Elementary school teachers are typically creative, caring, and committed to using every crayon in the box to help ensure that their young pupils learn the basics of reading, math, English, and science. My friend, Fifi, is that teacher you always remember – the one who crawls around on the floor with the blocks, sings valiantly off-key, and dresses up like the Cat in the Hat when it’s Dr. Seuss week at school. Though she has no children of her own, she’s the kind of teacher you pray your children will have in school. How I ended up as her friend has more to do with the luck of our college’s random roommate lottery than it does with what we had in common when we met, but our friendship has lasted through sickness and health, richer and poorer, good times and bad – you know, now that I think of it – our friendship has actually lasted longer than our first marriages did. Despite the mistakes we’ve each made and transformations we’ve each gone through – and there have been some doozies – the friendship has survived. I would like to think that’s because we’ve learned from each metamorphosis – good and bad, and I can’t think of anyone who could convince me to spend an entire afternoon chasing butterflies with red plastic SOLO® party cups – except her.
Monarch butterflies only live for a couple of weeks – six if they’re really lucky. But before they get to the part where they are delicate and breathtakingly exquisite winged creatures that truly float one step ahead of the wind and feed on the most beautiful flowers of the fields, they have a bit of a journey. Usually that journey doesn’t involve people, but sometimes we foolish and bossy humans can’t let anything happen on its own, and sometimes, a teacher with good intentions gets involved.
For most of the world, spring is the season of new love, new life, seeds being sown, and frankly, the end of the academic year, which is a real cause for celebration among elementary school teachers. And while my friend, Fifi, enjoys the summer break as much as every other red-blooded American elementary school teacher, every moment is a teachable moment, so it came as no real surprise to me when I visited her apartment in late spring and found a pretty green chrysalis dangling from a small twig in a plastic container on the kitchen table. It was a Fifi kind of thing, and she explained that she and the neighbor children had found the crawly caterpillar nearly in the field adjacent to the house, and they’d taken great pleasure in gathering enough milkweed (the dinner of choice for the creepy looking larvae) to feed a small army of them. Then, Fifi and the girls had read books on the life cycle of monarch butterflies and watched eagerly for the critter in the plastic container to consume enough milkweed to provide the energy to start its change.
As a woman about to navigate the stormy seas of menopause, there is something to be said for just attaching yourself with silk to a sturdy stem or leaf and taking a long nap until the transformation is over, then delicately floating away on a warm breeze, sipping occasionally from the sweet nectar of the gods, which I’m pretty sure must be the chocolate martini. Suggesting this route of action to Fifi, however, was met with the ‘disappointed teacher’ face and the news that there was actually a problem with this particular pupa. Apparently, though the chrysalis stage is only supposed to last ten days, during which the old body parts of the caterpillar are undergoing a cosmetic surgery that would rival television’sExtreme Makeover, this one had been doing nothing but quite literally hanging out for two full weeks, meaning it was a dead dud.
Before heading out for our morning’s activities, Fifi scooped the chrysalis up matter-of-factly with a paper napkin and tossed it unceremoniously in the trash. She said she’d have to explain to the girls that some pupas just didn’t make it through the chrysalis stage and weren’t meant to emerge from the cocoon and fly into the sunshine. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I experienced a pang of concern that someone who could be so cavalier with one of nature’s greatest miracles, even one that didn’t technically fit the definition, might be as reckless with the feelings of an old friend who might fare like the poor pupa during the much-feared hot flashes and drying up of menopause. Before closing the door, I glanced sadly into the tiny trash can of a single woman who’d, like me, lost at love and might not ever have another chance to fly.
By mid-afternoon, Fifi and I had forgotten about the poor, dead pupa until we returned to the cottage with our arms full of the bounty of the morning’s haul and passed by the pink plastic trash can. Our hearts tried to escape through our throats. There, crumbled and broken in the folds of the wadded paper napkin was a dead monarch butterfly, no doubt crushed as she had tried to emerge from the chrysalis on her way to the short life of celebration she had endured all the other stages to reach. My friend and I looked at one another in guilty horror. That was, perhaps, the moment when I should have made a dash for my car and simply left. But the bonds of friendship are stronger than the delicate silk which holds a chrysalis to a leaf or stick, and they held through sudden showers, strong winds, lost loves, broken dreams, and now the premature tossing of a developmentally-delayed pupa.
And so it was that, instead of dressing in the fine new silk threads we’d purchased while out shopping that morning and heading out for an evening of girl-talk and desperately trying to reclaim the exuberance of our youth, Fifi and I spent the rest of the daylight hours tromping through the fields on the back roads (in case the neighbor children happened to come by and become suspicious or ask to see the ill-fated chrysalis), trying to capture and detain, albeit briefly, an elusive and exquisite monarch butterfly spending its final few weeks of life reaping the benefits of all the struggle and transformation it had endured during the first four stages.
It was as if we were on a mission, suddenly reminded of our own stages of life: the freshness of the egg was the inquisitiveness of the young neighbor children’s minds turned into the persistent and always-hungry caterpillar, gobbling up knowledge and milkweed. Was that us, crawling through some larval stage, maturing and becoming comfortable with the black and yellow and white stripes that both identify and horrify because – after all, who is ever really comfortable with her own body? Or were we lonely, hurt by lost love, and literally living on a string and a prayer and creating a protective cocoon in which to heal and transform.
Stomping through the tall grass that day, armed with red plastic cups and the vulnerability of a child’s faith and future, Fifi and I forgot for a moment about the impending hot flashes and tissue paper skin of transformation that would be our future. We let go of the fear of ending up alone, childless, and useless, and we experienced our own metamorphosis that day. We turned the clock backwards and threw back the hands of time, becoming two young girls believing in the magic of the universe and chasing elusive butterflies. And maybe, just for a minute, because we were focused on something more important than ourselves and our place in the world, we were finally able to spread our wings and fly.