the cocoon, with wings to fly. This is backwards, and upside down. They’ll be turning me into a worm.
Then the monarch caterpillars guided me to a neurosurgeon at UCLA. They didn't guide me. I used my computer. Or did they? They are crafty little alchemists. The surgeon tells me he knows how to drill through the spinus process at the juncture of L2 and L3, open the spinal cord and perform a resection of an intradural schwannoma with a series of microscopic cuts and cauterizations, avoiding a complete laminectomy. Basically give me a giant surgery through a really small hole. Three days in the hospital, then three weeks on my back, then three months to full mobility. I will walk and drive and do yoga and plant more milkweed.
But I live on the second floor, and can’t climb stairs, so I need to be away from home for the three weeks of recovery. I don't know how to find a caterpillar sitter. How can I explain to him or her to watch for sudden changes in behavior, such as not eating, or a long period of stillness, sometimes attached to the underside of a leaf, so you have to search for them. It's like they're meditating, gathering courage. Then they make a run for it. They travel away from the food source. They find somewhere to turn upside down. And after hanging there a while, maybe ten days, if you’re watching, you will see them split open down their back, and the chrysalis unfold from within, like they’re turning inside out. It wraps around them, pushing away the old skin, the outer worm layer they won’t need anymore. Then they hang there, wrapped in their translucent shell, doing nothing. Is it nothing? Is it surrendering or pulsating or quivering while the transformation just happens? Is that how it works? You just sit still and it just happens?
I’m on a gurney on my back. They push me into the operating room. A cold feeling in my arm as the drugs rush into my veins. They’re putting me in suspended animation. They’re going to split me open. They’re going to make it so I’m no longer a worm. As I’m falling asleep, they turn me upside down.
There are cockroaches on the mattress. The mattress is on the floor. I’m spending the night here. It’s a cement floor in a windowless basement that smells like feet and wet towels. It’s not how I planned to end my day. This morning, I got on a train in Paris. This afternoon, I arrived in Nice, and I’m on my way to villa, where I’m invited to go waterskiing this weekend with—I shit you not—King Juan Carlos of Spain.
I’m traveling with three other guys—my friend Alex, and his two fraternity brothers. We’re all students at Cambridge, we’re spending a week in France with our stupidhuge backpacks, and Alex’s family is doing very well: his father is summering at what they call The House. It’s a 20,000 square foot estate in Monaco on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, with a butler and a chef and an Olympic pool and a nine car garage, and they share a boat dock with King Juan Carlos of Spain. And His Majesty is taking the boat out this weekend, and we’re going.
Alex calls his dad from a pay phone at the train station—I’m 21, there are no cell phones yet—and his father informs him the staff has only prepared for three guests, not four. So after an uncomfortable silence the three frat boys look at each other, then look at me and say, sorry bro, and they are driven away by le chauffer.
Suddenly me and my stupidhuge backpack are at the train station in Nice with nowhere to stay. Fortunately, there were two American girls on our train and they’re still here. Fortunately, they have a hotel room near the casino in Monte Carlo, and they’re planning to dress up and drink and gamble all night. And fortunately, they say totally, come with us! And I say thank you to them and thank you to jesus, because now I’m shacking up with Stephanie and Michelle from Miami which is so much better than boating with three frat boys and an aging monarch.
I wait outside while they check in because they only paid for two guests, and you pay per guest at this hotel, so technically I’m crashing. We spend the afternoon at the pool sipping cocktails and later that evening we’re getting dressed for our night at the casino and there’s a knock on the door. Boom boom boom. “Open the door! Gendarmes!” And I don’t speak a lot of French but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to parlex vous with the fucking gendarmes in your hotel room. There are two of them wearing these super snappy uniforms, and they’re with the hotel manager, and they throw me out.
So now me and my stupidhuge backpack are walking down the hill, past the port with all the yachts owned by the sheiks. I find a little bar by the train station, I order a baguette with ham and cheese and a Belgian ale. It’s getting late, and pretty soon my beer is gone, and my sandwich is gone, and my villa is gone, and my girlfriends from Florida are gone, and the bartender says he’s closing. I say do you know a hotel? He tells me the hotels are sold out for the holiday. It’s a holiday in Italy and all the Italians are in France. I say, my friends left me behind and I have nowhere to stay. He says, “Well, if you like you can stay at with me for one night. I have a very large home that belonged to my grandmother. I live in Beaulieu, only two train stops away. My name is Claude.”
