Wabi-sabi is Japanese for perfect-imperfect:
Rooted in Zen Buddhism, it refers to finding beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.
I’ve spent much of the last three years examining my imperfect life–one that I knew wasn’t perfect, but one that I’d convinced myself was content and fulfilling. Know what I mean? I’d given up my dream to become a writer in my 20’s to seek shelter under the corporate umbrella for a steady paycheck–imperfect, no? High heels and a suit? Check. Frequent flyer miles galore? Check, check. Exhilarating, but exhausting for sure as I tried to balance a family with career. On the plus side, those years gave me an insider education about organizations and people and business models, plus the financial cushion to become a professional writer by the time I was 40. Perfect, right? Not so fast.
Along the way, a young first marriage failed. Imperfect. A beautiful daughter was born from that union. Perfection. When she was nearly seven, I married mr. invisible, my former husband, who looked pretty perfect on the exterior: Well employed. Decent family, no one’s picture on “America’s Most Wanted.” Showed up for his kids from his first marriage. Held my hand in public and didn’t make an ass of himself at a party after a few glasses of wine. Danced with me at weddings–even though he admitted he lied when he said, “Sure, I love to dance, too!” while we were dating. Loaded the dishwasher after dinner–not once in awhile, but every night that we ate at home. Explained sports plays without a demeaning tone. Actually played golf with me when I hacked around so much in the beginning it was like I was killing snakes (always the snakes!). Rarely raised his voice and was practical about money without ever being stingy.
The lesson? While looking for beauty in the real, imperfect world, it’s easy to skip over the tiny imperfections that eventually spider outward, creating a chasm so deep, you can lose yourself in its middle without even knowing it until it’s too late. So what did I miss?
I missed his unease (or as my late friend and mentor Lois would say, “dis-ease”) with intimacy–the physical, emotional and ongoing lack of ability to connect deeply with what matters to me in life. BIG, obvious, external connections were easy for him–a generous support of charities, sending flowers to often overlooked widowed aunts on Christmas and Mother’s Day, helping friends’ kids get interviews with heavy hitters in desirable companies. All important things to me as well. But ask him to verbalize pain of any kind, and the man with the MBA vocabulary and gold cufflinks became mute, and would stare into space as if looking for a yet undiscovered planet.
So some would say, “Shit, what makes you so special? That’s every man I’ve ever met!” Only it’s not.
In past relationships with men in my life, I’ve found that by drilling down past their uber manliness, there are plenty of feelings that can be expounded upon, perhaps not in the dissertation format I’d like, but at least a Reader’s Digest
version. Yes, it makes me sad when you compare me to your alcoholic father, they might say. No, I can’t say I ever thought about what it’s like to be talked to like a third-grade girl by your boss in a job that requires a master’s degree, but I’ll try! I did feel like shit when I told her it was over, one opined. Yes, I really DO think your butt looks good in those jeans! Yada yada.
The most visual example of mr. invisible’s “feelingless” came about six months before he moved out, after he’d had a biopsy on a suspected skin cancer. I’d asked several times if he needed help changing the dressing on it, and he’d said no, but the next day I saw him begin to gingerly peel back the gauze bandage on his shoulder after his shower. “God, what the hell have you done?” I saw a slash wound that was puffed up purply red, punctuated by stitch after black stitch. It had to hurt, just had to. “Oh, it’s nothing,” he replied as he calmly covered it back up with nary a wince. In 30 years, he’d never complained of a headache. He was a runner and ran on pavement for 40 years, and only in his 60’s did he mention a little pinch in his knee. When the doctor scanned it, it was bone on bone.
Secret keepers who risk losing everything don’t feel the way you and I feel–they keep any feelings of guilt or sadness or remorse locked away in a little box far from the center of their hearts. To allow those feelings to enter their minds would be like stamping words on their foreheads for everyone to see–and who wants to be pilloried for thinking and doing things that others find repugnant or unacceptable or illegal?? Pain for them is just a word–it’s not something to be felt, because that opens the private box a crack, and the fear of facing all those secrets flying out would be like facing an angry flock of black, ravenous birds of prey, bloody talons and beaks poised, ready for another battle.
I battle, too. Not every second and minute like it was in the first days and months after he moved out. But some days, when I open the box next to my heart, the one where my pain resides, I take it out, carefully examine it, and ask myself how I missed the signs at the edge of that chasm. The answers aren’t pretty and they hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, about like a slash across the shoulder I imagine. But I look anyway, toss all night long after seeing what I wish I hadn’t, and then call myself names over it. The next day, I pull myself up and out of my twisted sheets, and I start to release the toxic state my mind has whipped up as I head to yoga, off on a brisk walk or into my meditation class, balm for the soul. Later, I watch the sun bathe the desert in a glimmer that fades like antiqued brass into evening, and move another step toward feeling stronger than a third-grade girl: To a place where I can be a positive role model for my daughter and grand babies. Where I can take shelter under the umbrella of love so generously provided me by my friends and family.
And, I smile each time at just how imperfectly perfect this new life is that I’ve created.