Butterflies vs. Mermaids
In this blog, I'm obsessed with change. “Widow” is a transitional state for a young woman, and the title I still use even though, by the formal definition, I’m now a humdrum, presumably settled married woman.
One unsurprising but loaded image of transformation follows me everywhere: the butterfly. You can pay $8 at a local nature center to hang out in a tent full of imported ones, gorgeous as your favorite painting or poem, and have them land on you like eyelashes. At 5, my daughter knows the story well: The caterpillar builds his own refuge (from, anthropologists alert! his own secretions), where, with patience and thanks to fate, he emerges with fantastical wings and the talent of flight. He hasn’t a care in the world, and he’s beautiful: completely changed.
Ah, metamorphosis, lovely 99 cent word: you can almost hear the music rising.
Visiting a friend with a disability I note how they provide a decorative motif in her independent apartment. I presume the metaphor is freedom from the body: we’re more than our shells, we hold the hope of change. But these creatures of pure color are delicate and tragic, too lovely for our world. When my sister’s young boyfriend died, she collected dozens of butterfly objects. The butterfly seems to leave his body behind, which is also what we say when the soul leaves. Like all dead things, the butterfly is the Christ, one being born holding the promise of another, transcendent, to be fulfilled.
I’m not happy with butterflies, even though they provide such a perfect package for discussing our growth and change through life.
I’ve been using mermaids throughout this blog because (1) they are all over my house and (2) they represent the kind of imaginative world both my daughter and I lived in when I rediscovered parts of myself, feelings of joy, and the ability to find meaning again after Gavin died.
The little bitches also never fit in, half one thing, half another, longing to be whole but different. (Does she fit in under the sea, really, with her mammaries? Does the ocean really accommodate an entire subculture of these beings? Are there different races of mermaids? What bigger fish prey on them?)
In Andersen’s telling, the mermaid gets her wish, losing the tail and finding legs for land, but when she presses her sought-after shoes to the blessed street, the pain is excruciating. Her two feet are stumps of the tail God gave her. (I’m skipping over so many delicious analogies and interpretations to make my point. This post is too long already). In the end, she becomes a creature of neither land nor sea, but air. (I don't think anyone is satisfied by this ending, neither fairytale nor Hollywood.)
Here’s the thing. I’ve put half my life into changing some things in my life that weren’t working. Some might say ditching depression is like getting rid of a tail - - it kept me moving in one environment, but was useless in the adult world. But most of the progress I achieved was leanring to believe that I don’t need to be someone else.
I’d like to fly, or fulfill my destiny. Not yet free, I’m on the path. I’m full of hope (butterfly) and determination (mermaid).
But here I am at BlogHer, a day late, a couple parties short, unprepared, un-made-over, recovering from an injury. Yet I missed last weekend’s National Conference on Widowhood, where I would have found soul sisters galore and cried in honest happiness to see how we all are becoming.
Is it stupid that I often choose not to fit in? I was much happier at my college reunion last year (college was where I first really felt among family) than at my high school reunion last month (where I was cruelly catapulted back into adolescence, feeling a fish out of water). I deserve both comfort zone and challenge.
Which will I find at the Sheraton in Chicago? Will I fly or thunk? Sink or swim?
You know what I’ve learned? I’m the only one who’ll be able to tell, and I’m the only one whose judgment means anything.
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