It had been a challenging day, but our sensitive little chihuahua-poodle mix still needed to go on a walk. The walk was actually quite welcome so I determined to make it a relaxing one. This means Jewel gets to choose where we go. With her nose to the ground we pause at each street corner and I ask her, “Which way, Jewel?” Her response is to pull the leash in whatever way she wants to head.
This time she lead me toward the creek, but instead of going to it we turned up the hill to the block above the creek. We walked parallel to the creek for a few blocks in the cool thirty-five degree Fall air, then turned around and walked back the way we'd come. Just before the turn at the intersection that takes us away from the creek there is an alley that curves around and runs parallel to the street, though when you first enter it it looks like you are entering someone's private driveway. It is surrounded by beautiful, majestic mature oak, pine and maple trees that provide shade and cover for wildlife along the creek. By this time in November, however, the leaves have all fallen and been raked and composted, which gives you a better view of what is hiding in and around the trees. We walked past a singing pair of northern cardinals concerned about our presence. Red-bellied woodpeckers often “chrrr” here, and black-capped chickadees, goldfinches and white-breasted nuthatches move about among the trees, making their presence known by voicing their distinctive calls. Gray squirrels are abundant here, with an ocasional eastern chipmunk or red squirrel, while voles, shrews and mice scurry around underneath the leaves on the ground. Jewel and I were about to forgo walking down the alley when I heard a deep “whoo-whoo-whoo whoo whoo” above my head and behind me. That was the unmistakable call of a great-horned owl very close by. It was shortly answered by a second owl with a slightly higher pitch, also very near by. Its mate, perhaps. It was just about the time of late afternoon when they'd be waking up from napping to go on the hunt. I had to take the opportunity to try and catch a glimpse of this large pair, nearly two feet tall from head to the tip of their tails, though I was conscious of Jewel's need to keep warm. We turned around, walking slowly first toward the alley entrance then into the alley and around the curve. As we walked Jewel appeared unconcerned with the continued hooting, but I was excited. Owls are elusive, only hunting in the dark of night. Their feathers are designed to keep them especially quiet in flight, making it easy for them to swoop onto their prey without that rabbit or mouse even hearing what hit them. Owls can hear the slightest rustle of leaves from many feet away and know exactly where that mouse under the leaves or snow is, aiming their powerful talons directly for their target. Their stealthy approach is deadly.
Owls' calls make them amazingly difficult to locate. The source of the call can be deceiving, which is why Jewel and I paused in the alley to listen carefully for more hooting. I took a quick breath in when I heard a “whoo-whoo-whoo whoo whoo” very close to us and when I looked down at Jewel to see if she had heard it, too, she quickly tilted her head and looked straight up into the sixty-foot tamarack tree directly in front of us about 20 feet. I followed her stare and found she had pinpointed the branch that a large great-horned owl was perched upon. As we both watched attentively, the owl leaned forward seemingly looking down at us, flared the white patch of feathers under its beak and hooted again. Each time it hooted E flat above middle C its mate answered with an identical call slightly higher in pitch, G above middle C. I wasn't able to find the mate until the bird we'd been following quietly let go of its branch and flew to perch next to it. It greeted its mate with a slightly quieter and softer “whoo-whoo-whoo” and a touch of their beaks. I was completely entranced, and a little concerned that Jewel might be cold, so I reached down to scoop her up, cuddling her against my chest. We stood watching the pair of birds until I thought we'd better head back home. Reluctantly, I set her back on the ground and we slowly walked away from the owls. I kept an eye on them in the unlikely case they should decide that a twelve-pound dog might make a good snack.
