On Butterflies and Serendipity
In June 2015, I shared the following essay with my newsletter subscribers. I decided to share this piece on the blog because today—June 10, 2017—is the fifth anniversary of my step-dad, Mahlon’s, death. Lately, I’ve been thinking about love, loss, gratitude, and hope. I’ve also been seeing butterflies everywhere, so sharing this article again seemed appropriate. Wishing y’all a beautiful day.
June 10, 2015, marked the third anniversary of my step-dad, Mahlon’s, death. It might seem strange that I track the years since he died. However, they serve as a personal marker and as a reminder: a marker of significant life changes and a reminder to continue creating a joyful life.
I used the word "continue" in the previous sentence because my life is a work in progress. I'm still learning, growing, and trying to figure things out as I go. Since Mahlon's death, I've learned a lot about myself and how I want to move through the world … but that's another topic for another letter. Today, I want to talk about serendipity, spirit, and butterflies.
First, I want to share a background story ...
After Mahlon's funeral, I left my parent’s home in Red Bluff, California and returned to my home in Portland, Oregon. I jumped back into my routine and tried to get used to my new normal. It wasn’t easy because I felt overwhelmed, confused, and uncertain. Everything in my life was shifting, including family dynamics, friendships, and work, and I kept wondering if we should stay in Portland or move closer to family.
Despite my worries and sadness, I kept writing, taking photographs, teaching, and working on creative projects. Working and making time for my relationships gave me a sense of purpose and meaning to my days, even when I struggled. That sense of purpose lead me to Laurelhurst Park about a week after Mahlon's funeral.
It was late June, and it was a perfect Portland day. People were out walking, cycling, and sitting in the park reading, plus the grass was intensely green, and it was 70 degrees and sunny.
Being in the park offered me a small slice of joy because I’d felt sad all day. I was missing my mom and Mahlon, and as I sat in the park, I thought to myself, Mahlon, if you’re here, show up as a butterfly.
I continued to sit in the park and people watch. Then, two orange butterflies appeared and chased each other through the trees and leaves. It might sound crazy or woo-woo to you, but I felt like Mahlon was with me on that sunny afternoon.
Fast-forward three years ...
On June 9, 2015, my father-in-law, Roy, asked if wanted to go on a day trip with him, and I said yes. I'd been feeling unfocused all week because I kept thinking about Mahlon. Also, my Great Aunt Winnie died at the age of 97 on June 6, and her wake was on June 10—the anniversary of Mahlon's death.
The timing was strange, and since I'd been feeling so unfocused, I jumped at the chance to go on a day trip with Roy. Roy is super cool, funny, and patient, and I love his stories. In essence, he's an awesome dude.
We went to Orr Lake, drove on back roads near Tennant, CA, and ended up eating lunch at Antelope Creek. Being at the creek was serendipitous because Mahlon, Roy, Logan, and I camped at Antelope Creek about 12 years ago.
Roy reminisced on Mahlon’s ability to get his trailer into the camping spot at Antelope Creek. It was a rough road and a tight squeeze, and we weren’t sure he would be able to pull the camper out the next day. Roy said, “The only reason he got out was because his truck had a lot of power. And, he didn’t leave with the whole trailer. He high-centered it in the meadow."
Mahlon broke pipes and other connections on the bottom of the camper, but those types of mistakes never phased Mahlon. He didn't get pissed off or mad. He'd just laugh about it, move on with his day, and fix the mistake later.
I thought about Mahlon as Roy fished, and I was also trying to take photos of butterflies. They’d flutter by, pause, and then float away. I gave up trying to capture a butterfly image and sat down on an old stump to write in my journal.
I journaled about some of my favorite Mahlon memories, and as I wrote, I looked up and watched the butterflies go by. I decided to put down my journal and chase butterflies again. I was determined to get a photo of at least one butterfly. When they’d float by, I'd think, There goes Mahlon again.
I walked along the creek, and I noticed a butterfly sitting on the pebbles. It was completely still. I walked up slowly and sat down on the pebbles. I was only a foot away, and I snapped some photos. I couldn’t believe it didn’t fly away.
I thought the butterfly might have been injured, but suddenly the butterfly took off. My encounter with the butterfly lasted less than a minute.
As we were getting ready to leave, I said, “Roy, I can’t believe the butterfly let me take its photo. That was so amazing.”
Roy said, “Maybe it was Mahlon."
I believe the butterfly was Mahlon's spirit or his way of telling me that everything would be okay. My grief has lessened over the past three years, but it will never go away. It just changes shape over time. I can't control the past or the future, but I can choose love over fear and find small slices of joy in my daily life.
Missing Mahlon will never change. When I’m missing him, or struggling with sadness or loneliness, I remind myself that I’m not alone. Today, I want to remind you that you’re not alone. If you’re struggling with grief or loss, ask for help. Find a counselor, talk to your partner or a close friend, write in your journal, or find solace in nature.
Also, I hope the following resources will help:
1. I started my daily photography project—My Morning View—to honor Mahlon’s memory. I also wrote a short photography book—My Morning View: An iPhone Photography Project about Gratitude, Grief, and Good Coffee—about the project.
2. I highly recommend reading Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on love and loss. Alternatively, you can listen to Krista Tippett’s conversation with Sheryl and Adam here: Resilience After Unimaginable Loss.