Did you think this would be a children’s illustrated story of an orange-and-black winged creature, perhaps wearing a little apron, stirring a pot of chowder? No, this is not that tale.

Did you imagine six delicate legs, and a spiral proboscis touching lightly on the surface of a sweet creamy bisque? No, not that either.

Did you visualize dozens of fragile little white wings floating in a dinnertime savory broth? Yuck, that’s the wrong image too!

“Butterfly soup” is my psychospiritual metaphor for the year 2020.

Since March we’ve lived in the midst of cascading plagues of Old Testament proportions: pandemic, civil unrest, wildfires, drought, deaths, hurricanes, flooding, even clouds of locusts. We’ve been secluded in our homes, isolated from friends and cultural activities; we’ve been social distancing, any smiles hidden behind ubiquitous masks.

I was searching for a way to describe how increasingly odd my inner world has felt in this very strange outer world – and up popped the image of a caterpillar. Yellow and black and white stripes encircling its pudgy body, it was hanging upside down from a twig, just entering the process in which nearly every one of its molecules and cells and chromosomes deliquesce into green goop – “butterfly soup.”

This is not a pleasant image. Nor is my current inner feeling pleasant. I’ve had to acknowledge that my life is forever altered. Not for just a few months, but forever. The “new normal” is going to be perpetual uncertainty, and I have no idea how to live with that.

Nor does the caterpillar understand how to live decomposed inside a chrysalis.

At one time I believed the urban legend that if you held a suitably sensitive microphone up to a chrysalis you could hear a sound like a tiny scream from inside. It’s not true, but it’s a satisfying fantasy-sound to accompany the imagined horror of annihilation.

As gross and frightening as “butterfly soup” may be, there are two metaphors of hope that accompany the physiology of the butterfly’s transformation: the first is a few miraculous cells, and the second is milkweed plants.

The poet in me loves that biologists call the caterpillar’s miracle cells “imaginal discs.” Those discs will eventually become wings, legs, antennae – structures that can’t even be imagined by the caterpillar. These cells survive the transformational digestive process, and use the raw materials in the butterfly soup to assemble a butterfly inside the chrysalis. Even the poet in me can’t find a human equivalent for those discs – surely it’s something about my soul, and its gifts, and its sacred contract to incarnate at this time and place. I’m at a loss to find words, though – spiritual “imaginal discs” weren’t in the syllabus as I was earning my masters degree in theology two decades ago! But I’m quite sure they exist, and in this butterfly soup time, that’s a comfort.

The hopeful aspect of milkweed plants in this story is their stolid practicality. Milkweeds – ordinary, perennial roadside plants – are what feed a Monarch caterpillar, somehow preparing it for its transformation. I now have milkweed plants growing in pots on the deck at the back of my house, hoping they will flower next summer to nourish crawling things on their way to becoming flying things.

That’s the correlation of this flower metaphor to today’s soul work: in these butterfly soup days we are all spiritually hungry and debilitated. The scientific name for milkweed honors Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. As in the ancient Greek healing centers (asclepeions), the nourishing and healing of our community depends upon our supporting each other with simple patience, attention, and empathy. We can share our fear and weariness, our confusion, and our dreams. We can do this one-to-one (wearing masks, practicing wise hygiene) or distantly and several at once (through zoom, skype, or whatever new technology is devised next week). In these unprecedented days we must trust the nutrients our presence provides to each other.

For this is, and will continue to be, butterfly soup time. We have the necessary imaginal discs within us. We can learn to provide the spiritual nourishment our community needs. May we grow together, with the simple generosity of weeds, to welcome transformation, and to dream of flight.

18 replies
  1. Allan Ament
    Allan Ament says:

    I love the image of butterfly soup. Transformation is messy; if you don’t crack the egg, an omelet is out of the question — as is the birth of the chick. So thank you for this lovely and provocative post.
    I am also happy to learn someone else is considering 2020 as a reappearance of the Biblical plagues; I’ve been playing with this image since Passover, still waiting for Moses to make an appearance. He had a speech impediment as well, so maybe Biden will play the role. The Promised Land looms beyond the Reed Sea (Since everything travels faster now, I’m willing to consider the pandemic lock-down as the 21st century equivalent of the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. It’s not, I know, but adjustments need to be made.) Thank you once again for sharing your thoughts, your creativity, your imagination, your heart.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      At least during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness the Israelites could hug and kiss each other!

      Thanks, Alan – it’s good to know you, too, are on this journey with our ragtag tribe!

      Reply
  2. Jessica Trenshaw
    Jessica Trenshaw says:

    I am not shocked that you managed to write the exact feelings I had onto the page (and through a metaphor that I could have never imagined!) All my love and air hugs!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Thanks, Jess. I will confess that I did more word-smithing on this post than on almost any previous one. It was a struggle to get the feeling into words, yet not overdo the metaphor. I’m so glad it worked for you! Love, Grandma

      Reply
  3. Claudia Walker
    Claudia Walker says:

    At a very challenging moment in my butterfly soup, Cynthia, you have nourished my soul and delighted my sensibilities about how to keep on keeping on. Yes, I pray my discs are suitable for the kind of transformation I need to meet the days ahead.

    Much love,
    Claudia

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      One of the sad things is that we cannot inhabit butterfly soup together, but must each go through our transformation on our own.

      Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      But there is such a small amount of hope in such a huge amount of soup! And the poor dissolved caterpillar may have no idea that those imaginal discs are hidden in it. I guess when we’re up to our eyeballs in the muck of this time, any stray word of encouragement feels like hope . . .

      Reply
  4. Ann Medlock
    Ann Medlock says:

    In there with you, Cynthia, gestating, wondering, writing. Some hours, when I’m fully present in the work, I’m actually happy. Then a tsunami of sorrow will roll over me and I’m undone. Sending love and comforts… to you over there, in your creative chrysalis.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      The good news, to me, is that the space between one chrysalis and another can miraculously carry the messages of support that we send to each other, even in our soupiest moments.

      Reply
  5. Miriam Raabe
    Miriam Raabe says:

    Cynthia, what a sublime post! My initial reaction, apart from deep appreciation for the imagery, was to think: Way to turn lemons into lemonade! That very mundane observation of mine makes me think of a Hebrew word: ‘le-havdeel.’ It means something like to separate, distinguish, differentiate. I always remember it in the context of the blessing one recites at the end of the Sabbath while lighting the havdalah (same root as le-havdeel) candle to separate the holy from the secular, the Sabbath from the everyday. For the few moments I spent reading your post, I was transported to another, more hopeful, plane of existence. Thank you too much!!!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      This makes me smile . . . glad your mother can still surprise you. I’d hate to become predictable in my old age! I love you.

      Reply

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