Why do we keep stuff? Have you ever been unsure about why you’ve kept an item from your early life, and yet, the idea of parting with it has always seemed wrong?
I have this book….
I think it was my parents’. Copyright 1972. According to Amazon, there are two million copies in print, but I think mine is a first edition. There are no other printings listed on the inside cover.
This morning, I read it again for the first time in decades. It was in a dilapidated box we keep in our storage room labeled “Gretchen – Childhood,” as if the sum total of those formative years can be held within crumbling walls of cardboard.
The things we choose to save reveal something about us. Or about where we were at a moment in time.
I was totally captivated by this book as a child, even though I knew I truly did not understand it.
I remember reading it at age 7 or 8 – thinking it was a pleasant story about how two caterpillars become butterflies.
At age 11 or 12, I was perplexed. See, in the beginning, two caterpillars, Stripe and Yellow, are in love. But after awhile, they stop gazing only at one another and spend some time in a pile of caterpillars climbing over one another to reach something high in the sky. Sometimes caterpillars fall to the ground, and once, a caterpillar who briefly survives the fall whispers a mysterious message about “the top.” This feeds Stripe’s compulsion to climb. So he heads back into the pile, leaving Yellow behind.
By age 16, this book disturbed me. I distinctly remember trying to read it and then putting it aside. Partially because Yellow seemed insecure and too timid. I didn’t like her.
[S]he just couldn’t believe that the top was worth it all asks to get there….
She also felt stupid and embarrassed since she could never put her reasons into words that his kind of logic would accept.
Yet somehow, waiting and not being sure was better than action she couldn’t believe in.
At the same time, in the pile, on dark gray and green pages, Stripe is “determined to get to the top. He especially avoided meeting the eyes of other crawlers. He knew how fatal such contact could be….He disciplined himself neither to feel nor to be distracted.” I didn’t like this guy either. He seemed insensitive. Eventually, he realizes his pile is just one of many and asks, “Something is really wrong but…what else is there?”
I was left confused. What did this all mean? Yellow was floundering and yet the pile was such a dark and dreary place.
Truth be told, I mostly avoided the book in my college years. My earlier experiences had made it subtly threatening. And then there were passages like this one, when Yellow meets another caterpillar who has opted to build a cocoon rather than climb. She has this troubling conversation with him:
How does one become a butterfly?” she asked pensively.
“You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”
“You mean to die?” asked Yellow, remembering the three who fell out of the sky.
“Yes and No,” he answered. “What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away. Isn’t that different from those who die without ever becoming butterflies?”
In my late twenties, when I was newly married and my life happily consisted only of my husband and my work, I could see that Yellow’s decision to become a butterfly was a courageous leap into the unknown. But I was reaching…for something. That’s probably why, when Yellow (as a butterfly) meets Stripe at the top of pile, my heart was not moved like Stripe’s.
Looking into the creature’s eyes he could hardly bear the love he saw there. He felt unworthy. He wanted to change, to make up for all the times he had refused to look at the other.
He tried to tell her what he felt.
He stopped struggling.
The others stared at him as though he were mad.
It can be read as a sweet exchange between lovers. And I think that’s what I thought. But I also had enough maturity to see this book as a metaphor for many of life’s experiences. Good enough, right? I was settled in that knowledge. I figured there was no need for me to think any more about it.
However, deep inside, I kept this book knowing it was not for sentimental reasons. The story had taken me on an emotional ride for my entire life. Nevertheless, it went (in its box) into storage.
That was about fifteen years ago, when I was blind to this story’s application to my life. But as the years passed, both of Stripe’s and Yellow’s feelings described me.
Feelings of unworthiness? Check.
Desire to change? Check.
Shame that holds you back from the tender gaze of Love? Check.
Inability to describe the inner struggle? Check.
In my thirties, I did what Stripe ultimately does. I ignored the voices who told me I was ‘mad’ – some of them internal, some of them not – and climbed down from the pile to build a cocoon. And in the space of submission and quiet, I allowed myself to be led on a process of growth that included letting go of my preconceived notions about success, a confession of all the ways I had done wrong in my life, and a surrender to Perfect Love. Real Love. The Grace from above, freely given. Sacrificial. To the point of death. On a cross.
And somehow, in becoming less, I became more of who I really am. The person I was always meant to be.
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.
– 2 Corinthians 5:17
Hope for the Flowers has a new home: on my shelves of old treasures.