(listening time: 7:26 minutes)
Bundled up in snow pants and heavy jacket, I lie on my belly on a low wooden bridge on a late winter morning. Usually I spend my time at this bridge looking up and around – at the sky, at the texture of the ice, at the plants – and listening – to the wind, to the water, to the birds. But today I am peering into the beaver pond, my friends Sarah and Cora lying next to me.
We’ve enjoyed a warm spell as winter gives way to spring and I invited them to join Asha and me on a walk. In addition to a desire to spend time with them, I wanted to introduce them to this favorite spot of mine. And Asha is happy to run with their dog Bean.
At first I dismiss the twigs, branches and cattail stalks in the water as “nothing.” But then something catches my attention.
“Are those creatures moving down there or plant life swaying in the water?” I ask Sarah and Cora.
Sarah reaches down and pulls one out of the cold pond. About the width of a pencil and maybe an inch long, I see tiny pieces of vegetation held together in a mysterious way, reminding me of candy bracelets made of pastel rings of sugar. No wonder I couldn’t tell if they were creatures or plants.
After she puts this back into the water, I notice many more on the twigs and stalks at the bottom of the pond. Intrigued, I wonder what to google to find out what these are.
I know so little about this watery world and even less about life in a pond still mostly covered with ice.
Back at home I start my search with something like “small creatures in beaver ponds in March” and many clicks later learn that these are larvae of one of the many species in the Northern Casemaker Caddisfly family. I quickly become fascinated by these freshwater relatives of moths and butterflies, especially their portable cocoon-like cases made with materials such as sand grains, small pebbles, twigs, leaves, seeds and sometimes shells, and bound together in unique ways with silk.
These tubular cases not only become their home, but also help them survive, providing camouflage and physical protection, helping them acquire food and enhancing their respiration.
The fascinating and varied architecture makes me think my own portable cocoon. Instead of pieces of vegetation, it’s constructed with all the beliefs I’ve collected, consciously and unconsciously, from friends, family, teachers, religious leaders, books, movies and culture over the years.
Beliefs about calling. About my voice and the writing process. About appropriate behavior for women. About anger. God. Money and class. Whiteness and race. To name but a few, not to mention how nuanced and interconnected they are.
Some of these have protected me, provided excellent camouflage – and advantage – as I move through life and the world. Allowing me to blend in, go unnoticed. Many have caused me – and others – harm through my silence, my nice-ness, my conflict avoidance, my rule-following.
As I grow more aware of these beliefs – individually and collectively – and see how they’ve protected and perpetuated oppression, I long to emulate a caddisfly who cuts the pupal enclosure, swims or floats to the surface, crawls onto a plant or something else solid and then emerges as an adult. At the same time, I realize that won’t happen. I may be able to shed individual beliefs, but not the entire cocoon of social conditioning. And certainly not all at once, with one clean, decisive snip.
But in my hurry to get to an end goal I’m jumping over the pupal stage, going straight from larva to adult. I’m skipping over crucial steps of learning and slow change.
So I return to the life cycle of case-making caddisflies to see what wisdom it holds for me.
During the larval stage – which lasts longer than adulthood – caddisfly larvae shed their exoskeleton or skin at least five times. According to Glenn Wiggins, in his book Caddisflies: The underwater architects, as they grow, they enlarge the case by adding new material at the front end. To keep the case a manageable length, the larvae reverse position within the case and trim the rear end.
A process of adding and subtracting as the larva grows.
This I can do – add new beliefs and trim off ones that no longer fit as I grow.
I can let go of the belief that a calling must have roots in childhood. I can stop labeling anger as bad and instead explore my discomfort with this charged emotion as well as its gifts. I can accept that perfection is impossible (and probably not even desirable) and allow myself to show up imperfectly. I can examine my advantaged identities and engage in the work of dismantling oppression.
I don’t want this to sound neat or simple or linear. It’s not.
Beliefs are interconnected. Tug on one and others get pulled too. Loosen one and hopefully others loosen too.
When I start to examine beliefs about calling, beliefs about my voice and anger and money and whiteness surface. Likewise my discomfort with anger connects with God and appropriate behavior for women and whiteness and class and more.
Unlike a caddisfly, however, I can’t liberate myself on my own. Nor do I want to.
I need my community of friends and mentors who ask probing questions, listen, encourage, support, challenge and hold each other accountable. Thanks to their company on this journey of examining and shedding beliefs, I’m embracing the slow, messy, cyclical process of growth and change.
When I join with others, my cocoon feels less restrictive, less permanent. And liberation feels more possible.