A few summers back, I was surrounded by butterflies.
They were everywhere. On the windshield when we got into the car, hovering in front of the door to the house, filling the park every day I went—I entered a shimmering haze of them and they even began landing on me to rest.
I combed through books, new and old, to figure out what they meant.
One tradition says they’re the souls of the dead.
During this time, I rode my bike into nature preserve a few miles south of me, perched on Lake Michigan, dappled in sunlight where satin-sheened indigo buntings migrate for moments before they shift further along their paths.
I was biking every day, hoping to slow the creep that arthritis had already taken through my hands and feet. I figured if I stayed moving it couldn’t catch up.
All morning in the hot light I’d sweat further along the path of grass, sand, and trees.
As I dismounted from my bike and rounded a corner, there it was: brownish-red, the color of dried blood.
White lace etching the edges of its wings like an old valentine you would find in the basement after many years. There on the ground, then up swiftly, it dipped, rose again, curved, never quite out of sight.
Kneeling down, I kissed the earth. The butterfly hovered, swooped just close enough to observe, then fluttered back to the ground again. The dry mulch as it dug through my jeans as I asked, “What do you mean?”
A voice rang into my mind: “It will be very hard for you.”
I felt struck. It had been hard enough the past few years.
But now I was going to have a new name, a new body, a new start. I was in love—or I thought I was—and that couldn’t be too difficult. I had left the job that made me cry every day, and I was being authentic the best way I could. How could it be very hard for me? I had earned my time in the sun.
Later, I would learn the creature I observed was a mourning cloak butterfly, a species known for its territorial curiosity. As it swayed, silently flitted, and landed again, it explained its meaning.
No butterfly is consciously trying to be what it is. It is not trying harder to fly in one way or another. It cannot choose its coloring or diet or habits. It simply knows to dance in the air. So that’s what it does.
No trying, no struggle other than the daily dance to survive.
It is the color of dried blood, mourning, pain, and love—and still it dances.
And that is beautiful.
“She was perfect,” I wrote in my journal that day. “By her essence, she dances….there was no regret in her darkness. How could she apologize for what she is? It is her nature to be dark and to dance. By that she is beautiful.”
I didn’t yet understand that I was embarking on one of the most difficult journeys of my life. Not only was my body about to be transformed, but I was also going to lose my home and livelihood. I would lose my community and find a new one.
I continued: “But how else would I enter the future, if not with open hands?”
My encounter with the mourning cloak unnerved me.
Soon, I would lose the way I knew of living in the world, and I would have to learn a new method.
I would learn that no matter how difficult things were, I’d dance through it. I must become beautiful no matter the colors I show to the world. By simply being exactly who I am, I could wear a mourning cloak and dance on the air. I could be hurting or happy. Who knows?
Either way, I must be a delight. I was to be delight by dancing through every shift, eddy, predator, loss and gain. I am dancing, and that is who I am. It is my nature.
By that I am beautiful.
I kissed the earth again and was on my way.
Weeks later, someone was reading Humbert Wolfe’s “The First Airman” was on the radio:
There is a secret that the birds are learning
Where the long lanes in heaven have a turning
And no man yet has followed; there these
Laugh hauntingly across our usual seas
I’ll not be mocked by curlews in the sky;
Give me the wings, magician, or I die.
From a young age, I’ve struggled with depression that has, at times, crippled me. The knowledge that I exist in a world that causes pain can be a genuine setback. Add to this the intersectionalities that increase opportunities to experience violence, and the business seems hopeless in the end.
When I reach this dark place, a place where it is too dark to find my foothold, I remember this solid fact: I live in a time where many people I hold dear are under attack. Many of them succumb, either through direct violence or ultimately because of the pain it leaves in its wake. In times like these, I am lucky to remain. I still have a chance to dance through life, if only for a little longer.
As long as I dance, I may not know where I will land, but I do know that every moment is brimming with gratitude for the life I still get to have.
Finding your thankfulness is a lot like finding your wings.
It cannot change the environment you live in, but it can give you a fighting chance. As I fight to rise above the milieu of life in a dangerous world, I rise knowing that this day, though hard, is beautiful. I still have a chance.
Photo via flickr user Aay-Yeah; Originally published in October 2015