About one block later I remembered that my husband, who also enjoys owls, was probably in the car on his way home from our friends' house not too far away. I considered calling him on my cell phone to see if he wanted to meet me to see the owls together. It was getting colder, however, and just as I'd decided against calling him, his car approached from the direction of our friends' house. I motioned for him to pull over, excitedly telling him about my experience. He shared my enthusiasm, but needed to head home. As he was driving away and I was walking Jewel, I remembered that just a few hours earlier I had prayed for the opportunity to be able to again travel to the Superior North Shore with Ken. Lately, I've been feeling the need to get out of town for a change of pace, but we want to follow all the best coronavirus-fighting guidelines. My husband and I share a deep appreciation for the natural world and for its Maker, but travel restrictions are keeping us home to be safe.
I felt genuine thanksgiving for living here where I can see and hear owls without driving anywhere, and praise to our Maker who created Ken and I and our world. No other being can make an owl from scratch. This sighting doesn't happen every day here in our neighborhood. My eyes and ears were attentive and open, ready to receive the gift of joy that was delivered right into my waiting arms. No need for Fed Ex or UPS. How cool is that?! Thank you, God, for owls, for dogs, for partners, for family, and for autumn!
I hope that you, too, are able to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the little joys of the life before you. Thanksgiving can be a daily celebration of all the good in your life. It doesn't have to occur only one day each year. Each day, every day practice being thankful for every little thing. I guarantee you and the people (and animals!) around you will be happier and enjoy life more because of it.
A few years ago, a big tow truck took away my car, not because I couldn't drive it to the maintenance facility or was parked in a NO PARKING zone, but because I was donating it to a non-profit organization I respect and support. I owned that forest green Saturn sedan for eighteen years, and came to trust that when I needed it, it would be ready and waiting for me to slide into the driver's seat. Eventually, however, it was needing more repairs than I was willing to continue investing money in.
My elderly mother sold me her newer Ford hatchback, since she hardly used it. Changing my driving habits from operating a sedan with manual transmission to a fully automatic hatchback made me incredibly anxious. How would I remember what all of those buttons do and pay attention to my driving at the same time? I practiced with my mom's car before the day arrived when I would need to give up my Saturn. My anxiety gradually lessened as I learned to trust that the new car would perform up to my expectations. By the time the tow truck drove away, I was ready and happy to say goodbye to my old, green Saturn.
Learning to fully trust Jesus is like my experience with these two cars. Each day I decide with my mind that I want to follow in Jesus's steps. Each day I read my Bible and practice new ways to imitate Jesus. Some times I make mistakes and have to try again, asking God and sometimes others for forgiveness. Each morning God gives me a brand new day during which the old me falls away and I take on the new me that is more like Jesus. This is what it means to be sanctified, the process of sanctification.
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” --I Thessalonians 5:23-24 (NRSV)
Thought For the Day: God is faithful. Prayer Focus: People making challenging life changes.
I'm Lesli Chinnock Anderson, author of “The Lakes In My Head: Paddling An Unexplored Wilderness”.
Many people have asked me, “Why did you write this book?” “Is this a book about your canoeing experiences?” “How long did it take you to write?”
Since I was young, I've kept a journal, a semi-daily personal account of my life. The content has changed over the years—I no longer write about boyfriends or what my parents said that day that made me furious—but my need and desire to write in it has remained constant. To write this book, I looked back at my journal entries between 2006, the year I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, and 2016, the year I began to feel that it was safe to move on with my life. I tried to remember what I was feeling and thinking during this time.
One of the things I've discovered since 2006 is that most people don't know what hydrocephalus is, have never heard of it, or thought that only babies get it. I've made it my mission to pass on what I've learned about hydrocephalus, so that some day when I mention it people will respond with, “Oh, yeah. I know what that is” instead of “Huh? Hydro-what?”
Do you know how hard it is to explain what hydrocephalus is? The word itself is tough to say and remember. Most of us don't use medical terminology every day. Plus, many people don't have a clear picture of what the inside of our bodies is like, let alone what our brains look like. To make the explanation a little easier to digest, I came up with the analogy of the lakes in our heads. I live in Minnesota, the land of more than ten thousand lakes. Surely they can picture lakes connected by a river!
