Feb 21, 2013 0 Share

Pursuing Perfection


Illustration a grinning housewife with feather duster.
iStockphoto

Our home renovation isn’t complete, but we’ve started inviting friends and family to come and share meals with us anyway. For a time, I felt I couldn’t welcome people into a “not-yet-fully-presentable” house. But then I came to see that, if I clung to an ideal of homemaking perfection, I’d never have people over. If I believed that everything had to be perfect before we would open our doors, we’d all be missing out. I wanted to start strengthening connections now, not at some elusive future date when every wall would be painted. 

And so, this week my husband and I have had three sets of guests come to our home. We’ve enjoyed acting as host and hostess, and yet facing down false beliefs about “hospitality perfection” has brought up some related fears. 

For example, one night we were preparing to have two friends as dinner guests. I was glad at the thought of welcoming them, and happy that my husband and I were doing a good job coordinating tasks. He baked the acorn squash, and I sauteed the zucchini. I set the table, and he made sure our cat didn’t jump all over it. Nevertheless, I was in tears a half hour before our guests arrived. 

Why the waterworks? On the surface, it was nothing: I’d tugged a cord too forcefully and raised my voice when the cat tried to pounce on me. My husband had gently asked if it might be possible to do these things differently in the future. Most days, I would have taken this in stride. However, a series of smaller mishaps earlier in the day had been gnawing at my heart; they were all little things, but together they rendered me insecure and unsure. In that moment, I felt as though I was screwing everything up, and I couldn’t hide it. I broke down and admitted that I felt like an incompetent failure at life. 

And as the tears ran down, a thought arose from a deep-buried part of my mind. I no longer felt like a 27-year-old woman, with a family and home and life of my own. Instead, I was a little girl, trying so hard to make straight A’s and never mess up. The thought was something like: “You have to keep it together. If you drop the ball, things will fall apart. Your brother has autism; your parents have more than enough to deal with there. So you have to get everything right. You have to be perfect.” 

Clearly, this is ridiculous. It’s a lie my family would never have wanted me to believe, a burden they’d never have wanted me to bear. Even so, some secret part of me was—is—still tempted by it. And I can see why: It’s sort of seductive, to think that, if you try hard enough, you can magically make things better for those you love. (It’s self-improvement witchcraft; I just wave my older sister wand and voila!) The problem is that life doesn’t work that way. Yes, I can contribute and love my brother, but I don’t have the power to “fix” things. And perhaps it’s an illusion that they need to be fixed. Perhaps things are simply meant to be as they are. 

One of my favorite lines in Anne Lamott’s novel “Blue Shoe” comes when main character Mattie and her brother Al are watching waves batter a seabird. Al wants to rescue the bird, but Mattie knows that the animal is dying and would rather be in the ocean than in human hands. She says, “There’s no fixing and no saving, Al. There’s helping sometimes, but not this bird.”  

All of this flashed through my mind as I wept. My husband did the best things he could have done; he held me close, reassured me of what is real, and made me laugh. As I wiped my eyes, clarity came: The beauty of being Willie’s sister is that the experience itself debunks that “you can’t screw up” lie. After all, why would I pretend “perfection” when I have seen that love—messy, forgiving, tenacious love—is the real magic?