Crumpled Wings

The dragonfly nymph had been climbing up and down a willow branch all day inside one of our classroom habitats. My little ones watched him climb, excitedly announcing to the class his every move and clapping with glee because they knew that this was a sign that the nymph was getting ready to make its final climb out of the water where it would crack out of its skin and become the shimmering flyer it was meant to be.

Dragonflies make this final climb in the sheath of night, cloaked from predators when the dragonfly is in its most vulnerable state-when it cannot yet take flight, nor can it retreat back into the water.

We left school that day knowing that an adult dragonfly would likely be waiting for us the next morning.

When morning arrived and I pulled my bike up to my classroom door, I couldn’t help but laugh at the line of little ones who had their faces pressed up against our windows.  They were peering in, looking for our dragonfly and when I unlocked the door and let the little ones in, our outside windows were left with a row of fingerprint and nose smudges that made me giggle.

New dragonflies seek the light and we’d found all of our previous dragonflies patiently waiting in our windowsills.

We looked in the windowsills.

No dragonfly.

We looked in the habitat and, sure enough, attached to the willow branch was the ghostly exuvia, with a hole where the dragonfly had broken out of its skin.

Then we saw it.

The dragonfly was on its back beside the tank.  Two of its wings were fully formed.  Two of its wings were crumpled and stuck to the desk.

In the cover of night, something had gone terribly wrong.  The dragonfly had fallen from the willow branch before its wings were set and as the wings dried, they dried stuck to the desk.

“I think he’s dead, Mrs. McCauley,” one of my little ones said solemnly.

“Maybe.  Let me see.”  I put my finger to the dragonfly’s legs and he grabbed on, but his wings remained plastered to the desk.

It was at this moment that another one of my little ones entered the room.  She’s a gymnast, a high-flying daredevil of a kid who flips around the bars like walking is her second language and flying is her native tongue.

The gymnast broke her elbow when she took a fall in gymnastics class.  She wore a bright green cast on her arm.

She crowded around the dragonfly with us and when I explained what had happened she simply said, “He’s like me.  What are you going to do, Mrs. McCauley?”

I didn’t know.  I stood there for a minute watching the dragonfly struggle to free his wings from the desk.  I watched my little ones watching the dragonfly.

“You have to do something,” said the gymnast.

“I know.  I’m just trying to think of what.  I’ve never seen a dragonfly with injured wings like this, so I’m not quite sure how to help.  Let me think.”

“Shhhh, everybody, shhhh.  Mrs. McCauley has to think so she can save him,” a little boy said with his finger to his lips.  A hush fell over them and the pressure was on.

“Go get me a damp paper towel and I’m going to try re-wetting his wings.”  I sent one of my little ones to the sink and she hurried back with a soggy paper towel.

The dragonfly beat his two strong wings against me as I wet his crumpled wings, which began to release from the desk.

“It’s okay, little dragonfly, Mrs. McCauley isn’t going to hurt you.  She doesn’t even let us kill spiders,” a little boy said reassuringly.

I sponged the dragonfly off the desk and he crawled onto my finger, trying in vain to pump fluids into his crumpled wings.  The wings shivered, but remained deformed.

“We’d better keep him for a while and see if he can get his wings to straighten out.”  I slipped him into the wire cage we keep our new dragonflies in before we transfer them to the creek.

Later that morning we had another dragonfly emerge from its skin.

“My dad says that sometimes when animals are hurt or sick, putting them with a healthy animal helps them heal,” one of my little girls said.  “Let’s put them together in the cage and see if that helps the wrinkled one.”

We put the pair of dragonflies together in the releasing cage.  The healthy dragonfly flitted and buzzed around while the other one sat watching.  We passed the cage around so each child could see what was happening.

“He looks sad,” many little ones lamented.

“What’s that word you were telling us about yesterday, Mrs. McCauley?” the gymnast asked.

“Which word?”

“The one about summer, how it’s sad that school is ending, but happy that summer is beginning.”


“I think the dragonfly is feeling bittersweet-happy that his friend can fly, but sad that he can’t yet.  Kinda like how I feel watching my friends play on the bars at recess.”

