Wednesday, May 09, 2012

of extravagance and serendipity

A swarm of red admiral butterflies surround a sculpture by Peter Bulow, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan. ©2012 Amber Schley Iragui.

O N E   O R   T W O   T H I N G S
by Mary Oliver

Don’t bother me.
I’ve just
been born.

The butterfly’s loping flight
carries it through the country of the leaves
delicately, and well enough to get it
where it wants to go, wherever that is, stopping
here and there to fuzzle the damp throats
of flowers and the black mud; up
and down it swings, frenzied and aimless; and sometimes

for long delicious moments it is perfectly
lazy, riding motionless in the breeze on the soft stalk
of some ordinary flower.

The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,

and never once mentioned forever,

which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.

One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning — some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.

But to lift the hoof!
For that you need
an idea.

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.

from Dream Work, copyright © 1986 by Mary Oliver

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

We are driving south, the sky is wide and pale, the empty industrialized meadowlands along the New Jersey Turnpike behind us. I don't remember what we were talking about, then, when I first noticed the butterflies. I wasn't even sure they were butterflies—there were so many of them and we were driving fast. Were they bats? dragon flies? moths? It is a Friday afternoon and we're headed to the beach. Earlier that day, wheeling our small suitcase by the Hudson River to get our car, I noticed a little butterfly on the sidewalk. It was dark brown and orange, opening and closing its wings in the sun. It was the first butterfly I'd seen this year and I stopped for a moment to watch it.

Now they are everywhere; flapping across the highway. We exit the Garden State and I can see them more clearly. A flash of orange on the wing as one narrowly misses our windshield. We drive another twenty minutes to Spring Lake, but there is no end of them. Hundreds of little brown and orange butterflies, migrating up the coast.

We are alone. The children are back in New York with a sitter and we have two nights to ourselves. We've never been to Spring Lake before, and its broad, genteel avenues are mostly empty on this Spring day. Large old houses with sculptured hedges, turrets, and deep porches line leafy streets. The windows are mostly dark, no one but Charles and I witness the butterflies flapping across these mown and edged lawns. After the densely packed streets of our Manhattan neighborhood, the expanse around us seems strangely still. Our inn is elegant and welcoming, if not similarly quiet. In our room, the gas fireplace is already burning.

I need this time. Time with my husband without the frenzied pace of doing doing doing that our children entail. Two days alone is a luxury, but I could easily take seven, or ten. The quiet in the car, of the town, in our room settles around me. I loosen the edge of parental vigilance I wear as a mother, the insistent voice ever rousing me from my thoughts and reminding me of dinner, naps, and diapers.

It has been a mild winter. This is the reason, they say, that the butterflies are so numerous. They are Red Admirals (vanessa atalanta), and they began their migration north last month, from southern states and perhaps as far south as Guatemala. Because of the warm weather, many of them survived the winter, swelling their numbers and lengthening their generally short lifespan.

Their presence with us on our journey feels like a symbol of sorts—of extravagance and serendipity, of being present in the meandering way a butterfly is present, momentarily. Flitting, as Mary Oliver writes in her poem One or Two Things, "well enough to get it / where it wants to go, wherever that is, stopping / here and there." Which is what I needed in being alone, without children. Given just enough time to remember that I have the one or two things I need, already.


Julia said...

I stared at this photo long and hard when I saw it on your flickr site. It is really a mysterious image and it takes a while to identify the butterflies. We've been doing Poetry Wednesday for a long time and have never posted the same poet on the same day, so even though it's within the realm of probability, I still take it to be a pretty big coincidence, especially since I chose the poem almost out of laziness today, because it is one of two books of poetry lying around my apartment currently.
Anyway, I'm glad you got this serendipitous mini-vacation with the butterflies. Your description also reminds me of the lyrics to that Smog song we used to listen to: "All we need is here on earth...every other day."

Jenny Schroedel said...


How strange and beautiful that your mini-vacation began with butterflies, everywhere. Such a symbol of the freedom you & Charles were opening yourselves to. I love the poem, too, especially the verse about pleasure & pain. They cause another opening of sorts.