Not everyone enjoys listening to stories about someone's medical problems, so to make the book a little more palatable, I factored in my Boundary Waters Canoe Area knowledge. Maybe someone wondering whether or not to read the book will read it because they are interested in the BWCA. They may be reminded of the relative or neighbor who has hydrocephalus.
Being diagnosed with a relatively rare condition is tough in and of itself, but factor in that it's not visible on the outside of my body. When I approach you smiling I look quite average. When I reveal that I had a head-splitting headache yesterday, you are not especially concerned. We all get headaches. When you realize this is the third time this week I've had a severe headache...well, then you wonder what's wrong. It took a whole conversation to figure that out and it took more than just a quick glance at me.
Strictly speaking, this is not a book about my canoeing trips, but I do use a canoeing parallel that I hope is helpful to the reader. The information regarding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is as factual as I could make it. I truly have been there numerous times canoeing, hiking, cross country skiing, summer and winter camping. I hope you enjoy this aspect of the book and that it provides a respite from the more intense, heavy parts of my story.
So, here we are six months into a global pandemic, and the same as everyone else, this has affected my daily routine. In January, my routine was to awaken at six or seven o'clock, wash up, eat breakfast, and check my calendar to remind myself what I'm doing all day. In January, I was dressing warmly and walking two blocks over to an eight month old boy's house where I let myself in. While I was removing my winter boots and down jacket, I'd talk with the adorable little boy's southern accented mom or his dark Latino-Italian dad to get the scoop on the boy's latest achievements and developments. Then as they left for work—mom to her dentistry clinic and dad to his basement office—I'd settle in with this happy little boy I'd only met months before. We enjoyed a crackling fire in the fireplace or sitting on the floor together playing with toys and practicing standing, sitting and walking. When meal time came we'd eat together at the dining room table, learning to use tiny silverware and trying to get as much food into his body as possible, rather than on the floor. He may have followed that up with a nap and some more time listening to me read to him about silly things like peas that can count up to one hundred, a llama looking for his true identity, or a doorbell signalling the arrival of more friends and cousins with which to celebrate a plate full of chocolate chip cookies. By the end of the afternoon Dad would be done with work and ready to take his little boy for play time, while I put on the warm clothes and boots in preparation for my short trek home. I really do enjoy my job as a child care giver. I know I make a significant difference in the world. I love little boy hugs and kisses and laughter. I relish the times that one of the twin girls I care for turns to me and asks, “What are you doing? Why did you do that?” as I handle colored pencils to color in my coloring book. Or when the twins and their girlfriend play me in a round of a card game that teaches counting, following directions, strategy, and losing with grace and dignity. When I arrive home after an afternoon or day away, I take the dog I'm fostering out for a much deserved walk and training session, check the mail, greet my husband and we discuss our days.
Now, it's August, my routine is dramatically different, essentially non-existent. Only one of my child care families has parents that are pandemic essential workers, so I work exclusively for them. The mom is a part-time pediatric nurse who works twelve hour shifts at a nearby hospital; the dad works from home on his computer when his work team isn't trying to get back to working at the office. The twin girls and I don't go to the beach to stay cool on these hot summer days as the beaches are either closed or too crowded to safely enjoy. Our walks around the neighborhood involve social distancing with any other walkers. The girls do enjoy helping me walk my chihuahua-mix around the neighborhood, and as a team, the three of us have completed some very significant canine training. They used to relish visiting my aquarium and two beautiful orange and buff felines, but these days I don't allow them in my house. I frequently remind them to wash their hands. They're tired of board games. I have to say no to their requests more often. I'm tired of kids' TV shows. Well, okay, I confess that I actually enjoy some of them, but still...The kids are wondering whether they will be physically going to school in September. I am wondering whether I will have enough kids to care for come Fall. Early on in the pandemic I saw one of my neighbors running through all of the allies in my area, presumably a creative way to vary his daily workout. I took this time to have two essential surgeries done that I was previously putting off. Some have used this time to modify or redecorate their homes. Others have been laid off from work and are wondering where the next meal will come from. I have purchased more items online in the last few months than I ever have in my life.
