The Anguish of the Butterfly

I am in the midst of major life changes. Some days it feels like a high-dive jump with rolls, flips, and tucks. Exhilarating. Other days it feels like sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the weight of the water growing heavier, darker, colder.

All of it is transformative.

This week I want to share something from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost that has stayed with me ever since I read it several years ago:

The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle. In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who “knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay.” But the butterfly is so fit an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is psyche, the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.

(Emphasis mine)

Mermaid Redux

Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Y can mine their collective histories by naming their most formative animated Disney film. I had my share of favorites. At four, I fixated on Sleeping Beauty and watched it repeatedly although my parents tried to get me to pick different videos at the rental store. I’m sure they were sick of hearing the movie ad nauseum. At 11, Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney film I watched in a theater. But my true Disney princess obsession never hit a higher pitch than with Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

The obsession of a nine-year-old is something to behold. At that age, I had all the fervor and attention available to me that other girls were putting into horses, The Babysitters’ Club, or boy bands. I aimed that pre-adolescent focus on the red-haired, be-shelled Ariel, making it my mission to honor her in the best way I knew: memorize all of her songs.

Just kidding. I memorized the entire movie.

I belted those songs out on the swing set at school recess. Sometimes along with friends, sometimes alone. Shifting the swing higher and higher, pumping my legs, and singing about longing and independence was the best kind of high I could get at nine. I learned to draw Ariel too by pausing the VHS tape and tracing her onto the paper I held up against the frozen screen.

I sang her songs, drew her image, and rewatched the tape. And then, as with most childhood obsessions, it faded somewhere along the way for the usual reasons. My family moved to a different state. I found new friends at my new school. Puberty. And with puberty came the dawning realization that I was more than a little interested in breasts and women.  

When I was a kid, Ariel gave me a way to think about independence and exploration and curiosity. She had her own private space where she hoarded the things that she loved and didn’t have to explain her treasures to anyone. When her overbearing father yelled at her, she yelled back. She spoke up, she acted, she went after what she wanted.

As an adult, I can see the problems with The Little Mermaid. The romance angle has so many red flags that it’s just one big red flag. The parental relationship is deeply flawed. Xenophobia and an unsubtle misogyny flavor many of the storylines. The chef scene veers suddenly into marine horror territory.

But I can still see the Ariel that my young self looked up to. The fearless mermaid who said what she wanted and went after it. Who stood up to her father. Who wore purple shells on her boobs and bared her belly and no one tried to cover her up. For all these reasons, Ariel is still special to me.

When to Abandon a Book

For a bibliophile, the number of books I read a year is relatively modest averaging somewhere in the 45-60 bpy (books per year) range. But the number of books I’ve started and abandoned in a year often rival the books I’ve finished. Sometimes by a ratio of 1:3. Many articles about reading more include a bullet point to the effect of stop reading books that don’t work for you. Way ahead of them.

Before the advent of Goodreads I kept a small notebook for listing all of my books-to-be-read. As I watched that list expand and contract over time, it became necessary to abandon books that did not draw me back to them to find out who did it, if the protagonist would recover, if the secrets of life would be found.

Everyone has their own signatures for boredom or dutifulness. I have tried to power through texts that I find boring out of a sense of duty. Maybe it’s considered a masterpiece, or I want to be able to say I’ve read it, or someone I admire spoke well of it. Do not underestimate peer pressure to read books that don’t fit you. Even worse if you regularly talk to the person who recommended it to you.

It is time to abandon the book when…

You have been avoiding reading because you feel like you have to read THAT book first. Avoidance is a pretty good indicator that you don’t like what you are reading, and you don’t find it compelling. It’s also an indicator that the book is a chore or a punishment. If you feel guilty about reading something else instead of the prize winner, the bestseller, or the masterpiece, then pull the bookmark and move on.

Know first who you are and read accordingly, to paraphrase Epictetus. Have you enjoyed any of the five historical fiction novels that your book club has picked? Do you enjoy biographies that run upwards of 500 pages? Do space battles make you yawn? Does magical realism make you roll your eyes? If you answered yes, then don’t try to talk yourself into finishing something you know you already dislike. I highly recommend branching into new genres, trying new authors, new forms, new subjects, but when you know you have an allergic reaction to certain ideas, characters, or tropes, don’t keep trying them.

