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Looking for Butterflies

            Sometime in the midst of prepping for Mom’s hip surgery, Duolingo announced that I was in the running for the semifinals, of something. I spend some time every day on Duolingo, practicing my Hebrew and French, learning Spanish or German or Yiddish. I’m sure that part of my language learning adventure has been about wanting to feel smart and impressive, but first and foremost I’m fascinated by what languages can teach us about who we are and how we understand ourselves. I don’t practice each language every day, some days I do a little of a few different languages, some days I do a deep dive into one of the languages, sometimes I just do enough to keep my streak alive for another day.

            But then there was this tournament. It wasn’t hard to get into the semifinals: I just had to do the same number of lessons I usually do every day. And even getting into the finals didn’t take much extra effort. But once I was in the finals I started to feel pressure to spend hours each day earning points, by studying old lessons and learning new ones. By then, Mom was home from the hospital, and struggling. I was basically on call 24/7 to make sure she took the right medications, at the right times, and had enough to drink and food, if she could stand to eat, and I was also taking care of the dogs and the apartment and the laundry and the shopping.

“But we’re so easy!”

            And, at first, the extra time spent on Duolingo was a relief, a chance to think about something other than life and death and pain and all of the ways I was failing my mom, and all of the ways I was failing in life overall. I won eighty points with one lesson – I must be a genius!!! But as the week of the finals went on, and the pressure grew, I was on my cellphone so much that it kept running out of power. I usually don’t notice how much battery is left on my phone, I just put it on its charger when I go to sleep and it takes care of itself, but now it needed to be charged multiple times a day. I was doing Yiddish lessons in between trips to the laundry room, and Spanish lessons while the tea was steeping, and French and German when I had free time and would normally be trying to write, or read. Every time I saw my name fall down to, say, twentieth place, when only the top fifteen would win, I felt like a failure. I had to push harder, do more, and win! I didn’t even know what I might win if I made it into the top fifteen, but it said that the top fifteen would be winners and I wanted to be a winner!

“I’m already a winner.”

            The dogs handled the early days of Mom’s recovery really well, thank God. Ellie was her usual sweet self, sleeping on the floor of Mom’s room, sending good vibes throughout the day and night, and knowing to come to me for food or trips and let Mom rest. Even Cricket did better than I had expected. She (mostly) listened when she was told to stay off Mom’s lap, or away from her feet when she was walking slowly down the hall. There was one bad night, though, when she didn’t listen. I found out in the morning that, using her good leg, Mom had kicked Cricket off the bed, and Cricket flew across the room, losing her tags halfway across the floor (I reattached the tags the next morning, pressing extra hard with the plyers so that at least if she went flying again she’d still have her identification on her).


By the weekend of the Duolingo finals, Mom was starting to feel better, not needing me to be on call as much, and my obsession with my placement in the Duolingo rankings became constant. By midday, Sunday, I was in 16th place, one spot away from the winner’s circle, but the whole thing was becoming tedious and I was starting to hate learning languages, which is not like me at all. The only time I could get any perspective was when my phone ran out of power and I was forced to take a break while it was on its charger. I was still able to walk the dogs, and clean, and cook, and make tea when necessary, so there were a few minutes here and there when I wasn’t on my phone, trying desperately to keep up, but not many.

            By early evening I had made it into thirteenth place and I thought it was safe to take a break to make dinner, and eat dinner, since the competition would be ending at 11 PM. But when I looked at the rankings again, an hour later, I was back down in sixteenth place. I sat with Mom in the living room, supposedly watching TV, but really trying to earn enough points to get back into the winner’s circle. It was about 10:40 PM and I was still about one hundred points from fifteenth place – winner! – when the battery ran out and my phone shut off. I had seen the warnings that I was low on power, twenty percent left, ten percent left, but I was too busy to stop and charge it, and I was sure I had enough to make it through the end of the tournament, and I was wrong.

At 10:40 PM, I knew that even if my phone charged quickly, I’d still be too far behind to make up the points by 11. Each point I earned would be matched, at least, by the guy in fifteenth place, and he would always be at least a hundred points ahead of me. I wasn’t sure if the people ahead of me in the rankings had more free time, more competitive spirit, better strategy, or if they just had Duolingo Plus, the paid version, which makes it much easier to earn a lot of points at once, but I knew I was out.

