Imperfect Perfection... an excerpt from My Life in Yoga Pants
I’m a perfectionist. For a long time, I thought this was a strength of mine, something to be proud of. In recent years, when perfection is even harder to achieve, I have changed my tune. Well, mostly. While I can now admit that striving for perfection can waste time and energy, create unnecessary stress, and should probably be viewed as more of a shortcoming than a strength, I can’t exactly switch it off like a light.
In fact, I’d say that my perfection is more likely wired to a dimmer switch. I can tone it down, set some mood lighting, but it’s never really off. I realize this means I will blow a lightbulb before that wild light of perfection ceases to shine.
Now, this isn’t to say that I’m perfect. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, I keep trying to get there, as if it’s possible for any human being to truly reach perfection. The corners of the bed must be tucked in at right angles. The lunches must be perfectly organized like a square of Tetris pieces. Every hair must be in place. Every shoe must be free of scuffs. Both dogs must have matching collars, leashes, ID tags.
It never ends. Really. Never.
I’m also not sure when it began, but I can clearly remember the first time I learned that perfection can actually be imperfect. It also has consequences.
I was in sixth grade, struggling to find my place as a new kid in a small class of 30 kids at a Catholic school, and going through a “chubby phase.” I was eternally self-conscious about my weight, my pimples, and my perm-fried hair. It was spring and I’d almost survived the school year. The weather was warming up, the flowers were blooming, and our front yard was lush and green once more. This meant we’d started spending weekends outside again, much to my dismay. I hated being outside in the wind and the sun, subject to the attacks of various bugs and especially spiders. I would have preferred to be inside reading any day.
On one particular day, I got it into my head to search a sprawling patch of clover that had sprung up in our front yard. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I knew they were lucky and I figured some luck certainly couldn’t hurt. So that day, I knelt down on the ground I so loathed for its mud and bugs and I searched for a four-leaf clover.
Three leaves. Three leaves. Three. Three. The search kept me occupied for a good long while. I don’t know how long I was there that day, but I wouldn’t give up until I had inspected every single clover. As I neared the edge of the patch, feeling hopeful but exhausted by the monotony, I saw one. I counted them again. One, two, three, four leaves. Four! I could barely believe my eyes.
It was beautiful, perfectly intact and vibrantly green. It was just what I needed on that windy spring day.
So I plucked it from the ground, gently, careful to preserve its four fine leaves. I needed to show this to someone, as if it could validate that I did, indeed, have the good fortune to discover one of nature’s rarities all by myself. I sprinted into the house and presented it proudly to my mom.
“I did it! I found one!”
She was impressed, but immediately cautionary. “We should find a way to keep it so it won’t wilt and dry up. I’ve got an idea.” Mom always has handy ideas.
Together, we worked to preserve my good luck in its perfect, pristine beauty. After all, what good was any luck if you let it wilt, brown, and die?
Mom found an old photo sleeve, unused and discarded from a wallet at some point. I cut one sleeve carefully from the bunch and sized down a slip of paper to fit perfectly inside. With careful fingers and some pieces of Scotch tape, I affixed the clover to the paper, slipped it into the photo sleeve, and sealed up the open side. I smoothed the tape flat so it would look professional. Like I was a trained preservationist with a broad-ranging collection of botanical wonders pressed into photo sleeves.
It was beautiful. And it was perfect.
On Monday, I brought my four-leaf clover to school, tucked into a pocket of my Trapper Keeper like a secret treasure waiting to be revealed. My sixth-grade teacher always encouraged us to share stories, items, and inspirations with the class, kind of like a spontaneous Show-and-Tell open to anyone. That day, I tiptoed up to her with an ear-to-ear grin and shyly asked for my turn to share something wonderful with the class. Mrs. Thomas smiled too, even without any idea what I had with me that day. “After lunch,” she said to me, and so I waited patiently all morning and all of lunch without whispering a word to anyone. I was giddy and nervous and still so, so proud.
