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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The First Butterfly of Spring

Golden butterfly

I have never forgotten the story my paternal grandmother told me about the legend of the spring butterfly. In some areas of the world people believe that the first butterfly you see in spring predicts the summer ahead. If you see a golden-yellow coloured one, it denotes a great, fortuitous time for the beholder, if you see a dark coloured one, it is believed to be a portent to coming troubles.

I remember my summer visits to Cyprus as a child, where I would excitedly ask my grandmother what colour butterfly she had seen that year. She would tell me that what was important to each person was their own first spring butterfly.

"Don't look for it," she would say, "let it find you. It will. Be patient."

My grandmother was cool like that. A legendary character filled with legends. With the approaching of the warmer months, I always had one eye open for my first spring butterfly, fervently wishing, as only a young child can, to see a golden one. As the summer went on, as children often do, too, I would forget and get on with the very serious business of playing with my cousins. I would always come from England armed with a suitcase of books that were left unread until I returned home, because there was always so much to do.

In Cyprus, thanks to the relative safety of prior decades, we were like carefree street urchins you find in a Mark Twain novel. We lived our ice-cream days of youth to the full. We'd make our way to the beach, and spend all day lazing in the sea until nightfall, returning back toasted brown and gritty from the salt and sand - singing up at the sky to any star fool enough to listen. Back at my grandmother's house, my parents would try to lather us with sun cream, while we would try and furtively wash it off with water fights in the evening.

I say furtively, not because of the dreaded sun cream, but because water shortages were an issue in Cyprus, and they still are, so to waste such a precious resource was sufficient reason to get us grounded from the beach as punishment. But my grandmother's gentle reprimands somehow always made us feel worse than any punishment. When she had once caught my cousins and I blissfully emptying out the contents of the water tank over each other, I can still recall how she gathered us by the scruff of our damp necks to teach us the consequence of our actions.

"You have had a good fight. I bet you're all thirsty, right?"

My cousins nodded, but I knew better. I remember thinking, how can you all live with this wise old woman and still not know when she's leading you? A trap was being set, I wasn't about to fall into it blindly. I remained silent, but like a teacher catching out a class dodger, she looked at me. Very quietly she asked me to go into the kitchen and get a glass of water for my cousins to drink.

I did as I was told. When grandmother gave you "the look" even my parents did as they were told, so who was I to argue? The water tank was right next to the kitchen, and as I walked past it I gave it a sidelong guilty glance, and then looked back at my grandmother, as if to say it was the inanimate object's fault we were in trouble. Why put it where we could reach it anyway? Most people in Cyprus had the good sense to put them up on their roofs. Aged seven, and I was wishing I'd never set eyes on a water tank.

I entered the kitchen, my mind racing, wondering what she was really going to do with the water. Was she going to pour it over our heads? I could overhear my grandmother sternly dressing down my cousins, who were locals and should know better. I looked for the smallest cup possible, and wondered if someone could drown you in a cup of water. I had read somewhere you could drown in an inch of water, but was it the same thing?

It was childish thinking, of course, we all loved my grandmother to distraction; she was in turn a mother-figure, a babysitter, and a parole officer all rolled into one for a gang of wild young boys and girls making the most of the summer. But still, I remember frightening myself a good deal as I found a Turkish coffee cup, and - thinking myself immensely clever over its small size - placed it under the tap to do her bidding, while my grandmother continued her sermon on the foolishness of waste outside.

When I returned to them, my stomach did a flip to the soundtrack of a desolate little gurgle. My parents and my grandmother's household had formed an audience, but I didn't feel like waving from the stage. My father's eyes were twinkling, he always enjoyed these moments; my mother's look on the other hand emulated my grandmother's as she glanced at the flooded ground.

I tentatively approached my grandmother, who let out a loud laugh when she saw what I was carrying in my hands. Accessing what I always believed were amazing mentalist powers, she said, "Had I wanted to drown you, don't you think the tank is closer, my son? Give the cup to me."

When I handed it over, she promptly drank the water (what little I had dared to put into it) and handed the empty coffee cup to one of my cousins. "Drink," she said.