            So, I finally let go. I put my phone on its charger, and took the dogs out for their last walk of the day, and brushed my teeth, and tried to accept defeat. Some small part of me felt guilty for giving up, telling me I could have switched over to the Duolingo site on my computer and at least tried to earn the last one hundred, two hundred, three hundred points, however unlikely success might be. But I didn’t do that. I just made my overnight oats for breakfast, took my evening meds, and watched the clock as the last few minutes ran out on the Duolingo tournament.

            I was already planning this essay by then – because the extremeness of my behavior around this meaningless tournament worried and intrigued me. I could stand back, finally, and wonder if I was specifically vulnerable to this obsession because of the helplessness of watching Mom struggle to recover from her surgery. Or if maybe there’s something in my brain in general that can’t tell the difference between what’s important and what isn’t important, and I truly believed that winning this tournament could change my life in some significant way.

            Mom had a much better way of distracting herself. For Mother’s Day, before the surgery, when I was searching through Amazon for something Mom might like, I found a butterfly kit. I’d never heard of such a thing, but Mom loved the idea, and then spent half a day looking for the right one (not the one I’d found), and it arrived a few days before the surgery. She set it up in her room, and read diligently through the instructions for how to take care of the caterpillars, and their habitat. Luckily, there wasn’t anything I needed to do for them while Mom was in the hospital, because I was too busy cooking and cleaning and freaking out, to have made sense of more instructions.

            And when Mom came home and was dealing with all of the pain and discomfort of recovery, she watched the caterpillars creating their chrysalises, and she fed them and cared for them, and when the butterflies started to emerge, Mom was starting to feel better, and by the time Mom was ready to start walking outside with the physical therapist, it was time to hang the butterfly habitat outside on a tree, and open the zipper, and let the new butterflies find their way out into the world.

            The metaphor of the whole thing really resonated, for both of us (though Mom was disappointed that the butterflies flew away so quickly after their transformation). The presence of these creatures, transforming in her room, gave her something hopeful to look at every day. Even if she never intended the butterflies to be such a clear metaphor, some unconscious part of her brain knew what she would need and sought it out.

            And, for whatever reason, my mind sought out the Sisyphean task of trying to win a Duolingo tournament I could never win.

            There was such relief when the tournament was finally over, even though I’d ended up right outside of the winner’s circle in sixteenth place. I was able to look away from my phone again and realize that Mom really was feeling better, and moving better, and ready to make her own tea again, the way she actually liked it. And I was finally able to go back to my other obsession: watching endless episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and basking in Jessica Fletcher’s ability to decipher clues and solve murders and believe in herself despite constant criticism. In a way, Jessica Fletcher is the butterfly version of my caterpillar self, and watching her gives me hope that someday I might come out of my chrysalis and really be able to fly.

            At the same time, Cricket started to realize that her Grandma wasn’t in as much danger anymore, and decided to resume her regular habits: including her insistence on sitting on her Grandma’s lap and barking her demands as persistently and loudly as possible. She made it clear, in her own way, that there was more to life than winning a Duolingo tournament, or even watching episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and it would require me to get up and take her and her sister outside to look for the butterflies.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

47 responses »

  1. Your post really resonated with me, Rachel, as I always get obsessed with being the best at a thing online, and it’s so impossible and tedious. I’ve recently deleted all the game apps from my phone because the same thing was happening to me as you saw with Duolingo. SO CLOSE! Just play a little more, and more, and more. It’s never enough. Anyway, I’m glad your mom is feeling better and the doggos are getting the attention they are entitled to, lol. You will fly someday! 🙂

  2. My, this is engaging narrative! You make experiences that we (readers) weren’t there for nonetheless so visceral. And the inner narrative is compelling, too. I’m happy that your mom has gotten better and frankly that the butterflies are free. Ellie is a treat, and Cookie’s back to her demanding self. And you worked hard at learning languages, which is fantastic. And you have been through living metaphors and come out wiser, I believe, on the other side. My father and I watched the adventures of Jessica Fletcher together, one of the things we could do together.

