Pondering Priorities and Piercing Perfectionism Turned the Tide

When I learned to sew, my mother instilled in me excessive concern about how each garment would look inside out. My seam ripper became the most used tool in my sewing kit. I’d rip and re-do a seam or a line of topstitching almost as often as it took to make the right side and wrong side perfect.

But this week I completed a 76” x 76” quilt and entered it into a show even though it was far from perfection. And I’m as happy with its imperfections as I am with how it’s re-ignited my passion for quilting, which had smoldered for a few years.


With this very time-consuming quilt, From Nora’s to the Crash Pad, I designed and sometimes cut or sewed in peaceful silence (part of my Reap As You Sew approach to spiritual quiltmaking). Because this was a LONG project, I also listened to some audiobooks while I did the more repetitive tasks (such as pressing yards of pre-washed fabrics, adding a slow decorative stitch over certain “ditches” between borders, and hand-stitching the binding and hanging sleeve). Among the audiobooks was The Road Back to You, a book about the Enneagram, a personality assessment tool I’ve benefitted from since 1989 and utilized extensively in my training as a spiritual director. The Enneagram dates back to the fourth century and is a spiritual tool as much as a psychological one. It sets forth nine personality types, with many, many variations and nuances that help you know your strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and approaches to life. I am a No. 1, the Idealist or Perfectionist, so you see how this ties into the seam ripper!

What I love about the Enneagram is that it doesn’t pigeonhole me and leave me there. Rather, it makes me aware of how I typically respond to stress (I withdraw and become more like a No. 4, the Romantic, like Mary Magdalene) or to feeling secure (moving toward No. 7, the Enthusiast, like The Woman at the Well). It helps me understand how I challenge my husband or kids when I’m imposing unrealistic standards, being critical, or listening too much to my Inner Critic. Armed with awareness, I’m better able to get around my pitfalls, to recognize and renounce my demons.


Surprise 1:   The  Imperfect Attracted Me Most

From Nora’s to the Crash Pad began with a romantic dinner at Restaurant Nora when I accompanied my husband on a business trip to DC in 2015. We practically missed our dinner when our flight was delayed, but we were determined to go there even when we didn’t land until almost 9 pm. Nora’s had been our favorite splurge when we were dating in the early 80s, and my husband used to save up for visits there about once every other month. When we walked in now, decades later, the part of me who became a quilter about ten years into our marriage was thrilled to see the walls adorned with an impressive and varied collection of antique quilts.


Of all the quilts, the one opposite my seat was the one that inspired my newest quilt. After the diners who sat beneath it had left, I went up close to admire and photograph it. I was stunned to see how wonky it was: the decorative stitches you’d find on old crazy quilts were irregular. The seams were in odd places. The shapes weren’t uniform. The fabrics were inconsistent. Points of triangles were cut off. Straight lines were out of alignment. And there was embroidery in some places, not balanced by similar embroidery where it would be expected. I was charmed! I decided to make something like it for a bed quilt for our San Francisco apartment, which we call “the crash pad” since our principal residence is 110 miles north along the coast.

I’d learned over and over (but still tend to forget) how being perfectionistic can help me or hurt me. Perfectionism helps me when I remember to strive for excellence rather than unattainable perfection, and it’s served me well in academic and professional circles. But it hurts or hinders me when I procrastinate rather than doing a job that I fear won’t meet my standards. It’s awful when it gets in the way of loving acceptance and honoring other people’s approaches, when it harms my relationships. I’m sorry to say that it’s been the source of many a disagreement with my husband, who is not a perfectionist. (Fortunately, he’s let me train him about how best to load a dishwasher.) And it was hard for my kids, who I now know felt criticized and often not good enough, just as I had growing up with my parents’ high standards.

I’m no longer addicted, but I call myself a recovering perfectionist. With Unbound prayer ministry, I renounced the lies that live in No. 1 territory: that I’m not good enough; that I must do everything myself if I want it done right; that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing your very best; and so on. So I brought my recovering perfectionist self to the making of From Nora’s to the Crash Pad.


Surprise 2:   Imperfect Beats Never Finished

Not having a pattern, I had to design and enlarge this quilt and I wanted to “fix” some of the original’s wonkiness, but I ended up with some wonkiness of my own! I appliquéd the center section together, thinking I’d cover all the mitered corners with eight radiating lines like the original had. So I didn’t worry about those miters being just so. Only later, I decided I wanted just four spokes, so some imperfect miters are left exposed. Not all my 90-degree angles are square. I got a new quilting machine with which to quilt this and didn’t have time to practice on a smaller, less important quilt first. So the quilting has many zigs or zags that wouldn’t be there on a perfect quilt. And I bought the wrong amount of backing fabric and had to choose something else from a small local offering, so the back is solid cream and it shows all the stops and starts and a little thread barf and even some blood from a cut finger. So what!? On the bed, who will care? Even hanging at the show, with the placement I got up high, the five-foot rule is automatic. No one can even see those imperfections without a giant stepladder! Had I held out for perfection, or wielded the seam ripper more than I did, this quilt might have lost not only its chances of completion in my lifetime, but the joy it gives me in the present!


Surprise 3:   Meeting a Challenge with Excellence Highlights Priorities

Powering through a week of almost non-stop production toward the end of this project, I felt the love of quilting again. I was delighted that I’d traded in a sewing machine I didn’t like for one I now love – even though that meant admitting that I’d made a wrong decision when I bought the other machine ten years ago. You see, wrong decisions are a significant fear and embarrassment for Ones. I had to prioritize and not even try to please everyone else as I put my creativity ahead of service, which is also unusual for a One who tends to overwork and fall short in the self-nurture category. Creativity is, for me, a top form of self-nurturance! Even when I work late into the evening, I quilt with Spirit, go to bed happy, have sweet dreams, and wake up enthused.


I’m excited to be going to the opening reception for the quilt show tonight, sharing it with my husband who loves this quilt. I’m delighted to have re-discovered how expressing my creativity is not a luxury but a necessity in my life! The creative process allowed me to ponder the Enneagram once again, reconsidering both how and WHY I do what I do and what I might wish to do differently. I’ll bring its insights with me into my freedom, healing, and deliverance ministry.

If you’re interested in finding out about your Enneagram type to help you identify some of your penchants and to gain personal benefits from its wisdom, I recommend reading The Road Back to You or other Enneagram books. I’ve got a library of them, and each sheds more light on the illuminating subject of how we are. I’d also recommend Unbound ministry or 5 Keys to Freedom in Christ prayer ministry to help you break through your compulsions, fears, or bad habits, and to open you to greater creativity, a process which I describe in my eBook, Freedom from Hurts, Fears, and Unhealthy Habits.

Your comments are always welcome!