Baby Butterflies

Death is one word that comes up. Loss. An end­ing. Pupa. 

These are the words that come to mind when I attempt to char­ac­ter­ize the last twelve months.

This time last Christ­mas, I bought myself a neck­lace. A tiny but­ter­fly pen­dant, that sym­bol­ized a metaphor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of my favorite crea­ture, life and death, meta­mor­pho­sis and trans­for­ma­tion, and the com­ple­tion of my man­u­script titled A Kalei­do­scope of But­ter­flies, a nov­el that I had been writ­ing for three years. What­ev­er the cost, I remem­ber telling myself I deserved a fine piece of jew­el­ry, and reck­on­ing the mon­ey spent would find it’s way back to me in the way of a book deal, a mon­e­tary inher­i­tance from a dead fam­i­ly mem­ber, or anoth­er one of life’s sur­pris­es. I wore the neck­lace reli­gious­ly well into June. Then I lost it. I don’t know what hap­pened to it. When I went to feel for it, it sim­ply wasn’t around my neck any­more. Those things hap­pen sometimes.

I lost an ear­ring on a night out a few weeks ago. 

I lost a pair of $300 san­dals and lat­er found them clenched between my dog’s teeth, the leather straps shred­ded like a tat­tered rag. 

I lost my chil­dren this year. Because I lose things. 

Loss denotes pain that can some­times be debil­i­tat­ing.  But I am learn­ing that pain is just pain. Not good. Not bad. Just part of being a human being. I’ve always been incred­i­bly fas­ci­nat­ed with the art of being human. It’s a cre­ative process, no? I liken liv­ing to writ­ing a sto­ry, or paint­ing a pic­ture, or pos­ing for a series of pho­tographs. The way we wear a life is a fash­ion state­ment, pair­ing gar­ments we find in our clos­ets togeth­er ever so bold­ly, or eccen­tri­cal­ly; the make­up of our years is the fab­ric of our inner and out­er lives. 

My inter­ests have always been twofold. I stud­ied psy­chol­o­gy in under­grad because we become what we think, how we think. We become the sto­ries we tell our­selves about our­selves. But, I stud­ied cre­ative writ­ing in grad school, because at the end of the day, aren’t we nov­els… sagas span­ning decades and gen­er­a­tions of curs­es and bless­ings, blood and tears, fool­ish deci­sions and lessons learned? Sci­ence is the study of what we are. But lit­er­a­ture is the study of who we are. We’re lay­ered, nuanced, a com­pli­cat­ed equa­tion of will, pow­er, grace, and lim­i­ta­tions. Can any­one ever know us? I’m afraid, more often than not, we’re all large­ly misunderstood.

I met a man last month on a cruise ship to the Bahamas. We struck up a con­ver­sa­tion over lunch that last­ed well into din­ner. I love those kind of chance meet­ings, when you hap­pen to sit down next to some­one who tells you a thing or two about your­self. It was an easy con­ver­sa­tion, inti­mate but light­heart­ed. Sin­cere, with sprin­kles of humor. It start­ed because he asked me what I was read­ing. It was a book by Vik­tor Fran­kl on the mean­ing of life and how the writer was able to sur­vive the hor­rors of Auschwitz’s with his mind in tact. Then I told him my own sto­ry, the fires I’ve sur­vived, the places in my own life where I’ve stopped breath­ing, but deter­mined to walk even breath­less through a wilder­ness dense with trees. I told him the things that I’ve lost. He lis­tened intent­ly and then told me I wasn’t special. 

His words were a knife wrapped in gen­tle­ness that sliced through my abdomen and chest cav­i­ty, splay­ing me open like a gut­ted fish. I felt seen, and in a way found out, the sto­ry I had been telling myself and the world for years ripped apart and exam­ined for what it real­ly was, a flim­sy mask at best that char­ac­ter­ized me as a vic­tim in a heart­less world, and a bla­tant lie at worst because none of what I said actu­al­ly meant any­thing. Noth­ing means any­thing, except the mean­ing you assign it. Of course life hap­pens. Things hap­pen. Peo­ple die. We lose things. But to char­ac­ter­ize the loss as some­thing to be endured, a fire to sur­vive, well that is sim­ply the way one is choos­ing to describe it, bad writ­ing in a nov­el where the scribe tells the read­er what to think and how to feel as opposed to lay­ing out the facts and allow­ing them to have their own way of sort­ing through it.

So I’m not spe­cial. Because aren’t all of our lives a con­coc­tion of joy and pain. I write about mine, not as a grit­ty tell-all seek­ing a spot­light, but rather as a way to help oth­ers feel less alone in the world. 

tWitch, a dancer I had become famil­iar with over a decade ago when I used to watch So You Think You Can Dance with my then, five year old twins in the evenings on the couch shov­el­ing lo mein into our mouths, com­plet­ed sui­cide last week. I was shocked, not as if I knew him per­son­al­ly, but because I felt like I did. On screen he was always full of light and pos­i­tiv­i­ty, a smile always plas­tered across his face. He had a wife and three chil­dren and I let that fact sit because I’ve known inti­mate­ly the des­per­a­tion of want­i­ng to end an ago­niz­ing suf­fer­ing. It is a phys­i­cal pain of which any­one who has nev­er expe­ri­enced will nev­er quite under­stand. But for me, in my most dif­fi­cult moments, my sav­ing grace was remem­ber­ing I had grow­ing chil­dren who yet need­ed me.  At this thought, I imag­ined tWitch, and the immense pain he must have been sit­ting in ren­der­ing his own chil­dren not enough to keep him here. 