“That makes sense to me.”

We kept the pair of dragonflies in our classroom most of the day, but as the end of the day drew near we knew we had to release them or they would starve.

We hiked out to the creek with our pair of dragonflies.  A little boy gently stuck his finger under the dragonfly with fully formed wings.  He lifted his hand into the air and the dragonfly took flight, zipping to the creek.

The other dragonfly had yet to fly at all, not even flutter from one side of the cage to the other.

“Maybe if we hold him up in the air, he’ll fly,” another little boy suggested.  “Maybe when he feels the air on his wings, he’ll know what to do.”

“It’s definitely worth a try,” I agreed.  The little boy lifted the dragonfly on his finger and into the air.

We waited.

I wish I could tell you that this story has a happy ending, that the dragonfly with crumpled wings took flight and soared into the sky.

It didn’t.

It was a Green Darner and we placed it on a green branch near the creek where we hoped it could camouflage from predators long enough to get its wings working.

On the day my little gymnast got her cast off, her dad offered to take her out for ice cream afterwards.  She asked if she could go to school instead because she didn’t want to miss a thing.  Her dad just shook his head and drove her to school, reminding her she can’t go on the bars just yet.  I have a feeling that the gymnast will be back to her high-flying ways in no time, but she’s right there’s bittersweetness in watching her friends flip on the bars while she sits on the sidelines and watches.

There’s a bittersweet feeling to the end of the school year.

As the year draws to a close, I think often of the crumpled dragonfly and of my little ones who I’m going to have to let go of so very soon.

Most of them are absolutely soaring.  Reading 100 words a minute, writing amazing stories, even tackling multiplication.

But a handful of my little ones came to me broken, with badly crumpled wings.  Each morning, they’d beat against me because letting anyone close when they were in such a vulnerable state was terrifying.

So often I didn’t know what to do, how to fix such acute breaks of the heart.  So often I found myself needing a moment to watch them and think of a new ways to try to help them.  For some it was enough and they eventually found their wings.

Others remain too scarred.  On the last day I’ll hug them a final time and hope that someday when they feel the air on their wings, they’ll find it within themselves to take flight.

A Day for Watering

Don’t take my bike away for saying this, but sometimes walking is better than cycling.  Wait, before you stab my bike tires and spit in my water bottles, hear me out.  Sometimes I need to look at things at an even slower pace.  Those of you who have ridden with me before are balking already because surely there can’t be anything slower than me slugging along on The Rocket.  Sometimes I just need to stroll and inhale the crisp air and squat down on the ground and look at stuff, really look at stuff.

That Laura & I walked along the river the other day, the winter wind whipping my camera strap as I happily snapped away, trying to make some sense of my new camera.  We walked into the arboretum, one of my favorite places on the trail because a new surprise waits around every corner.

Take the Monkey Puzzle Trees for one.  Just looking at their sparse, prickly branches makes me laugh.

And when I start to compose myself again, I think of the name ‘Monkey Puzzle Trees’ and I’m in stitches all over again.

Until the other day, I’d never taken the branch of the path that leads to a little bridge called Charlotte’s Crossing.  I was mooning over it already because I’m the teacher who cries every year when I read the end of Charlotte’s Web.  Then Charlotte herself greeted us and I thought I was going to straight swoon.

So by the time I saw Charlotte’s charming children climbing the sides of the bridge, I was downright giddy.  Not to mention that blue sky in the background.  I love sunny winter California days.

A few steps later I spotted this petite pile of stones.  Something about the balance required to stack stones always makes me stop and pause.

And then I turned a corner and saw these.

We meandered along the trail and ducked into the Children’s Sculpture Garden where “Mosaic Oasis”, a sculpture by Colleen Barry, sits as the crowning jewel in the garden.

I could stay at this sculpture for hours, running my fingers over each tile.  I mean just look at these ladybugs creeping along.  Don’t they make your fingers itch to do crayon rubbings?

Everywhere you look there’s a new treasure to behold, like this little heart marked with love.

