In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s transformative book of essays on life and writing, she has this to say on perfectionism:
‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…perfectionism is based on the oppressive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each step just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it…’
For me, perfectionism is about control, an attempt to foster some sense of certainty. It’s something I’ve struggled with, as a writer, and personally for most of my life. But gradually I’ve come to understand that certainty is an illusion and I’m wasting my energies on trying to contain the chaos. When I embrace this it makes me feel like Dorothy pulling back the curtain and seeing the quivering wizard; my stomach turns somersaults and my head feels giddy, like the feeling you get when you look up at a sky full of stars and realise your smallness; it is both thrilling and terrifying.
I’ve heard it said innumerable times that we as a species don’t cope well with uncertainty. I can see that a reluctance to accept our vulnerability might be one of the reasons we’re finding the current pandemic difficult. Obviously the uncertainty isn’t new, but perhaps our awareness of it might be what’s proving unsettling. Surely the anecdotally reported renewed search for spiritual reassurance, for faith, in light of the pandemic can’t be coincidental?
Over the past few weeks my partner and I have created a microcosm of chaos amongst the chaos by embarking on renovations of our dilapidated house. Held up by the first lockdown, we are rushing to get the work completed before the threat of a further one becomes a reality. From 7.45am each morning the house reverberates with the sounds of building work and mens’s voices. Every room is upside down. There is no kitchen; we are collecting water from the outside tap, cooking in a microwave balanced on top of the relocated fridge in a room stacked with boxes; the bath is full of washing up, and occasionally, after a number of weeks without a washing machine, also, sporadically, our smalls.
So when Glen announces that he’s invited a friend to visit, insisting that she stay overnight, I have to bite my tongue. Paula lost her husband Rich, a close friend of Glen’s, after an illness that rose up and disappeared, rose up and disappeared, in a torturous cycle that eventually robbed her of her best friend, in the midst of lockdown. Bereft not to have been able to say goodbye or to attend Rich’s funeral, Paula’s visit would be an oppportunity for Glen to connect with him, to say his goodbyes. But as the day drew closer and the situation at home reached peak chaos the fear bubbled up; how would we cope, how would it work? When we have vistors I like to look after them, to make sure that the house is clean, the laundry fresh, the fridge stocked. I like to ensure that everything is perfect, only this time, I couldn’t.
When Paula arrives it is hard not to notice that she has lost weight, her eyes burning with an intensity that suggests a searching for answers that she knows she won’t find. She fizzes with nervous energy. “Rich would have loved it here,” she says, looking across at the view. When we first found our house, in late spring last year, we battled with ourselves over whether we should take the plunge to buy it. It was unloved and a tiny bit falling down. But it was also charming and romantic along with its heft of awkwardness. Talking it over with Glen on the phone Rich had told him, “Go for it. Move heaven and earth to make it happen.” I only met Rich a handful of times but they were enough to see that he was somebody who didn’t baulk at a bit of mess, he could see the magic in things, so he’d roll up his sleeves and dive in. He lived his life.
As Paula sits down on the bench in the garden and the light fades, both the dog and the cat gravitate towards her, clambering, in their careful way, up onto the bench to burrow into her sides. I notice the way her thin fingers trace soothing circles in the cat’s deep black fur, the way they reach under her collar to absent-mindedly test the stretch of its fabric. She isn’t eating, is barely sleeping. Watching her reminds me what it is to inhabit a state of trauma; the unease, the not settling, it’s like watching the dog going round and round in his bed, scratching at it, trying to find a way to be comfortable. She is, by her own admission, half mad with grief. She talks quickly, filling up the spaces to outrun the silence. She tells us how, just as I did at the beginning of lockdown as a means to manage my anxiety, she has taken to digging.
“My neighbours must think I’ve gone mad. I’ve been out there at 6:30 in the morning, in my dressing gown. I don’t even know what I’m digging,” she says.
“Oh, sod the neighbours,” I say.
She laughs for the first time, “You get it,” she says.
She is planting a garden in commemoration of Rich, with his favourite trees and plants, to remember the places that he loved to travel. A friend has carried a huge piece of rock to her door to represent the Dolomites they visited on their last holiday, knowing that Rich loved to climb. I think how when we plant trees we do it largely for the next generation, that when we put our hands in the soil we do it because soil is the stuff of life and it grounds us, stops us spinning away up into the stars.
Glen lights a fire and I find some candles and the three of us sit in the dampening air as bats buzz overhead and the shapes on the horizon merge into the dark. In the field behind the houses cows are calving, 8 or 10 new arrivals each day. They make a low insistent moan that echoes across the evening. From the distance comes the low rumble of a combine harvester. Paula fetches bottles of wine from her car, Glen goes down into the town to get fish and chips. We stab at them in the half-light, talking about Rich, listening to Paula, her words tumbling out as she relives all of those tortuous, terrible months. And eventually she slows, her eyes stop dancing, she begins to eat. I feel churlish for ever having worried about how we would cope. It is a beautiful evening and we look up at the stars together, considering life’s vastness, until we begin to shiver and it’s time to go in.
In the BBC film What we did on our holiday, Billy Connnolly plays a grandfather nearing the end of his life. He tells his grandchildren, frustrated by their parent’s behaviour as they divorce, “Don’t waste your time being angry with the people you love. We’re all ridiculous in our own way”. He’s right, of course, we are all ridiculous. And most of us crave certainty, a reassurance that everything will be OK. And for the most part, it will. But I can’t help thinking that certainty is fixed, that uncertainty is open, that it can be creative, present possibilities. Anne Lamott believes in the power of imperfection in both writing and life, too. She says, ‘Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clear up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground…’.
As writers we spin gold from the mess and the clutter; like so many Rumpelstiltskins we transform the morass into something beautiful, something shiny, something to hold up to the light and say, we are here.