To touch a butterfly


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Category: Reflections Date: 03 Feb 02

Serendipity: (Noun) ‘the making of pleasant discoveries by accident; the knack of doing this’.

The Oxford English Dictionary


Seren-di-pi-ty. It was one warm mid-morning when the sun flooded dusty, gold light through yellow curtains into the room when I was trying to explain to my friend, in halting, inarticulate words, about how life can serve up unexpected small moments of joy when you least expect it and how that could illuminate, however briefly, the darkest corner of your soul, when she uttered one word:



We laughingly rolled the word like melting chocolate around our mouths several times as if we were schoolgirls experimenting with a rhyme.


“It was Mummy’s favourite word,” said my friend with the golden hair. Green almond eyes met brown, glittered briefly, mirroring a wave of pain, laughter, memory onto one another.


Her real ‘Mummy’ was our Erika, the Hungarian woman among whose many adopted daughters I number.


She crops up periodically in this space, alive then, dead now, it doesn’t matter, because her spirit was a map of many landscapes, of the heart and humanity, of old and new continents, of ideas, sensuality and wit, and a heightened sensitivity that was electric.


Her spirit touches us now, draws a charmed circle around us to protect us from looking at the world with the unseeing eyes of the jaded. Put another way, Erika’s response to life was so powerful, her engagement so absolute, that she could make paying a T&TEC bill interesting.


“What a lovely word,” I said. “How like Erika.”

“It’s the butterfly that unexpectedly lands on your shoulder,” said Erika’s daughter, who seemed to have the mantle of her mother’s spirit on hers.


I had to pause, to catch the image before it flickered out - the butterfly would be royal blue, flecked with bright yellow, perhaps with a streak of emerald green. It would be swooning around a lush patio, canopied with trees where sunshine flickers through leaves, making shifting patterns on walls, lighting up a single white orchid.


You or I, or Erika’s daughter could be sitting there, eviscerated with the burden of a big sorrow, perhaps the death of someone you still love, or with a hollow loneliness, despite being surrounded by many faces, or somewhat defeated by life’s war of attrition against the human spirit, with its assault of mediocrity, dreary chores, mundane tasks, petty misunderstandings. You could be angry at yourself, or at your fellow human beings over some real or perceived slight when the butterfly royal blue, streaked with green and yellow, lands on your shoulder.


You actually stop breathing for a minute, looking at the butterfly with the corner of your eye. Whatever happens you don’t want to scare it off. “What nonsense, a butterfly giving you unexpected happiness?” you might say, thinking of the real problems weighing you down.


When I first looked up the meaning, I would have probably agreed with you. If it’s an accident to make a pleasant discovery, how do you get a knack for it? Surely, that was a contradiction in terms?


But now, thinking of Erika, I understood. The butterfly is an analogy of hope - about opening up a part of your being that you lock away, because like electricity, it’s the part that can leave you shocked and prone, but it allows you to live intensely, and jolt you to happiness.


Then it was everywhere.

Serendipity is sitting in a car along the Beetham Highway in a mile-long traffic jam when a sudden movement catches your eye.


You see a girl child, no more than seven or eight on a rubbish heap wearing a scrap of a blue dress, hair matted from not being washed or combed and browned with days in the sun. The child spots a discarded toy car. Her eyes light up, and she’s off on an adventure. I see through her eyes, the rubbish dump disappearing, becoming a landscape of hills and plains.


Overhead is a flaming twilight sky that casts an orange pink, gold glow around the girl. She raises her face to the burnt evening breeze, as she pushes the car over a heap. She doesn’t see the rubbish. She sees a mountain. She laughs as she goes faster, and disappears. Life’s no dump anymore. Se-ren-di-pity she sings.


Serendipity is that moment when you see a rainbow in a puddle, and the green hills in the distance, and you become absent-minded enough watching the colours running into one another, to forget the grief of loss that you carry around you like stones in your stomach.


Serendipity is looking at the face of someone you’ve known for a long time, and realising with a shock that you love them. Once started, we couldn’t stop.


Serendipity is a quickening of the feet, a lightening of the spirit. Serendipity touches us all - no matter how wretched our circumstances, or how mildly fleetingly sad our day, or how anxious that one moment.


Serendipity is that moment of grace that transforms a black and white world into colour again. It’s a bit like magic. You have to believe in it to get the knack of it.

Stay still. See the butterfly, how it flutters on your shoulder.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur