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Beauty Sleep and Butterfly Slime

It's as gorgeously gruesome as a Grimm's fairy tale: In order to transform from a chubby grub to a thing of winged glory, a butterfly must seal itself off from the world, dissolve in its own hungry juices, and let "sleeping cells" take over the slow process of building a butterfly out of a soup of primordial slime. The caterpillar must come undone for the butterfly to grow in its place.

I sure feel like I've turned into a slug of slime over the past year--but I trust that this response to a global pandemic is somehow natural and temporary and adaptive in the long run. I hope it's not just preserving me but changing me for the better. And I hope the same is true for our world as a whole.

At the beginning of the crisis, I felt almost thrilled. Suddenly all my anxiety issues and low-key prepping tendencies became useful and rational. I had this sense of everything in my life leading to this one moment, when I abruptly felt like the sanest, most well-adjusted person in the whole world! Others panicked and leaned on me for support and advice, which I happily gave. Meanwhile, I eagerly spun my cocoon, thinking, like many people, that this thing would last a couple weeks, a month max, and then boy would we all learn our lessons about conservation and respect for nature and compassion for other human beings and... boy, that is not what happened. 

As the silence and darkness and dread inside myself slowly replaced my initial sense of purpose, I found myself responding to stimuli in new and unfamiliar ways. Before the pandemic--and before the rise of the Great Cheeto--I was a sensitive, expressive young person. I was like Mary Ann Vecchio (the girl in the Kent State Massacre photo), easily shocked by injustices and outrages and quick to throw myself into trying to help or at least grieve loudly and draw attention to what others didn't seem to be taking seriously enough. I started to change after the Orange One got elected and I realized that I didn't understand the battle for the soul of my country as well as I thought I did. I became quieter, unsure. I shut up and listened more. I studied and read articles and books voraciously. I got involved with new movements that seemed better informed about the problems than I was, only to witness such ugly infighting, backstabbing, and jockeying for the spotlight of hero worship that I became more confused than ever about whom to trust and support.

And then there was the pandemic.

After it became clear that Covid-19 was going to be a whole lot bigger than a spring fling, I couldn't stop checking the news, but whenever I saw or heard new information about coronavirus or climate change or America's endemic violence and hatred and addiction and racial trauma, my eyelids would start to droop.

Just like that, involuntarily. A sleepiness would overtake me. I felt like a computer dropping into sleep mode, the effect was so uniformly swift and firm each time. An emergency switch thrown.

It still happens sometimes, and I have learned to relax into it. The past year has accelerated my long psychological work of untangling my self-worth from productivity and from the ability to think up a quick answer to every question. It has been a long, slow, forced restart, a long time coming.

Down the road from my house, someone has spray-painted giant words on their garage door that say "Y'ALL NEED JESUS." I think that speaks to us all. I believe that the whole world is, together and also each of us alone, going through what is known as a come-to-Jesus moment.

My stunned silence, my long retreat from engaging with almost anyone outside of my immediate family more than is absolutely necessary, probably looks like paralysis from the outside. Or depression. It could easily be mistaken for giving up, for despair. But it's not. It doesn't feel that way from the inside. Sometimes I'm sad, yes, extremely sad. And sometimes I'm very, very sleepy. But I've been depressed before, and this feels different. I am listening, absorbing, resting, transforming. I am digesting and developing a new mental toolbox, a set of parts I didn't have before.

It reminds me, in some ways, of the last big change I went through that felt like being smashed into bits and reassembled into something entirely new and more integrated into the messy flow of all humanity: motherhood. I know that becoming a parent works and feels different for everyone who does it, but for me, it was a drastic and messy transformation. I felt crushed by childbirth, both physically and mentally. It was a confusing, frightening time when I felt possessed and out of control, when I changed from a truly helpless pile of broken components into a wolflike, bearlike, instinct-driven wild woman ready to burn the whole world down for one the tiny blob of new life I had produced and yet emotionally fragile, ready to cry over every little thing, every sappy TV commercial. I wasn't my old self anymore, and after the initial shock, I didn't care. My priorities, interests, tastes, values, daily habits, skills, and talents--in short, most of the things Americans consider to make up their personal identity--were scrambled, rearranged, sometimes hastily replaced. Those foreign languages I'd learned? My favorite mathematical equations? Gone, like I'd sustained a traumatic head injury. But then I became fluent in baby-noise virtually overnight. My hands turned into accurate thermometers. My small, barely-there breasts swelled into fountains of life that made a child grow at four times the usual rate. My mom-brain stormed with weird, wild images and nightmarish fantasies that I poured into the writing of an epic historical novel.