Or Lady Liberty standing tall amongst other shining jewels.

And then there are the dragonflies.  Small dragonflies skitter and flit in and out of the mosaic, but this is the one that makes my heart leap into my throat.  It’s staggeringly beautiful.

In the center of the mosaic on the back side of the dragonfly is this gorgeous tree.

And because I adore, adore, adore the plaque accompanying the tree, here’s a closer look.

On a scale of 1-10 how weird would it be to tattoo that quote to my forehead for every parent to see?  11?  Oh well, I’m afraid of needles anyway.

And then, as if the Mosaic Oasis wasn’t full of enough wonder, there are the giant insect sculptures.  Isn’t this ladybug just absolutely begging for a smooch?

And then there’s the giant metal dragonfly statue.  Be.  Still.  My.  Heart.

I’ve died and gone to Heaven.  Look at the details in the face.  I’m absolutely smitten with this dragonfly.

The Children’s Sculpture Garden brims with magic.  Even a glimpse through the spindly branches of Harry Lauder’s walking stick revealed this quaint, blue house.

As the light began to fade, That Laura and I turned back toward the trailhead.  On the path we spotted this stencil of a woman watering her plant.

We hurried up the last hill back to the car and as we did, I couldn’t help but feel that this walk had watered a parched part of me, a part of me in desperate need of a day to slow down and drink it all in.

Lessons From Dragonflies

It’s dragonfly season in my classroom.  Willow branches poke out of dank tanks atop our desks.  Tadpoles dart in the murky water to escape the voracious appetites of our dragonfly nymphs.

And us?  We wait, holding our collective breath until the day one of our nymphs makes the climb up a willow branch to molt a final time.

I’ve written about dragonflies before and I’ll surely write of them again because in their metamorphosis from nymph to dragonfly, I find pieces of myself.  Pieces of myself in times of grief.  Pieces of myself in times of triumph.

Dragonfly nymphs molt about 15 times.  The first molts take place in the water.  When a dragonfly nymph is ready, when it’s literally ready to burst out of its skin, in the cover of night the nymph climbs up a stick and using the hooks on its feet, the nymph holds on for dear life.  Then the nymph pushes from within and breaks out of its skin right between the wingpads, leaving a large hole in the old skin.  It’s an act so violently beautiful that when my students ask me if it hurts, I can only blink back tears and eek out the words, “I don’t know.”

I imagine it’s extremely painful.  Growth usually is.  This week as I watched a nymph transform into a dragonfly, I thought of my friend, Lynn.  She wrote about losing her mother, of being separated from someone who was entwined in every fiber of her life.  After such a loss, when you have a gaping hole, how’s it possible to return to life again when life as you know it doesn’t exist anymore?

Life as the nymph knows it ends as life as an adult dragonfly begins.  What you may not know about dragonflies is that after cracking open the back of their skin, they pull their head free and then their thorax, leaving their long flute of an abdomen still encased in the dead skin of the nymph.  At this point the dragonfly flops over backward and takes a rest, stuck halfway between its old life as a water creature and its new life in the skies.  The dragonfly rests like this for some time, like it simply cannot summon another ounce of strength to free itself from its old skin.  When my grandmother passed away, I was stuck in between my life with her and my life without her.  I couldn’t rewind time, but the thought of moving on without her was unfathomable.

After the nymph hangs upside down for a while, a marvelous thing happens.  In the ultimate display of mind over matter, the dragonfly flings its head up and grabs onto the stick again.  Sometimes it can only grab back onto its exoskeleton, taking hold of the old life one last time.  The dragonfly pulls its abdomen out of the cracked skin and waits.

It waits for its body to harden.  It waits for its wings to be ready.  This is when the dragonfly is in its most vulnerable state.  After all that work to emerge, dragonflies are powerless against hungry birds and frogs.  If the dragonfly crawls back into the water, it will drown because its abdomen now breathes air.  It cannot fly away because its wings are too crumpled to take to the sky.  In the sacred shield of night, the dragonfly is completely unguarded.

