Stacey Gross Times Observer Reporter

You know what’s a great word?


Kafkaesque is such a great, great word. It really is too bad that so many hipster dbags think they know what it means and use it at fancy dinner parties where they’re pretty sure that, even though they don’t actually know for sure what it means, no one there will be able to call them on it because they actually think they’re the smartest person in the room.

And stuff.

Things that are Kafkaesque are nightmarish and grotesque. Ghastly, ghoulish, fiendish, and fearsome. Uncanny. Off-kilter. Disorienting in a gently, slopingly dreadful sort of way.

Unfortunately, “Kafkaesque” is an adjective that, like all adjectives, can modify any noun it darn well pleases. It can modify places and objects, people, and unfortunately, it can modify our very own subjective emotional experiences. Actually, that’s kind of the point of it, But to use the word to describe anything other than a dire sense of existential dread, of weariness at fighting against that which one cannot come out victorious, is actually what the hipsters that I hate to do all the freaking time.

Knock it off, you hipster swine.

I got to musing over the word earlier this week, while traipsing through a field on East Fifth Avenue past the high school, my two little white-haired daughters painting, with each bound, a perfect picture book scene as they danced and chased each other through the knee-high fallowness of early autumn weeds and clover, with the six o’clock mid-August sun tinting everything that still-warm, dead-summer shade of rose gold.

Not exactly the scene one might associate with a word such as this, the one I found lodged deep in my head, and chest, and guts. We were traipsing through this particular field, on this particular day, on a hunt. A caterpillar hunt. Our annual monarch caterpillar hunt, to be specific. Since I was a child I can remember the month before school began being filled with endless afternoons of plucking fat, brightly-striped and wriggling bodies from their happy perches among the otherwise avoided crowns of milkweed plants in the pastures that surrounded the home where I grew up.

Capturing monarch caterpillars, husbanding them in a glass or screen enclosure, providing fresh milkweed for them each day and being rewarded by the opportunity to observe their process of profound metamorphosis has been a yearly part of my life, and one I cherish the opportunity to pass on to my children. I anticipate monarch season each year just as eagerly as I wait, trembling, for school supplies to begin enjoying prominent placement in shop aisles, or for the first crispy leaf to turn crimson and drift on a chilly breeze to earth.

But the actual process itself – the physics of turning from caterpillar to butterfly — is one that I will never, ever truly understand. It’s as close to a religious experience as my wasted, agnostic heart can get. I have read innumerable scientific theses on the process. I’ve watched time-lapse videos over and over, searching for that one concrete event in the moments between larva and chrysalis, chrysalis and adult specimen, to which I can grasp, and hold firm, and say “that.” That is how this happens. But there seems to be no root hanging out from the edge of the cliff to grasp on my way down. No solid part of the process to serve as a frame from which I can begin to drape an intellectual understanding of just how a caterpillar can become a butterfly.

Poor Gregor Samsa, the hero of Kafka’s timeless treatise on the ultimate absurdity of life, the irrationality of it all, woke up one day to find that he himself had undergone some sort of backward metamorphosis. He opened his eyes one random, awful day to discover that all of his beliefs about the world and its rational modes of operation had been lost. He woke up an insect. And how does one, with no training, nor even the tiniest hint of foreshadowing, learn to live as something completely other than what he has always been? How does one learn to wield antennae? How does one teach oneself to fix a meal, or don a cloak, or gesture his meaning during a heated discussion, without hands or fingers, knuckles, palms, or arms?

I feel like I would need an entire semester just on understanding what, precisely, to do with a thorax were I to wake up in Samsa’s…well, not shoes, I suppose.

But I have, I realized as I chewed it over and over in my mind. I have woken up, just as Gregor Samsa woke up that awful day, to the realization that I had changed. That something I had not anticipated, some terrible event that had not announced itself, that worst of all I did not, in any way, deserve, had crashed over me, left me behind, but in a form, I could never have recognized nor prepared for.

Trauma does this to a person.

Things that traumatize us leave us reeling in the wake of a chilling realization: that all the silly little things with which we busy ourselves each day can be razed in the blink of an eye. The world can become unrecognizable. Overnight. The tender fragility of everything we ever “knew” can be coldly unmasked for what it had always been – a tenuous belief based on questionable evidence at best.

The sky is blue. The grass is green. Up is above us, and down below.

Or so we think.

Our homes are sacred. No one can come inside them without our permission – even if it’s given in quiet, tacit ways, it must be given. We are inherently of value. No one is entitled to abuse us.

The world is safe.

Until it’s not.

And the danger in the world is never revealed to us gently. Trauma is trauma because it crashes down upon us hard, and is indefensible. Had we the means to protect ourselves from experiencing it we would. Some of us are born with more armor than others. Some of us come with a handy exoskeleton, or pinchers, or narrow, needled stingers filled with venom that we brandish on instinct in the face of any threat.

Others of us are softer. Plumper. Wetter.

More vulnerable of form.

Some of us have evolved to prioritize sensitivity over strength.

But you don’t see a lot of shelled creatures going through such a stunning metamorphosis that children long each year to venture out into the world to catch and corral them. No one’s traipsing through a field hoping to find an ant or a cicada on the eve of a powerful molt. Those creatures? They don’t go from one form to another. They go from smaller to larger.

Monarchs change for real.

Monarchs go from creeping on the ground to transcending the world itself. They are quietly magnificent, and the magic of their metamorphosis is distinctly different from that of other arthropods, crustaceans, birds, and reptiles alike. Monarchs become a thing entirely other than what they were to start with. They go from desperately vulnerable as larva to powerfully fragile as pupa.

Trauma sucks.

But those who heal from it are as magnificent and amazing as the twenty or so tiny lives my kids and I collected Tuesday evening, on a hill, above the city, in the damp heat of another dying summer. And while the rest of us are freezing our fingers off this January, the butterflies we hatch and release in the coming weeks will be hanging from some sweet, dense flower in Mexico, wondering why on earth we don’t just change ourselves and join them.