The Chrysalis

Today H and I spent the afternoon outside, absolutely flattened by the fact that the daffodils are in bloom. We inspected each flower, looking at the tiny fuzzy pollen inside, smelling the sweet smell of warmer weather. We dutifully counted every bud, looking everywhere for signs that more was on its way.

Spring and fall are my favorite seasons—the transitions. The times between one thing and the next thing. The beginning of something and the end of something else.

Right now, I’m in a transitional time of my life. Only I’m not sure exactly which parts of my life are ending and which are beginning. I’m not always sure what’s a sign of new growth and what will ultimately need to be pruned away.

It’s not as pleasant as springtime, however.

Allow me to jump around. I got my second DNA test results back. The short answer? I’m very British. Like, extremely British. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 86%. Native Brits are usually genetically in the 60s. When I got the first test results back last summer, I remember lying next to the pool while H and Jesse played in the water—and I looked at my legs, pale as ever, and thought, Well that makes sense. When I was a teenager, my aunt once remarked that I was the palest Floridian she’d ever seen. I was probably also the most British Floridian she’d ever seen.

I keep asking myself why it matters so much to me. I wrote about that last July. Here is another piece of the puzzle: I want to know who I am because I am right now rewriting who I am. Or rediscovering. Or discovering. I don’t know which. Everything about my life is up for review, and I’m grasping at anything that could give me an idea of what’s in my core. What is in my bones, what’s been written in the code of my being. I want to know who I should be.

My great-grandfather—my mother’s grandfather—came here from England. He worked under the West Virginia mountains until a slate fall crushed him to death in front of his son. My grandmother was four, and her mother was pregnant with her youngest sister. Six years later began the Great Depression, and my grandmother would walk home from school and peel bark off the trees to chew on and dull the hunger pains.

My dad’s mother basically raised her younger siblings and kept the family together while her father beat her mother. People have described my grandmother as “a hard woman” or “tough as nails,” and it’s true. She was a tank of a person, surviving more than her share of hardness, always making something out of nothing, so very poor so much of the time.

Once, as my grandfather was nearing the end of his life, he told my grandmother he thought she’d get a new husband after he was gone. She laughed and said, “Glen are you crazy?”

My grandfather replied, “If it was you that passed, I’d have to get another woman. I couldn’t do nothing for myself.”

“I can manage my own,” she said. “I don’t need no man.”

And it’s true. She really didn’t. Neither of my grandmothers remarried after their husbands passed away, and though I know they had loved their husbands, they carried on for decades without them, and it was hard to tell any difference.

That’s my favorite story of my grandmother. I cling to it, repeat it to myself. It makes me smile. It makes me proud.

It gives me hope.

Because there are many days I feel a million miles away from the strength of my grandmothers.

But looking into my DNA results, combing through my family tree, it brings me a sort of strength that I need so desperately right now. Because their blood runs in my veins, and I am carrying them with me everywhere I go.

Another story: about butterflies. You know when you’re a kid and you learn about butterflies, and it’s all very adorable and precious, all that talk about how bulbous little caterpillars—unremarkable, boring—take a good long nap and are transformed (magic!) into fluttering, delicate, darling creatures, loved by all. The moral of the story? If you don’t like yourself, it’s okay, you might fall asleep and wake up someone totally different. And then you’ll be lovable.

Okay, I don’t think that was the intended message.

The ugly duckling too. Go your whole childhood not fitting in, but it’s okay, because one day you might grow into something that people admire.

You might be loved one day—if you change completely, and if you become something totally different.

Or! Here’s the one we’re allowed to openly talk about, because it’s a lot more hopeful. When you go through some major change, we talk about metamorphosis, we talk about becoming, we talk about how we’ll spread our wings and take flight. There’s a hope, a beautiful image there.

But what no one tells you is that this process is brutal to the caterpillar.

It’s not like the caterpillar just grows wings.

While cocooned, the caterpillar is broken down—literally, the caterpillar is digested into a soup, a messy gooey post-caterpillar, pre-butterfly substance, and from that soup emerges the new creature that will become the poster child for all things pretty and optimistic. Not only does the caterpillar suffer from being the perpetual “before” picture, but it is also dismantledto make way for the butterfly.

The last few years of my life has been this process. This dismantling. It’s incredibly painful. My marriage, my relationships, my friendships, my self-image, my career, my church, my everything. Nothing hasn’t been touched by this process of metamorphosis. And I’m still in the middle, wondering what’s going to come out of the cocoon at the end of this.

It doesn’t always work out so well. The Atlas moth spends about a month as a caterpillar, then three weeks in a cocoon, and when it emerges, large and beautiful and soft, it enters its new life without a mouth. Without a mouth. It lives for about a week, slowly starving to death.

And I wonder, does it ever regret it? Does it miss being a caterpillar? Does it curse itself for that cocoon?

Of course it doesn’t. It plays out the role written for it.

I’m not sure whether we have a script or not. It’s not popular to question free will, but I do. I question it.

The caterpillar was always going to be a butterfly, the parts were always inside it—from the caterpillar’s birth, it carried inside its body little “imaginal discs” that will eventually become the butterfly’s eyes, its wings, its legs. The butterfly was always inside the caterpillar. But is the caterpillar in the butterfly? Where has the caterpillar gone?

All this to say, these DNA tests. I want to know what’s inside me. I want to know the trajectory. I won’t know the trajectory until the end, of course. But still I grasp for it. What would my grandmothers tell me to do? What parts of my life would they say to discard, what parts to keep? What parts of me are butterfly? And how much will I miss the caterpillar?

The fact that I am my daughter’s mother is the only thing I return to. It’s the only thing I’m sure I’ll take with me everywhere I go. Until the moment I die, and ever afterward. Somehow, I know she was always with me, and biologically this is true—the egg that became her was formed in me when I was a fetus in my mother’s womb. I’ve never been me without part of her.

But everything else?

I don’t know.  

And springtime—the weather is warming, and it fills me with hope and I smile at the sun and H and I throw off our shoes and we exclaim over the daffodils. But I know it’s fleeting, that the cold will snap back again. And winter always comes back, no matter how many springs, no matter how many summers. Nothing to do but keep going forward, walk into the spring knowing the warmth will end, and walk into the winter, knowing it too is temporary, build my chrysalis and hope that when I pull myself out of this, I’ll love what I’ve become.

Erin BondComment