I tend to think of myself as coasting through life. I am, in my mind, always a fascinated observer, but not often an actor. I care, but am never quite in the inner circle of activism or commitment to a cause. That is, until Wednesday, when I found myself clenching my eyes shut and gripping the edge of a table as Carlos pierced my foot with hundreds of inky needles.
When I think back over this year, it feels like five hundred years in one. I keep telling stories and referring to things that happened last year, then remembering that the incident only took place in June, for example. I became an aunt twice, exponentially expanded my global footprint by flying all over the Americas, planned an advocacy encounter, spent wonderful moments laughing with family members from the Yukon to Manitoba, presented at a conference, read multiple books, crossed borders, jigged with Elizabeth May, made presidential banana bread, and danced on a beach. In broad strokes, I have seen some of the most beautiful aspects of humanity: the way we hold babies and open our homes to one another. I have also seen the worst of what we are capable of: policies that end in the morgue. Calvin and Emma fill us with joy; Jorge Montes is still in jail. Personally, not even politically, this year was nuts and I am not surprised that I still feel tired.
I don’t find the commentary, however, of describing 2016 as the WORST. YEAR. EVER. helpful. Certainly, trends worldwide towards increased violence, climate change and populism are worrying. Yet people all over the world continue to work and to struggle for a better world, as they have done for centuries. As Nayyirah Waheed says:
I don’t pay attention to the world Ending. It has ended for me many Times and began again in the morning.
As we envision a 2017 where global events feel even closer to our often sheltered homes, where do we draw from for inspiration, not desperation?
I now have three origami butterflies outlined on my left foot as a permanent reminder to look for the possibilities. These are the facts that must be written with permanent ink: hope, not cynicism; transformation, not helplessness; creativity, not fear; movement, not observation. My body is already covered in scars: motorcycle accidents, blisters, poison ivy and various scrapes and scratches. This time, I am choosing what I want to represent and to follow. I can think of nothing better than remembering the hope of yellow butterflies, not just in Colombia, but everywhere.
In June, we sat on a beautiful porch overlooking fields and ocean on Haiti’s coast. Throughout conversions and silent reading in the pool, there was a constant stream of tiny, white, butterflies migrating past, constant as the soft breeze. A new study out of Britain reveals that there are more migrating insects than birds in the world, sustaining life. “High-altitude aerial migration of insects is enormous,” said entomologist Jason Chapman. “These aerial flows are an unappreciated aspect of terrestrial ecosystems, equivalent to the oceanic movements of plankton which power the oceanic food chains.”
I can think of nothing better to end 2016 than remembering all the people who really hold up our world, from migrants to marchers. Now, more than ever, it is time to reflect on power, legitimacy and crossing borders. Forget everything you think you know about the way the world works. Open up your heart and let the people in.
Even as I write this tribute to people everywhere, I am fully aware of solitude. I am sitting in my house, the week after Christmas, and scrolling past newsfeeds of people with their families and friends, yet here I am, alone. I am slowly learning to be enough for myself, but there are still many moments when I crave the simple act of letting someone else affirm and carry me for a bit. I’m not a hero, and there are many people who are alone all over the world, but sometimes living somewhere else is hard over the holidays.
The butterflies, also tattooed on a friend, therefore, are for me more than anything else: I am invited to participate; I am a part of something greater than just me; I am also in various stages of flight; and transformation includes me too. I do not have to be the outside observer that I often imagine myself to be. I care and this tattoo marks a turning point in the way I am choosing to perceive myself and my work, our work, in 2017.
I leave you with a poem, because Marge Piercy says it best, always.
The Low Road
What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break
your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk, can’t remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can’t stop them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again and they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
AND, a bonus poem. Because it is Christmas:
It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric
It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy
to hang out and prophesy
It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes
It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory
towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C
and buckwheat fields and army camps
It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the
It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice
It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original
and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it
on in the way storytellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no
earth and air and water continue and children
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.
2 comments on “Year of the Butterfly”
Thanks for these words, Anna. I was not familiar with Marge Piercy but this is beautiful!
Thanks, Sarah. You should look up more of her poetry- she has written many more beautiful poems. This one is also a favourite: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/57673