Talking to a school administrator the other day about the challenges my children and I have been facing in the last year, I had one of those experiences where you get a look at your own life through someone else’s eyes. “Wow, you have really been on a difficult journey,” he said. I just nodded in response. Financial difficulties, health problems, dealing with depression… life has been tough. But you get through things like that by being centered. Meditation tricks. Things you can do to smooth out the wrinkles and keep moving forward.
I always return in the theater of my mind to a moment in childhood where I learned a critical lesson. My life has been one of learning how to build rather than destroy. It has been about creating, not criticizing.
When I was a boy, I was a serious butterfly hunter. It started when Uncle Don gave me a dead cecropia moth that he had found in the Rowan grain elevator. It was big and beautiful and perfectly preserved. Shortly thereafter, I located another cecropia in the garage behind the house, a building that had once been a wagon shed complete with horse stalls and a hay loft. I tried to catch it with my bare hands. And by the time I had hold of it, the powder on its wings was mostly gone. The wings were broken in a couple of places, and the poor bug was ruined in terms of starting a butterfly collection.
Undeterred by tragedy, I got books about butterfly collecting at the Rowan Public Library and began teaching myself how to bug hunt. I learned where to find them, and how to net them, and how to kill and mount them.
I discovered that my grandfather’s horse pasture had thistle patches which were natural feeding grounds for red admiral butterflies (pictured top left) and painted lady butterflies (top right). But if you wanted to catch the rarer mourning cloak butterfly (bottom picture), you had to stake out apple trees, particularly at apple blossom time, though I caught one on the ripening apples too.
But my greatest challenge as a butterfly hunter was the tiger swallowtail butterfly. They are rare. They are tricky. And one summer I dueled with one, trying with all my might to catch him. He was in my own back yard the first time I saw him. I ran to get the butterfly net, and by the time I got back, he was flitting high in the trees out of reach. I must’ve watched him for half an hour before I finally lost sight of him. About five other times I had encounters with him in the yard or in the neighborhood. I learned the hard way that some butterflies are acrobatic flyers and can actually maneuver to avoid being caught. He frustrated me.
The tiger swallowtail was the butterfly that completed my collection, and it was finished when one of my cousins caught one and gave it to me because she knew I collected them.
But then, one day, while I was sitting on a blanket under a maple tree in the back yard with my notebooks open, writing something that I no longer even recall what I wrote, the backyard tiger swallowtail visited me again. In fact, he landed on the back of my hand. I dropped the pencil I was writing with, and slowly, carefully, I turned my hand over underneath him so that he was sitting on my palm.
I could’ve easily closed my hand upon him and captured him. But I learned the lesson long before from the cecropia that catching a butterfly by hand would destroy its delicate beauty. I would knock all the yellow and black powder off his exquisite wings. I could not catch him. But I could close my hand and crush him. I would be victorious after a summer-long losing battle.
But that moment brought an end to my butterfly hunting. I let him flutter away with the August breeze. I did not crush the butterfly. It was then that I realized what beauty there was in the world, and how fragile that beauty could be. I could not keep it alive forever. But it lasted a little big longer because I chose to let it.
So, here is the lesson that keeps me whole. Even though I had the power, I did not crush the butterfly.