My cousin thought it was a joke. He stared at the empty cup.

"Do you know what you have in your hands?"

My cousins were clued up finally. We all stayed quiet.

"That's the world, my son. It's in our power to turn it into an empty cup, as you tried with my tank. We are left wanting water with an empty cup in our hands, because we refuse to believe in such a thing as thirst until we feel it, and then it's too late. Have as many water fights in the sea as you wish, but don't waste drinking water. You may not think of yourself, but I have to think of all of you."

Looking back now, you don't always recognise the seriousness of the moment at the time. As children we were in a lucky position where we could afford to waste water as if there were no tomorrow, but the point was that others were not, and being mindful of that, have to keep the cup some-ways filled.

Decades later on, and I see how mindlessly we are consuming our planet's resources, not realising that one day it will become an empty cup. Unless we are more mindful of our future needs, we shall be rudely awakened to them. The world needs to be experienced, not used up, but if we aren't careful, we have a tendency to over consume everything - words, music, even love. Sometimes, as I was to find out much later, the greatest love can simply be a look that transfixes you to look up from your empty cup.

It's a matter of how we look at things. We seem to see the reality that our resources are finite as a problem, when in actuality it's a way to help us appreciate and use them more wisely. Similarly as being a child forever would simply turn childhoods into ordinary episodes of life, if we were provided with infinite resources to use as we pleased, we would never realise their limitless preciousness, afforded by their limited availability.

The trick, as my grandmother so wisely knew with the shortage of water, was to be mindful of the threat of thirst, but not to mindlessly consume until you find that you have drank yourself into one. Use the water you have, mindful of your need - and the need of others - and be grateful for what you have.

Real life is not like a story, however, and as I say, the seriousness didn't make its mark until much later in my teenage years. I would love to write that my cousins and I immediately wised up, but we continued our summer water fights, irrepressibly but a little less irresponsibly perhaps by keeping them to the shower booths we normally ignored at the beach.

The seed had been sown, though. It grew into adulthood, as did many of my grandmother's personal wisdoms, to help form the person I am today - a person who doesn't want to leave an empty cup, and who still looks out for the first butterfly in spring. I never found a golden one, and I was always slightly disappointed that my first butterflies were usually white, until my grandmother made me see it in a different light.

The last time I ever spoke to my grandmother, we had talked of white butterflies, too. She was laid up in bed, the last day of the summer holidays. It was the year I was to start university, and she had spoken of her pride in me, before asking, "What colour was your butterfly this year? White?"

I nodded, and we laughed, sharing a private joke. As a kid, I had been so disappointed by the lack of golden butterflies, that I had promised her one day I would find a golden butterfly just for her. That was when she told me that white was even better than gold, because white signified hope. "When you have hope," she told me, "anything is possible. You can turn dark into gold, my son, never forget that. A butterfly's colour changes in the light. What you see is entirely in your own hands."

As she lay in her bed, I kissed her hand in the Turkish gesture of respect, and we both looked at each other for a long time, without saying another word. In hindsight, it seemed to me she held me in her gaze as though she wanted to commit it to her memory, because she knew she would never see my face again. For my part, nothing I could ever write of love, or courage, or wisdom could convey them as well as that look she gave me.

The man I am today tries to look at the world as my grandmother looked at me, generous with her kindness, her words and her affection, but wise with them, too. I can only dream of having an ounce of her strength or dignity, but I always hold on to our last moment together in times of crisis in the hope that I may conjure up some of her courage.

It was so, when, only a few months later, settled in at my university in Nottingham, a call came through to inform me my grandmother had passed away. Suddenly, hit by grief, my initial thought was to think how mindless I had been. Now flown out of sight, my first golden butterfly had been with me all along and I had been too blind to see it. Did I even tell her I loved her enough?

Then I remembered my spring butterflies past, and her words, and knew that possibly I had always known she was my golden white butterfly instead. I just never needed to say it.

It was my grandmother who taught me how to keep my cup full, and turn dark into gold, after all.

Her memory and her wisdom would help me through her loss to truly understand that hope persists like love, and that, when correctly reaped, so can the wisdom of loved ones.

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