One night the year we moved into our old, gently used farmhouse in Lawrenceville I was brushing my teeth, and I watched in surreal amazement as the bathroom door slowly — almost gracefully — pulled away from its hinges and crashed sideways into the hallway. It was almost laughable. I wanted to be Scorsese and say, hey guys, let’s do that take over again.
I have wondered for 11 years why I ended up in this poster child fixer-upper. I always thought I would end up in an already-perfect farmhouse, with a real pantry with glass-fronted doors, deep window seats, and all the rooms painted in shades like lobster bisque and Pavlova meringue, the kind of house where Taylor Swift would film her Christmas special.
You see, at a very young age, someone or something in my life made me completely focus on being perfect. I never knew that this could be a problem. I did not get the memo! My perfectionism serves me well in some areas — I am organized to a fault, I never miss a deadline, I actually keep and use a birthday calendar, and I spend literally hours putting the Christmas lights on my tree so each branch is lit right through to the trunk. But I also I tend to craft big, deep criticisms of others.
Don’t worry, I’m equally critical of myself, having somehow learned to equate perfection with happiness. In high school and college I was obsessive about getting straight A’s, thinking that would make my life perfect. Wrong! In my first big girl job, I thought, if I work really hard my bitchy boss will stop being a bitch. Wrong! I criticize myself that I will never be a good yogi because my fear of being upside down prevents me from doing a headstand. I am not a good mother because my 15-year-old has not started his own nonprofit to save an endangered species.
Then, earlier this year, I happened to pick up a magazine and read about wabi sabi, an ancient Japanese philosophy rooted in Zen Buddhism. Wabi sabi is exemplified by tea ceremony bowls, crafted intentionally with cracks and imperfections in the glaze, and revered for that very reason by the tea masters. “Wabi sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental,” Leonard Koren writes in “Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers.” Wabi sabi acknowledges three simple realities: “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect,” writes Richard Powell in “Wabi Sabi Simple.” I wonder if my bathroom door would count as wabi sabi. I know for sure that the fact that a golf ball can roll on its own from one side of my bedroom floor to the other (due to its 10-degree slant) counts.
Navajo Indians purposely weave one clear imperfection into the pattern of their rugs; they believe this is where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug. Islamic artists are urged to make imperfections in their work so observers will be reminded only God is perfect. I ran this wabi sabi idea by my husband. He said, “If you’re perfect, you can’t grow. If you’re imperfect, there’s always room for growth.” Dang. Even he got the memo.
I even had a wabi sabi Thanksgiving. A week or two before every Thanksgiving my son and I bake a gingerbread house from a pattern we find on the Internet or in a book. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving my sister and niece join us to decorate it. We are getting pretty advanced. This year we decided to make a Japanese tea house. We built it first from cardboard, and it was perfect, and then from gingerbread, and it was perfect. There was a white raked Zen garden made from tiny sugar beads and marzipan sculpture, we only used natural colored decorations like almonds and Triscuits and pretzels, and my husband rigged a light inside to emit a soft glow through the parchment windows and sliding doors.
Here’s where the wabi sabi part comes in (love the irony that it was a Japanese gingerbread house). We kept the roof (a delicate construction with two skylights) separate from the house during the decorating and planned to attach it at the end. As my niece carefully applied Shredded Wheat for thatch, the roof came apart. My sister swooped in and put the Humpty Dumpty roof together again with glue. Only the edges on one side, which my son had slaved over with a T-square, did not, could not, match up. But absolutely everything else was, well, perfect.
When we were done, it was dusk. We turned off the kitchen lights and turned the light on inside the ginzgerbread house. A hush fell on our little crowd. If you squatted down and peered in, you could imagine a little Japanese family putting away their tea and rolling out their tatami mats. My son later said to me that the one crooked side of the roof threw him only for a moment: “If I have no control over a situation, I won’t let it bother me,” he said, Yoda-like. “I accept that it’s imperfect because I know that I can’t make it perfect.” I said a silent Darwinian prayer of thanks that my genetic predisposition for perfection had not passed through the bloodline.
A few nights later there I was, brushing my teeth in the bathroom. My husband and son were out, and the house was silent, except for the crackling of the fire in the woodstove downstairs. I thought of the care and precision my husband takes to split the wood, even in the rain and cold, to keep us warm, and the way my son struggles deeply to fight off daydreams of a zombie apocalypse in order to stack the wood with the care and precision his father expects. At that moment I felt their gifts and their imperfections deeply and in tandem, and realized that the two, like yin and yang, are completely inseparable. Their imperfections, this crooked house that needs us so badly, and the cracks in my own soul that have somehow filled to become rivers of transformation make up the wabi sabi of my life.
I hadn’t bothered to turn on the light in the bathroom; the new wooden door, still unpainted after 10 years, was open and the hall light was on. I looked up and saw on the wall, just to the left of the door jamb, the white, illuminated shape of a heart. I stared at it for several moments, wondering if it was real or imagined. Then I realized that the light from the hallway peeking in was reflecting off a small heart-shaped mirror that hangs on the opposite wall. It made me happy that the unpainted bathroom door no longer mattered; the heart mattered.