The Athens ParthenonA while back I drove to a friend’s mountain cabin near West Jefferson, North Carolina, for ten days to get my novel jump-started. I had dabbled with the story for a while, writing a sparse scene here and there, but I needed uninterrupted time to kick it off.

Writer friends had warned me to decompress for a day or two before diving into writing. I took their advice to the extreme. By the fifth day, after pointless research and making meaningless notes, I finally stopped avoiding the blank page and sat down to get serious. But in the mountain quiet, doubt filled my head versus words filling the pages. Who was I kidding? Did I truly have the writing chops to pen a novel? How could I make this book fly with my limited experience and flawed discipline? Even if I finished a chunk of the book in the dwindling days, how would it be possible to return to a hectic world to complete it given my packed schedule and the constant obstacles that life seemed to consistently hurl at me?

I sat on the deck that day with pen and paper under a late April sun and instead of pushing through to make it work, I focused on my flaws as a writer and the imperfect writing environment that awaited back home. At the end of the day I only had some meandering scribble.

By the middle of the sixth day, I could stare no longer at the tangle of words I’d written so I grabbed my camera and drove to a nearby hiking trail to walk off my frustration. Taking photos of nature relaxes me. If I couldn’t find the perfect words, then maybe I’d find the perfect shots. The trail I discovered wound upward under dense tree canopies and though thick rhododendrons. It eventually spilled into a small clearing where a tremendous boulder floated in lush grass. A hollow area on top of the boulder held several gallons of rainwater like an ancient cistern that might have been carved out by early man. I stood for a few moments to soak in the scene until a large yellow and black butterfly caught my attention as it fluttered near the clearing’s edge.

I’ve always been fascinated by the transformative nature of butterflies and knew they would play a role in my novel. Seeing the winged creature energized me. I snapped a few shots with my camera even as the distance showed nothing more than a yellow and black blur in the viewfinder. I moved closer for a better shot, but the butterfly changed direction and flitted away, bobbling up a wide, inclined path beyond me that seemed to lead right into a blue sky billowing with white clouds. I followed. After cresting the ridge, the path opened to an unexpected sight, a vast meadow of green and gold.

The butterfly moved fast, hugging the edge of the meadow near the trees as I gave chase for my perfect photo. But the little creature was hard to catch, and it ran me all over the meadow until I had to give up and rest. When I stopped, the butterfly floated down onto a nearby rhododendron. I wanted to move closer, but lifted my camera first to snap a photo before the creature took to the sky again. As I zoomed the lens to frame the butterfly on its green perch, disappointment set in. The butterfly’s left wing had a huge chunk torn away, almost half of it missing.

So much for my perfect shot.

I snapped a few shots anyway, then lowered the camera to walk right up to the butterfly, not caring now if it flew off. It didn’t. As I stopped a few feet away to study it, the disappointment intensified. But this time the feeling had nothing to do with the butterfly. This time the disappointment was squarely aimed back at me.

For one, shame on me for being disappointed the butterfly wasn’t perfect, for seeing the broken wing through jaded eyes that could not recognize with sheer awe the butterfly’s power to not only lift into the sky and soar, but to lead me on a spirited chase. And two, for questioning myself, for doubting that I could also lift off and fly with my own flawed wings.

Humbled, I raised the camera and snapped a few reverent shots of the beautiful creature, one I now saw as perfect in its own way. After I finished my hike and returned to the cabin, as the late afternoon sun slipped behind a far mountain, I wrote well into the night and all of the next day. And the next. And the next.

When people refuse to let flaws ground them, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish.

Since then, I’ve taken many photos of “perfect” butterflies. But to me, not a single one has been as beautiful.


Butterfly with a portion of its wing missing

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