I used to live on a bumpy blacktop in rural Virginia that wound through deeply forested hills like a black satin ribbon on a Victorian dress. The road’s destination seemed fathomless. Towering oak and maple trees lined each road like sentinels. The ribbon of black road must have been hardly discernible, lost in the folds of earth and trees. It was tough to see very far—physically, and metaphysically. Perhaps I felt trapped.
I told myself that in America, any place is privileged, and every place has possibility.
From the bland interior of my suburban kitchen (ugh, beige tile), I watched birds flit across my back deck, eating seed we scattered. Foxes crossed the sprawling, unkempt lawn, vague streaks of bright fur that seemed conjured from mist. We drummed up small adventures, watching wildlife from the window. We told ourselves they weren’t ghosts, and we weren’t lost.
Occasionally I’d determine to organize a career. I sat at my computer, and waited for a dial-up internet connection to load positions available at the Smithsonian, positions for which I had no experience, no credentials, and no connections. Positions that were, realistically, a two-hour commute away. I applied to a few. Then I looked out the window.
I thought that every place has charm. I thought I could spin the void of my life into meaningful charm, somehow. I looked for it.
I left my front door to explore as far as I could run down the narrow back roads. One day the road sharply bent near a little stream. The water made a small break in the trees where sun shone through as if highlighting the best passage in a book. The secret.
I had found it, I thought. This place held my attention. Frogs screeched and splashed. Insects flew in shafts, like angel light. Sunlight danced. Lily pads appeared like clusters of blessing. It was wild. Someone owned this land, unspoiled. Possibly unused. The rare vehicle that passed sped by, swerving hard and fast, threatening pedestrians, and definitely not noticing nature. On the back road, I was alone, and on foot. So I noticed. Sacred ground.
Uneven bushes formed a gate between asphalt and water. Above them, like a silent chorus, butterflies flitted in irregular and tantalizing paths through the air. It was a challenge. I needed a challenge. I returned, again and again, with a net, with a jar. My collection grew.
Once a young girl in the neighborhood rang my doorbell, selling cookies. I invited her to collect butterflies with me. I wore rubber boots. I carried a net. It felt a little creepy, “go ask your mom. I’ll show you my secret place.” I didn’t really know her. But otherwise, we both ached in loneliness.
The magic of the butterflies wasn’t in becoming a big buddy to a neighbor girl. We didn’t really connect. I never discovered fairies. I didn’t find that I, too, could fly, even irregularly, in beauty and suspended grace, like a short-lived, profoundly gorgeous insect. The butterflies didn’t bring me greatness.
The butterflies needed no validation, and no permission. They flew silently, whether I noticed them or not. Their value did not come from me discovering them, collecting them—the capture, the kill, the preservation, the catalogue. In fact, they were better off alone, just flitting, just because. Did I mention they were beautiful?
For my friend Phillip’s birthday, I considered giving him these. He collects insects. Instead, I bought him a gorgeous, well-preserved morpho. Phillip is gorgeous and well-preserved. The morpho is stunning and chic, like him. I pictured its blue as an iridescent cliffhanger in his house, a piece that pulls one into dreams and lures one into momentary wonder.
Why can’t I throw away this shabby old ill-preserved collection? Does retrospect magnify charm? Am I hanging on to dust?
Maybe I keep them because they remind me to be lighthearted. I can’t take myself too seriously, remembering I spent so much time as an unscientific adult pursuing a butterfly collection. Young me, what was she thinking? Still, I’m glad she took time to be lost. A little lost. The indirect path holds secret rewards.
Plus, there was space. I treasure the light, open feeling I had back then. My life was not more, nor less valid then than it is now, throughly employed, consumed with relationships, busy, structured, urban. Seasons. Perhaps I keep the butterflies to remember many things: my own ridiculousness, the light of the wild, and the inevitable decay of all things (especially me, and whatever seems especially stressful now). It’s perspective.
Like butterflies, we are fragile and interesting. Gorgeous, in fact. Our hearts soar and dive. We are enough.
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