Before I embarrass myself, we should establish something: I am really into butterfly metaphors. I couldn’t care less how much they’ve been “done” (as one of my writing teachers told me they were), or that an entire generation of once-girls-now-women have rendered the image cliche through a veritable onslaught of lower back tattoos. A butterfly emerging from a cocoon is one of the best tiny mysteries of the natural world, and there just isn’t anything else quite like it.
Like, did you know that when a caterpillar encapsulates itself in a cocoon, it doesn’t just fall asleep and grow wings over the course of a few days; it literally turns to goo. Its entire body dissolves, including its blood vessels and its brain, and then its cells reassemble themselves according to some ancient biological blueprint, and it is literally reborn a completely different creature — a creature that has spent a significant portion of its life as formless goo. To say that a butterfly changes is an understatement in terms: a butterfly dies and comes back to life. What else is like that? (Besides Jesus. To keep things simple, let's leave Jesus out of the essay.)
If humans were caterpillars, the majority of us would never make it to the butterfly stage. We would overthink the whole cocoon thing. We’d be like, “Actually, I like my life as a caterpillar; I’m just going to stay at my parents’ house a little longer and keep dating my old caterpillar girlfriend forever. I think I’ll pass on the existential transformation; there are too many question marks. I’m good.”
In college, a friend put the Patty Griffin song “When It Don’t Come Easy” on a mix CD for me, and it quickly became my favorite song of all time. Not only does the song have spare-nineties-pop guitar strumming and big Elton John-inspired piano (and also, about two minutes in, a perfectly charming clumsy horn), it’s also got that killer girl-ballad thing going on that destroys anyone who’s into “Gilmore Girls” and Virginia Woolf novels. There’s a lyric in this song I still pull out from time to time, when I need it: “I don’t know nothing except that change will come.” Theoretically, this is a simple conceit. In reality, the inevitability of change — and the lack of control we have over it — is paralyzing.
I didn’t think about that when I started teaching. Since I was essentially a child when I began, I didn’t have a real understanding of the ways in which children change, and how quickly. My own life was the only reference I had, and growing up had seemed slow; the first nine years of my life, for example, lasted eons. I know now that that’s just the nature of new experiences: when you’re young, everything is uncharted, and it takes your brain more energy to record foreign awareness. Because your brain is a little bit stupid, things seem to take longer when they’re new (and subsequently terrifying); people who sky dived for six seconds report that it seems like the fall lasted for entire minutes, and sometimes even hours.
But as you learn to adapt to the events of your own life, time starts to speed up. I didn’t expect the children I taught to grow so quickly. I even remember trying to conceptualize what it would be like for the kids I taught in second grade to be in eighth grade, and it couldn’t logically be done. It was like trying to conceptualize a science fiction trope, like aliens landing on earth, or humans being able to teleport.
Paris, who was 5 when I met her, is twice as big now. She now understands that Katy Perry kind of sucks (Nicki Minaj is good, though), and she wears makeup that didn’t come from the toy section of Walmart. She is also, startlingly, as tall as I am. (I am tall. She is 10. This is disturbing.) I only see Paris every month or so, to take her to see a play or to catch up over a pint of ice cream. Since our visits are so intermittent, the changes in her demeanor seem illogically huge. I hate it.
Paris doesn’t know this, but a drawing she did when she was five completely changed my life. She’d composed this bright red ball of nervy lines with red pastel on black paper, and then she’d said, “This is what I feel like when I’m mad.” This moment was so stupidly profound to me that I have shaped most of my career around it: I wrote an entire curriculum that hypothesizes that abstract art can help kids with PTSD express their emotions. This idea was not mine, it was Paris’. I just borrowed it and capitalized off of it, like the monster I truly am.
Last week, I took 10-year-old Paris to see a play in the sculpture garden. She wore her hair in this beautiful red goddess bun on top of her head and carried a black sequined purse with her to the show. She looked cooler than me and roughly my age, and all of this was a huge mind-fuck. During the intermission, sort of on a whim, I asked her, “Do you remember that drawing you did about being angry?” But of course she didn’t. Even with a vivid description, Paris couldn’t remember ever having used oil pastels in her entire life.
For the last five years, time has been warped between our two lives. More time has passed on Paris’ end than on mine.
I wondered if Paris would feel sad that she had already lost track of so many memories from the past five years. You can’t hold onto them, unless you write them all down, and no one does. And even then, like a photograph perverts a memory, so does a written record. There is not space in your brain for everything that has happened. Things get changed and lost and moved around to fit the parameters of a life. Paris didn’t feel sad. Children are better than adults at being in the life that is here and feeling it for exactly what it is. That is why adults say stupid things to children like, “Enjoy your childhood while you have it.” It is because adults forget to enjoy our own lives while we have them. We are clinging to what we’ve lost.
Nothing is permanent, and that’s scary. We live each day with the uncomfortable knowledge that our relationships might fracture, that the people we love might leave, and that our own lives will eventually end. You cannot make a five-year plan, because the universe works on its own schedule and has no regard for you or what you hope to control. Still, we try to manage things: it gives us a fiction to be distracted by so that the weight of change doesn’t scare us too much.
But the end of your life will come. And when it does, it won’t matter what you controlled or accomplished or held onto; it won’t matter what arguments you won or what vendettas you carried. The best thing you can hope for is to have lived most of your life as a child: charting experiences as new, and staying open and present to the change.
I get that in writing this, I sound a little like a religious zealot. Switch out “God” for “change” and I’m basically there. I don’t really care. I don’t know nothing except that change will come. I want to be able to welcome it. I want to be able to lean into it. I want to be willing to make a cocoon and turn into goo, with some knowledge that letting go of the gears will get me someplace beautiful.