Not long ago, one of my students brought me an unusual gift – a Monarch butterfly chrysalis. I was bewildered. I didn’t know that “raising butterflies” was a thing. But I absolutely love gifts, especially something so unique. It was also beautiful – like a piece of jade with tiny gold dots. And it was a low-maintenance pet that you didn’t have to walk or feed.
For what seemed like ages, nothing happened. It just sat on my dining table for a couple of weeks. Then, rather suddenly, it turned from jade green to black. I worried that the butterfly was about to emerge, only to find itself trapped inside my house! A trapped butterfly seemed like a terrible metaphor and an even worse omen. But what if I placed it outside and I missed the moment of its birth? I didn’t have much time to decide what to do, as the very next time I looked, all that remained was a transparent, broken chrysalis fragment, and in its place, hanging perfectly still, was a magnificent Monarch butterfly.
(Oh my god oh my god oh my god. I missed its birth!! And now it’s trapped inside my house!!! It’s going to starve to death!!! Oh my god oh my god oh my god.)
Clearly, I’m not a calm butterfly midwife.
A quick Google search indicated that it needed time to dry its wings before flying, and that could take hours. In case there was still the remote possibility of freedom for my baby, I picked up the jar holding the twig from which it was suspended and very, very, very carefully moved it outside, hoping against hope I wouldn’t dislodge or freak out the little one.
Very very quietly, (can butterflies hear?) I sat down in front of it.
Preparing for what might be hours of wing-drying time, ready to witness my butterfly baby’s First Flight. It was an emotional time, and I sat very still, holding my breath.
Five minutes went by. She just hung there, unmoving.
Hmm, I wonder if she’s even alive. Do I have time for a snack?
And then, without warning, her wings moved a little.
(Oh my god oh my god oh my god. Oh no, my screen is locked. Crap, it’s not set to video. Maybe the right thing to do is just watch this moment, you twit, you don’t have to video it! But what if I need to remember the details?)
I managed to stop fumbling and hit record, she flapped a little more and headed off into my forest.
Just like that, my butterfly baby was gone.
It took me weeks to calm down from that experience. The butterfly, the chrysalis, the transformation, the flight, these events are all part of our collective meaning-making metaphors. Yet, I had never witnessed it before. It was SO MUCH BETTER in real Life. My student was delighted that I loved it all so much and offered to gift me another one, but I declined. It was so good that I never wanted to see it again, fearing I would dilute that singular memory of mystery and wonder. (It made sense in my head).
I’d given birth to a butterfly. I AM a butterfly!
Yet, beautiful as it is, there’s a problem with The Butterfly Metaphor: It suggests a once-off event, one where we live our lives as caterpillars or pupae, in preparation for butterfly-ness, and once that happens, we fly free, off into the forest of Life! As a metaphor, it is powerful and perhaps sits on the edge of our consciousness, reminding us that we are constantly ‘pre-metamorphosis’. The reality is that all of Life is a constant state of metamorphosis and change. We are continually transforming into butterflies and back again into caterpillars. Repeatedly!
I’ve recently experienced one such period. Taking time off from teaching my beloved workshops, I gave in to an inner prompting to allow myself space for what I thought would be an opportunity for travel, creativity and replenishment. I opted to become a caterpillar … or a chrysalis (they’re prettier).
The best-laid plans…
Well, the travel part did happen (New Zealand, you are magnificent), but the other two pieces were hijacked by … Life.
I developed Covid (again) and chickenpox (again). When I recovered, my daughter Mary (who is a slip of a thing) caught a different kind of severe influenza that could kill people (shortly after she recovered from Covid). Along with the high fever, she also developed a severe viral eye infection, the kind that leads to blindness if untreated. I spent much of my time driving the two-hour round trip to her place to help her, praying that she would come through with Life and vision intact. Thankfully, she has.
She’s now headed off to photograph weddings in Europe, adding more fuel to my worry fire, as she hasn’t had enough time to fully recover from all of the above. Yet, I’m so proud of her. International travel (especially from Australia to Europe) is arduous. Shooting weddings is stressful. Carrying camera gear is excruciating. Plus, Mary has already survived many years of life-challenging illness, so this period was rather frightening for her mummy. Alongside the fear, there sat a kind of sweetness that came with witnessing my daughter’s Butterfly Moment, an almost literal one.
This morning I received an “arrived safely” message from her. After a gruelling 24 hours of no sleep, nausea and the passenger seated next to her having to be resuscitated after losing consciousness during the flight, she was safely in a friend’s home. This was the photo she sent me of her friend’s dog. It’s weirdness probably captured how she was feeling, and it gave me a good laugh!
So far, in my own chrysalis period, replenishment and creative outpourings have eluded me. It seems The Fates have deemed otherwise. Instead, I was able to help my daughter through a tough time, and navigate my own experiences with pain and illness. But doing this while on sabbatical has allowed me to notice and sit with the uncomfortable feelings of personal failure and disappointment that always arise with the breakdown in my health. I’ll wager no one has ever scolded themselves into vitality, so I’m slowly learning to break those patterns and try a different way…
Perhaps the butterfly that will emerge this time will fly on the wings of self-compassion and hopefulness!
And on that note… thank you for your lovely comments on my first online exhibition: HOPE. This is its last week, so if you are interested in owning a piece of my art, or are seeking inspiration for your own, (or just curious), CLICK HERE for the HOPE Catalogue. Though it’s not indicated on the catalogue, some of these pieces are now sold, so if you’re interested in something, just email me firstname.lastname@example.org to check if it’s still available and to organise a purchase. I ship to most countries, and delivery is free in Australia. And… you, as my reader, receive 10% off the marked price (til Sunday, Jul 2).
Thank you for being here! I’d love to hear from you, so do say hi in the comments!