This, I Volunteer

"Hickory Tussock" on tongue depressor

I am back after a week of volunteering with my favorite non-profit organization, Sibling Connections. We hosted Camp to Belong — Massachusetts for the eighth summer, and the sixth in Hinsdale, MA at Camp Taconic. If you know me or read this site from time to time, I have undoubtedly mentioned it to you. In many ways it is a typical summer camp, but the thrust behind it is a mission to reunite children in foster care who are siblings and separated from one another. The week is both exhaustingly long and jarringly short for this volunteer: all week we are in the moment, dealing with whatever minor or major joy or crisis happens to have bloomed or broken, and then all of a sudden it is the final morning: we are placing the campers’ bags into the appropriate bus stop pile on the grass before heading into the cafeteria for our last meal together; the imminence of our departure rises up one unbearably light bag at a time in my mind. For me personally and for many of my colleagues I’m sure, the week often involves heartwarming and -breaking experiences and moments. This year’s camp was no different, except perhaps in that it may have been the most difficult one for me to navigate.

We try to create a place of happiness and love, where the children can make positive memories and enjoy the banalities of living together with their siblings (eating meals together, sleeping under the same roof, etc.) that so many of us get to take for granted; everything is pretty well packed into the week, so it is a lot to process at its abrupt conclusion. The raucous joy, continuous stimulation and constant interaction tends to wear me out almost before we get started anyway, but I was particularly emotional as personal challenges in my life weighed on me throughout the week. For a good portion of the week, having spent a lot of emotional capital on my own problems, I was not feeling particularly good about my contribution to camp, which only made me feel worse. I think I was able to focus on the priority of our campers’ safety and fun better as the week passed. At the end however the toll had added up; I was drained emotionally and physically. My mind fogged, I was at a drop above zero, trying to complete my week without breaking down. I was going back and forth from the cabins to the lawn where we brought the luggage for loading. I had already made more than a few unnecessary trips, forgetting to grab this or that, or bringing something somewhere it didn’t belong, when I happened to look down and find the tongue depressor stick pictured above and below. The juvenile script read “Hickory tussock,” referring to of course that seemingly ubiquitous fuzzy little black and white noodle of a moth larva. I bent down and picked it up, and my feet were on the ground instead of floating over it, my head cleared and I felt happy there for that moment.

Hickory Tussock moth caterpillar on tongue depressor

Hickory Tussock moth caterpillar on tongue depressor

Hickory Tussock moth caterpillar on tongue depressor

One particular critter-loving camper had written this name out, a rough draft for one of our Arts activity projects, and it immediately reminded me that he had been calling it a hickory tussock for the better part of the week after I had informed him of its name. It was a timely reminder that I had given (at least, a tiny) something back. It buoyed me, it reminded me why I was standing there at that moment. Ironically, it related to this caterpillar that I have seen so often and photographed to such unsatisfactory results in recent years. (It is hard to do a lot with so many bristly setae and such little depth of field.) It is a bug that I am particularly unmoved by, and despite the camper extolling its cuteness whenever we came upon one, and various counselors pitching in with comments about its beauty, to me it was always another case of an insect spectacular in only its utter ordinariness. The importance of seeing with new eyes was lying on the ground there, a fading stick of fiber, so much (or so little) litter.

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar

Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar head

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

What is beautiful and true surely leaves us, but it always comes back to us. Perhaps, not when we would most like it to, but it comes back. This is not meant to be religious, not in a traditional sense of the word, but maybe that is where I have found myself. I will say, I do not think belief is a determining factor. I think the beauty and truth we experience is a part of us as much as it is a part of the world (or camp) we live in. Sometimes the pressures of those worlds overwhelms us, the fires burn us up, but here we are and so will the beauty and truth be. I feel blessed to have spent this past week with beautiful, big-hearted children of all ages, and I thank them. To them and you, I volunteer this one last thing: try not to overlook the reminders and reincarnations of your beautiful world. Seek them out when you can. And if all else fails, try not to step on the caterpillars, especially the ordinary ones. You might just find what you were missing.

Hickory Tussock moth caterpillar on tongue depressor

Hickory Tussock moth caterpillar on tongue depressor

Hickory Tussock moth caterpillar near tongue depressor

Tongue depressor "Hickory Tussock"

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