I was warned, before having a baby, not to "lose myself." But I laughed off that advice. I wanted to be changed. I didn't want to fight it. I didn't feel lost. I felt grounded and reconstructed and repurposed in a way that was heavy but satisfying. The meats and gravies of my body took over even more dramatically than they had done in puberty and leveled me up into the bestial, tender, ferocious thing that answered to the new name "Mama." And it felt so right.

I did things and I knew things without understanding how I could do or know them. I knew not in my logical mind but carnally, beyond the Biblical sense, deeper and earthier than that. I am reminded of the Potawatomi word puhpowee, which I have learned from Robin Wall Kimmerer means "the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight." The naming of an intact mystery, a known, experienced process that does not have to be understood in scientific detail in order to be accepted with gratitude and respect.

Now my daughter is embarking upon the transition from young childhood to adolescence, and I am no longer that leaky, wrathful, warm, sloppy were-woman who went stupid with mom-brain while occasionally speaking in the voice of an oracle, a voice that seemed to rise up into my body from the earth, when I needed to ask for help or stand up for myself or my family.

I am, in some ways, more like my younger self again, but not exactly. I have integrated and grown through early motherhood. Some parts of the old me come back when I need them. Sometimes I sprout new traits that are just as authentically me as traits I have grown out of. The process of changing through motherhood has not always made sense to me or felt like progress, but I did learn to trust and respect it. And having gone through that gives me hope that the sleepy, slimy slop of my pandemic brain will give way to greater maturity and transformation once again.

A pandemic is a natural thing to go through, like maturing, aging, and loss, but it doesn't feel that way because it only happens about once in a human lifespan and it happens to everyone at once, no matter our age or stage in life. By the time the next one comes around, the previous one is just slipping away from all living human memory. It catches us unawares, at a loss for mentors who have gone through this before us.

But I am not afraid that I will get stuck in my current adaptations and limitations. Right now, as the mother of an unvaccinated child in the middle of a pandemic, I cannot take joy in reckless "adventure" any more than I could take joy in stifling caution when I was a furiously curious young adult pulling against my own mother's fears. But I do not expect that I will harden into a lump inside of the cocoon I am not yet ready to leave behind. I trust my ability to digest, integrate, and emerge, changed, at the right time.

I don't know who I'll be when I shake off the ooze of this pandemic, but I feel the ancient wisdom in my hormones and telomeres, spells cast by forgotten ancestors and the natural rhythms of life that are bigger than a person, a family, a civilization, or a species. 

I try to be grateful for every chance I get to grow and change, because we don't all get the same number of opportunities. We don't always make it through. We don't always change for the better. Life is stuffed with tragedies and twists. A pandemic is a terrible thing, a senseless killer, a disaster. We humans have many big problems we need to work together at changing, and the pandemic has made broad social changes both more urgent and more possible. I feel sleepy and slow at the thought of it all, and maybe that's for the best. A good, solid rest always helps me to recalibrate. The world is in chaos right now, and all we know for sure is that life will never be the same again, and we will need to be different people in the coming years, flexible and open-minded people who can develop new habits and stronger values and more mindful lifestyles, if we are to survive and thrive in a new era of rapid, driven change.

Paradoxically, sometimes a slowdown or a long retreat are what we need to jump-start rapid change. So right now, while we still can, we should take every chance to get our beauty sleep and let our bodies hold us down through the dumb, slow work of healing and transformation. Becoming a butterfly is not guaranteed, but there are no shortcuts either, and there is no option to stay a caterpillar forever. I don't know if it will all work out in the end, but we won't get to a better place any surer or faster by fighting ourselves or resisting change.

So rest well, beauties. Those of us who rise will have a long journey ahead of us, and we'll need to undergo profound personal change to soar in the new world that is becoming.


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