The dragonfly cannot move forward into this new life and cannot return to the old life either.  It begins to shiver, but not out of cold.  As the dragonfly shivers, blood pumps into the veins of the wings.  Slowly, life flows through the wings and they begin to take shape.  The dragonfly quivers and shakes until suddenly its wings snap open.

It’s a clumsy flier at first, unsure how to move on the wind.  Soon the dragonfly learns to slice through the air, taking in the beauty of the sky with its enormous eyes.  The dragonfly leaves the stick, leaves the shell of its old life and lifts into the air.  One of my students asked me if dragonflies remember what it’s like to be a nymph swimming in the water or climbing up a stick.  Again I could only offer a paltry,  “I don’t know.”

I’d like to think that dragonflies do remember.  I’d like to think they remember all the growth that had to take place in order to soar.  I’d like to think they recall the night when the old self died to make room for a new life.  And surely they recall the strength it took to heave their thorax up onto the stick and pull free from their old shell.

Night closes her eyes on me and in the warmth of my home, I wonder if any of our nymphs are making that brave climb tonight in our classroom.  I think of my friends who are summoning measures of bravery I can’t begin to fathom.  I think of Lynn, who is choosing to breathe in and out each day without her mother.  I think of my own mother and our loss.

I keep coming back to the vulnerability of the dragonflies as they’re moving from one phase in life to the next.  Sometimes that vulnerability, that willingness to be fragile, to grieve what is lost, is the very thing that births the strength to move on.

As Mother’s Day stands tiptoe on my doorstep, I think of all my friends who have lost their mothers.  My dear, dear friends, my Mother’s Day wish for you is that you find strength in your time of need, that your memories of your mothers will give you strength to continue and that when the long night finally gives way to brighter days that you will find yourself soaring in the sky.

A Few of My Favorite Things

This Christmas I received many gifts that made my Grinch-sized heart grow.  There are a few in particular that stand out.  None of them are extravagant.  None of them are expensive.  They are simple and lovely.  And I am blessed to have people in my life who gave me such wonderful gifts.

1.  A friend made me a beautiful dragonfly necklace.  She used understated earth tones and I appreciate the fact that she took time out of her impossibly busy schedule to create something she knew I’d love.  I gave her a book.  I bought it online.  I am lame.

2.  Our school has a Christmas Boutique where kids can shop for gifts for their families.  One little girl, a blond fairy of a girl, kept shooing me away while she shopped because she had something in her basket I couldn’t see.  The next day she slipped a small box under our classroom tree.  I unwrapped the box and inside sat this precious dragonfly brooch.

“How did you know dragonflies are my favorite?”  I asked her.

“You told me once a long time ago, when I was little, and I remembered.”  She smiled proudly, showing off the window where her front teeth used to be.

I wore the brooch all day and thought of the precious girl, who at the age of six is still little, but already has a big heart.

3.  This giant Hershey’s kiss was from another of my little ones.  He’s an affectionate boy and we’ve had some conversations about how we hug, but don’t kiss each other at school.  He gave me a basket of pansies and then handed me a wrapped box.  When I opened it, he said “This kind of kiss is allowed at school, right?”  The class erupted into peels of laughter and the clever little guy grinned from ear to ear.

4.  I received this angel ornament from another student.  The ornament is sweet and when I hang it on the tree each year, I will remember how tightly the little boy hugged me after I opened it.  He also gave me dish of Hershey’s kisses and repeated the line from the kid who gave me the giant chocolate kiss.  In first grade if a joke is funny the first time, it’s absolutely hilarious the second time around.

5.  I have a friend who used to race bicycles and he always gives me awesome cycling stuff.  This year he gave me a gift card to  My emergency shoe tag was wearing out and so I bought a shiny new one along with a wicking hat for spin class.  There are two great things about this present.  First, if something dastardly goes down on my bike, my shoe tag can help emergency workers figure out who I am very quickly.  Secondly, and much less morbidly, RoadID gives a percentage of each sale to one of nine charities, so upon check out you can choose which charity receives some cash.  Naturally, I chose LiveStrong.

