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.