Sometimes Symmetry Is Overrated






The neighbors must worry about me; I have been desperately tending one of the two flowerpots in front of our house. It must catch a harsher slant of afternoon sunlight, because every year, the pot I place on that side of the door scorches first. Grunting, I hoisted it up the stairs into the porch’s shade, and I have been watering, deadheading, speaking in soothing murmurs. Its companion remains robust. I cannot bear one more asymmetry.

Because I have never caught up to the contemporary aesthetic, I tend to plant things in pairs. Invariably, one croaks. And there I am again, a lopsided classicist, one Doric column crumbling and the whole structure aslant. At the moment, one stone urn (yes, with a Greek key border) has a tall spiky spider plant behind the begonias; from the matching urn, the spikes have been trampled by an antisocial squirrel. Probably the same guy who smashed the pretty red vine on half of the other set of matching planters.

“The body craves symmetry,” a wise physical therapist once intoned. (I was trying to get out of doing all those tedious exercises with both legs when only one was screwed up.) It is perilously easy to get off balance, out of whack, asymmetrical, and our body pays us back for one-sided attention. One t’ai chi class, and you will know where you are askew.

I once planted gorgeous yellow roses on either side of our wrought iron gate, tenderly caring for them only to lose—oh, no, not both, that would be a simple grief—but only the one on the left. Leaving the other as lonely and out of place as my mother felt after my father died. When I carefully placed a long line of liriope, the fourth of five shriveled as the others grew tall and fat, and the replacement, like me in phys.ed. class, never caught up.

Has this neurotic collection of past hurts, none of them grave enough to dignify with PTSD, left me hung up on symmetry? I might, it occurs to me, be overvaluing it. Yes, yes, people with symmetrical features win in mate selection, but what a shallow reduction that is. In “Richard Feynman Lecture: Broken Symmetries,” A. Van Jordan reminds us that “nothing is perfectly symmetric. . .  Why, for example, does the earth orbit elliptically, as if these old hands had drawn the path, instead of following an elegant circle?”

Why indeed.

It is easy to get trapped in pairings, insisting that the other be the same as the first. Those married people who wear T-shirts pointing to each other. The tit-for-tat arguments between legalistic six-year-olds. Any of us, when we insist that because we are a certain way, someone else must be the same way.

Symmetry imposes order, insists on balance. Nothing organic about it. I love all those classical columns and formal gardens because they rest my eye; I need do nothing to feel their harmony.

Contemporary design forces us to complete the picture—or laugh at the joke. It pokes us in the side, tickles us (or enrages us) by foiling our expectations. When a hairstylist shaves one side and lets the other side swoop in long waves, there is a jolt of surprise and, for those of us who like a little novelty, a frisson of pleasure. The same with architecture that piles the mass on one side, then balances it with something odd or dark or blazing with color.

We are no longer spectators at a Wimbledon match; we cannot simply turn our heads from side to side, studying identical shapes. Now we have to weigh color and angle and movement for ourselves, go on a scavenger hunt for tension and repose. Asymmetry plays with symmetry, shattering it to make a point, make us look.

And sometimes it fills an eminently practical purpose.

Our left lung is smaller, with one less lobe than the right lung. That is what makes room for our heart.

Handedness means the brain can relax a little; it need train only one hand in a precise motor skill.

Flatfish camouflage themselves by lying on the bottom of the ocean, so both their eyes are conveniently placed on one side of their head.

The opening for a barn owl’s left ear is higher, which helps it echolocate the wee sleakit beasties it hunts for midnight supper.

Symmetry is “the quality of being made up of exactly similar parts”—and when is that realistic? Besides, I am tired of drawing lines down the middle of things. Asymmetrical relationships fascinate. If someone is far older, more beautiful, more wealthy, than their partner, then the partner must possess some marvelous quality we cannot see. The first present I chose for myself was a stuffed owl with a bent beak and one wing longer than the other. My mother blinked; I think she was hoping I would pick the pretty little doll in pink gingham. But that wing—it gave him character. My grandmother, who had instinctively fresh taste, used to frown at formal rows of tulips and murmur, “Too perfect.” Owl was not perfect; owl was utterly himself, and the extra effort it took to love his odd shape only added to my delight.

Remembering Owl makes me feel playful. I browse through images of cool asymmetrical design—teapots with one handle lower than the other; cleverly askew logos; tops that slide off one shoulder; a pair of earrings, one chunky and the other a long sleek bar. It is harder to make this work, but when it does, it is unpredictable and a little daring, and it will never be boring.

I lift the problematic pot of strawflowers and plunk a fern in its place. Nope. Some things still need to be symmetrical. Love, for example. It is nicest when reciprocated in equal measure. Justice—those scales hang on fine chains and the slightest weighting can sink one. Flowerpots at the front door, meant to brighten without complication. Welcome should not be a surprise.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.