Finally, it was time. Mrs. Thomas announced that I had something to share. The butterflies exploded in my stomach. Getting up in front of the class was somewhat terrifying for a shy girl like me, but this was something that had to be shared. The imperative outweighed any nerves I felt that day. I stood up, slid the photo card from my folder, and walked to the front of the room.
“This weekend,” I began, my voice shaking with excitement. “I found a four-leaf clover in my yard and I wanted to bring it in to show everyone.” It didn’t seem silly at all to pass around my preserved clover. It was protected from their fingers as they handed it from one desk to another.
It was not, however, protected from their scrutiny.
“This isn’t real,” said Paul, when it finally made its way to the back of the second row. He always sat back there, making people laugh and attracting my sideways glances from time to time. He had been that boy to me for over a year by then and I wanted him to see my clover and be excited for me. I wanted him to be impressed. No such luck.
Mrs. Thomas asked him what he meant.
“Look at it,” he said, holding it up for the room to view. “It’s wrapped in plastic and sealed. You bought this somewhere, didn’t you?” His critical gaze cut through me. I was frozen in horror.
“No, I…” My entire brain went blank. “I made it myself.”
“You made a four-leaf clover?” One critical eyebrow raised in disapproval.
“Stephanie,” said Mrs. Thomas. “You can’t make a clover. If you bought it, you can’t pretend that you found it.”
“But I did find it!” My face was hot and undoubtedly red.
“Look, she’s embarrassed,” Paul laughed. “She did buy it.”
“No, I mean I put it in there after I found it! It was in my yard!” My voice sounded shrill, panicked.
“This is way too perfect, Steph. There’s no way you made this,” Paul handed it off to his neighbor and sometime partner-in-crime, Shawn. “See? Look at those edges!”
I rushed to the back of the room before I knew what I was doing. I snatched it out of Shawn’s hand and pointed to the tape on the edge. “Look right here! I taped it myself.”
“There’s no way you did that,” Paul shook his head. Shawn snorted. Mrs. Smith cleared her throat. “It’s way too perfect.”
I can’t remember what happened after that. My flushing face, the flood of hot tears, and the embarrassment of his accusation were too much to handle. I know that I somehow made it back from the bathroom cool and composed, my eyes red and raw, and sat back in my seat—second from the front of the class, just like always. I kept my eyes focused sharply on the board, offering not a smile or a nod for the teacher who’d hung me out to dry as she taught us grammar, geography, and science.
Not another word was ever spoken about that four-leaf clover again, at least not among my classmates. After crying over a few pages in my diary that night, I left the world’s most perfectly imperfect and utterly unlucky four-leaf clover tucked into the diary’s pages. Being perfect had gotten me into trouble and it had caused one of the most horrifying embarrassments of my entire life.
Such a stupid thing to pick a fight about and such a silly injustice to be angry over. But that’s how life is at 11 years old and there was no consoling me for days. Weeks, maybe.
Now that I’m adult, that story makes me laugh but there’s still a dull ache somewhere in my heart. Paul was so fun-loving and always so nice. Why was he threatened by something I had made, something that looked too perfect to be real? I never worked up the nerve to tell him how I felt and we parted ways after junior high graduation; he went to one school and I went to another. I never forgot that look of hatred in his eyes when he thought I was lying.
I was never a liar. If anything, I just tried too damn hard to be liked.
Today, I’m writing this and even as I’m doing so, reliving a horrible memory, I am worried that the peanut butter stain on the back of the couch belies the cleanliness of my living room. This scratch here on my laptop screen is all I can see. The cold coffee in my mug could’ve tasted better. My son, just two-and-a-half at this moment, is playing happily by my side but he could really use a tissue.
Even though I still have to train myself to overlook life’s imperfections, I now understand how dangerous it really is to force perfection on anyone or anything, even yourself. I don’t have that four-leaf clover anymore, but I wish I had kept it. It wasn’t the clover that was the problem. It was me, the shy and nervous girl who wanted to make nature’s perfection look even more perfect for a silly school presentation.
The next time I find a four-leaf clover, I’ll just take a picture just the way it is. I won’t even retouch it.
My Life in Yoga Pants is available at Amazon and most online retailers.