The chrysalid dream, grandmother Rosa and the imaginal cells of butterflies

May 29, 2017


There is a theory that says that not every single dream is important. Some dreams, simply recycle the accumulated information of the day, those bits of almost imaterial "matter" coded by images, thoughts, texts, sensorial impressions. I don't agree. Every dream can help us, one way or another.


Tonight I dreamt with Rosa, my beautiful marvellous grandmother, who died when she was 103 years old. But the dream was not a beautiful heart warming one, corresponding to what she was always in my life. In my dream, Grandmother Rosa, was unable to speak or move, she had shrunk to half her size , and to my dismay, was enveloped by a chrysalid. I suffered to see her like that, also because in my childhood and throughout her life, I had been extremely fond of her. My cousin Mimi was the one taking care of her in the dream, and she was telling me how our grandmother was not even able to eat now, not even sardines, a Portuguese dish she had been very fond of. She couldn't talk either, or communicate in any way. In the dream, I was curious to know whether she had any thoughts, and what kind of thoughts would be going through her mind, now that she wasn't able to move, speak, communicate.


My  grandmother Rosa passed away in 2007, when I lived in Sweden. She was a simple soul, kind and generous, who has worked all her life as a farmer, in rural Portugal. I will never forget her candour telling me a story of how she used to abort foetuses on her own, standing up, on the vegetable garden of her property. When she turned 8, she was taken out of school after having lost her mother, to take care of her younger sister. She remained somewhat illiterate, teaching herself to read only as an adult. She married my grandfather, an imposing, violent but also extremely intelligent man, whom I never met. His name is Luis. He travelled to Brazil in his youth, and then came back to marry Rosa and open a grocery. He went to high school as an adult and seeing the value of education, forced all his children to study to get a college degree. All her married life, Rosa was somehow her servant. Their lives, over the course of twentieth century, are the lives of Portuguese rural class who experienced two fascist dictatorships ( one lasting 40 years), two world wars, the colonial war and the opening to democracy in 1974.


My grandmother Rosa maintained throughout her life her childish innocence and warm heart. She was fond of animals and plants, and as a toddler,  I used to follow her everywhere. Here she is with us. I am the kid looking to the side, which came to be my usual distracted posture in pictures, all my life.


The day after the dream, while walking in  South Kensington, I  decided to visit Natural History Museum's butterfly exhibition. I began filming its magnificent butterflies, and suddenly saw the chrysalids of the butterflies. The dream of my grandmother came to my mind. Just like the caterpillars my grandmother too, was wrapped in a chrysalid. 


I recalled the story one friend once told me about the imaginal cells of butterflies. Imaginal cells are the ones that create the incredible process of metamorphosis that occurs when a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, after shedding the old skin of the caterpillar. I love the term  imaginal cells, which stems from imagination, the process of creating new ideas and concepts of things that do not yet exist.  As we all know,  a caterpillar finds an appropriate perch and forms a chrysalis.  Inside the chrysalis the caterpillar, unable to move, actually dissolves into organic goop. Cells, which had been dormant in the caterpillar and which biologists poetically call “Imaginal cells,” begin a process of creating a brand new form and living structure radically different from the one of the caterpillar. At first these Imaginal cells – which contain the blueprint of the butterfly—operate independently as single-cell organisms. They are regarded as threats and are attacked by the caterpillar’s immune system. But they persist, multiply, and connect with each other. The Imaginal cells form clusters and clumps, begin resonating at the same frequency and passing information back and forth until they hit a tipping point. They begin acting not as discrete individual cells but as a multi-cell organism – and a new being, radically different from the caterpillar is born, a butterfly!


With my usual tendency to weave meaning all the time,  I find it profoundly interesting the connection between the butterfly exhibition and the dream of Rosa inside a chrysalid. It connects with my interest in Carl Jung's use of alchemy to explain the psychological process of individuation, the integration of negative and feminine energies within one self. The process is not easy, and the ego fights it, but it leads to the birth of a new being who before has to die, dissolving into a massa confusa, during a bath taken at the alchemical vessel. Again, the process is similar to the one of the caterpillar fighting against the imaginal cells which will catalyse the transformation. 

In my dream. grandmother Rosa is me, my cousin is me, myself is me.


Being educated in the seventies and eighties I was stimulated to become an independent strong woman, not relying on any man. But curiously, I have sometimes fantasized with the dyad of a strong intelligent man or woman with masculine traits, who would heal and protect someone else, usually a small sleeping female. I suspect I am not the only one having this fantasy, which evokes the powerful archetypal narrative of the sleeping beauty that is waiting for the kiss of the prince to awaken. To look bluntly at this part of me, without feeling shame,  is hard, but also quite healing. I am coming to terms with the paradox that by having neglected the receptive energy, the female one, we reinforce the masculine one. On the verge of new times, being sketched by a profound leap in consciousness, we need both energies acknowledged and integrated.


As we explore and expand our consciousness, we heal not only our own patterns, which don't serve us anymore, but the traces of lives and souls of our ancestors, who still have an imprint in our times, through the patterns of consciousness which still prevail.  This is no esoteric rocket science but common sense. When we remind ourselves and realise, in ourselves, what we have inherited from them, we break with those patterns, and move into healthier more liberating situations. With imagination and insight, we redesign the collective consciousness of our world. Step by step, we do some housekeeping, economics, and find/build new ways, new beings/butterflies, evidently quite imperfect butterflies, to inhabit the world.



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