For me, this was frequent housecleaning. You know that old saying, "Vote early, and vote often?" My mother believed in cleaning early, and cleaning often. Before we left on trips, we cleaned. After we got home from trips, we cleaned. Before family came to visit, we cleaned. After family left, we cleaned. Before we set up the Christmas tree, we cleaned. After we took the tree down, we cleaned. (True, part of the reason we cleaned so thoroughly around the tree was because we had a real one and didn't want dead needles jabbing us in our bare heels as we walked across our own living room carpet.) But still.
At first, I was completely on board with my mom's cleaning. The first time Mom asked me to clean the bathroom, I bent low and buffed water stains off the bathroom faucet. I once spent an hour and a half cleaning the kitchen floor because I kept going back to get dry spots that I might have missed.
And then my clean streak palled. I started to wonder why we cleaned so thoroughly before grandparents visited us. After all, they were family; we didn't need to impress them. Why buff water stains off the bathroom faucet? But, right over my protests, Mom assigned more cleaning duties, and so I buffed and scrubbed and vacuumed before every major event.
I'm grown up now, and sure enough, my place is not sparkling clean. I do clean before my own mother comes, but this mostly consists of a quick vacuum and floor scrub. In fact, my mother actually scrubbed down my kitchen on a recent visit, just because. My mom is a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to her house. I'm not. Recently, my mother pointed this difference out to me and suggested that I was less of a perfectionist than she. Her observation took me by surprise. Outwardly, I agreed outwardly. Inwardly I was thinking, "Really? Really? I've always thought of myself as a perfectionist!
And I am, just not in terms of my house. My area of perfectionism is my accomplishments.
Last Friday, the school year officially ended for me with a series of financial meetings. I started this week with high hopes of making big strides on some projects: I was going to plan two writing classes, write the rubrics and assignment guidelines for these classes, write a blog, work on another writing project, read a book about photography, and do some research on conversational ESL classes. So far, I've written a blog (you're reading it!) and created a rough draft for two writing classes, in large part due to a kind friend who squashed my grandiose schemes for a remedial English class. Now, I'm toying with another substantial change to the other class. That's all. I've made no progress on the other goals.
As an intellectual, as a producer of thoughts and of material things, I am caught in the Charybdis of perfection. Always thinking, "I can make that just a little bit better!" I look backwards to a previous project and do not make progress forwards.
I hem and haw about grades before submitting them, reading most papers twice and some papers three or four times to get the grade perfect. I have spent an hour typing and retyping a question for Literature class, to get the wording just so. I spent four hours on my last blog post in order to get my reviews of the books razor-sharp accurate. Even if books are piled in neat little stacks across my living room and dining room floor, and there are five pairs of shoes scattered across my entryway, I want what I produce intellectually to be just so.
My concern is not only intellectual accomplishments, but accomplishments in general. Several Christmases ago, I made a pan of cinnamon rolls. They were beautiful: deep veins of glistening dark cinnamon criss-crossing the top, their doughy frames golden in the oven. Then, coming out of the pan, they fell to pieces and started unrolling. My family didn't mind in the slightest; they picked the pieces up, slathered them with icing, and ate them happily. I was crushed: My beautiful accomplishment, the work of my hands, was not so beautiful any longer.
The lesson from this? Every single one of us has an area that we want to be just so. I thought my mom was a perfectionist for wanting the house perfect. Turns out, I am subject to the same character tic. To some degree, this is healthy, a valuable character trait. That well-kept house I grew up in was wonderful! Taken too far, though, the quest for perfection, however each of us pursues this quest, is dangerous. I feel tonight (a Friday night) as though I have partially wasted a week, planning and replanning two classes that could have been pulled together in a day or two had I kept my mind on my task and not indulged myself in seeing how many different ways I could rearrange the calender or the exact wording of my plagiarism statement.
In grad school, some of my fellow students had a saying: "Better done than perfect". It's a good saying, and relevant here: At times we (I) need to let go, remember that the project is done, and move on to the next one.