What IS This Thing Called Perfection?

When I was a kid I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, like just about every other 7th grader in 1972, and it affected me very strongly.

Specifically, it changed my idea about what perfect means.

Up to that point perfect had been a goal, something I wanted to acheive, something I knew I’d never reach (just look at how I spell achieve!) and – ultimately – something that dragged me down. An impossible standard, SO high I didn’t even aim for it.

My mother used to talk about her own wonderful mother, using the phrase, “She was loved by EVERYBODY…” and I would squirm with frustration.

I would never be loved by everyone. Heck, I wasn’t even liked by a decent percentage of my classmates.

But JLS made me think of perfection as a state of mind, a place we arrive at when other points in our being are in alignment. Perfection, to quote JLS, was “being there”

I began to realize that my grandmother was NOT loved by every human soul she passed in the street, but her daughter’s perception was that she was. My mother’s vision could sometimes be clouded by her overwhelming love [see: How My Mother Worshipped My Abusive Father] and in Mom’s version of reality it felt safe and good to see her mother as being – literally – loved by EVERYBODY who knew her.

But I knew differently.

I knew that my other grandmother [the bad grandmother] didn’t love my mom’s mother [the good grandmother]. So there was one.

And one was all it took to burst the damn which held back the flood waters of imperfection. And we knew from floods in our family, my grandfather’s sister having been somehow involved in the Johnsontown Flood. A family story which is still unclear to me.

So why this long trip down memory lane to visit the land of imperfection? Because perfection is a standard we set for ourselves, and it is unrealistic.

Accepting our imperfections can take us to a place where what we do – although not technically perfect – will be perfect when viewed in concert with all of our other actions. We will be there. And being there is 99% of reaching perfection.

I stress to my students that I don’t want them to rip out their work during classes, that I want them to override that perfection gene some folks seem to have, and just SEE THE MISTAKES. If you don’t see it, you can’t own it. If you don’t own it, you can’t change it.

Seeing – owning – a mistake is the only way to improve. You will not move toward perfection until you acknowledge your imperfection.

I ask my classes, “Is anyone here a diety? Any minor gods or goddesses in the room I should know about…?” When the answer is no (usually) I go on to say that – being human – I expect that everyone will make at least one mistake. And I further say that if they DON’T make a mistake, I’ll think they’re not trying.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

A few days ago a good friend and sister designer, Stephanie Japel, received a note from a knitter who was having a hard time with one of Steph’s patterns. Stephanie, like me, tends to push the envelope when she designs something – going out on a limb to create unique interpretations of standard garments.

When you push the envelope, not everyone is going to be able to lick the flap.

And that’s when the blaming begins.

Blame is a fools’ game.

When things in life Go South (or, if you live in the south, when things Go North) It’s good to know what went wrong, why it happened, and to indict someone who willfully has damaged someone else. This is called learning from past history (it can also be called justice).

But looking around for someone to blame whenever anything goes wrong is just another way of propping up our tattered and weary self-perception that we – of course – are perfect.

If we screw up, it must be because someone else is to blame.

And once the finger of blame is pointed all hell breaks loose. As someone who has owned 10 fingers of blame at various times in my life, I know this story well. The more you blame, the more invested you are in proving that the blame-ee is, well, a fool. And mean. And useless. And lots of other things.

Which is kind of what happened to my friend, Stephanie.

A knitter was having a hard time understanding the collar shaping from the Tweed Coat in Glam Knits. It was a bit of a mind game, really, a unique way of working some short rows to achieve a really beautiful final product – but ultimately worthwhile.

We all have different minds – I stress this in my classes. We view things in many different ways, and this is magnificent because it can create a symbiosis whereby several folks come up with ideas that one person alone couldn’t.

For instance, I prefer to chart things because I’ve found that when I return to written notations of how I’ve done something unusual, I become lost. It’s just how my mind works.

Charts help me find my way, but I also understand they don’t work well for everyone. That’s why I try to chart and write out my stitch patterns in my patterns. (Please not the word TRY)

Steph had written out the collar for her Tweed Coat in a way that took a bit of thinking, but that’s how it had to be because it was a difficult concept. Not impossible, but worth the trouble.

Some folks had a hard time with the concept, so Steph created a pictoral tutorial on her blog whereby she showed, step by step, how to comprehend and create the hard part of the collar of her lovely piece.

I was struck by her generosity in taking the time to do this, and by her humility in writing that some folks had thought the pattern was “screwed up” so she wanted to show what she meant in the writing.

And, my friends, sometimes a little humility is all it takes for the bully of perfection to skulk into the neighborhood.

Humility – using the phrase, “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong…” – has become blood in the water, a signal of weakness and the green flag for the lawyers and aHA!-ers to gather.

I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that in our litigious society simply hearing the words, “I’m sorry…” is as rare as hen’s teeth?

Yet “I’m sorry” is exactly the admission of our imperfection – the owning of a mistake – that is necessary for us to move to a more perfect place.

No pattern you buy will be perfect. You may think it’s perfect because you can read it, understand it, and it works for you. But there will be SOMEONE out there who will not be able to understand certain points of the pattern (either because it’s not clear to them, or the approach it with preconcieved notions which the designer doesn’t share).

Understanding what the designer is trying to say is the kernal to creating a garment. Clarity of language is why we gravitate to different designers – each one speaks to different knitters in their own way.

And, sad to say, there are such things as mistakes in patterns. Humans make mistakes – not every mistake can be found before publication – and sometimes the act of trying to perfect a pattern (fix EVERY mistake) can toss a few additional whoppers in there.

I used to fret about this ceaselessly. I used to toss and turn and not sleep at night – knowing that I was ruining lives by the verbiage in my patterns. Or, at least, that’s how it felt at 3:00 am when I’d creep downstairs and re-read hate mail from knitters who didn’t get some part of one of my patterns.

Folks can be unkind – I know that from both sides – and unkindness can burn like hot wax.

But I’m slowly moving to a place where I am able to forgive myself for missteps in a pattern, communications that aren’t as clear to the other party as they might be. My mind works differently than many others – for better or for worse – and that’s just how it is.

Understanding this – accepting it – has made a pretty wonderful change in my outlook. I find that I’m much more open to changing how I communicate my techniques. I am not tied to a dogmatic position (I MUST explain it like THIS and THIS because, well, because that’s just how I AM!)

Not locking ourselves into a pre-concieved notion of ourselves, allowing ourselves the freedom to flow and move and change, THAT is moving toward being there.

And there is where I hope to be someday. In the mean time I’m happy to be here.

Baby Love
A good, dear friend recently had an experience I cannot fully comprehend. She lost a child.

The pain of this is so great that I can hardly even allow myself to think about it for more than a few moments, but she lives it 24 hours a day.

Working through her grief brought her to a place where she wants to create flocks of little, knitted birds to pass along to the 270 families of children who undergo heart surgery in the hospital where her son was treated. She writes:

the hospital here in rochester performs apporimately 270 heart surgeries a year and i want every child to get a bird the day of surgery.

these birds will be a symbol of hope and comfort, a symbol of my precious cooper watching over these families and their children, both through the surgery and the recovery process.

i want these families to know that there is someone out there thinking of them, who has been in their shoes, and knows their hopes and fears. the children will be able to hang the birds in their beds while they are in the hospital. it does my heart good to think of hundreds of little cooper birds watching over sick children.

If you’d like to make one, or a few, of these little birdies the pattern is here.

Stay tuned for where to send them – or you can visit my friend’s blog where she’ll be posting an address to send the flock in the near future. In the mean time, just knitting the birds will be an act of love – concentrated thought. This is about as close to prayer as I get.

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