An Incredible Journey: The Power of Place in our Daily Lives

A flash of orange caught my eye as I glanced out my office window. I was deep in thought trying to work out the intricacies of our fall schedule when I noticed a lone butterfly wobbling through the air floating from branch to branch, finally landing on a brightly colored stalk of goldenrod. It’s just a butterfly. No big deal. I returned to my schedules. And then it happened… Hundreds of monarch butterflies descended on our campus like brightly colored confetti. The annual monarch migration was on.

The non-profit arts organization I work for is an affiliate of the Cleveland Metroparks and located in the Huntington Reservation of their park system. As we stood outside watching the monarchs, the wildlife management specialists from the park drove up and stopped to explain that the butterflies were grounded on the beach the night before, due to a passing storm on Lake Erie. As the afternoon sun dried their wings, they resumed their flight south to Mexico, en masse.

What I find most incredulous is their timing. This was a typical week in September, not much different than the warm summer weeks before and after. How do they know when it’s time to go?

According to the Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota, “Monarch butterflies cannot survive a long cold winter. Every fall, North American monarchs fly south to spend the winter at roosting sites. Monarchs are the only butterflies to make such a long, two-way migration, flying up to 3000 miles in the fall to reach their winter destination. Amazingly, they fly in masses to the same winter roosts, often to the exact same trees. Their migration is more the type we expect from birds or whales than insects. However, unlike birds and whales, individuals only make the trip once. It is their children’s grandchildren that return south the following fall.”

“Environmental factors signaling the onset of unfavorable conditions are involved in triggering this physiological response. These factors include day length, temperature, and host plant quality.”

Monarch butterflies are attracted to the nectar of flowers like goldenrod. The Cleveland Metroparks is actively creating fields of flowering species to attract pollinators.

So you might be thinking, What does this have to do with me? They’re insects. Who cares? But we should care. My point is, we need to pay attention to our surroundings. We need to listen to our instincts more often. In the seven years I have been keeping Teach Green Blog, the demand for ecoliteracy has increased exponentially.

How many of us ignore that little voice inside our heads? I know I did for a long time. I rarely took time for myself. Schedules, budgets, projects, problems … all swirled around me on a daily basis. So much so that it was finally my own body that demanded a hard stop. 

Endometrial Cancer, they told me. You will need surgery. You will need to take some time off from work for radiation and chemotherapy treatments. I was grounded, like the monarchs. I too had to wait it out until I was able to fly again … my journey suspended.

In reality, it took me a while to realize that my life had switched to a new path. Anyone who thinks there isn’t some measure of predetermination to our lives, isn’t paying close enough attention. 

I was one of those people. 

However, in time, I began to see how my life, my choices, even my daily routine had gone off course. It hadn’t happened all at once, but gradually … some decisions made by choice others out of necessity, but misguided none-the-less. I also realized how disconnected from the natural world I had become. Nature had always been therapy to me. I had spent hours at the stables or in the park. As time progressed and my life became more complicated, I started my day as the sun rose and spent most of the work week on the third floor of a big department store. My only awareness of what was going on outside was when a heavy rain pounded on the shopping mall roof. At the end of the day, I experienced sunsets in the midst of rush hour traffic on my 45 minute commute home.

The Big C diagnosis put an end to running around in circles. In fact, it put an end to running around at all… at least temporarily. But as with any journey, sometimes we all need to rest and recharge. 

At first, I was angry at my situation and feared what the future would bring. I imagined myself alone in my circumstances, despite the efforts and devotion of family and close friends. Once, I even tried to drive myself to chemotherapy and received a strict rebuke from those closest to me and my nurses at the Clinic. I had lost all sense of direction, completely off course. Defined by my illness. Lost.

The Fuller House gallery on the campus of BAYarts in the Huntington Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks.

Midsummer, it was time for our book club to meet and the girls decided to come to Bay Village so I didn’t have to drive. We decided to have lunch at a little restaurant in the park near my house, instead of hiking in the National Park which was our usual routine. It was nice to be out with friends and it took my mind off my troubles. We had been reading together for over eight years at that point and had become close friends. The book discussion was inspiring as always.

After lunch, we wandered over to an art gallery next door. This was my old stomping grounds as a kid and it felt good to be back. I remembered the organization as Baycrafters, but I learned that it had changed names several years back when a new board and management took over. It was now called BAYarts. We lingered in the doorway chatting with the lady at the front desk and learned that she wore many hats, one of which was volunteer coordinator. When she found out that I lived in the neighborhood, she asked if I would be interested in volunteering on Saturday mornings. They needed someone to sit in the gallery and answer questions about the exhibits and the grounds. I didn’t know a lot about art, but I knew the grounds like the back of my hand. I sensed a glimmer of hope. I wasn’t quite ready to share my circumstances, but it just felt right so I agreed.

This new focus gave me a foothold on the slippery slope I was trying to navigate. The days at BAYarts seemed to ebb and flow from one week to the next and I began to look forward to my time there. Sometimes the gallery was busy with patrons and students, other days were slow. First, I read all the information I could find about the organization. As a kid, I knew it as a quirky little arts center with a director that would shoo us off the property if we got too rowdy. This new management was friendly and hip and I was always sorry to leave when my shift was over. 

If there was no one in the gallery, I began to venture from behind the desk and wander through the gardens outside the front door. Memories from my childhood came flooding back as I weeded and watered …and worried. Somehow, the familiarity of my surroundings had a healing effect on me. The smell of pine cleared my head. The sound of the wind through the Norway Spruce in the front yard reminded me of my childhood adventures in the park. I used to climb those same trees, imagining I was flying. As I tended the grounds, I remembered all of my secret hiding places from the summer days I spent playing kick the can with the neighborhood kids and it made me smile. I ventured even further, revisiting the old Playhouse on campus where we used to stage plays on the back patio; using discarded playbills as inspiration for our performances. The energetic staff kept me going as my treatments became progressively more difficult. It gave me purpose and as a result, the will to feel better. 

As the summer wore on, reality began to seep in. I faced some big hurdles in the fall. I was being pressured to return to my job where I routinely clocked between 17,000 and 21,000 steps a day. I still had four more chemo treatments to complete in the fall and they would be the most agressive thus far. How would I manage? It seemed wrong to turn back, but what choice did I have?

Then one day out of the clear blue, I received an email from the director of BAYarts. Would I be interested in a job? And just like that, I was out of the woods and on a new path. I was surrounded by new friends who have become like family to me. I still had obstacles to overcome, but it was just what I needed, at exactly the right moment that I needed it.

Today, I am healthy, happy and have a job that encompasses so many of the things I love … art, architecture, nature, gardening, environmental education and more. All of the things I have been writing about for years, I am experiencing on a day-to-day basis. My journey has come full circle.

And so now more than three years later, looking out my office window at the monarchs beginning an epic journey, I am reminded of how important it is to return to your roots once in a while … to slow down listen to that little voice in your head. You just never know where it might lead you.

Roots and wings. Anything is possible.


General Manager of BAYarts, Owner of Urban Charlee Denim Goods and freelance writer in Northeast Ohio

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