12 Jun 2012, Posted by elizabeth in Blog, 20 Comments.
“Happiness is a butterfly which when pursued is just out of grasp… But if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne
After waiting all winter for it to open, Abra and I finally made it to the butterfly pavilion at the Botanic Gardens last week. Abra was too young to appreciate it last year, and since we continue to be bombarded with butterflies, it seemed like the right thing to do. The pavilion is no more than a screen-lined “house” filled with butterflies in every shape, size, and color, in every stage of metamorphosis, which alight on every imaginable surface. I even watched a cobalt butterfly perch on the shoulder of a teenage boy for a number of minutes, the boy tiring of sitting still before the butterfly did. I had raced through the pavilion a few years ago in under five minutes, and honestly, it didn’t leave much of an impression. This time, we meandered over the boardwalk, taking in the butterflies that flocked to the overripe bananas wedged in the “Y” of tree branches, the ones that flitted around fragrant flowers, the ones that tiptoed on the narrow boards beneath our feet.
I foolishly expected Abra to be held in rapt attention – a polite observer – for minutes at a time by the simple sight of these beautiful creatures, mesmerized by their pulsing wings. Instead, she arranged herself on all fours to stalk an orange butterfly down the planks, catching the watchful eye of a volunteer curator. I spent the better part of a half hour redirecting her energies, trying to coax her to “look with her eyes, not her hands,” to not unwittingly crush a butterfly with her excited, but oblivious, feet. Channeling her inner butterfly whisperer, Abra repeatedly tried to stroke the butterfly’s wings within plain sight of this sign:
I always thought this was an urban legend, about human hands inadvertently harming butterflies, but this sign reminded me that butterflies aren’t quite of this world. Like a messenger from a realm beyond human touch, they act as a bridge between these two spheres, reminding us to join the head and the heart, the spirit and the body, reason and intuition. I’m slowly starting to understand why Abra is so attracted to butterflies, and they to her. Both remind me to invite beauty and softness into what can be a hard world, to handle myself gently, to “lighten up.”
I asked a curator near the entrance if, like me, he had noticed this being a particularly prolific year for butterflies. He said it depended on where you lived in the city, that areas with more water were attracting more butterflies than usual, whereas drier areas had hardly seen a single one. (If butterflies are drawn by the life force of water, our yard must be teeming with life.) Abra waited patiently at my knee and, as we talked, the curator suddenly reached into his shirt pocket and opened his fist to reveal a gigantic hissing cockroach, a heavily-armored specimen from the bugarium on the pavilion’s back wall. Had my friend Brie-Anne, a biologist, not been standing next to me I’m sure I would have shrieked, but I put on a brave face. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, Abra quickly grabbed towards his outstretched palm and grasped the bug, which was bigger than her entire hand. With my heart in my throat I suppressed the overwhelming urge to gasp, to yell, “Drop that thing!,” my own fears speaking on her behalf.
As she studied the bug with genuine curiosity, unsure what to make of it, it dawned on me that she wasn’t afraid of the bug because no one had taught her to be. I thought about my own fears, big (failure, people not liking me) and small (cockroaches, open flames), how they’ve mounted one by one over the course of a lifetime, how effective they are at holding me back, how useless most of them are. Like many of us, I am intimately acquainted with the topography of fear; I know how crippling its valleys can be. But I haven’t often felt the opposite of fear, even though there was a time before memory where I mostly operated without hesitation. We all start life like a butterfly, untouched by the human-ness of this world. Our wings are delicate, untethered by the fears, judgments, worries, and perceived failures and shortcomings that threaten to weigh us down as we grow older. Although I’ve always understood fear in my head, I didn’t understand it in my heart until I stood there breathlessly watching Abra, alive, awake to the world. Fearless.
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