Writ­ing for me has been a tool I’ve used time and again. It is a rope to which I’ve fas­tened myself to climb out of the dark well that cir­cum­stances in life threw me into. It is a ther­a­py that  has worked won­ders in my life, and one I hope to gift oth­ers in offer­ing them a way out of their own pris­ons of grief, shame, or despair. It is a way to make peace with the lost things. The act of cre­ative writ­ing and oth­er art ther­a­pies can mim­ic the effects of expe­ri­enc­ing lit­er­a­ture, and “trav­el­ing” out­side of one’s imme­di­ate sur­round­ings to explore the elas­tic capa­bil­i­ties of the mind.

In psy­chother­a­py, the com­mon under­stand­ing in cre­ative writ­ing is to sep­a­rate the client’s sto­ry from their deep­er asso­ci­a­tions, and this sep­a­ra­tion allows them to put some dis­tance between their iden­ti­ty and what hap­pened to them. It changes their rela­tion­ship with the events of their life and their thoughts and feel­ings con­nect­ed to it. It is a method of Accep­tance and Com­mit­ment Ther­a­py help­ing clients move from the sto­ries about their lives to the sto­ries in their lives, that is, to move them from a nar­ra­tive that skims the top of their expe­ri­ence to one that unearths it. Fran­kl says, in Man’s Search for Meaning,”…everything can be tak­en from a man but one thing: the last of the human free­doms – to choose one’s atti­tude in any giv­en set of cir­cum­stances, to choose one’s own way.”

Sci­ence tells us what we are. Trau­ma pro­duces some­thing called an icon­ic image, that is, a men­tal pic­ture that is stored deep with­in the brain in the lim­bic sys­tem and is not eas­i­ly avail­able to the cere­bral cor­tex. But nar­ra­tive tells us who we are. It is these icon­ic images that must be accessed if a sto­ry about the trau­ma is to be told. Nar­ra­tive is the chain that links moments togeth­er. It finds clo­sure with the things we’ve lost. Image is what is seen in dreams, what is remem­bered when recall­ing loved ones. It is image that burns itself into the mind, and it is image which can free us from a past that will always have a hold on us until we look straight at it. Image is the lifeblood of the per­son­al essay.

Con­sid­er oat­meal for instance. It is sim­mer­ing in a pot on the stove in my old Mary­land apart­ment that I shared with my then part­ner and new­born twins. I am recov­er­ing from a gru­el­ing birth, cesare­an sec­tion surgery, and in the throes of post­par­tum depres­sion. I am mak­ing break­fast. I turn abrupt­ly, my elbow knock­ing the pot from the stove, and send­ing oat­meal splat­ter all over the white linoleum floor. In this moment, I break. My legs can no longer hold me and I fall with the pot of oat­meal, crum­bling into a ball on the floor, my knees pulled into my chest, thick tears welling in my eyes. Some­how my inabil­i­ty to prop­er­ly make oat­meal meant I was also inad­e­quate as a moth­er or a respectable mem­ber of soci­ety. I was, in essence, an over­all dis­grace of a human being, and maybe I didn’t deserve to live. 

Months lat­er, my then part­ner would share with me a time in the thick of those days when dur­ing a rou­tine vis­it, my obg­yn pulled him to the side, looked him in the eyes with sin­cere con­cern and said, “she needs you.” Hor­mones run amuck after a woman gives birth and for some women, and by some, I mean me, they were espe­cial­ly off kil­ter cre­at­ing a severe chem­i­cal imbal­ance. That cou­pled with finan­cial trou­bles, and the aban­don­ment I felt from those clos­est to me sent me spi­ral­ing into a space and peri­od that I sim­ply refer to now as the time “when I was sick.”

But it got bet­ter. I got bet­ter. The days turned into months, and the months into years, and I found a rhythm with my twins, a dance that made life pleas­ant. I enjoyed rais­ing them, joyrid­ing in my drop top con­vert­ible that I nick­named Diana Ross, their car seats perched in the back. When life evolved and the chil­dren were start­ing preschool, we had anoth­er car, this one with­out a remov­able roof. The old­er twin, in his child­like inno­cence implored me once to “take the top off Mom­my!” He was thor­ough­ly con­fused when I explained this one doesn’t come off. 

We shared movie nights, hud­dled togeth­er on the couch with a bowl of pop­corn and a blan­ket. And long talks in the bath­room, the twins in the tub, soap suds in their hair. Once my baby boy asked me what he was made of. 

