Life’s Little Imperfections

It began with the left arm. The sweater-in-process, the color of wild young asparagus, lay in pieces on the dining room table: its back, right arm, and cabled, vee-necked front ready to be assembled into the shape of loving, hand-knit warmth. But within that left arm, a fault had been introduced into the pattern — a slight irregularity in the smooth, sweet rhythm of the yarn — and it was causing consternation.

Halfway up the sleeve, it would have nestled into the bend of an elbow, barely detectable and probably unseen even to well-trained eyes.  But the knitter — proficient, quick, and given to knitting in places like darkened movie theatres – spotted it, and felt it looming like an accusation.  “I’ll just unravel that sleeve and do it over,” she said. “It won’t take very much time, and after all – we want it to be perfect.”

With the sleeve unraveled and the yarn gently re-wound, she began to knit again. This time, there were no dropped stitches and no pattern errors, but a more subtle issue emerged. Intent on re-doing the sleeve perfectly, she had become a little tense. While she knit, the tension worked its way through her hands, down the needles, and into the yarn: making the stitches in the repaired sleeve noticeably tighter.

On a completed sweater, the separation of the sleeves might have made up for the difference in appearance. Side-by-side on the dining table, the variation was obvious. “Humph,” said the knitter, who had plenty of time on her hands. “I’ll just do that sleeve again.”

The third attempt was technically perfect. Unfortunately, in the process of being knit, unraveled, knit again, unraveled and knit a third time, the yarn had lost a good bit of its fuzziness and spring. Even without dropped stitches and uneven tension, the sleeve looked different.  Perhaps because a large reserve of matching yarn had been stashed in the closet, pointed comments about obsessive behavior were dismissed out of hand. Another sleeve would be knit: this time, from fresh yarn. It went quickly, and the sleeve was perfect.

Six months later, a friend asked about the sweater. “Oh,” said the knitter. “It’s in the closet. I still need to put it together.”  Astonished, her friend asked why she hadn’t already done so. With the tiniest of sighs, our beloved perfectionist said, “You know, I’m just not happy with those sleeves. They don’t look right. They might need to be unraveled and done over.”

The Christmas Puzzle ~ Photo by Diana Losciale

Sometimes, of course, a do-over isn’t possible. During holiday celebrations some years ago, a friend and her family completed their traditional jigsaw puzzle, only to discover two significant imperfections: one puzzle piece missing, one piece destroyed.

As it turned out, one piece, clearly missing from the snowdrifts near the bottom of the puzzle, had been chewed up by her daughter’s dog and left for dead on the floor. You can see that piece lying on the deep blue house at the left. It does bear a certain resemblance to a bit of vertebrae, but it’s only cardboard that’s been given the doggie treatment and then reclaimed, apparently to great amusement.

The other missing piece, a bit of sky and tree from the upper-left corner, simply disappeared in the course of working the puzzle.  Perhaps someone bent across the table, caught it with their sleeve, and sent it to the floor. Perhaps it tumbled off when the puzzle was moved from one table to another. It’s even conceivable that the same dog who chewed up one piece swallowed the other.

In any event, the stories the family told to one another to explain the missing pieces were as varied and delightful as the imaginations involved.  Imperfections in the puzzle did nothing to erode the remembered perfection of evenings spent assembling it: evenings knit together with laughter, love, and the simple joy of family tradition.

Of all the imperfections I’ve encountered, one of the most delightful involved an oil painting done by an older friend here in Texas. Known throughout the state for her exquisite florals, she began painting while still a young woman living in the Texas Panhandle. Much of her early work, visions of the escarpments, canyons, and ranches that surrounded her, was done on pieces of barnwood or hardboard, since canvas wasn’t available.

Her first effort at ‘real’ painting — a farmstead in winter, done on hardboard in 1960 — caught my eye many years later, at her estate sale. When she learned I intended to purchase it, she gave it to me with an embarassed laugh, saying she never imagined anyone would want what she called “that old thing.” While I agreed at the time that it wasn’t equal to her best work, it was her first, and I was feeling sentimental.

On the other hand, I also found myself charmed by a cardinal she’d tucked into the branches of a spindly cedar tree that leaned across the entrance to a lane. Seen against banked snow and stark limbs, the bird was cheerful and appealing: a reminder of cardinals I enjoyed during snowbound Iowa winters.

Eventually, the little painting disappeared into my own closet and languished there for years, until a determined bit of sorting-out put it back into my hands. Looking at it with fresh eyes, I examined the snowdrifts; the trees; the cardinal. Of all the painting’s elements, the bird was the least well-done. “A third-grader could have done that bird,” I thought. “I could have done that bird.”

It made me curious. Given the quality of other elements in the painting, why had the vibrant red paint been used to create such a simple smudge of a bird? 

