2019 Grateful 6: Embracing imperfection

I doubt I’d register on the OCD charts. I’m not obsessively compulsive about anything really. Okay, so I’d straighten a picture frame if it was crooked (or a curtain or a knife or a plate or a tablecloth or pretty much anything) and I couldn’t sit to eat unless all the stuff used to prepare the food had been put away. And yeah, I’m usually doing dishes before everyone is finished eating. And I have to leave the house by the same door I entered (as does everyone who comes to visit). But aside from all that…I have a thing about perfection though. I love old stuff, but if it has a crack in it, I won’t buy it. If one of the thingeys is missing, I leave it on the shelf. If it’s missing a lid I won’t take it home. Recently, though, two things happened to change all that. I surprised myself.

I’d spotted a csókkereszt (kissing cross) for sale on a site and was intrigued. Since I visited Chuichu, Arizona earlier this year and found a fabulous cross on a grave in an Indian cemetery (and no, I didn’t take it home), I’ve had a thing about crosses.

From the photograph on the site, it looked like it was made from wrought iron. But much too late into the negotiations to back out, I found out that it was carved from wood about 100 years ago. While the detail itself is really something, it’s far from perfect. Usually, that imperfection would have been enough for me to say thanks, but no thanks.

But earlier in the month, at a workshop I was running, one of the participants gave a presentation on the Japanese aesthetic Wabi-Sabi which focuses on the acceptance of imperfection and finding beauty in things that are ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’. They compared it to the more western aesthetic of clean lines and symmetry, something I’d have a leaning towards. They explained how Wabi translates as the loneliness of living remotely, in nature; and Sabi means chilled or withered. The dictionary suggests that Wabi-Sabi is ‘a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay’. Because of the iterative style of the workshop, I’ve seen this presentation three times now, and each time I come away even more convinced that I need to refocus. 

Instead of looking at my gorgeous csókkereszt and seeing the imperfections as a sign of poor craftsmanship, I see them as a symbol of human frailty. Strangely, were it perfect, it wouldn’t be so beautiful. It would look as if it had been turned by a machine, in mass quantities, rather than carved painstakingly by hand. I’m delighted with it.

The notion of deliberative imperfections is not new.

In the Navajo culture, rug weavers would leave little imperfections along the borders in the shape of a line called ch’ihónít’i, which is translated into English as “spirit line” or “spirit pathway. The Navajos believe that when weaving a rug, the weaver entwines part of her being into the cloth. The spirit line allows this trapped part of the weaver’s spirit to safely exit the rug.

I’ve heard tell that Islamic architects and artists introduce deliberate imperfections in their work because to their mind only God is perfect. There’s an interesting essay on errors in geometric art that wonders at the truth of this. Wasn’t it the artist Paul Klee who said that genius is the error in the system? He had something there.

In my line of work, I meet a lot of interesting people with fascinating stories. Every day I learn something I didn’t know, about life, about the world, about myself. And for this I’m grateful.

Oh, I’m almost sure that my csókkereszt was used in a processional ceremony on Good Friday where the faithful queue up to kiss the cross. I had thought that it was usually a crucifix and that the feet were what was kissed. This one I’ve no idea about. If any of you can shed some light, please do.

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One Response

  1. The Japanese celebrate ‘Wabi Sabi’ when mending broken items especially ceramics……..they will mend a broken vase with gold or silver in the joint…….the mend itself becomes something of beauty. I’m not sure that they would waste this on an ‘everyday’ pot though. Your article also brings to mind Islamic and Indian rugs which are beautiful (and come to think of it stone masonry in our cathedrals) but if you look closely will have a number of ‘mistakes’ which always remind me that they were undertaken by humans………not machines.

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