When I was a little girl, my father stood in front of my grandparents' staircase one day and told me that I was a perfectionist. I don't know what incident prompted the comment, nor what I thought of it at the time, but I have mulled it over a lot in the decades since. For most of them, I was convinced that he was wrong. A perfectionist is someone who won't rest until they've expended every ounce of energy, every morsel of intention, every iota of mental, physical, and emotional prowess to accomplish a task. It doesn't matter the size or importance of the job; doing it just so is king.
As you must know by now, I prefer to half-ass most things. It's just who I am. Done is better than perfect, I always say.
But sometime in recent years, I realized what I think my father was trying to tell me. He didn't mean to say that I was the kind of person who redid a book report 17 times until I was happy with it. I was not -- I was the kind who hung a bunch of hastily painted styrofoam spheres from a coat hanger and called it a day on my solar system project so I could play with a friend.(My mom called my back home within the hour and we spent the rest of the night redoing it to a much higher standard.)
I think what my dad was referring to is my tendency not to want to do anything unless I am good at it from the start, unless I know that I will excel. It isn't about giving my all, it's about having my some be better than anybody else's. Unless I am a natural, forget it.
And about that, he's right. I hate doing things I am not good at, and I rarely do. If I think I am going to suck at something, I give up before I begin. I'm not proud of my approach, but I have accepted it. The thought of being bad at something slips into every tiny crevice in my brain and my body and whispers "you suck" over and over and over again, the drumbeat of defeat growing louder and louder until I want to run and stick my head under a pillow and hold it down so tight that I can't hear it anymore.
There are a lot of problems with being this way. One of them is that I don't often try new things. And when I do, I hate them. (see also: Sports.) The only reason I went cross-country skiing for the first time when I was 28 is because Jeff's bad knee prevented us from going downhill skiing -- which actually was great, since a grown woman snowplowing her way down every mountain in Park City is something I didn't really want my colleagues to see anyway. Luckily I was with beginners, and we fell and laughed and helped each other up. I spent some of the most breathtakingly quiet moments on earth out there in the vast white world where nothing but bunnies and deer and birds lived, swish-swishing through the forest with only four other people. But if I had been the only one who was new to cross-country skiing, I would have pleaded a cold, stayed at the lodge, and missed out on one of the most peaceful moments I have ever had.
Another problem with this crap-tacular approach to life is that I have developed an unhealthy need for my life to look perfect. And by life, I mean apartment. (Because any idiot can see that my life is far from perfect.) I cannot actually recall ever having a friend come by, no matter how long I have known them, that I didn't clean the bathroom first. I have even gone into the bathroom with a vacuum cleaner while I made friends wait outside in the hallway because they showed up unexpectedly. Now, if I lived in a fraternity house, this would be an act of kindness, but my place is pretty clean on a regular basis. Our housekeeper comes once a week, and I do tidying up and sweeping and stuff in between. Plus, I make Jeff use the other bathroom sink so mine doesn't look like a toothpaste factory exploded in it. The truth is, I don't really need to clean the bathroom every 5 minutes. Except that I do.
When people come over -- and, um, maybe more importantly, even when they don't -- the bed must be made and straightened. If Jeff takes a nap, I have to smooth the wrinkles from the pillow within two minutes of him getting up. Or the world will explode. (It's true. It is!) Truth be told, I would prefer it if you could not tell that people occupied the place. Call the style post-apocalyptic -- as if suddenly, all humans vanished from the Earth and this model apartment was all that was left.
After Jeff's accident, a lot of people inadvertently reinforced this crazy notion of mine. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a million times: "You are handling this with such grace." Ha! That couldn't be farther from the truth. I scream and cry and fall apart and get mad -- at Jeff, of all people -- all the time. But I don't do it so other people can see. In the first hard weeks after Jeff fell, not including the first few days, I only cried in the shower because I didn't want him to hear me. For the first 6 weeks when neither of us left the apartment for any reason other than to go to his doctors' appointments, I only asked two or three times for people to run errands for us, even though I desperately needed the help. His parents came up every week, usually more than once, to take him to some of the appointments and give me a break. Often I invited them to stay for lunch, which I always made -- soup, sandwiches, salads, nothing fancy, but nothing store-bought either. Meanwhile, Jeff couldn't walk or take a bath by himself, couldn't even get up in the night to pee without my help, but I was putting on mini-dinner parties. It seems mad in retrospect, but I'm learning that it's how I cope with disaster and vulnerability and fear. I figure, if everything looks fine and perfect and under control, then maybe it will be.
So when a friend dropped his bottle of beer on the living room carpet at our holiday party a few weeks ago, I rushed in with the OxyClean and the reassurance that all was fine in the world. Inside I was freaking out, but I smiled and murmured not to worry. That's what perfect hostesses do. I flooded the stain, applied the magical elixir of stain removal, and went to bed feeling good.
When I woke up the next morning, what remained was a big, misshapen blotch of faded rug. For days I applied more and more OxyClean, convinced all it needed was a little more elbow grease and some patience. When we left for the East coast for Christmas and the stain remained, I told myself we'd hire a carpet cleaner in the new year.
It dawned on me last night that the "stain" is actually lighter in color than our white carpet. Essentially, I have bleached it. What remains is noticeably whiter, with a ring of brown around the edge from the beer. There is no more stain to remove -- I have gone one better and removed the carpet's color. There is no way to fix this, save recarpeting the entire apartment. (Because all the rooms have to match. Duh.)
As soon as I realized what I had done, I got angry. I stomped and stormed about the apartment, barking at Jeff for not reading the Christmas cards yet, furiously folding clothes and tossing them into the armoire. How could I ever straighten my life out if this big huge horrid stain was forever smack dab in the middle of our living room, reminding me just how imperfect everything is?
And with that realization, something shifted. Maybe I need this stain, this thing I can see and touch every day, to help me remember that life, my life, is not perfect, no matter how hard I try to make it look that way. I marched myself back into the living room and tried to look at the stain with fondness. Then I did it again, and again, until I actually started feeling sort of affectionate about the stain. And then, out of nowhere, I decided to keep it. I might even name it. (I'm also madly hatching plans to get rid of it: We'll get an area rug! Let's see if there's hardwood underneath there and redo the floors!). But mostly, I'm trying to appreciate this sign from the universe. However ugly it may be, it is a reminder that there is no sense trying to look perfect when you are anything but.