When I asked my friend about it, her trilling laughter cascaded through the house.  “Oh, my dear!’ she said. “That’s no cardinal at all. When I finished the painting, I wasn’t thoughtful enough to move my little homestead out of the way, off the counter where I was working on another project, and I dropped a bit of red paint on it.  It was terrible sloppiness on my part. I tried to wipe it off, but I wasn’t skillful or patient enough. So, I left the smudge – and now you’ve seen it as a bird, all this time.”

By its very nature, life is filled with imperfection. Between the contingencies of history and our own inherent limitations, bits and pieces of life go missing, get chewed up, or grow threadbare over the years. Plans unravel. Pieces don’t match. Friends drop out of our lives as easily as a dropped stitch. There are errors and omissions, miscalculations, simple forgetfulness, and the dropping of accidental words whose stain never will be erased.

When the imperfections appear, it can be tempting to grow petulant or impatient; to disparage our own efforts; or to declare our hopes and longings irrelevant.

But before we stash the sweater in the closet, sweep away the puzzle, or hide the painting, we might remind ourselves that there are stories in the mistakes, beauty in the flaws, and compelling mystery in the smudges of time and history wiped across the canvas of our lives. Demanding an impossible perfection is one thing; celebrating the joys of imperfect, yet cherished, lives is quite another. 

Comments always are welcome.
All photos, unless otherwise noted, are mine.
Published in: on September 17, 2016 at 9:17 pm  Comments (118)  
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Sometimes, Once Is Enough

Roseate spoonbill at Olney Pond
(click for greater clarity)

The morning seemed unusually quiet. At the edge of Olney Pond, a single spoonbill stirred the water, swinging its bill with a pendulum-like rhythm: shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish. Glossy ibis, long-billed and svelte, picked over their sandbar like latecomers to brunch. Only the stilts, hidden among the rushes and reeds, shredded the silence with their sharp, clean yips of warning and complaint.

In the rising heat, clouds bubbled and built before bending to the will of the winds. Distracted by their shifting shapes, I barely noted the soft, muted sound behind me. Then, I heard it again: the sound of a pillowcase being snapped and shaken out before being pinned to a clothesline.

While considering the possibilities — Alligator? Hunter? Frogs? — I heard the sound again: closer this time, and more resonant. Suddenly, with a fluttering of wings and loud, croaking cries, a great egret dressed in breeding plumage landed at the edge of the pond.

A Grace Period

(Click to enlarge)

Had T.S. Eliot lived in coastal Texas, he might have chosen August rather than April to be his cruelest month: bringing, as August does, a wasteland of over-heated concrete, limp vegetation, and silent birds.

Picking lethargically at their food, the birds show little more interest in the world around them than their increasingly silent, sighing human companions. Caught between memories of the delicate, blooming spring and desire for October’s cooling winds, spirits grow dull, insensate: failing to revive even when washed by overheated rain. (more…)

Auntie T and Anti-T ~ Part II

Cousin Jimmy shares his bicycle with me

I didn’t know my cousin Jimmy’s father, although I knew his name: Red Conrey. He and Aunt T divorced before I was born and, in the way of children, I simply accepted the answer I received when I asked why Jimmy didn’t live with Aunt T and Uncle Harold: “Your aunt was married to Mr. Conrey, but they aren’t married any more. Jimmy lives with his dad.”

Still, the family was close, and there didn’t seem to be any lingering resentments. Each time she arrived from New York, Aunt T made a point of visiting Jimmy at his home in another town, or he came to stay with my grandparents.

Red was working as a house painter when he and Thelma married. Raised in nearby Knoxville, he may have met her there after she graduated from high school and began working at the Marion County Treasurer’s office. When my cousin Jimmy was born, Red was as proud as any father could be. One of the earliest photos of Jimmy, taken in July, 1938, shows him in his father’s arms.

Unfortunately, the photo accompanied a headline that had all of south-central Iowa in an uproar. (more…)

Published in: on August 21, 2016 at 7:09 pm  Comments (102)  
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Auntie T and Anti-T ~ Part I

Julia Child and friends

The familiar voice — an absurd, bird-like trill of enthusiasm — pulled me toward the living room. Irrationally hoping that the doyenne of dough had raised herself from the dead to once again begin unraveling the mysteries of pâte feuilletée or asperges au naturel, I found instead the trailer for Julie and Julia, the charming, if slightly overdone true tale of Julie Powell, a dissatisfied office worker who determined to prepare every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking within the space of a year.

Watching the clip, I wasn’t inspired to go searching for my pastry cloth, but I did remember how closely Julia Child resembled my beloved Aunt T. My father’s younger sister, she seemed both exotic and mysterious. In the course of her occasional visits, she dropped advice, humor, and an alternative view of the universe into my life like so many bouquets garnis: nudging me to look beyond the bland certainties of a 1950’s childhood. (more…)