It is a warm sunny day as I skip beside by mother in our backyard. I am four years old, and this is one of my earliest memories. We have matching blue watering cans, only mine is much smaller than hers.
The rose bushes, which beautifully line the concrete patio, are our destination.
We reach my favorite white rose bush and my mother and I give it a drink of water. A group of yellow butterflies, who have been silently sitting between the leaves and thorns of the rose bush, are startled by our laughing and splashing water.
The butterflies quickly emerge from their hiding spots, forming a yellow cloud above the rose bush.
My eyes are transfixed on them, and I follow their movement with amazement. I extend my hand outward in the hopes that maybe I can play with them.
One of the butterflies breaks from the group and circles back, landing softly on my outstretched hand. A mixture of momentary shock is washed away by wonder and joy that now shines forth from my face.
The butterfly wants to be my friend and I am elated!
My mother remains a few feet away, busy pruning and watering, unaware of this enchanting moment I am experiencing. I slowly engage my new friend, mindful not to startle her. I gently touch her wings as she rhythmically opens and closes them.
Picking her up, I now hold both wings together, so we can have a secret eye-to-eye conversation. She tells me the magical experiences of being a butterfly and how much she loves my white rose bush.
Cupping my newfound friend between my hands, I can feel her jump up and down with excitement as I skip around the yard showing her my special hiding places. When I open my hands to bid my butterfly friend goodbye, I am taken aback.
Instead of flying away, she lays motionless in my hand.
My mother can make everything fine, and I run to her, exclaiming, “Make the butterfly fly.” She sees the lifeless butterfly in my palm and calmly says, “I can’t, Joan.”
Undeterred, I demand in a louder voice, “Make the butterfly fly!”
“Joan, I can’t. The butterfly is dead.” I refuse to give in and in a more insistent voice say, “You can Mommy! You can make it fly! It is not dead!”
Realizing I am refusing to accept the death of the butterfly, my mother bluntly replies, “I am sorry, Joan. But there’s nothing I can do.”
With anger like none I had known before I emphatically declare, “She is a perfectly good butterfly. Now, you make her fly!”
My mother again replies, “I can’t make the butterfly fly.”
I stand with my outstretched hand glaring at my mother. I do not understand why the butterfly stopped moving or why my mother will not help. Finally, I put my hand down and the butterfly slides to the concrete, but she does not feel the fall.
With no explanation for what happened, a seething rage rose up in me, mixed with a sense of dread and helplessness. Hugging my little blue watering can to my chest, I defiantly walk away from my mother.
It wasn’t until many decades later, when I began working through the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of my life’s experiences, that I became aware of how much my beliefs and behaviors as an adult were shaped by this seemingly inconsequential moment. For it was there, in this moment, that my future interactions with my mother took root.
If my feelings, concerns, or desires did not coincide with my mother’s, they were never acknowledged. If they were acknowledged, it was through scorn or various forms of ridicule.
What no one knew, until I started to share this story publicly after my first book was published, is that when I find myself trapped in a situation that is untenable, and beyond all help, I will silently utter the code phrase to myself for walking away, which is, “Make the butterfly fly.”
Since realizing this, I have journaled about it. Thanks to that code phrase, I’ve been able to keep my wits about in difficult situations. I know I’m not the only person who has had to walk away to avoid conflict, so I invite you to journal your answers to the following questions.
When you notice a difficult situation arising, what is your reaction? Do you get into a conflict, or do you have a phrase to help you walk away calmly? What is your personal experiences with how you have utilized internal code phrases to remove yourself gracefully and peacefully from troubling circumstances?