It started with the left arm. There was a dropped stitch, a slight irregularity in the smooth, sweet rhythm of the yarn. The sweater-in-process, lovely and green, the color of wild asparagus, lay in pieces across the dining room table – its back, two arms and cabled front the eventual shape of loving, hand-knit warmth.
Still, that dropped stitch was causing consternation. Halfway up one sleeve, it would have nestled into the bend of an elbow, barely detectable and probably unseen to even a well-trained eye until it began to pull apart. But the knitter – proficient, quick, given to knitting argyles and Arans in 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’ll take a little more time than picking up the stitch but 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, no errors, but a more subtle issue soon emerged. Intent on re-doing the sleeve perfectly, she may have been 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 negated the difference in appearance. Side-by-side on the dining table, the variation was obvious. “Humph,” said the knitter, who had plenty of time and a tendency toward obsession. “I’ll just do that sleeve again.”
The third knitting was technically perfect. Unfortunately, there are yarns which lose a bit of their fuzziness and “spring” after being knit, unraveled, knit again, unraveled and knit a third time. Even without dropped stitches and uneven tension, the sleeve looked different. With a large reserve of matching yarn available, pointed comments about Madame Defarge 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 done so already. With the tiniest of sighs our perfectionist said,”You know, I just wasn’t happy with those sleeves. They don’t look right. They might need to be unraveled and done over…”
Despite our best efforts, sometimes a do-over isn’t possible. During last year’s holiday season, when a friend and her family completed their traditional jigsaw puzzle it was lovely but imperfect. Two puzzle pieces were missing, and there was nothing to be done. Not one bit embarassed, my friend posted a photo of the puzzle in her blog with a few words of explanation.
One piece, clearly missing from the snowdrifts and tree near the bottom of the puzzle, was 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 look strangely like a piece of vertebra, but it’s only cardboard that’s been given the “doggie treatment” and then reclaimed, no doubt to the amusement of the dog’s humans.
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 and caught it with their sleeve, sending it to the floor. Perhaps it tumbled off when the puzzle was moved from one table to another. It’s conceivable that the same dog who chewed up one piece swallowed the other. In any case, stories told to explain the missing pieces are as various and delightful as the imaginations involved. Imperfections in the puzzle itself do nothing to erode the remembered perfection of evenings spent assembling it, knit together as they were with laughter, love and the simple joy of family tradition.
But of all the imperfections I’ve encountered, one of the best was part of a painting done by a dear friend here in Texas. Known throughout the state for her exquisite florals, she began painting while still a young woman. She lived then in the Texas Panhandle, and much of her early work, done on pieces of barnwood or hardboard, reflected the escarpments, canyons and ranches that surrounded her.
Her first effort at “real painting”, a farmstead in winter created on hardboard in 1960, caught my eye during a moving sale many years later. When she learned I intended to purchase it, she gave it to me with a laugh, saying she never imagined anyone would want “that old thing”. It wasn’t, I suppose, a “good” painting, but it was her first, and I was feeling sentimental.
On the other hand, I also was charmed by a cardinal she’d tucked into the branches of a tree leaning across the entrance to a lane. Seen against banked snow and stark limbs, it was cheerful and appealing, a reminder of all the cardinals I enjoyed during snowbound Iowa winters. Today, her painting has been passed on, but the slightly amended photograph above does capture a bit of its feel: cold, stark and yet graced with unexpected color.
While I still had it, the little painting disappeared into my own closet and languished there 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 color been used to create such a simple smudge of a bird? I asked my friend about it, and 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 and so 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.”
Imperfect creatures though we are, we long for perfection. Much of the melancholy swirled through our New Year’s celebrations comes from looking back and seeing past imperfections all too clearly – every dropped stitch, missing piece and smudge that we’d prefer to forget. Looking forward, we can be tempted into believing that this year we’ll “get it right”, even as we choose to ignore our own limitations, the contingencies of history and the truth that life is, by its very nature, imperfect.
In the coming year, bits and pieces of life will go missing, get chewed up, or simply become worn with overuse. Plans will unravel. Friends will drop us as easily as a stitch. There will be errors and omissions, miscalculations, simple forgetfulness and the dropping of accidental words whose stain never will be erased.
When these imperfections appear, it will be equally tempting to grow petulant, to give up on life, to disparage our efforts and declare our resolutions irrelevant. But before we stash the sweater in the closet, sweep away the puzzle or hide the painting, it may be worth reminding 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. Perfection is one thing. The joys of an imperfect yet cherished life can be quite another.