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July 16, 2009

This Wonderful Life: The smallest things transform us

If you ask Bee, who is 6, to name her favorite city, she will respond with a quick, declarative and unswerving ``Rochester.’’ She loves Cooperstown — don’t get me wrong. It’s just that Rochester has two things she loves a little bit more: The Strong Museum of Play and the Radisson Hotel where we always stay on Rochester trips.

Bee loves the Radisson because she loves all hotels with comfortable beds and indoor swimming pools. And she believes that ringing the front desk is a perfectly reasonable solution to most of life’s little annoyances. She loves the Strong Museum because, let me make this perfectly clear, it is the NATIONAL. MUSEUM. OF PLAY.

It’s huge, and every square inch of it is devoted to the fact that play is integral to a child’s development and growth into an adult human.

That’s not just something they use on public television to fill a bit of space where an underwriter backed out. It’s true.

Play is transformative, figuratively and literally. When a child pretends to be a doctor or a princess or a pirate, she is transforming and expanding her understanding of herself. She is trying on different elements of personality, like dress-up clothes from a trunk. The things that fit the best may not go back in the trunk when playtime is over.

My favorite part of the Strong Museum is the butterfly garden, because I think it shows in rapid-time the same kind of transformation that is happening to the youngsters who visit the museum.

From the outside of a chrysalis, it looks like the caterpillar has created a peaceful, snug little room in which to rest before emerging as a butterfly.

The truth is far more dramatic — radical, even. Like most of us, caterpillars spend the caterpillar portion of their lives growing. As they grow, they shed their old skins, and become slightly larger, slightly different versions of their pre-growth selves. Then one day, something tells them that simply shedding the old skin for a larger version is not going to do. Something tells them that what they require is a grand, brilliant and utterly seismic shift.

You and I know what’s coming, but maybe the caterpillar doesn’t. Certainly her caterpillar cohorts don’t, and they don’t understand her restlessness.

``Just shed that skin like always,’’ they tell her.

``You’ll get bigger and bigger. One day, we’ll be huge — the largest caterpillars to roam the land. We’ll devour mighty oaks in one chomp!’’

She’s not interested in that, though. She has this idea that things could be really different. Really different. So instead of shedding her skin for a new one that’s more or less the same, only larger, she builds herself a safe place to create something almost inconceivable.

Inside, everything breaks down. Literally. Her legs and antennae and her hungry little munching mouth all break down.

For all practical purposes, the caterpillar is dead — toast. Or, more accurately, soup. WhatÆs left is a formless ooze that contains the essence of what it means to be a caterpillar, which happens to be identical to the essence of what it means to be a butterfly.

Its absolutely not that remarkable. It happens every day. It may be happening just a few feet or yards from where you are sitting right now. But try telling that caterpillar how ordinary it is.

Try telling the butterfly that what happened to her was run-of-the-mill.

Fables are usually packed with a point, and this one is no different. The lesson here is that remarkable, unforeseeable change is both deeply meaningful and entirely achievable. Like growing up.

Elizabeth Trever Buchinger believes every child is capable of sprouting wings. You can connect with her at www.moremindfulfamily.