You are trying to talk yourself into continuing with a book. When you are enjoying a meal or a movie, you don’t have to talk yourself into staying and finishing it. Same with books. Imagine you are at a restaurant that you thought would be good, but you’re in the middle of the meal and just not sure about how the deconstructed Caprese salad tastes. Would you look up the restaurant’s reviews and see what other diners had to say in order to make a decision about your food in medias res? I don’t know you, but probably not. If you aren’t enjoying the book, and the spell is broken enough that you are talking yourself into sticking with it, you are done with that book for now.

To find out what your own book abandonment signs are pay attention to your self-talk, remember your established likes and dislikes, and notice when you avoid reading. You are the final arbiter of your own taste, and no one needs to waste time reading something that isn’t compelling to them.

For every book you quit because it isn’t working for you, you make room for yourself to discover engrossing worlds, riveting characters, and new favorites.

Groundlessness

I have a warm spot in my heart for the old Looney Tunes cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote, and Roadrunner. The schtick is well-known by this point, but I always enjoyed the Roadrunner and Coyote. As a kid, I imagined being able to run off cliffs and avoid the law of gravity simply by not looking down. I would never have been so silly as to look down like Coyote–he never learns!–and end up plunging into the canyon below.

That’s the image that pops into my head when I think about the concept of groundlessness. Pema Chodron speaks wisely and at length about “the fundamental groundlessness of life” in many of her books. Groundlessness is the idea that the act of living is an ongoing situation of impermanence. Life doesn’t stand still and sometimes the ground gives out beneath you. When that happens, the feelings of uncertainty and upheaval can lead to clinging to old ways and routines.

I’ve struggled with groundlessness, and I don’t think there is anyone, even the freest of free-spirits, who doesn’t struggle with wanting to avoid calamity, danger, or a future that might not turn out the way you wanted. What could be more human than to seek warmth, familiarity, shelter, and safety? But this cozy narrative of what it means to be human leaves out a big piece of our story and our drives.

What could be more human than to seek opportunities and adapt to them? What could be more human than to discover and explore, to try to understand something never seen before, to be open to the unexpected, the uncertain? This is groundlessness in its purest form. It can find us or we can find it, but either way, the loss of certainty is inevitable and repetitive.

I have a theory that the real reason Coyote plummets to the bottom of the canyon when he looks down has nothing to do with seeing where he is. It’s the panic and rush to go back to how it was that causes Coyote to fall and end up as a splat. You will notice that Roadrunner never has this issue, because the bird never panics about where they are in three-dimensional space.

It’s a cartoon. I’m stretching the metaphor to its limit, sure, but it’s not a bad interpretation. Roadrunner speeds over the edge, never looks down, keeps that fuck-you stride, and doesn’t fall. Coyote speeds over the edge, looks down, panics, reverses course, and falls. Over and over again. He doesn’t learn.

But you do. Embracing groundlessness as a natural force in this life is the only way to keep going forward. Keep going forward into the unknown, and sometimes say “Meep! Meep!” just for effect. Y’know, if you feel like it.

What Would You Do If You Were Immortal? That’s What You Should Be Doing Now.

The dinner conversations around my home can vacillate wildly between fart jokes and “What superpower would you pick?” to that’s-what-she-said jokes and questions about who invented money, the violin, or any number of objects. Many times this calls for someone to look up the answer on a phone or smart home device.

Recently, my daughter asked us at dinner, “What three things would you do if you were immortal?”

Unlike some questions (like, “Mom, what was the Cuban missile crisis about?”), I found this one pretty easy to answer without the help of Google.

  1. Learn all the languages.
  2. Travel the planet experiencing people and places.
  3. Write about all those experiences.

Given all the time I could care to imagine, I believed I would choose endless communication, travel, people, and writing. And I felt pretty great about my answers. That is until I compared it to my current mortal life pursuits.

I wasn’t working on any languages, wasn’t initiating travel for myself, wasn’t trying to meet the people around me, wasn’t writing anywhere near my capacity. Where was my sense of adventure? Where were my leaps of faith? Where were my friends? Where was my passport?

Just because I didn’t have the luxury of an immortal life was no reason to squander the pretty amazing handful of decades that I could reasonably expect. By using my limited time for my immortal pursuits, I’m finding that I can achieve moments of timelessness and deep fulfillment. But without the horrendous accusations that I’m a supernatural being.

Now. Excuse me while I practice my French on Duolingo. I’ll need to know how to speak it the next time I’m in Europe.