This is some bonne chance. I help him close up the bar then we ride the train 20 minutes and walk a mile or so through winding streets with trees on both sides until we come to a storybook French manor home surrounded by a stone wall, with a path leading to a side door that opens into a huge kitchen, bigger than my apartment in LA, pots and pans hanging over a giant wooden table, the sink has a water pump, like nothing has changed in 200 years. Claude says, “You can wait in there”—it’s a sitting room with couple of couches—he says, “Here is some wine”—he hands me a glass—“I will come back and show you to your room.”—and he leaves.
The home is exquisite—the kitchen, the artwork, the décor, all this Louis XVI stuff . . . this is what I want! I want to stay here, and hang out with Claude, and meet his friends, and work in the bar, and be like a local . . . this is so much better than trying to talk those girls at the hotel into a threeway.
I’m looking around the sitting room. There’s an antique writing desk and on the desk there’s a stack of polaroids with a rubber band. The photo on top is a little boy, like 10 years old, smiling, in a swimsuit by a waterfall—I think maybe it’s his kid—Claude’s super old, like 40. I pick up the stack and the next photo is a different boy with his shirt off lying in the grass—maybe he has two kids? The next photo is two boys hugging each other. The next photo is another boy who’s a little older blowing a kiss. I look around and I notice on the bookshelf there’s a crate full of polaroids, and on the coffee table and the windowsill there are more. I’m 21, but I look 16, and there’s no pornhub yet. This room has hundreds of polaroids of little boys.
I don’t say au revoir. I set down the wine glass, grab the stupidhuge backpack, and book it—through the kitchen, out the side door. I get to the street . . . I’m pretty sure the train station was to the left, so I start walking. It’s very dark, and very quiet. I hear crickets, and then a door slam, and then I hear Claude yelling, “Come back! Come back now!” I pick up my pace. I hear a car start. I see headlights through the trees coming towards me, so now I’m running. When the headlights get closer I jump off the road and hide in the woods. He drives past me and turns a corner. I think he’s headed for the train station, so now I’m following him.
At this point it’s very clear that I will not be enjoying the royal waterskiing entourage, and I am not enjoying Stephanie and Michelle in a ménage à trois, and I’m not enjoying the hospitalitè of the local bourgeoisie—because I’m running through the woods on moonless night to escape from a bartending French pedophile named Claude.
Eventually I find the center of town and there’s a shitty little pensione. I’m sweating and out of breath and I ask the night manager, do you have a room? He says, “No rooms,” and I’m like dude, por favor, anything. He says, “Fine, the housekeeper is not working today,” and charges me 50 francs for a mattress on the floor in the basement that’s crawling with cockroaches and stinks like feet because, c’est la vie.
I am caring for 11 monarch caterpillars in my garden during July and August. I am so hopeful, invested in each little life. I want to see them all transform into butterflies, to see that nature still holds promise, that the unimaginable is possible, that beauty and delight have not deserted us.
Nature is not so straightforward.
To my dismay, only two of them live to full maturity. Number One emerges while I am away, and I miss it. Then, ten days after transforming itself into a chrysalis, Number 11 cracks open and yes! A new butterfly folds out. Its wings are fragile and malformed. It behaves as though it is still its former self, still a worm that crawls. Its body is bloated and full of toxins. It flexes and flaps but does not fly. It literally clings to the shell of its old life.
Hours pass. The wings gradually straighten and solidify. When it flies from the garden, its flight is halting, awkward, lacking grace. It crashes into a palm tree, where it spends the night, too far to return, too weak to go on. In the morning sun it flexes its wings again, but still does not fly—until a sudden breeze lifts it, ready or not! And it is away.
The metaphor is unexpectedly complex. Instead of simple faith in progress it seems to say, take your time. Don’t expect too much at once. Allow ourselves to grow strong enough before we attempt to catch the wind. And even then, trust that the moment will come when we don’t need to do anything, except let go.