by Sheri McGregor
What seems like eons ago, in a junior high sewing class, a teacher we’ll call Mrs. Horne instructed with an air of rigid perfection. She was tall and thin, and wore her creamy blonde hair in a flawless French roll secured with a tortoise comb. She made all of her clothes: polyester pantsuits with sleeves hemmed to highlight French cuffs with pearl buttons, and leg lengths just right to show off polished ivory pumps.
Mrs. Horne’s apparel with its perfectly aligned buttonholes and even topstitching in complimentary hues was nothing like my own home-sewn garments. Her clothes looked factory made, where each piece is the responsibility of a single skilled person who works with practiced precision.
Having learned to sew at age 12 on an old treadle machine that was once my grandmother’s, my sewing creations had never been so perfect. I loved them anyway, and loved the process. My mother taught by example not to waste, so when a garment came out too big, I took it in. When the sides of a frustrating zipper didn’t close evenly at the top, I trimmed down one side of the band, or wore a shirt out to cover the flaw. An accidental hole was incorporated into the design by using a homemade patch in the shape of a heart or flower. For me, sewing was an expression, a joy, a useful way to fill my time. That’s why my less-than-perfect classroom grade didn’t bother me.
Many years later in an art class, I learned about Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, of embracing mistakes, and I realized I’d been practicing the art all along. For instance, my garden is a lovely tumble of imperfection. Parts of the happy family home I’ve worked at for more than two and a half decades is a mesh of mistakes. Wabi-sabi is the art of embracing life as it comes, and creating beauty with the happenstance. In Japan, pottery cracks may be mended with seams of gold, generating strength and making use of the broken. Here in my American life, I might interpret wabi-sabi as looking for the silver lining in a bad situation. I might slather more butter on a too-dry slice of home baked bread, or decide that even weeds look pretty when they bloom. And there are plenty of weeds. They also attract beneficial insects.
Mrs. Horne could have used a little wabi-sabi. One day, she singled out a student who had joined our class mid-term. She called attention to the “dull blue blouse” the girl wore each day, and the “dirt-caked jeans” Mrs. Horne said she must never wash.
The bell rang, and as we all got up to go, I looked back, saw the girl still sitting at the long table close to the front of the room. Her limp dark hair parted over slumped shoulders. Was she crying?
By the end of the day, we all knew the student’s story. That blouse and jeans were the girl’s only clothes. That’s why she had joined the sewing class in the first place. I imagined Mrs. Horne discovering her mistake, perhaps brushing back a tuft of corn silk hair that had fallen loose during her outburst. The feathery tendril softened the sharp planes of her face. As the story went, Mrs. Horne had washed the girl’s clothes during lunch, told that student she could stay after school to wash them anytime.
I like to imagine that teacher helped the girl even more that year, maybe sewing her some new clothes from the scraps of fabric and full bolts of cloth she kept in the classroom storage closet. And as the years passed, I imagine her looking for other students that might need help. If she embraced her mistake, learned from it, and became a better person, then she practiced wabi-sabi.
Even a seemingly perfect teacher without a single hair out of place could learn from her mistakes, set aside her ready judgment and look past the surface to what might exist beneath.
We can all use a little wabi-sabi, and learn to appreciate the unexpected accidents of life. When it comes to dark periods and daily problems, we can choose to grow brittle and bitter, be as ready as Mrs. Horne was to find others’ faults. Or, we can embrace the happenstance, let our experiences make us more useful. A little wabi-sabi sweetens the flavor of life’s accidents and mistakes, softens the palate to find what’s right in the wrong.
Not long ago, my husband and I were stuck in a traffic jam in an unfamiliar area. Although we tried to find side streets, the roads all led back to the bottleneck.
I’m not always so sensible, but on that day, I made a good choice. “Well, at least I’m with you,” I said, letting go of the annoyance of being stuck, and relishing the isolated time with my best friend instead.
He settled back into the soft seat, and flipped a CD to an old song that always makes us smile.
What accidents or irritations can you embrace? With a new perspective, can you turn to gold or silver the stuff that happens? With a different attitude, find beauty and value, and give life as it is a hug. You’ll be practicing the ancient art of wabi-sabi.
A Taste of Family History