I don't cook or bake much, as it is cognitively challenging for me to do, but the other day I actually got really excited about purchasing a set of stainless steel measuring cups and spoons. All of my adult life I've used the plastic measuring tools I was given either when I went away for college or when I got married, some thirty-five years ago! Definitely a long overdue purchase! Maybe I will enjoy cooking and baking a little bit more now....we'll see...
With all of the changes that are taking place in the way we live our lives this pandemic year, I am glad that my having a hydrocephalus shunt is not reason to be concerned. The shunt operates within a closed system that is not affected by COVID-19. I am assured by neurologists that following the usual safety precautions is enough: wash hands frequently, stay at least six feet away from others, don't gather in large groups, wear a mask. When I come home from a day with my kids, I change my clothes and wash them just to be sure I'm not passing anything between our houses.
I know I am not alone in wanting this pandemic to be under control and maybe even gone. Keep hanging in there. Do what you can to be kind to yourself and others. We'll get through this. I'm praying for all of us, people all over the world are praying, and prayer is a powerful thing. We have a powerful, faithful and merciful God we can really trust.
In 2006 I was diagnosed with congenital hydrocephalus. At that time I was forty-five years old, but congenital means being born with it. So how could that be and what is hydrocephalus? An excerpt from my book will help explain.
"I believe a geography lesson would be appropriate here. Stick with me and you'll see how this fits into my story. Minnesota is known as the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes and is the birthplace of the mighty Mississippi River. I was born and raised in Minneapolis, one of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Twin Cities metropolitan area is roughly in east-central Minnesota; Warroad, Minnesota, is almost as far north as you can go in the United States, except for Maine and Alaska. Minnesota is that place the meteorologists often say is the coldest location in the lower forty-eight states.
"We love our more than ten thousand lakes and rivers here in Minnesota. We enjoy swimming, boating, fishing and scuba diving in the summer and snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, and snowboarding in the winter, in or on the lakes and rivers. Some (fool?) hardy residents even take the plunge by jumping into water surrounded by ice after warming up in a sauna. It started as a Scandinavian thing and many Minnesotans are of Scandinavian ancestry.
"Living in Minneapolis, the City of Lakes, I reside near Lake Minnetonka, Lake Pamela, Lake Nokomis, Lake Hiawatha and the creek that connects all of them, Minnehaha Creek. Minnehaha means 'curling waters' in the Native American Dahcota language, though it is frequently mistranslated as 'laughing waters'. The water from Minnehaha Creek becomes Minnehaha Falls, then empties into the Mississippi River which meets up with the Minnesota River and becomes the back bone of our country. The headwaters of the Mississippi, Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota southwest of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Itasca State Park, are not dramatic to behold. They trickle placidly and grow in strength as they flow south toward the Twin Cities. The mouth of the mighty Mississippi is way down South in New Orleans, Louisiana. That's a lot of water making a very long trip to the Gulf of Mexico. It mixes with saltwater from the ocean, forming a unique and special habitat known as an estuary. Estuaries are fascinating. Freshwater and saltwater wildlife live together, taking advantage of the ocean tides to obtain the nutrients they need to survive.
"Along the way, that water is vitally important to the whole planet. The United States relies very heavily on the Mississippi River to transport food and supplies. The river feeds a thirsty country. It provides essential habitat for birds, fish, crustaceans, insects, restless families in canoes... you get the picture. The water in the river evaporates into out air, fueling weather patterns. Nothing is wasted. Our economy is heavily dependent on the Mississippi River, and natural disasters like flooding effect how we all spend our finances. The Mississippi is written about in recreational books and textbooks. History has been made around it."
Up next: a biology lesson that, along with this geography lesson, will answer the question, "What is hydrocephalus?" Stay tuned!
It's time to go back to school, readers. Here is a biology lesson on hydrocephalus.
