Confessions of a Former Perfectionist
Read how one woman learned to ease upâ€”and reap the rewards
Photo: Â© Alice Tait
Iâ€™m watching the tide come in here at the beach near my house on a lovely sunny afternoon, wishing I could be outside. Instead Iâ€™m at my desk typing, in my two-fingered way. (Yes, thatâ€™s how I do it, using only my index fingersâ€”â€œhunting and pecking,â€ my mother called it.)
In front of me on the computer screen is an essay for my masterâ€™s degree in fiction writing. I decided three years ago at age 49 that this was important. But somehow I forgot that going back to college meant Iâ€™d have homework, even in the summer.
At the moment, I am cursing at my laptop as I try to italicize book titles (no more underlining them, like I did when I was in college). The university expects the paper to be perfect. Thatâ€™s my advisorâ€™s word.Â Perfect. I thought no one used that term anymoreâ€”in preschool and in yoga class it is not allowed.
I donâ€™t believe in perfect anymore.
I used to. I spent my whole life, it seems, trying to be perfect. The perfect daughter, perfect student, perfect bride, perfect mother, perfect friend, perfect wifeâ€”not to mention keeping a perfect house, serving perfect meals and tending perfect chickens who lay perfect eggs.
I was raised to always do my best, with the understanding that my best was perfect, therefore anything less meant I hadnâ€™t done a proper job. Maybe this is why, when I had four kids under age 5, I served on the school board, directed a community theater production ofÂ Carousel, and still made pancakes every morning and gardened at 10 oâ€™clock at night. (In Alaska, where we live, you can do that.)
Did I mention that in my free time I ran marathons? Saying this now makes me laugh out loud. At the same time, I read about mothers who did all this and were brain surgeons, too. I was only a staff writer who wrote obituaries for our townâ€™s weekly newspaper, and in a town of 2,400 there arenâ€™t that many.
But that job did, and does, challenge the way I saw the world. The best obituaries (and thus lives), Iâ€™ve found, are the ones about people who are quirky and loved, rather than perfect overachievers. Like Mildred, who, after her husband died in Texas, abandoned her home there completely. She came up to visit her friend Lola here in Alaska and never left. â€œShe was a guest who came for the summer and stayed for 20 years,â€ Lola said. Most of us knew very little of Mildredâ€™s pre-Alaska life or the reason for her abrupt departure from Texas, and we didnâ€™t much care. I loved her for the fiery-red leather pants she wore well into her 80s.
I never thought Iâ€™d be writing the obituary of my friend Guy. When he died of a heart attack while skiing at only 57, everyone was so shaken up that the local arts center was packed for his funeral. Guy fished just enough to pay his bills, never had indoor plumbing, and invited the whole town to his annual birthday party. He used to say, â€œIf you want nice weather, make your own high-pressure system,â€ and he did.
Compare that with the obituary I wrote where the highest praise anyone could offer about the woman was, â€œShe kept her stove clean.â€ That one worried meâ€”I didnâ€™t want to be remembered that way.
Not long after that, I was invited to dinner at a new friendâ€™s rental house, where the gritty gas stove had seen better days. My hosts did not, as I would have, iron the napkinsâ€”we tore paper towels off a loose roll.
And instead of serving a meat and two vegetables, we ate tamales from napkins on our laps, which we assembled, laughing and talking, in a drafty old kitchen. I still recall it as one of the nicest evenings in one of the warmest (yet least â€œperfectâ€) homes Iâ€™ve ever been in.
Of course I was aware that no one demanded perfection in my household but me. But still, I couldnâ€™t let it go. I couldnâ€™t help it. I thought it was my job, somehow, to make the world orderly and clean.
Then, I was hit by a truck. Literally. I had a lot of time to think when I was flat on my back in bed with a shattered pelvis.
I couldnâ€™t fill the window boxes with flowers, or plant tomatoes in the greenhouse, or wash, much less iron, cloth napkins. I was forced to let it all go. My mother-in-law cleaned my closets (I tended to hide the imperfections) but she just laughed at the way the towels fell on her head. Since I couldnâ€™t leave my living room hospital bed, I never even knew the condition of the upstairs bathroom the kids shared, yet no one complained or contracted cholera.
My friends came by often. When Nancy said, â€œI hate to say this, but itâ€™s kind of nice having your undivided attention. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve seen this much of you in a long time,â€ I got teary, and it wasnâ€™t from the medication. When my children said it was fun having me available all day, I said a little prayer promising that when I healed Iâ€™d spend more time with them. I wouldnâ€™t be perfect, but I would be better.
Which is why when my daughter comes inside now with my granddaughter in tow and asks when Iâ€™m joining them on the beach, I glance at my homework, click Send and close my laptop. Itâ€™s not perfect, but neither am I. Iâ€™m 51 years old. Itâ€™s time to become a B- student instead of an A+ student.
Really, thereâ€™s not much difference between the way everything about my home appears now and the way it did before I had these epiphanies. I still prepare nice meals, but itâ€™s because I like to. A jar of fresh daisies on the table makes me happy. I no longer groan, â€œI have to weed the garden.â€ Instead I say, â€œI want to garden all day today,â€ and the thing is, I mean it. When I pull a baby carrot out of the soil I see what perfect really is, and I know it has nothing to do with me. Perfect is those curls on the back of my granddaughterâ€™s head, the salty smell of seaweed, the blue of a mussel shell.
InÂ Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote about relationships, motherhood, aging and leading a meaningful life. I love the part where she talks about finding shells on the beach, and the way we all wear proverbial shellsâ€”the shell of ambition, the shell of accumulations and possessions, the shell of the egoâ€”which in middle age we, like oysters and whelks, also shed.
Itâ€™s also a good time to shed the shell of perfection and grow a newer, more flexible one to carry me through the second of half of my life with a little more grace. Itâ€™s high time to, as my friend Guy said, make my own good weather.
Heather Lende is a contributing editor toÂ Womanâ€™s Day. Her most recent book isÂ Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs. She lives in Haines, Alaska.