When I was a young girl just starting kindergarten, my family moved into a converted barn beside a lake in upstate New York. We bounced around quite often when I was a child – I’d already lived in Iowa and Minnesota by that age – yet this was the place that gave rise to some of my earliest memories. That home and its environs held many stories, but today I want to talk about my discovery and subsequent lifelong love of the milkweed plant.
According to my mother, I was a tactile child. If something looked soft or interesting, I would beeline with laser focus to pet it, even if it was the coat worn by a stranger or the person sitting in the pew in front of me in church. My first memory is running down a hallway in the house we lived in when I was 3. Flocked olive green and ink black velvet wallpaper lined the hall, and I dragged my fingers along it as I ran sending a tingling charge through my hands and up into my arms that increased in intensity the faster I ran. My connection to the world through touch filled me with endless delight then and continues today.
Our barn sat on a couple of acres with fields and woods beyond its bounds, which to a five-year-old felt like infinity – a space so endless I could hardly conceive of it. We had a swing, two forts, a pool, woods, gardens, grasses, and the lake – all magical domains which on any given day would behold miracles. I dug for earthworms, captured and released salamanders, unearthed shards of pottery near the creek, and dangled my toes in the lake from the end of our dock patiently waiting for my fish friends to rise from the profound mystery of blue and nibble on them. I had a secret clearing in the woods that I would retreat to for afternoon naps, a place I’d carpeted with moss collected during my wanderings. I rescued water-logged insects from the pool and watched them recover as they rubbed their bodies and legs dry, stretched and aired their wings, and eventually flew away to whatever lives awaited them.
Life inside my home was a full kaleidoscope of experience from enchantingly beautiful to hauntingly challenging. As the youngest of five children with parents who were often preoccupied, I had the freedom to navigate by instinct and curiosity. I recall endless hours wondering why and how life worked – from the complexity of family relationships to the seasonal rhythms of nature to the abstract construct of time. I had endless questions that seemed to invite more questions. Why did people hurt each other? What lies beneath the surface of the lake? How did Captain Kangaroo shrink to fit inside the television? And once, looking around at my family during a weekend gathering I pondered, why did I choose these people? Seeking a deeper understanding of life is a force of inquiry that has called me forward for as long as I can remember.
When emotions flared inside my home in ways that often felt unbearable, I would return to the quieting embrace of the outdoors. The woods anchored me. There I could see trees that would drop their leaves, that would break down into pieces, becoming the soil that would nourish its own roots, as well as the roots of those around them. There was an interconnectedness to life that was pristine, magical.
The hairy stemmed milkweed plants grew wild and abundant in the field beside our house. While monarch caterpillars thrive on a milkweed’s leaves, I was captivated by its pods. In summer the milkweed pods were verdant, fleshy, bumpy, sponge-like and covered with fine fuzz. White sap would seep from them when cracked open leaving a sticky residue on my fingers – a kind of nature’s adhesive that would collect bits of whatever I touched next creating a fingerprint-sized scrapbook of my day.
As the days grew shorter and colder the milkweed pods would begin to dry out, harden, and turn brown along with many of their neighboring plant companions that inhabited the field. When the time was right, they would crack open revealing impossibly silky white fluff that would eventually launch into the air like tiny parachutes carrying a single seed in search of a new home. I would slide my finger into the cracked pod releasing its abundant fluff and watch with rapture as it filled the sky. If the sun were just right the silky parachutes would glisten with rainbows.
Milkweed plants were amongst my first teachers. They taught me that we are all embedded in a rhythm of life that is infinitely wiser than us. They showed me that change is inevitable, and with each change comes something extraordinary, beautiful, and purposeful – even if the path to getting there can be rough. They showed me that beauty comes when you least expect it. If life feels dried, worn out, hardened, and cracking, look for what is being born – what is yet to come is often more exquisite than you can imagine. And they showed me that endings and beginnings are human constructs. The life force that moves through all things has no beginning and no end. Life exists in an endless cycle.
Every milkweed plant starts as a seed floating with its incandescent silk parachute and grows into a decadent feast for monarch caterpillars and the birthplace of an endless number of future plants. So, when my life as a child seemed tough, hard, and seemingly without purpose, the milkweed showed me that life’s most significant challenges are gifts in disguise – nothing short of the extraordinary in incubation.
I’ve been through one of these complex cycles in my life over the past year and a half. At the risk of oversimplifying the arduous, emotionally rich, and painful process of uncoupling from a relationship, I chose to trust my heart even if that meant my life as I’d known it had to break. What is right isn’t always easy. The dried, hardening shell couldn’t contain my new life waiting to be born. So with great love and strength, I released what was to say yes to what was to be.
Reaching the end of a lifecycle for a relationship is hard not only for a couple but also for the community that loves them. Please know there is no need for sympathies or sadness. We loved deeply, encountered challenges that nearly laid us bare, and healed and grew immensely. We both honor the time we shared, are still cherished friends who talk often, and we care for and support one another in new ways.
Endings indeed are beginnings, and I am now embracing the latter with fervent joy. I say yes when wild beauty beckons. I trust that my life, like the milkweed, is designed to be a vehicle for beauty. My mission is to heed the call of the wild carrying me forward into whatever comes next. I may not see exactly what that adventure entails, but what an awesome one it will continue to be. The milkweed showed me so.
What is the invitation calling you forward in your life right now? I would love to hear about it.
In wild beauty,