“Carefully protected inside the human head, inside your brain there are four compartments called ventricles. Filled with cerebrospinal fluid, they are connected by several narrow passageways and special cells. Cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, flows between the two lateral ventricles, down to the third ventricle, through the Aqueduct of Sylvius (also called the cerebral aqueduct), and down further into the fourth ventricle, then into the narrow space surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. The CSF that bathes our brains provides important nutrients to the neurons and spinal column. It helps clean out cellular waste, and protects us by filling the space between our brains and our skulls with an absorptive cushion of fluid. Without it we would experience major brain trauma each time we bumped our heads.
"Our bony skulls act as armor. Newborn babies have a soft spot, the anterior fontanel, where the skull has not finished growing together. Their brains are protected in that spot by a membrane that covers the hole. Soon after birth, the hole disappears and in its place is a completed bony skull. As the baby grows and matures, the brain and skull grow and mature as well. Once the CSF has made the rounds, so to speak, through the whole system, it is expelled from the brain by special cells, and absorbed into our bodies. Nothing is ever wasted.
"Hydrocephalus (hi' dro sef' uh luhs—from two latin words meaning “water” and “head”) occurs when something prevents the CSF from freely flowing in the “lakes and creeks and rivers” inside the head. Yes, that was the reason for the geography lesson, not to mention it was fun to tell it to you. I am proud to be a Minnesotan. Imagine what would happen if Minnehaha Creek or the Mississippi River was dammed up by beavers. Where would the water go? It would overflow its banks and flood the surrounding land, maybe even spilling over the top of the dam. Though CSF may be impeded by an obstruction in an aqueduct, it continues to be produced at the rate of 0.35 milliliters per minute and flows through the system anyway. In babies, because their skulls are not yet knit together completely, the CSF pushes against the brain, causing the skull to expand to accommodate the fluid. The anterior fontanel may bulge or be abnormally convex. The pressure inside the brain increases abnormally. In teenagers and adults, whose skulls are complete, the extra pressure builds as the fluid has no where to go, so it presses against brain cells, causing pain and problems for normal cell function.
"This may cause urinary incontinence, mobility abnormalities, cognitive and language learning disabilities, and severe headaches, like migraine headaches, and no over the counter medication will suffice.
"Common causes of hydrocephalus include congenital lesions (e.g. spina bifida), traumatic lesions (concussions), and infections such as meningoencephalitis, as well as congenital aqueductal stenosis and a rare genetic disease. One form of hydrocephalus can be misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's Disease or Parkinson's Disease. Usually neurosurgeons can tell you which type of hydrocephalus you have and how best to treat it.” --From The Lakes In My Head: Paddling An Unexplored Wilderness
So, we do have lakes in our heads, do we not? When my hydrocephalus was discovered, my cerebral lakes were filled to overflowing, much like the flooding we have been experiencing in locations all over the world, due to climate change. With lakes in our heads and lakes all around us, it is difficult to ignore our need to use wise stewardship for them both. Let's take care of all of our lakes!
Why do I write about hydrocephalus using lake imagery?
I think it is because here in Minnesota we are literally surrounded by lakes, and many of those lakes are connected to each other by rivers and streams. We see them every day. Most people don't realize that inside our brains there are pockets of fluid connected by channels called aqueducts. The fluid is cerebrospinal fluid, often called CSF. It's filled with nutrients that feed our brains, and at the same time it flushes away waste from our brain cells. This is exactly how we--and all life on earth--use the lake and groundwater around us, to give us necessary nutrients and flush away waste. In hydrocephalus, there is an excess of that normally helpful fluid, CSF, which creates pressure on the brain. The cells that usually assist us in re-absorption of the CSF can't keep up with the production of it, which as far as we know is constant. The pressure prevents the brain from functioning properly, resulting in symptoms like headaches, nausea and vision problems. If caught early enough, permanent brain damage can be prevented. Coincidentally, here in Minnesota and elsewhere in the world we are trying to figure out how to live with an excess of water caused by climate change, cleaning up after severe rains, extreme storms and flooding. The parallel is all around us, all the time.
