I’ve been reminded lately by someone near and dear to me that I talk about perfection a bit too much. I guess this makes me a perfectionist, and he wants to know where I got this – um – imperfection. My answer would have to be “my parents,” but I don’t see this as a problem. They really could do so many things perfectly.
My mother’s hands seemed magical. She could cook and bake and sew and craft seemingly anything. If I wanted a dress or handmade toy, she could take a pattern which would have driven me around the bend and expertly turn it into something that looked even better than the picture on the cover. She made holiday crafts that would put Martha Stewart to shame – blowing the yolks out of eggs to make permanent Easter displays I still put on the table and sewing sequins onto the stocking I still hang, ever hopeful, at Christmas. My dad could wire a lamp or sharpen a knife or rebuild a car engine with grace and amazing patience. They were good at these things, and their competence and resourcefulness gave our family a balance we needed to get through some trying times.
I suppose they spoiled me. To this day, I feel like I should be able to point at a place on the wall where I want to plug in my laptop and say, “Here, this is where I’d like a new outlet,” and have it magically appear. Similarly, if I buy a pair of pants that gap annoyingly at the waist, I expect someone to fix them so they fit, well, perfectly. After all, my mom could do it. My father never dreamed of teaching me to do the things he would have taught a son (or maybe he wisely realized it would be too risky to expose me to electricity and electric saws, given my obvious lack of giftedness in the workshop). My taught me to cook and sew, and I did both for awhile, but the sewing fell off after a few years of handmade curtains. Cooking I can do, though I tend to be easily distracted by whatever reading material is on the kitchen table, so I’m known for my blackened grilled cheese sandwiches.
Martha Stewart became famous toward the end of my mom’s life, so I never could ask what she thought of this maven of homemaking. While I think she might have laughed at her high-handed perfectionism (so well summed up in the parody “Martha Demonstrates How to Make Your Own Dirt!”) I honestly believe she could have cranked out most of the crafts in the pages of Martha Stewart Living without instructions. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but this is a woman who created a Rainbow Brite costume for her 6-year-old granddaughter which I’ve kept to this day.
So, here’s the point where I’m supposed to talk about The Dark Side of perfectionism, right? The underlying anxiety and exhaustion and guilt and – you get the picture. Do perfectionists take on their burden as a martyr’s cross to bear? Do they expect, and thrive on, constant praise? Do they do it because nobody did it for them? Or do they, just maybe, get some innate satisfaction from doing things well?
I certainly hope so. I like to think of my father out in the garage, just him and the Mercedes Benz 190-SL he bought on a mid-life whim, calmly smoking a Kool as he consults the German-English dictionary he bought to translate the owner’s instructions. Picturing him there, I like to think that he’s happy in that deep, in-the-zone way, where a problem gets solved one nut and bolt at a time, where confidence is something earned and not flaunted.
Just so, I like to think of my mother, the more outwardly anxious of the two, sitting before her sewing machine in the room full of fabric and thread and an always open ironing board, smoothing out a sleeve and sewing one more seam at exactly 5/8 of an inch, then pressing it open with a steaming iron as the smell of the cookies she baked earlier that afternoon waft down the stairs. Even though she was most likely to point out the tiny errors she had made or tell me about the way the needle had pricked her finger when the thimble slipped – “This is my blood,” she would say, “shed for you” – I like to think, I insist on thinking, that she found some happiness in the job she did so well.
Were they perfect? Good grief, no. Is any family? Excuse me while I either roll on the floor laughing or step outside to cry. It’s those moments that you take away and treasure that are perfect. And more importantly, to my mind, is that you get to decide your own definition of perfection.
The Japanese have an aesthetic concept called “wabi sabi” that means finding beauty in imperfection. At its simplest, it means not being hung up on having everything just so; in fact, those who practice wabi sabi purposely set some things askew. It means living more like Thoreau than Trump, and realizing that no matter our talents, trying to make everything come out perfectly is a waste of time and spirit.
At this time of year, when it’s getting so dark and cold and all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray, it’s also time for Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Eve and all those holiday get-togethers that can drive both women and men to their wit’s ends as they try to achieve some kind of perfection, either to impress the guests or recreate their most fondly remembered childhood memories. I don’t know about you, but I’ve decided to try to let some of my perfectionism go this year. To have a good enough series of holidays, lit with lights that might be hung a little less perfectly than at my parents’ house, but shining no less brightly. Now that, to me, would be perfect.