  3. Linda Lee Adams/Lady Quixote

    I felt like I was right there with you as I read this. I can relate to so much. Except for the languages, I am mono lingual, lol. But taking care of indoor dogs, while obsessed with winning an intellectual pursuit, and having the sole responsibility for around the clock care of an aging loved one who has recently had major surgery and Must Not Fall or have a dog sit on their lap… YES! I also loved the Murder She Wrote series, although I haven’t watched it in years.

    Whew, reading this was so real!

  4. I was at the edge of my seat reading the Duolingo narrative. At least the competition provided plenty of impetus to sharpen your language skills. Having some sort of external motivation is important when learning new skills. On the butterflies kit, I’ve never heard of such a thing until now. This is something I now need.

  5. I’m sorry your dog got kicked out of bed. Hope the dust settles soon and that everything goes back to normal.

  6. Undone by a flat battery. You made such a valiant effort. Good to know your mother is on the mend.

  7. I found myself willing you to win

  8. I really enjoyed reading this. You may have not won the competition. But you are a winner to all of us and I am sure your Mum =D And especially the doggos, lol

  9. I related so much to your teeth post, having similar issues. I have a lot of health issues as well and share a home with my elderly mom. I also recently was looking at the butterfly kits as part of my research into picking a company to get butterflies from next month for my son’s celebration of life. I really enjoy reading your posts with dog comments and seeing how you handle the challenges that come your way.

  10. You’re a winner, Rachel—Duolingo be damned. And your mom is too: So glad she’s on the mend, and the world has more much-needed butterflies!

  11. For your next Sisyphean task you can charge and use your phone at the same time. 😉

  12. Lots of transformation going on the past several weeks in your home! It all sounds positive so good for you and yours. I believe competition to be very healthy and it’s good to challenge one’s self in a variety of ways. The process is what’s important not necessarily winning. But, yeah, making it into that winners circle would have been sweet! 😉

  13. You ARE certainly smart and impressive! Languages baffle me, and I enjoyed your perspective on languages and everything else in your world. Rachel, you have such a bright sense of humour no matter what challenges you and your family face.

  14. Congratulations on your 16th place, particularly given everything else that was going on at the same time. I’d say that was a result.

  15. You are a winner for juggling all that was going on in your life and learning enough language to finish 16th out of the many others in the competition, most likely without so many other responsibilities during the contest timeframe.

  16. I’m right there with you, Rachel. I have games I have to delete because I get so obsessed with them. I do enjoy them so I usually download them again after some time and enjoy them until I become obsessed … again. Lol I’m so glad your mom is doing well. I’ve never seen the butterfly kits before. How unique!

  17. Rachel, I love the idea of giving a butterfly kit to someone who will be facing a lengthy recovery from surgery. Years ago, my oldest was given a butterfly kit as a birthday gift and it left such a lasting impression on her. The butterflies were Painted Ladies and every seasons since we released them we’ve seen one or more flitting around our flower garden. I like to think that its another generation come back to say hello. Hopefully you’re Mom will see her type of butterflies flitting around the gardens where you live for many seasons to come.

  18. i love this post, you write beautifully. surprisingly, i recently found myself in the exact same situation of being caught up in duolingo’s addicting league competitions as well! what perfect timing!

  19. Glad to hear your mom is doing well, the butterflies are a great idea, just perfect!

  20. Thank you for sharing! I think it is great you are learning so many new languages. What a benefit that will be to communicate with more people. Congratulations on your 16th place!

  21. It’s amazing you took time to write in this blog with all your distractions. On another topic, to what extent has Duolingo helped you communicate successfully with others in another language?At times, I jut feel like I am “spinning my wheels doing their exercises.

  22. Praise the Lord for your mom’s improvement. So happy for her – and for you! I love “Murder, She Wrote.” I could watch it endlessly if I had enough time!

  23. I really enjoyed this, Rachel. Great writing with lots of honesty, heart, and humor! The way you include the doggies with just the right captions always tickles me, too. 😀

  24. This was a good read. Phew! talk about having a lot on one’s plate! Caring for your Mom, Duolingo (never heard of that) and dogs.. I can just see the dog flying off the bed. I am waiting for knee surgery and can relate to your Mom, and hope she is still recovering well


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