Why should others know about my condition?
Hydrocephalus, like depression and other illnesses, can seem invisible to us. I am not limping, not wearing a cast, not showing obvious signs of having a medical condition. Yet I do have a daily struggle with memory problems, recurring headaches, and the ever present threat of my brain shunt malfunctioning which is life-threatening. I pay a lot of medical bills. Many of us struggle with depression. Some have other conditions along side their hydrocephalus, like Spina Bifida, seizures and Chiari malformations, that present other hurdles, as well. We want to be accepted and respected by others, and would like others to realize that we may have special needs, but inside we are just like you. There is much more to us than just our medical condition. We want to be treated kindly and compassionately, with respect and dignity.
What advice do I have for others who have this condition?
Don't be afraid to tell others you have hydrocephalus and at the same time don't use hydrocephalus as an excuse to not be your best self. We all need close friends to be able to share our lives with. We need intimacy. Share your hydrocephalus struggles with those with whom you already have a close relationship. Lean on their support. Let yourself be encouraged by their love. Then try new things. Wear a helmet when you do activities during which you may injure your head. Find out what you're good at. Be reasonable about your limitations. It is immensely freeing to not live your life in fear of others finding out about your condition. By the same token, it may not be necessary to tell some of your acquaintances about it. You may or may not want to reveal it to your employer. It depends on your personal situation. Hydrocephalus will not keep you from enjoying an abundant life, but fear will.
For more, read The Lakes In My Head: Paddling An Unexplored Wilderness
Good afternoon from lovely Minnesota, USA!
Let me introduce myself: My name is Lesli. I have a husband named Ken, two cats named Mango and Butternut, and a freshwater aquarium full of small fish. My adult daughter is on her own now, but we enjoy seeing her frequently. I've lived in Minnesota all my life, but I've traveled all over the U.S. and to England and South America. I enjoy camping, being outdoors, singing in choirs at my church, learning as much as I can about music, and caring for my neighbors' children and pets. Oh, and I also have hydrocephalus.
I worked for close to twenty years in the human medical laboratory industry and in veterinary clinics as a vet assistant. I have a bachelor of science degree in biology, having taken many more credits than I needed because I couldn't narrow down my field of study. Everything fascinates me. I also love to learn. I pursued becoming a medical technician, a physical therapist, a naturalist, and a veterinary technician. I was persistent. It seemed like I was always struggling with medical conditions that were limiting me. Then I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus.
Over the course of my life I've raised rabbits, cats, a dalmatian, fiddler crabs, freshwater fish...even an anole from Florida that piggybacked into my house on a Norfolk Island Pine. I adopted a cockatiel that had escaped from his owners, flown an unknown distance and landed in my neighborhood. One of my cats died from feline leukemia; Matthew's heart stopped because of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; Kaci, Gretchen and Princess all died of different types of cancer. The dalmatian had a spinal injury of some kind, but lived to almost thirteen. Feline Heidi and cockatiel Alec actually lived into old age; we were pleasantly amazed. Turns out, I have a medical condition, too.
I've lived along side two parents, my father and my husband's mother, as they struggled with dementia and then passed peacefully away. There have been two suicides in my extended family. I would never consider suicide as an option; I have way too much to live for. I was there when one grandfather, several great aunts, several cousins, an uncle, and both of my grandmothers passed away. To our knowledge, none of them had hydrocephalus, but now I do.
By the age of forty-five years I had already lived a full life of service to others and to God. Actively involved in the Christian church as I was growing up, through my college years, and the years following, I had a firm foundation of faith to rely on. Faith in a loving God who is always by my side. Faith in a just God who acts in our lives for our good. Then, I was diagnosed with the kind of hydrocephalus that is usually diagnosed at birth or soon after. The surgeon said I was probably born with it. Aqueductal stenosis, he called it.
