It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.” — Chaos Theory
I’m not sure why, but for some reason, this year seems to have been marked so far by a host of references back to the late nineties — songs commemorating their 20-year anniversary, sports teams winning (or even losing) something “for the first time since 199x,” boy bands going on tour again playing to crowds of happy reminisce-rs soaking up their old favorites. Those celebrations and anniversaries have brought about some reminiscing for me as well as to what I was doing during those last couple years at the end of the millennium. But none so much as when my cousin mentioned his football team’s fall of 1999 record a couple weekends back: 11-2.
How different my life could’ve been if not for their second loss.
If you view the decor in my house, you’ll notice several butterflies mixed into the French Country style. The creature’s appeal to me is twofold — two entirely different reasons.
One of my draws to butterflies stems from the movie “Patch Adams.” After losing the love of his life under horrible circumstances, “Patch” walks out to a field, and is greeted by a butterfly who gently rests on his shoulder. It flaps its wings, as if to say “hello, I’m here.” And Patch gets the message. When I am running on a trail or simply out in nature and met by that same flutter, I often respond back to the person who’s spirit I am reminded of in those wings: “Hey Dad, how are you?”
Yet my fascination with the beautiful insect goes back much further than my father’s death in 2013. In some ways, it started with a movie whose title encompasses the exact phenomenon; In other ways, the movie put into words and a story exactly what I’d always known: that with one tiny, circumstantial change, your life can be altered forever — The Butterfly Effect.
In the actual movie, the main character navigates a series of scenarios where he tries to save his girlfriend from her father’s abuse — abuse that eventually leads to her death. After going through several of these different versions of the story, he is able to find a way to save her in the end — a scenario where she comes out happy and healthy — but due to a million other related circumstances, the two of them never meet in that scenario, the movie ending with them passing each other on the street as complete strangers.
For me, I have a million examples of such flutters, of one person, one time to which I can trace back the outcome of so many things. I’ve often hesitated to write about them for fear I might sound crazy, but when you really stop and think about it, it’s amazing what one night, one moment, one…. lost football game… can lead to.
Like giving someone a letter.
Because if it weren’t for the loss my cousin’s team faced just one game short of the state championship, my then friend and idol and I would’ve almost certainly found ourselves at their final game the Thursday after. As the three nights that Maya was staying with me while my mom went out of town approached, the idea of going to the championship game came up in nearly every discussion of our plans — with her and my cousin’s friendship, it seemed a perfect outing. And it might have been.
Instead, we said we’d play that last night of her stay by ear. Instead, she made an early evening appointment and said she’d come over soon after. Instead that “soon after,” turned into a teary phone call around 9pm saying she wasn’t feeling well and asking if I could come over to her parents’ house and spend the night with her there. Instead my anxiousness, my frustration, my sadness that someone I looked up to so much was clearly still in the midst of her eating and self-confidence issues that had plagued her the past few months, plagued me the rest of the night like never before. I can still remember walking into the living room where her parents were watching TV, and her mom offering me up her popcorn bowl. I can’t remember a time where popcorn — perhaps any food — looked less appetizing.
The four of us sat mostly in silence watching TV, but my mind was spinning, and it kept spinning well into the night. I wracked my 15-year-old brain to think of any possible way in the world I could help Maya and somewhere around 3am, I decided I would give her the letter I’d written her; the one describing all the times she’d had a positive impact on my life; the one I’d meant to send her years after we’d known each other. It was long, it was incredibly descriptive (which was why it was long), and it was supposed to be an afterthought to our friendship. But the difficult circumstances that night made me feel helpless enough that I decided I had to do anything that at least might have a positive impact on the idol and friend who’d had such a positive impact on me.
We could’ve been cheering at a football game.
A few days after my cousin brought up his football record from that tumultuous year, a picture popped up on my Facebook “Timehop” from another year, with another record: 1:44. My half-marathon time from exactly four years ago… the half-marathon which resulted in “runner’s knee,” which led to Piriformis Syndrome, a painful sciatica condition that left me unable to even sit comfortably for months, much less do any kind of activity.
While on a trip to Arizona recently, doing some physical therapy to combat a recurrence of the painful condition, my mom said to me “can you imagine if you just didn’t have to deal with this injury?”
Noticing my exasperated facial expression (I’m not one to hold them back), she quickly apologized for the question — of course I’d have rather not have spent the last four years either in pain or fighting to keep it at bay. But as I’ve contemplated her question since then, I’ve realized more and more how much that injury — the pain, the lessons, the recovery — has affected my life outcomes… and not necessarily in a bad way.
Had I not been so fed up with my inability to run and been able to enjoy more of what Madison had to offer, it’s possible I wouldn’t have made it such a point to get out of town as soon as I graduated from my master’s program. Instead, I headed to what should truly be called “the sunshine state.”
My lingering injury and a visit to a physical therapist in Tucson introduced me to the idea that some of my unrelenting discomfort was being aggravated by stress and anxiety, which led me to sign up for those Mindfulness classes I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. Those classes helped me deal with everything from grief over my dad’s death, to physical pain, to overall stress and anxiousness, improving my quality of life far beyond what I’d initially come in looking for.
I could go on about other positive things that resulted from moving to Tucson — the amazing group of friends I found there, for instance. I could also describe other positive life outcomes that have come from my injury, such as how much more nutritiously I eat now — without the ability to “run” the calories off, I learned how to separate food and working out, concentrating on my overall health. The point is, these are all good things; and while there were plenty of tears, pain, and frustration (there still are occasionally), that could make me say “my life would be much easier if it weren’t for that injury,” the fact of the matter is, it might not be.
If you’ve read And Then It Rained, you know the effects that came after giving Maya the letter. In some ways, I can trace every piece of my life back to that action, given that the fall-out with Maya it caused is what propelled me to go away to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and my incredible experience there continues to propel my life in so many ways.
So what if? What if my cousin’s team had gone 11-1 with Maya and me cheering our hearts out at the championship game?
I’ll never know. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s a beautiful thing somehow that something so simple created so many ripples in my life. Some of them negative, some of them positive, all of them undoubtedly remarkable.