On our last day it Rochester, it finally snowed.
Ben and I talked about that as an intriguing first line of a story. Why finally? They wanted it to snow? Where were they leaving to? And, most pertinently, why were they even in Rochester?
Yes, I wanted it to snow. I could taste it in the air for days beforehand, but it still came as a surprise when I opened the curtains as we prepared to leave the theatre accommodation and saw it, all 3 inches deep and glittering in the early morning sun.
We were leaving for New York, and we were in Rochester for a two-week run of Ben’s show – after a six week run in Milwaukee, and a four week run in Lowell. A long ol’ time on the road.
But that’s not what I’m going to write about, because that’s not my abiding memory of our time spent in Rochester.
One morning, a few days before leaving Rochester, before the snow fell, Ben and I went to the National Museum of Play. The big modern building – a concrete box with a jumble of primary coloured squares like children’s building blocks sticking out of one side – had the intriguing sweeping curved V of glass-walls on one end, obviously a later addition to the museum. As we drove past I saw the brightly lit, verdant green of palms and flowers and foliage within, but only after learning its purpose as a butterfly house did I notice the resemblance to a giant, resting butterfly. Or a vulva, as someone pointed out.
Being a weekday, and being, well, Rochester, there were hardly any children in the museum, let alone in the butterfly house. We entered with our guide, a young man in a wheelchair, who cautioned us to watch where we were stepping, move slowly, and check ourselves in the mirrored exit room for any stowaways.
The air hit us like something solid, warm and earthy, the fragrance of wet soil and growing things. And there they were: butterflies of all shapes and sizes, countless, fluttering and flickering and swooping throughout the huge glass room.
Tucked away in a far corner was a glass-fronted cabinet, showing lines and lines of chrysalides, brown and angular like the dried-up leaves of winter. I stood and stared at them until my eyes pricked and stung, the odd twitch and shiver, momentary, sporadic, of the full chrysalis mesmerising me.
Amongst those rows in Rochester were a few open, empty chrysalids, and underneath them a few bedraggled butterflies. Lying on the concrete floor of the case, newly-hatched, newly-bewinged and beautiful and be-butterflied. They lay there exhausted and crumpled, worn-out by the very process of becoming who and what they were supposed to be.
But is that the wrong way to look at it? Are the butterflies any more valid a life-form than the caterpillars they were before? Because they’re more beautiful? Why don’t we regard the caterpillar phase as anything but an interim, an ugly way-station between birth and butterfly?
Does the butterfly, that one lying motionless beneath its chrysalis know that it’s a butterfly now? Does it remember being a caterpillar? Does it have any comprehension of the massive, miraculous change it has undergone? Perhaps that’s why it lies there, looking almost dead. Perhaps it is too much to fit into its tiny butterfly brain, perhaps it needs time to process what it is now, the new life before it.
For fuck’s sake, it can fly now! It is no longer earth-bound! Does it know that? How can it know that?!
And how does it take that first leap, that first unfurling of wings? How does it know that they will catch and hold and carry it through the air?
All I know is that I sympathised with those brand new butterflies, dazed and reeling beneath their now empty chrysalids. My life before – my caterpillar life – was good. It was just as valid, just as important. My job, my friends, the person I was.
Either way, meeting Ben was the catalyst that began a transformation in me, for better or worse, for caterpillar or butterfly. And it’s hard. Transformation implies something done to you, somehow (or at least it does to me). The fairy godmother transforms Cinderella into the princess. She doesn’t do it herself.
Well, I did this for myself. I am still doing it.
So, perhaps transformation is not the right word. Perhaps I am still the caterpillar, and that’s alright. I’m just a caterpillar in a whole new town. And I’m having to learn the rules all over again because many of the markers in my life have changed, or simply disappeared.
In the past few years I had slowly come to a place where I felt more accepting of myself than I ever had before. I thought I was really there – that I knew myself, and liked who and what I was.
Since making this move to America I feel like a different person, and with that comes the process of re-learning, of re-liking myself again. If people have the capacity to change throughout their lives, and if, in fact, the vagaries of life and circumstance make that change a given, perhaps coming to that acceptance within yourself is not a one-time thing. Perhaps it is a continual process. Perhaps we are caterpillar and chrysalis and butterfly, over and over again, our whole lives.
The butterflies that fluttered around that room didn’t know they were in Rochester, a small city not quite as far north as you can get in New York State, but on the shores of Lake Ontario, with Canada across the water. There were plants and warm air, flowers and fruit and pools of sticky sugar left for them. This was butterfly nirvana, free from all the predators of the wild.
And that’s how I felt too, setting foot inside, surrounded by the warm air of the tropics and the fragile butterflies like brightly coloured scraps of paper blown about on non-existent breezes, thermaling about my head. It hit me as suddenly as that warm air – how utterly and terrifyingly beautiful the things life gives us can sometimes be, how fragile.
But Nature is not an aesthete. By pure quirk of evolution, of practicality or chance, it can sometimes throw up aesthetic perfection. But as far as Nature is concerned the drab brown of a caterpillar is entirely as important, as necessary, as the glittering shock of a butterfly.