“Mom­my, God made me right?”


“But what did he make me out of?”

“Hmm… blood and bones and flesh and skin,” I said play­ful­ly pinch­ing his arm.

He wasn’t sat­is­fied. “But where did he get the stuff to make me?”

He was inquis­i­tive, and that was my favorite thing about him. As they grew, I remem­ber anoth­er apart­ment, anoth­er con­ver­sa­tion, when one of the twins asked me about babies. He was learn­ing about repro­duc­tion in his fourth grade sci­ence class and had read that when sperm meets egg, a baby is con­ceived. “But how would it meet the egg?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it have to trav­el through the air?”

Oh how my heart aches with fond mem­o­ries. Mem­o­ries that now seem so dis­tant, so…out of reach. Chil­dren grow up as they often do and so it is not as if I didn’t see the inevitable coming.What I didn’t expect was that the chil­dren I knew would morph into some­one else entire­ly. They will be 17 soon and this year was rid­dled with ado­les­cence, rebel­lion, and bit­ter argu­ments that I found no shield or com­fort from. I found myself deplet­ed and so I slept. When I awoke, I learned my chil­dren were gone. The rev­e­la­tion remind­ed me of my own ado­les­cent years, and the trou­ble I had with my moth­er. It ignit­ed a ter­ri­ble com­pas­sion , and my heart broke for her, see­ing at once her human­i­ty and sit­ting with her in the loss of a child.

Being a young moth­er, I’ve raised my chil­dren into adult­hood before I’ve reached 40, an age where friends of mine are just begin­ning their jour­ney into par­ent­hood. The caveat is that I’ve jour­neyed alone, feel­ing feel­ings that are hard to explain but can only be known. It is los­ing a per­son, not to death, but to life. It is com­ing to terms with the real­iza­tion that the chil­dren I knew so deeply were gone. That is a pain that feels like death. So I mourned. I prayed. And then I let go. 

Here is a list of some things I’ve lost in my jour­ney through time and space.

  1. My first Jer­sey City apartment 
  2. $500 to a tourist scam artist 
  3. A ceram­ic bowl I made in Cos­ta Rica
  4. A col­lec­tors Monop­oly game at an ex’s apartment 
  5. A pair of leather flip flop san­dals in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ghana.
  6. Two of my teeth (I had them pulled 3 years ago as part of my ortho­don­tic treat­ment. The doc­tor said I wasn’t allowed to keep them when I asked. I wasn’t allowed to keep my own teeth.)
  7. The last voice­mail my dad left me
  8. My dad.

I would say I’ve lost sev­er­al boyfriends, but in truth, they lost me. I nev­er real­ly want­ed them any­way and I don’t say that here sim­ply to save face. I’ve nev­er found a per­son I’ve want­ed to spend the rest of my life with. Notwith­stand­ing, I love the idea of mar­riage. A hap­py mar­riage. Even more, I love the idea of hav­ing a life part­ner who lights my soul on fire. I’m not inter­est­ed in medi­oc­rity. So unless and until I find that, I’m com­fort­able liv­ing life on my own terms, meet­ing peo­ple on my jour­ney who inspire me, and love me, and I them, even if not for for­ev­er. The time being can be magic.

I’m in awe of my moth­er, the way she has fash­ioned a life for her­self, find­ing pure love, where the rest of the world may have thought only dead things lay. She is a spec­ta­cle. Both super­nat­ur­al and human. Her and Christ have that in com­mon. The pos­si­bil­i­ties of my own life excite me, the sup­po­si­tion that my best years are still in front of me, the idea that I haven’t yet met all of the peo­ple who are going to love me, the antic­i­pa­tion of not know­ing how my sto­ry will end. Either way it’s mine. And its beau­ti­ful. And I like to write about beau­ti­ful things.

Kin­caid explained it best. She said “for me, writ­ing isn’t a way of being pub­lic or pri­vate; it’s just a way of being. The process is always full of pain, but I like that. It’s a real­i­ty, and I just accept it as some­thing not to be avoid­ed. This is the life I have. This is the life I write about.” 

Cater­pil­lars crawl into pupa to die. They spin them­selves into their silk cov­er­let. They build their own grave and dan­gle from a twig. Here, they shrink, shed their skin and their insides turn to mush. The grave turns from its fresh green lime col­or to a rust­ed brown resem­bling tree bark. It hard­ens and dries and hangs like evil, burned at the stake. Cater­pil­lars don’t mere­ly sleep. They die in there, and what emerges is anoth­er beast entire­ly. A beau­ti­ful beast, with col­or­ful wings that can take them any­where. They suf­fer in agony first before they learn to fly. True trans­for­ma­tion is like this. It’s not tweak­ing, rear­rang­ing or aug­ment­ing. It’s a com­plete over­haul. Decon­struc­tion. In this, the essence of the worm knows a kind of death and yet knows a kind of life. He dies, and behold, he lives. From the vio­lence, the casu­al­ties, the loss, some­thing bet­ter emerges…something that would have oth­er­wise nev­er existed.