Setting free the butterflies

‎”You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.”
~ Swedish proverb

After: a painted lady butterfly

On Monday, we opened a mesh and plastic butterfly cage and urged five winged creatures to leave their nest, to abandon the predictability of their lives, and face the unknown.

A month ago they arrived  in a jar, five little caterpillars no bigger than pine needles. As the days passed, they grew in length and girth until they were lumbering, bloated things with barely room to move.

Before: very tiny caterpillars

Frankly, caterpillars are a crashing bore. Some days that jar sat on the shelf untouched. By the time they were ready to cocoon, those caterpillars were enormous. Then they did this bizarre thing: they suspended themselves by, what, their tongues? their feet? from the jar lid and curled into a J shape and somehow magically changed from fuzzy and lumpy to smooth and iridescent.

It was like Botox for the insect world.

Now came the really, really boring part. We peeled the paper lid on which the chrysalides were mounted and pinned it to the side of the mesh and plastic pavilion. It looked like some kind of pathetic science fair project involving wads of chewed gum and safety pins. Then, we waited and waited and fell asleep from the sheer boredom of the unmoving wads of gum. Until…

Late last week I heard a flapping sound. I looked over and ta-dah! just like that without fanfare or drumroll the first butterfly was born. It perched on the mesh, dripping meconium and vibrating all casual as if everyone does something like that when no one is looking.  Determined to see one of the remaining four emerge, I carried the cage around the house, peering in obsessively. But every damned time I looked away to make a sandwich or take a call or go to the bathroom, I’d come out to find more flapping of wings and yet another empty cocoon. I started to think they had performance anxiety.

By Saturday I had a cage of winged, elegant creatures who were the embodiment of happiness. Unlike their boring former selves who put me to sleep with the endless parade of eating and pooping, these guys held my attention with their pulsating wings, their wiry antennas, and inquisitive proboscis that rolled out to impressive lengths.

These butterflies have me thinking about change, of course, the whole metamorphosis thing and all. Change doesn’t always happen in front of us when we’re watching and waiting. It grows in the shadows of our inattention.

I’m trying to look at whatever it is that’s going on with me as a metamorphosis rather than a gathering of sad birds overhead, preparing to nest in my hair.

Those butterflies, so beautiful and delicate, waving those wings inside their cage. I wanted to keep them in my pocket. But I knew on the most primal level they needed to fly free. Even if freedom meant flapping right into the waiting beaks of hungry birds.

Oh, imagine the joy of ascending to the blue dome, buffeted by the wind. Could that ever be traded for the predictable security of a mesh cage?

Today, a painted lady visited our lily garden. Could it be?

Here’s a link with videos of the various stages.