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)

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.

The Local Park

The local park is a repository of frustrated motherhood, womanhood. I had forgotten the sheer insanity and inanity of preschool childrearing. The whining is endless and boring, a siren call with no allure. A siren call that mothers are compelled to answer for reasons of necessity. Dutifulness is everywhere. Pleasure, less so.

I awaited the start of school as an oasis during the summer. School semesters bring their own challenges and stressors, but it also brings mid-morning October runs, long writing sessions, and cool afternoons. The emotional management of children is not my preferred job. Their boredom tires and infuriates me. These are the moments when I know that I cannot ever go back to homeschooling my children.

These are also the moments when I look at the new-ish mothers with their young children, and I remember how endless those days felt. I remember the way we would sprint through our days, me cramming too much in and not getting enough sleep. My children frequently clinging to my back or in my arms, balanced against one of my hips. The unending story times, potty breaks, food messes, laundry, diaper changes, public and private emotional meltdowns (theirs and mine). And now none of that is my daily life. Everything has changed. Our developmental milestones and daily needs are comparatively alien.

My morning in the local park reminded me that every single boring, exhausting part passes. Every emotional milestone: passes. The sore arms from carrying children, pushing strollers, juggling bags: all of it passes. The mental wear and tear from the constant interruptions, questions, and songs also pass away. And this gives me hope for the things I am currently facing as a parent. The beginnings of puberty, the addictive qualities of screens, balancing technology with real-life interactions, teaching these humans the skills to survive as adults. It will all come together and eventually fall away.

All I can do–all I could ever do–is live in this moment.