I have been sitting in a public park in Orange County, California, thirty or forty acres of rich green grass and trees that I have practically to myself. Apparently most people in California just go to the beach. In one corner of the park, there is a pond with a respectably wooded island, so this place is very popular with the waterfowl. I am surrounded by well over a hundred ducks and geese – a few thick white geese with garish orange bills, but mostly Canadian geese, pecking through the grass looking for something to eat. As you can imagine with a dozen dozen birds around, there are feathers and excrement everywhere, so it is a little nauseating to watch. Each goose sifts through the grass in the only way it can, by pulling a few blades into its bill and letting them slide through as it tugs its head back, hoping to glean some seed or aphid or other bit of nutrition. It looks like they are making an effort to avoid their own detritus, but they are not always successful.
There is some movement within my field of vision, something so small I don’t even notice that I’m noticing it, until after a few minutes something clicks in my head and I realize what it is I am seeing. There is a willow tree to my left, and dangling from the end of an invisible thread of silk is a thick green worm. Some kind of caterpillar, seeming to levitate as it twists and arches in the wind. This close to the ocean, it’s pretty much always windy, and a steady breeze out of the southwest is bouncing this worm back and forth at the end of his string like a perverse kite. It’s three or four feet off the ground, swinging directly over the heads of a half-dozen foraging Canadian geese. Those silly geese are so focused on sifting through their own crap for the most insignificant morsel that they don’t even notice the delectable grub practically theirs for the picking. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
But I’m not thinking about that metaphor, because I am already fully caught up in another metaphor. The plight of the caterpillar sets off a resonant echo in my head. I have no idea how he got into the position he is now – whether it was an accident, whether he had to abandon the safety of the tree because of some predatory threat, or whether he just foolishly overextended himself – but now, as far as I can tell, he is well and totally screwed. He can’t seem to climb back up the thread against the stiff breeze to get back into the safety of the willow leaves. And yet, if that thread breaks, and he falls into the grass, he will surely be goose food inside of a minute. There is no way he could crawl back to the tree in time; with all these voracious birds around, he’d be snapped up like shrimp at an office holiday buffet. And all he really wants to do is to find someplace where he can become a butterfly.
I really feel for that little worm, because his situation reminds me of ones I’ve been in. Just wanting to be, more than anything else, in a place where I could develop and transform into what I was really meant to be – someone amazing, someone who could fly – and yet somehow finding myself instead in desperate straits, unable to return to the place that used to be safe and stable, and unable to go any further forward without certain defeat. I remember being stuck for years doing work I did not enjoy while constantly being rejected for the positions I really wanted. I relive the anxiety of counting down to the end date of one job – first in months, then weeks, then days – without being able to find a suitable satisfying replacement position. Watching the worm turn on its string makes me remember that sinking feeling of imminent loss, made all the more excruciating by its contrast with the certainty that, if I could just get through this, I could do great things. Good things.
Well, I can’t just sit there. It’s just a stupid worm, but if I’m going to go all metaphorical on it, the least I can do is honor all the people who have helped me when I was stuck. We can’t always get to where we want to be by ourselves. I certainly didn’t. A job lead, a reference, an introduction, some good advice – sometimes we get to the place where we can transform ourselves when someone else gives us something. I decide I’m going to give this caterpillar a lift.
I stand up.
He drops out of sight.
For a moment I assume it’s just a trick of perspective, now that my head is higher. I sit back down. Still can’t see him. Maybe the breeze has pulled him into a different spot. I scan over the heads of six geese pecking monotonously through the grass, but I do not see a caterpillar. It is pretty clear the geese don’t see him yet either. But that won’t last. I consider running into the grass, to try to find the caterpillar first and take him to safety. But I know I won’t be able to spot that green worm in the green grass. That, in fact, is why he is green.
Besides. Geese eat bugs all the time. That’s what it is: a bug. I tell myself, sourly, that if it is any kind of metaphor, it’s a failed metaphor. And I watch to see which goose is going to be the lucky diner.
Suddenly, all of their heads shoot up. They are all looking in the same direction, to my left, and I become conscious of a distant squawking. The half-dozen geese in front of me, and many more scattered behind me and to the sides, all begin waddling, with all the intensity of purpose you can imagine a goose mustering, to a distant corner of the park, where a woman is reaching into a sack and pulling out handfuls of bread or crackers or something. She scatters it among a crowd of at least 50 birds already gathered around her, and they quack and honk excitedly as their heads dip down to the feast.
This shouldn’t be happening. There are signs all over the park saying, “THE FEEDING OF DUCKS AND OTHER WILDLIFE IS PROHIBITED.” It can cause disease and overpopulation. But this woman is a scofflaw ornithophile, and there is no stopping her, and these geese know it. Less than a minute after the worm fell from its tether, the ground in front of me – all the grass between wherever the worm fell and the sanctuary of the willow tree – is cleared of geese. I imagine the caterpillar humping his way back to safety, eager to take this opportunity to start building himself a chrysalis.
Okay, so maybe he is a metaphor, too. It’s great to have people in our corner. I don’t know anyone successful who has done it alone. But sometimes, when it looks like things can’t get any worse, you just have to let go. Take the leap on your own. Risk it. What else are you going to do – dangle like a worm on a string until you die? At least, after you take the leap, you might discover that your odds were a lot better than you ever thought they could be.