We have to remind ourselves, in the face of unremitting holiday advertising, that Christmas is meant to be a celebration of Jesus, who came into this world under some duress. Though he probably was not born in December, which would have been a time of bitter cold in Judea and certainly not a time of herding sheep, we have collectively settled on this day, just past the solstice, to celebrate a miracle, no matter whose it is: birth.
I woke on Christmas Eve in a mood of confusion and some small torpor, disturbed by a surprise--and sadly surreal--visit from someone I had not seen in more than a decade. I sat with my morning tea a while, wondering what to do. My sons decided to go shopping. It popped into my mind to visit the butterflies at the American Museum of Natural History. I tried to shrug it off, sure that the museum would be mobbed. But it was such a compelling thought--and I've learned to pay attention to thoughts that nag at me--that I set aside other plans for the day, and went to the tropics.
Norfolk pine, the kind many people grow as houseplants, and then decorate as Christmas trees.
The branches of these trees were clogged with pendant butterflies; other tiny creatures rested on top of the spines. Some were still for long minutes, so that we could stare at them. What marvelous ornaments they were.
heeding their plight. I found myself wishing for an end to cynicism about the health of our planet from politicians, and an end to sowing confusion about science.
These creatures do seem magical, otherworldly. The wonder of it is, of course, that they are of our world. I am reminded, as I look around, that we do not have to wait for visitations from the gods. The magic is all around us.
I stood very, very still, and a large blue butterfly came to sit on my head for long moments. I had a strong impression of his weight, and I could feel his tiny feet rest on strands of my hair, the surprising heft of his wings as they opened slowly and folded shut. The children pointed at my head, laughing.
At other moments all I had were blurred impressions of antique color. Later I learned that the butterfly's wings are covered with scales, and that the blues and greens and reds and iridescences are created not by pigment but by the microstructure of the scales--the result of a "coherent scattering of light." That alone is a useful phrase, one that I could see might lend itself to a myriad of applications in our lives. I made another wish: to be near those who scatter light, coherently. To try to do so myself.
Yeats wrote, in Tom O'Roughly, " 'An aimless joy is a pure joy...And wisdom is a butterfly, And not a gloomy bird of prey.' " A good thought to consider, as our soldiers sit out Christmas in cold desert mountains. I wished for an end to war.
It is only natural that butterflies would be linked to human souls; both are nearly incomprehensible. The ancient Greeks believed that butterflies were the souls of those who had passed away. And so I thought of those who have gone out of my life; I thought of my dear niece, Dominique, who several years ago took her life at the age of nineteen. She had an ethereal beauty, even as a child. Another wish: that we learn to reach and hold fast those who are desperate in their misery.
And I thought of people who have gone from my life, though not from this life, fortunately. And I thanked them, as I watched the butterflies, for the love we once shared. Just because love ends does not mean it was a mistake. Though I don't recall that Ovid makes use of butterfly forms in his Metamorphoses, (one of my favorite books), I have known what it is like to want an escape; I wished for cerulean wings.
And I thought of how the word for butterfly in ancient Greek is psyche. Psyche was the name for Eros' human lover. Holidays, for some, are a time of feeling especially alone, even if they are surrounded by others. Festivity has a way of throwing into relief all that is missing. My wish for the lonely: quietude. And clarity.
The wings of a butterfly are so fragile that they can be torn apart by a hard rain. We, too, are battered by the tempests of our lives. But we are lucky. When our wings are crushed, we seem to be able to grow new ones. We are born with the gift of resilience--one that we must nurture and exercise, or, eventually, we lose the capacity to bounce back.
So I thought of my wishes for all of us:
May the next year be a time of growth, and change, and delight. May we all find ways to give of the love with which our hearts are so easily filled--when we let them be filled. May we learn to unclench our fists, and let go of anger. May we metamorphose through our days in an atmosphere of good will, and take flight into the world sparkling good will over others, in coherent scatterings of light. And may the inevitable incoherent scatterings visited upon us eventually leave us stronger and better.
Billions of creatures will be born on Christmas Day. Many of them--perhaps even most of them--will never be seen by human eyes. But we know they are out there. And here are we. All together on this tiny planet, spinning through space, scattered, scattering. May each of us have a chance to linger, for a fraction of an instant, on butterfly wings.