Red State Refugee

The Butterfly and the Water Buffalo

Seladang & Butterfly, 2021 by Thien-Shih Long

So I’m listening to Yes, Please by Amy Poehler (if you haven’t read it, go now.  I’ll wait), and at one point she discussed how she loved being pregnant.  She said she loved it because she was large and took up so much space.  This makes no sense to me whatsoever because as long as I can remember I’ve been trying to take up less space.  I hate that I am so clunky and large.  I’m not even talking fat, which I am, but just my body.  My shoulders are broader than most men.  My feet are huge.  I’m tall and big boned.  Even my head is big with a giant knob of a nose sitting right in the middle of it.  Only thing small?  My eyes.  They are actually a pretty color, but they are hidden behind huge glasses and look like tiny raisins in my gargantuan face.

We saw Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson and I marveled at how lithe and graceful and slight she was.  I may be many things, but lithe, graceful and slight are none of them.  In her floaty yellow chiffon dress she was like a beautiful butterfly dancing through the air.  I on the other hand stomp and snort through the world like a water buffalo.  

It’s not just my body, my personality is big too. I’m loud, I’m passionate, I get heated and talk a lot. I hyperfocus on things and then info dump on anyone who will listen about what I like. For the majority of my life, this has been greeted with a look of horror mixed with disapproval. The nicest thing I’ve ever gotten is a “Settle down”.  It’s like everyone in my life has been singing “Talk less. Smile more” at me. I am in my forties and I still start talking, watch the face of other people and trail off when I perceive no one cares or isn’t listening.  Words come out of my mouth and I have instant buyer’s remorse because I know in my heart I should have stayed quiet.  The bitter irony is I process things by talking.  I think in words and they have to have some place to go. I think that is why I started writing. I have a lot to say, and if I put it on paper the blank page wouldn’t wince and tell me to be more quiet. Now I throw this stuff on the internet and wonder if anyone is reading it. If you are- Hello! And I’m sorry.

When I was small, my best friend in the world was a ballerina. A legit dancing on her tip,tip tippy toes ballerina.  To protect the innocent and the guilty, let’s call her Annalise.  Annalise was a pastel butterfly and a good wind would have snapped her in half.  Even Annalise burped or farted, it was considered cute.  That has never happened to me.  Ever. She had that floating above the fray quality that all good butterflies have and would look at me trying desperately to emulate her floaty superiority with an attitude of ennui that was enviable.  And it wasn’t just her physical body.  It was an attitude of quiet and supposed gentleness.  She landed on life with graceful ladylike feet.  I plowed into every situation with a lack of tact and filter.  Under it she was hard and sharp as Spanish steel, but it was hidden so it seemed to be more accepted.  She was a rapier.  I am the blunt force trauma of a large hammer to the head.  In truth as I look back, I was not a friend.  I was more of a sycophant, which is gross on all kinds of levels. 

Annalise and I eventually went our separate ways, partially because I could not take the quiet contempt anymore.  I found people that could deal with my water buffaloness, but although they weren’t exactly butterflies they were less clunky than me.  I met men, had relationships and all of them came with a caveat.  I love you but.  Academically, I understood this was not my fault.  It’s just as it is.  However, in deep, dark places of my soul I believed that if I were a butterfly in thought and word and deed, it would not be so.

Women where I grew up were trained to be beautiful butterflies of no substance- accessories at best. The hopes and dreams of everyone else were what mattered. There is this strange dichotomy of the older generation enforcing these rules even as they chafed under them. Internalized misogyny is real, y’all. I used to think that was due to contempt, but I think there is an element of concern too.

Older women have seen the world and watched the loud ones get crushed. So instead of an elder water buffalo sitting down and telling a young calf, “Hey, this is OK.  There is a place for you.”, she attempts to shame that tendency out of the younger person. Not because she hates it- well not always there are women who love being ornaments- but because she knows what happens to those who don’t follow the rules.  In some cases, it’s a way to keep the young ones safe. Passion, words, taking up space are all things that are reserved for men. Women are intended to have the role of a Vanna White- pointing to highlight the work of others while looking glamorous- a living picture frame. 

When I was young I tried to change and force tiny wings on my bulk.  It didn’t work. I can only be as I am, and trying to be a butterfly is both comical and painful. So, the only thing I can do is stomp and snort through life.  I’ll crash through walls and then wince and apologize.