And, guess what? It can't be cured...yet. It can be treated through brain surgery, often several or many. This was my prognosis. I knew what hydrocephalus is, but how could I have it now? I'm not a newborn! I'm forty-five years old!
Well, I'm making it through this latest journey in my life, and I am happy. It's been twelve years since that diagnosis. Twelve years that haven't been easy. I'm still here on the planet and I have a story to tell!
Read The Lakes In My Head: Paddling An Unexplored Wilderness, published by Xlibris Publishing, written by yours truly.
Right now, my life is filled with messiness.
Loved ones who need assistance with life-threatening illness. My back is complaining from my recent endeavors, so I have to do exercises for it. I care for babies and kids; they make big messes, sometimes on me. My house is messy. My pets have messy moments. Relationships are messy at times. My writing space is, well let's just say that I can find things, but others who want something from my office can not. Some people thrive on messiness. Artists and inventors often create wonderful art or solutions to problems in the midst of messiness.
For the past couple of summers I have raised monarch butterflies in my house. In my office, in fact. With the door closed it is a haven for little caterpillars working on becoming butterflies. We frequently use the butterfly's process of pupating to express the uncertainty of proceeding through changes in our lives. "Just hang in there," we say to one another. "A butterfly will emerge from all this. It will be beautiful!" Butterflies make it look so easy! A quiet yet spunky, persistant caterpillar emerges from a practically microscopic egg stuck to a milkweed leaf. It blends in so well with the leaf that we can hardly see it. First it eats the egg casing it came out of. It looks like a black dot (its head) munching its way around in a circle on the leaf. When it's ready, it sheds its skin and eats that, too. The caterpillar's skin changes to the familiar black, yellow and white stripes. Eat some more milkweed leaf. Eliminate the waste, called frass. Grow a little longer and bigger in circumference. This is the focused life of a caterpillar. It sheds its skin three more times, each time becoming longer and larger, until after nine to sixteen days it somehow knows to stop eating and eliminates its last frass. Suddenly, it's on a mission: crawling away from the milkweed to a quiet, safe place where it rests momentarily. It glues its tail end to a stick or something else firm off of the ground using a fine webbing of silk. Next it hangs by its tail forming the shape of a J and begins to pulsate internally, pulling itself into an "o" shape, and back down into a J. If you look away at this point to check your cell phone, by the time you look back at the caterpillar it is gone, and in its place is a shiny, mint green, ovular chrysalis with a black "stem" attached to the silky web. It will stay this way for eight to fifteen days, gradually becoming darker and darker, wearing sparkling gold jewelry, thus the name monarch. At the end of this pseudo-gestation period, a wrinkled but beautiful bright orange and black butterfly will slowly, patiently slide out of its translucent membrane, unfurl its wings and fly away to find out the lay of the land. Looking for flowers, it will drink nectar to restore its energy while it searches for a mate.
Sounds neat and organized, doesn't it? It is, for the most part, and since butterflies are insects their bodies are following a predetermined schedule of transformation. Individual butterflies don't question their purpose, decide to go on a vacation, or demand a different schedule. They quietly do what they're created to do....unless...someone or something interferes with that schedule. Then, their lives become downright messy! Parasites may lay eggs in a caterpillar, causing it to die when the alien eggs hatch, releasing the newly emerged flies or mites. And though the chrysalis looks shiny and smooth and even peaceful on the outside, what's happening inside is anything but! I have accidently disturbed a caterpillar in the stage of forming the chrysalis (pupating), killing it and turning it into a puddle of bright green goo with no sign of a caterpillar or butterfly body. It was like a scene out of a horror movie. It worried me for days! Once I realized that the goo was just part of the process, and how fragile the chrysalids are I felt relieved and ready to try again with a new caterpillar.
Maybe we can learn a lesson from this. When life throws a wrench in our neatly organized plans, relax and remember that the green goo before you is simply a messy part of life.
Did you hear that?
