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  • Writer's picturejenhelmuth

slow-motion breakthrough

It wasn’t until I saw the butterfly pin at the thrift store that it all came together. For weeks, I had been puzzling over a half-started art project on a wood board unearthed from our basement. The board was a former shelf in a credenza that I bought used many years earlier. I loved the creamy caramel colour of the wood and the flowing movement of the grain. Despite this board’s appeal, it had seen better days. Spending years inside a mid-century office unit, this shelf had some scratches and little bits of paper stuck in a few spots where glue must have spilled. While those signs of a full life were hard-earned and character-building they seemed to distract from the overall qualities of the wood that drew my eye.

And so, I found myself puzzling. How could I accentuate the beautiful qualities of this board while still working with all the scratches and paper fragments? At first, I tried many different ideas to cover over the “blemishes”. What if I would glue my work right on top of those paper pieces and cover it up? What if I turned it this way and that? As I tried all different strategies, everything seemed to competed with the flow of the grain. It was clear that covering over the marks would not allow for the true beauty in that wood to really shine.

I wanted to work with all aspects of this piece of wood: those little bits of stuck-on paper are part of the story. In my genuine efforts to include the “wholeness” of the board, I focussed a lot of attention on those “blemishes”. I was trying to understand how they could seen in a different way that would unearth a vision for this piece of wood. How could I love and accept the “blemishes”? How did they want to be part of the design?

After many hours spilling into days and weeks, it became apparent that concentrating on what was “wrong” and how to hide it, or fix it, or even incorporate it, just wasn’t working. I was stuck. So, I circled back to a bigger perspective. Why had I picked up this board in the first place? What attracted me to the wood? I turned my attention to what I really liked about the piece. I began to focus on how I could accentuate the beautiful flow and colour of the wood. An image started to form of a branch reaching out in the spring with the vibrant yellow-greens of new growth. The scene took on a life of it’s own and very quickly fell into place with an ease that was energizing.

I got caught up in the beauty that was unfolding with the spring-time branch, and just let the glued-on paper be there – neither working around it or hiding it. Working with the beautiful colour and grain of the wood felt so natural and effortless, and it was liberating to concentrate on the new growth of those fun and colourful spring leaves. My mind had turned to thinking about this piece with excitement and love for how it was emerging. I trusted that when the time was right, the role for those pesky “blemishes” would become apparent.

And then a few weeks later, I stumbled across the butterfly pin. I was scavenging at the jewelry section of the thrift store picking up items for a different project when the dazzling butterfly caught my eye. My unfinished artwork sprang to mind. This butterfly would add another layer of the spring theme and vibrant life that was unfolding on the board. And then it dawned on me – “Yes! Those stuck-on pieces of paper are the fragments of the cocoon!” That is how those “blemishes” complete the story of this wood’s emergence into a scene of new growth with meaningful depth. I raced home and spent the rest of the night finishing this piece.

Standing back and taking it all in the next morning, I thought to name the piece “breakthrough”. I don’t always name my artwork. And when I do, it’s because the name arises during the process. This time, it wasn’t until after the piece was done, that I considered a name. The way this name emerged follows the pattern of how the piece developed. The artwork took time - cycles of stepping away, trusting, shifting perspective, and reflection.

This hindsight helped to coalesce my insights. First, I had to shift my focus away from the “blemishes” and toward the goodness and beauty that allowed the creative process to move forward. It’s natural to focus on what’s wrong and problem-solve. It takes a concerted effort to instead look for what’s working well and build in that area. This is a lesson I continue to learn many times over in my own life and support clients to do likewise.

Second, I had to trust that resolution with the “blemishes” would come in time. That freed me to concentrate on what was emerging. We can get caught up in fixing, or resolving, or even just managing what isn’t working – and it draws our resources. It takes trust in yourself and trust in a bigger process to stop tinkering with the “problem” and know that change can happen without your direct intervention. It is not easy to believe that if you don’t do anything about the problem that it will shift. However, I have found that in channelling that energy into revealing what is already good, and beautiful and working well, that things will change in time.

Thirdly, I learned that sometimes, its not until you fully see the end result - like the butterfly - that you appreciate the beginnings for what they are - cocoons. This took a shift in perspective from seeing “blemishes” to appreciating the part they have in the story. Most of us do not really like or ask for the challenges that teach us. And in the moment, those “problems” do not feel worthwhile, frankly. Over time and with reflection though, we can look back and see how we’ve grown and find meaning from those “blemishes”. This takes effort and practice, and often the perspective of supportive people in your life.

Finally, while I felt like I had a breakthrough moment when I suddenly realized how I could resolve what I’d been puzzling over for weeks, as I look back, this breakthrough was happening in slow-motion. I had shifted my focus, trusted the “blemishes” and reflected on the process. This is the way most breakthroughs happen. Although the shift many seem sudden in the moment, we prepare the ground and tend the process that is actually a breakthrough happening in slow motion.

Just like the way a butterfly emerges. It takes hours of moving and pushing against the constraints of the once-comfortable and protective cocoon, to finally breakthrough into a much different way of being in the world. It can be hard work -- challenging and painful and exhausting. And we may not fully realize that we are wrestling to be free of the cocoon until we fly away. It’s not until we spread our butterfly wings, that we can look back to see that those “blemishes” we resisted and wanted to cover over, were actually our safe cocoon.

So, take heart – and take stock…. What are the small, subtle ways you might be in a slow-motion breakthrough?


“There are very few human beings who receive the truth,

complete and staggering, by instant illumination.

Most of us acquire it fragment by fragment,

on a small scale, by successive developments,

cellular lyrics, like a laborious mosaic.”

- Anais Nin

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