6. My grandmother used to wear White Diamonds lotion.  When she passed away earlier this year, I wore one of her sweaters just to have her scent on my skin.  My aunt wrapped up a tube of White Diamonds for me this year and when I unwrapped it and unscrewed the lid, I was immediately filled with the scent of my grandmother, the scent of all the joyous memories we had together.

7. Okay, when I said none of the gifts I received this year were expensive or extravagant, I apparently had a brain hemorrhage and forgot about the gift Terry gave me.  My hubby gave me a housekeeper for a year.  Let that sink in for a minute.  He gave me an Alice.  Revel with me for a moment here: an entire year of no vacuuming, no dusting, no mopping.  Ladies, I understand that you’re probably swooning.  Put your head between your knees for a sec and breathe.  Yes, he is that good.  No, he doesn’t have a brother.

I hope your Christmas was full of lovely gifts and joyous memories.  And even if your heart was already the right size, I hope this Christmas season made it swell at least three sizes bigger.

Dragonfly Lady

In November I heard the eloquent Charlie Price talk about his writing process and read some of his latest work.  After the reading I had a serious Fan Girl Moment wherein I asked him to sign one of his books and then I gushed all over about how I’m a member of Writers Forum and so is he and isn’t it great that we’re both in it together and that we’re both writers, well, one of us is an aspiring writer, and isn’t writing just the best and I just love teaching kids to write and could he please, please sign my book?

Sigh.  I am a superdork.

He was lovely about it all and asked if I was going to read anything at the upcoming bi-annual Writers Forum read aloud.  I shook my head and explained that I probably wouldn’t read because I am terrified, absolutely horrified, of speaking in public, which is an improvement, believe it or not.  Charlie encouraged me to read and I told him I’d think about it.

Well, I did think about it.  And I decided to do it, to ignore my profusely sweating armpits and just suck it up and read.  The rules of the read aloud are simple: You have five minutes to read something you’ve written.  At four and a half minutes you get a thirty-second warning.  At five minutes you get the hook.

I did not want to get the hook.  I was sure if I did, I would melt into a big sweaty puddle of embarrassment.  So I dug through my archives and weeded out pieces that were too short or too long.  I whittled it down to two pieces, one a funny piece and one a piece written during the most difficult time of my life.  I loved writing them both, but writing the latter piece was one of the things that helped me survive that time.

I thought to myself what if, just what if, I not only took the chance to read aloud, but instead of hiding behind humor, what if I laid down all my masks and read something that mattered, something that exposed vulnerability?

Ooh, that would be risky, scary even.

But maybe it would be worth it.

Saturday morning at Writers Forum, I swallowed my pride along with a big bundle of nerves and signed up to read.  I was ninth in line, meaning I sweated through eight other readings before it was my turn.  There were some great writers in that room, writers who softened my heart and writers who made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt.

And then it was my turn.  I was impossibly nervous.  Oh, Lord, when will speaking in public get easier?

I stepped up to the microphone and I read this piece.

My heart was pounding and at some point during the reading I seemed to lose contact with my legs.  I don’t know if it was because my heart was pounding in my ears, but it seemed to me the only sound in the room was my voice.  My timid voice, reading about dragonflies of all things.  Reading about how dragonflies helped me pick up all the broken pieces.

After I finished reading I sat down and waited for the feeling to return to my legs.  At the break, many people came up to me and said kind things about my piece.  Charlie Price, the Charlie Price, was sitting next to me and said some of the nicest things I’ve ever heard about my writing.  I was touched and humbled.

The woman sitting on the other side of me called me the Dragonfly Lady.  And I kind of like it because, dear reader, I’m happy to say I no longer live in that mire.  I have shed my sorrowful skin and I’m winging my way through this beautiful life.

Dragonfly Lady, yup, I can live with that, especially because dragonflies have six legs.  So the next time I’m reading some of my writing aloud and I lose feeling in my legs, I’ll rest easy in the knowledge that I’ve got four more to stand on.

When raising dragonflies at school, I was surprised and delighted at the spot this new dragonfly chose to rest.