We read A LOT of children’s books around here. We have shelves of them, baskets of them, stacks of them. Still, I must admit, there are a select few that I read over and over and over, day after day, year after year. I’d like to say it’s because these books are the best of the bunch, but let’s face it: it’s because they are the shortest.
I’ve been on a Hungry Caterpillar kick lately. I couldn’t tell you why. The first time I read the book, decades ago, I was annoyed by the illustrations. They are so bright and chunky, like macrame left over from the seventies. And the story? A bug hatches, eats, builds a cocoon (which is really called a chrysalis, hello) and becomes a butterfly. Inane. And yet, for months, every time it’s my time to pick, this is the book I choose.
Here’s the thing: I’m stubborn. I’m hard headed. I’m extremely rational. I love to learn, but you know, only the things I WANT to learn. Those other things? Well, I can give you a million reasons why I shouldn’t have to learn those. So, if you wanted to get a message to me, you might have to sneak it in. You might have to bury the medicine in the cheese, the way my mother use to do with her dog. You might want to hide it in a children’s book… a really short children’s book – one I’d be sure to come back to again and again as a matter of convenience. And then, if you were really lucky, or maybe just loving and persistent, I’d read that book one day for the millionth time, and say, “Hum. What do you know about that? Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that timely?”
And that’s just what happened. They say when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Ladies and gents, here on the last day of school, let me introduce you to my new teacher:
He really has a lot to show us, if you can get around that whole macrame thing.
His story starts simply enough.
An egg on a leaf. That is after all, where caterpillars lay their eggs. That’s exactly where that egg should be. No surprises here.
The egg hatches, and in short order, the caterpillar leaves his leaf and goes out into the world to find some food. That little fella is hungry. He’s starving. He’s empty. He crawls away into the great “out there” to find something to fill him up.
He begins by eating one apple. He moves on to two pears. He keeps going after more and more. This book is practically a tour through the produce department. That little guy sure is making healthy choices.
My children have always loved sticking their fingers into those holes. Rooting around in there. Rubbing the raw edges.
Most of us know this story. By Friday, Mr. Caterpillar has eaten a host of fruits, nearly every good thing you can think of, and yet, he is STILL HUNGRY. He appears to be flat out of options. He’s certainly out of page space. But he isn’t full. You get the idea that he’s a little desperate. Not greedy, not selfish. Just…empty.
So what does he do? He does what we all do when we think we’ve exhausted all of our good options. He goes after anything and everything he can find in an effort to fill up. He finds all kinds of junk, because, lets face it – the world is just chock full of junk.
Is he full at the end, at last?
But he has one hell of a stomachache.
The next day was Sunday again. (Hmmm. That’s interesting…)
The caterpillar eats through one nice green leaf (A leaf? I remember a leaf. Didn’t he eat a leaf before? No. No, that’s not it. He didn’t eat the leaf. He just hatched on the leaf…) and after that he feels much better.
This is where it gets really spooky for me. That little SOB was born on that freaking leaf. Right there on the second page of the book. And he was hungry. But instead of just eating the leaf that was RIGHT THERE, he went off on this far flung search and got himself sick.
What an idiot.
I mean, if you were born right smack dab in the middle of ENOUGH, if you came into the world just exactly as you were supposed to be – a little caterpillar – and surrounded by just exactly what you needed – a nice green leaf – wouldn’t you recognize that and just Eat.The.Freaking.Leaf ?
I take it back.
Maybe that caterpillar isn’t an idiot. Maybe that caterpillar is just like me.
Besides, a story that ends on page two doesn’t make a very good story.
Then there’s this:
This is what that little caterpillar does.
This is what I am doing.
Any self-respecting Cat in the Hat watcher will tell you that only moths emerge from cocoons. This thing is really called a chrysalis. But chrysalis sounds so sharp. Breakable. Maybe even transparent. Cocoon sounds comforting, gentle, safe. Maybe sometimes we need to use the wrong word to get at the right feeling.
The little guy builds this whatever-it-is around himself. He sits in there all filled up with his junk and topped off with a little of his “enoughness” for a long time. I wonder if that was hard. I wonder if that caterpillar had ever learned to just sit still – not run after the next hole filling thing – just SIT. I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that it was just as hard for him as it is for me.
Because, if so, maybe what happened to that worm can happen to me too. That’s what I’m hoping for, people. This is what I’m going after, by sitting here, perfectly still:
Except, you know, a little less 1969.