Perfectly at home with imperfection

It’s my home’s imperfections that make it interesting. But it’s not only the house. Everything I own seems to have a glitch, often by my choice. 

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters/File
Visitors tour a three-story upside-down family-sized house in Taipei, Taiwan, April 7, 2016. An imperfect product, just like a flawless one, is the result of a lot of work. As such, it should be admired for what it is, rather than what it isn’t.

My carpenter is a competent, even gifted, craftsman. Maybe this is why my house frustrates him. It was built well over a century ago, probably by very poor people, and it shows. The floors are not level, the wall studs are spaced without rhyme or reason, and doors open and close of their own accord, depending on the season. My carpenter’s advice to me: “Get out while the gettin’s good.”

What he doesn’t understand is that I like it here. It’s my home’s imperfections that make it interesting. But it’s not only the house. Everything I own seems to have a glitch, often by my choice. 

Last year, for example, I went to an outlet to buy a canoe. I found one at a great, almost unbelievable, price. When I asked the salesman why it was so cheap, his unqualified answer was, “She don’t float right.” My response: “I’ll take it.” 

As it turned out, the canoe floats, but it lists to one side, requiring that I sit to the left so that everything comes out even. It’s a small sacrifice to make for an otherwise fine craft that has delivered countless enjoyable outings on breathtaking Maine lakes.

Then there was my visit to the local building supply warehouse. I needed a rather large window and braced myself for what I knew would be an expensive buy. Off in a corner, however, sitting alone and forlorn, was the precise window I was looking for, but it was marked “imperfect.” It looked fine to me, but the salesman pointed out a tiny bubble in the glass. “You’ll notice it when the sun shines through,” he said. I bought it, and he was right: When the sun shines through, the bubble glistens like a gemstone. How lovely. How unique.

The problem with seeking the new and perfect is that, as soon as it suffers some slight, it is no longer new and perfect and one is likely to feel a sense of loss. The beauty of material imperfection is that the “damage” has already been done and it is precisely the blemish, the discoloration, or the asymmetry that one embraces. The mismatched chairs, the crooked steps, the used car, the thrift shop shoes ... These are all one of a kind, and they bear the marks of those who went before me, or those who attempted to create the ideal but fell short. How wonderful is the world of the imperfect. 

I was dwelling on this very thought just the other day while sitting at the counter in a diner in my small Maine town. The diner opened in 1931, and little about its appearance has changed over the years. The long countertop is warped and worn down to its bedrock, so much so that a visitor once asked the owner why he hadn’t replaced it. The owner, not missing a beat and being a man after my own heart, remarked, “Why would I replace it? Do you know how many elbows it took to get it this way?”

That’s it, then. An imperfect product, like a flawless one, is also the result of our labor, and as such it needs to be admired for what it is, rather than what it isn’t. I think that, at root, my frustrated carpenter realizes this as well. 

Recently, while trimming a new skylight in my home, he ran out of wood and had to retrieve a piece from my scrap pile. The “problem” was that my son, when he was little, had burned his name into the board with a magnifying glass. “I’m sorry I had to use scrap,” said the carpenter as we looked up at the charred lettering, “but I didn’t think you’d mind. Does it look OK?”

“Oh yes,” I assured him as I admired his handiwork. “It’s perfect.”

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