The Underside

I used to think life was a chaotic and complicated mess of events and emotions that both fascinated and bewildered me. It’s kind of like being on a roller coaster ride and having no idea when that next loop or fall is coming and feeling somewhat out of control. Or like a beautiful piece of embroidery, stitched to perfection––then you turn it over and get the real picture.

When I was a child, my mom taught me all sorts of crafty and useful things. With her patience and love, I learned how to sew, knit, bake, make my bed, wash my laundry (wash my dad’s laundry), iron my clothes, cross-stitch and, as I grew up, paint walls, build a front porch railing, grow a garden and throw pots. We didn’t take pots out of the kitchen cupboard and literally throw them across a room. My mom is a potter and to throw a pot means to shape one out of clay on a pottery wheel. The throwing has something to do with the action of slapping the clay on the wheel as it’s spinning, forming its shape while in continuous motion, and then removing the excess clay from the final draft in swift paring motions. The point is that you don’t stop until it’s done because whatever you’re attempting to make might collapse in defeat into an unrecognized it-was-to-be-something lump of clay.

My mom is an incredible artist. She is a master with her hands and can turn anything into art. She’s one of those people that can draw stick figures so well you wonder what their names are and whether they’re happy in their lives.

Aside from love and kindness, one of the most significant things my mom taught me is how to stitch––sewing, embroidery, cross-stitch, etc.––because it taught me about self-care. For those of you who don’t know what cross-stitch is, it is a bit like embroidery except that you stitch tiny little x’s onto special, grid-like Aida cloth that allows you to count your way through the process as you follow the corresponding pattern. If you count it correctly, your resulting image or design will be perfect. If you miss even one square, you’ll end up with Picasso-like representation of a dog’s otherwise symmetrical face. Countless times I had to go back and redo hours of work because of one missed stitch.

I loved doing cross-stitch from the time my mom taught me, at about eight years old. I bought pattern after pattern and made gifts for my family, wall hangings for my room. (My most prized stitched accomplishment hangs proudly in the entrance to my parent’s home––a gift I made for my mom many years ago). I loved the regimented perfection of creating stitches inside little squares while following a pattern that told me how many stitches to make and when to change rows and colours. A perfectly-appointed map to an expected destination (so easy to follow). After a painstaking number of hours and eye strain, the result was always exactly what it was supposed to be––what the glossy image on the pattern displayed and promised to deliver if I followed all the instructions. If I didn’t look at the back of my tapestry I could present this beautiful, regurgitated image as a symbol of my dedication to perfection and experience ultimate satisfaction in my accomplishment.

But oh. Each time I completed a stitching, the first thing my mom would do is turn the cloth over and look at the back, the underside of my work. Ugh. There my true process showed. Misaligned, knotted-up threads fixed hastily through the backs of stitches, frayed ends sticking out every which way. It was like walking from a scrupulously manicured garden into the wild disarray of someone’s backyard overgrown with weeds while your mind trips over the thought, how do people let it get to this?

As a child, exposing the back of my cross-stitch was like being caught masturbating––a dirty little secret revealed. It showed all my shortcomings, my flaws and faults and failure with the thing I was trying to perfect. I had worked so hard to make the front look the way it was supposed to look––all that counting and colour changing and fussing over knotted threads––that I never paid any attention to the back. What did that matter after all? You didn’t actually see it. “It’s a sign of skill”, my mom would say, “the back must always be neat and tidy.” Any bumps or knots in the thread will compromise the precision flatness of the front and the eyes will note every imperfection. It will hint at the stitcher’s mistakes, her impatience and inability to follow the lines and flatten the edges, to stick to a pattern.

There are many ways I can unpack this simple but significant reflection of my childhood. It’s a bit like walking into my childhood bedroom and expecting to see my eight-year-old self there, stitching away, focused only on the front, delightfully and naively unaware of all that’s going on underneath. In some ways, I reject the opinion that a skilled stitcher must also ensure the back of any tapestry is buttermilk for the eyes. If someone will even see it, why should that concern me? Why should I care if my process was a mess of tangled thread and miscounts if I enjoyed it and the result was nearly the same? It’s like the math equations of high school in which you ended up with the correct answer but received a mark of zero because you didn’t find the right way to the right answer. The process was considered as important as the result and it should be systematic, tidy, legible, and understandable. You must be able to explain that answer to everyone else.

I reject the notion that what lies underneath must look right by some objective but elusive standard. I like this kind of imperfection and the untidy processes of stitching and living, but it’s kind of mandatory I do; I’d otherwise dislike pretty much everything about life except the sun, the moon, and the stars. Sometimes I’d rather be the three-year-old child let loose with a wild imagination and a box of crayons, without even a concern for the front of my tapestry.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve also come to accept and appreciate this teaching as it relates to process, not product, because it communicates something about self-care. How someone else views and judges our work doesn’t matter as much as how well we accept it. Was I patient with myself, allowing myself time to learn or did I let haste guide my behaviour? Did I act out my inherent laziness and cut corners, or did I put in the extra effort to ensure I tidied up loose threads? Did I go back and fix my mistakes, make amends where I could with concern for the integrity of the work or just ignore them and hope they didn’t affect the overall appearance? What’s underneath will always reflect the process. It’s kind of like that feeling you get deep down when you know you’ve done the right thing even if it doesn’t give you what you want.

There is nothing now that makes me feel more like a child again than scrutinizing the “back” of my work after it’s complete, like my mom did. As an adult, it helps me have a deeper reflection of my process, whether I’m stitching, writing, cooking, having a challenging conversation, or making a difficult decision. It’s an act not of self-judgment or striving for perfection, but of maturing self-care.

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