Hi friends, at the mid-point of winter, hopeful signs of early spring abound here in the Bay Area! Our beloved magnolia trees are blooming in glorious hues of pink, magenta and white. Daffodils are bursting forth from sidewalk gardens. And the harsh edge of winter is giving way to spring’s gentle embrace! After our human rhythms were profoundly disrupted last year, the reliable cycles of the natural world reassure my animal body: nothing lasts forever; things do change. And this is the theme of this week’s post. Much love, M.
PS, If you’d like to talk about navigating turbulent change, join me on Clubhouse on Tuesday Feb 9th at 6pm PT for my first foray in hosting a room. If you’d like to join the conversation (@MelissaL), but aren’t yet on Clubhouse, let me know. I’ve got 4 invites.
“Winter” feels like it’s forever, but it’s just a part of a larger cycle.
Growing up Chinese-American in NYC, I didn’t understand the seemingly endless string of festivals that my family celebrated that my classmates didn’t share. Stripped out of the original cultural context of being connected to nature’s rhythms, I went through the motions and mostly looked forward to the seasonal foods my grandmother made for the occasions.
But after this horizonless pandemic year where days blurred together like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, I now understand the great wisdom of many ancient cultures’ choice to celebrate not just the arrival of each new season, but also the mid-points between seasons.
“there’s a ceremony every 6 weeks. …[So] you’re never far from the next celebration. … [This] sense of time passing is helpful when you’re struggling, because time can drag and get you mired in hopelessness.
[With] a marker of progress… you feel how far away you are from the last time you celebrated, and that helps. …Looking towards the next one …is a way of dividing up those long months.”
Ancient cultures knew something profound. Unlike our modern culture which expects constant progress, the ancients understood the cyclical nature of life.
Instead of seeing darkness or dissolution of life as we knew it as a failing, they knew that it was simply an integral part of nature’s cycles. The process of sloughing off the old — whether it’s leaves, expectations, or identities — wasn’t confined just to winter. “Winter” could come at any time of year.
And when life is broken into cycles with 6 week horizons, it feels so much easier to “winter”.
So, after this seemingly endless pandemic year, mid-winter celebrations — from the traditional (Chinese New Year, Candlemas) to the modern (Groundhog Day, the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day) — are reminders to attend to the ways that life cycles back, and even renews itself.
These celebrations are asking us to see the inspiration gestating on the horizon (or at least to enjoy the half-time show).
What’s been most interesting to me is how in the past week — at this mid-point of winter — many leaders I coach and people in my life are approaching turning points. Like the early spring flowers beginning to bloom outside my door, new life is palpably close.
One friend said to me this week,
“After being forced to cocoon this past year, I’m starting to feel like a different person.”
What struck me about this cocoon metaphor is that no caterpillar realizes what it’s getting itself into when it first cocoons. All the caterpillar knows is that one minute it was inching along the earth; the next it’s hanging from a tree in a cocoon. Life has literally been turned upside down!
And then, it gets harder. You see, once in the cocoon, the caterpillar’s tissues begin to break down. They instinctively begin to secrete enzymes that dissolve their cell walls.
In highly scientific terms: they turn into goo. Yes, a big glop of goo — barely held together by their cocoon.
Now being in the goo is not easy. Everything has broken down. It’s a big fat mess.
BUT THAT’S THE POINT!
In the goo, the old is being released — e.g., old ways of life, expectations about how the world should be, priorities that aren’t all that relevant anymore. And without those old anchors, the groundlessness can feel terrifying (not to mention exhausting).
It’s normal to despair when we’re in the goo. We want to go back to being a caterpillar. We want our freedom to inch about, to gorge on leaves in restaurants, and to not have to worry about whether our cocoon is 6 feet from others’. Hanging out in solitary confinement is hard — especially when we can’t conceive of our world being anything other than… goo.
But the un-making is necessary for re-making. The humble earth-bound caterpillar needs to break down; it’s the only way it can transform into a lustrous butterfly.
It’s just that the caterpillar couldn’t have ever dreamed any of this! The caterpillar had no way to fathom any deeper process at play.
So at this mid-point of winter — whether we’re still deep in the goo or on the cusp of emerging out of our cocoon — life may simply be trying to coax forth the wings we’ve had in us all along.
I’d be curious to hear where you are in your cocoon cycle?
Drop a note in the comments, or send me an email!
PS, It’s tempting in the cocoon to try to break out early. But I don’t recommend it as it short-circuits important growth. In the 1st grade, I got impatient about waiting for the butterflies my class was cultivating to emerge, so I peeled one out of its cocoon. It died. And 30+ years later, I still feel guilty about killing that baby butterfly by pulling it out of its cocoon too soon!
Melissa’s reading / listening list
What’s giving me hope?
Host Becky Karush reads from a section of Katherine May’s book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times about winter ocean swimming. Not only is the prose beautiful, but I was struck by the possibilities for transformation only available because of the winter cold, and the resilience that came from dissolving her ideas about what’s pleasurable vs painful.
What’s making me curious?
How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? (Scientific American)
It’s a glorious description of the process of radical transformation. Science FTW! (3 min read)
And in case you missed it…
I wrote this piece last year during the George Floyd protests as a meditation on how breakdown can be a precursor to breakthrough. It’s one of the pieces I’m most proud of having written last year. (7 min read)
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