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.”
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.