The last two days I've been given an amazing gift. It's been there all along, but this gift has turned my attention toward the sky.
Two days ago, while walking from my house to the garage, which is also my husband's shop and where he spends much of his time, I heard a faint but distinct bird call. I knew instantly what it was and looked high into the sky to find the caller. My eyes followed and locked on to the source of the calls: a broad-winged hawk. Then yesterday it was two broad-winged hawks calling to each other. It's a little late for the semi-annual hawk migration that occurs every spring, and it's more common for us to hear and see Cooper's hawks or red-tailed hawks in our neighborhood, than broad-wings. What a treat to be rewarded for my many hours of listening to bird song recordings! The sound-siting gave me an inner feeling of accomplishment and thankfulness that still makes me feel good just to remember it.
Almost every day I walk to stay healthy. It keeps my heart and muscles strong, keeps me feeling positive and gives me energy for my day. I often walk outside in our neighborhood near Minnehaha Creek or around Lake Nokomis. While outside I never listen to music with ear buds in my ears; that would block out all the sounds of nature I enjoy. My intention is always to push myself to walk as fast as I can, but so often I get side-tracked by seeing or hearing a bird. If it's pouring rain outside I walk on the treadmill in my basement, and only then do I have ear buds in my ears--listening to recorded bird songs and calls! I am a musician; I love music, but when I hear it I stop whatever I'm doing and listen or dance to it. If I can't walk to the beat of the music it drives me crazy, so exercising to music is out for me unless I find the perfect song to play with the exercise I'm doing. I discovered that bird songs and calls are beautiful to hear while exercising, without the temptation to follow a beat. I can focus on my body, its movements, how I'm feeling, listening to what my body needs that day. The side benefit of this is learning to recognize bird calls.
As all birders know, many small song birds are elusive, hiding in the forest understory and hunting for insects under the dead leaves, or camouflaged high up in the leafy branches of a mature hardwood tree. Even using binoculars they can be difficult to spot. If I pay attention to my ears the sounds of the forest or lakeside will reveal the presence of birds that are concealed there. In my book, The Lakes In My Head, I write about how exciting it was to first hear, then eventually see my first varied thrush four years ago in Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula:
"We saw the peak of Mt. Denali (formerly McKinley) in the dazzling sun from the Alaska Railroad train car. We breathed the fresh, clean air of the Alaskan coniferous forests. I identified over thirty bird species I had never seen before, by sound and by sight, including varied thrushes, a highlight of the trip for me--and a source of amusement for my husband and friend, who teased me about my birding excitement. We saw moose, magpies, and ravens wherever we went, even in the city, and black bear, grizzly bear, porcupines and Arctic ground squirrels in the forested areas."
One night while staying in a tiny cabin at Denali, falling asleep while it was still quite light outside due to the Alaskan summer I was rudely startled by the very loud sound of a wood thrush (or possibly a Swainson's thrush, I don't recall) echoing through the crisp air and bouncing off the hillsides right outside the cabin door. My husband, Ken, was soundly asleep, but there was no way I was going to get to sleep with that "noise" outside the cabin. My curiosity overwhelmed me. I got up, put some pants on, and went outside to quietly stalk the bird. Again, the call told me it would be on the ground among the bushes beneath the pines and I followed the sound to where it was. I was rewarded with a really good siting of the bird standing on the ground singing away with all his might. No binoculars necessary. He kept on singing while I tiptoed back into bed. It took me a bit to fall asleep again. The bird, however, clearly was not going to be sleeping any time soon!
Do you listen? I mean REALLY listen? Do you pay attention to all the sounds around you? Try it some time. The next time your child runs to you demanding your attention, give her or him ALL of your attention. Listen to what she's saying between the lines. The next time you're outside listen to all the sounds you hear. Do you hear the wind rustling the leaves, the family across the street talking to one another, the two men on the corner having a lively discussion, the sound of the mud squishing beneath your feet after a rain? It's such a privilege to be able to hear the details.