On Being (Less Than) Perfect

I am flocking an artificial Christmas tree. The tree, in keeping with its own holiday tradition established some ten years ago, won’t cooperate with me. I’ve strewn the branches according to length in a semi-circle on the gravel. I’ve slathered an enviro-friendly floury paste on the branches, and still, I see green where I should be seeing white. I’m a big glutinous mess and the wild turkeys in the field below are looking on with amusement.

What’s up with this friggin’ tree, I mutter. And why do I care so much? I wonder. I shift tactics and find an old can of flocking. I shake the can and hear the disappointing tink-tink-tink, that signals nothing but empty.

As I toss the can into the bin, I remember something my painting teacher told me. I’m a beginner painter. The worst in the class. We all know it. The others are kind and delicately tiptoe around my lack of talent. I told Julie, the instructor, on the first day that I didn’t know anything—not even how to hold a brush. She watched my halting attempts. “You’re right. You don’t know anything. But I like that. “
“You do?” I asked.

“I do,” her smile never faltered. “It means you haven’t picked up bad habits. It means you might be teachable!”

During the next class, while the others painted Van Gogh-like starry nights and Chagall-inspired angels in flight, I struggled to paint a tree. Trees, I told Julie, don’t like me. We have issues, I said.

“That’s OK,” Julie said, beaming. She watched me draw a stick, then v-shaped chevrons from top to bottom.

“Branches,” I said, scowling at the woman next to me whose painting would probably win a blue ribbon at fair somewhere.

“Mmmmmmm,” Julie murmured.

“What’s up with this friggin’ tree?!” My voice quavered on the edge of a full-scale melt-down.
“This tree seems important to you. Why do you care about it so much?” Julie asked.

“I just want it to be perfect,” I pointed to the picture of a perfect tree in the painting handbook. It shimmered. It glowed green and yellow. The leaves looked like little birds about to explode into flight. For a two-dimensional tree, it bristled with movement and life. It looked nothing like my tree.
“That’s your problem,” she said. Again with that smile. “There’s no such thing as perfect. So, here’s what I want you to do. Repeat after me: nothing’s precious here.

I repeated.

“Say it again,” Julie commanded.

I did.

“Now, take your brush and slather all over this canvass your favorite colors and shapes. Forget about trees.”

And so I did. Deep purples and teal greens and blues that shivered into violet. None of made any sense. I realized, it wasn’t supposed to. And I was deliriously happy.
Julie looked at the canvass. “Do you see what happened?” she asked.

“Not really,” I admitted. “But I like it,” I said.

“You stopped trying to force something that didn’t want to happen. You stopped trying to be perfect. Now think about that,” she said and vanished to other side of the room where someone else was in full-scale melt-down mode.

Stop trying to be perfect. I am clinging to this wise bit of advice. Julie wasn’t telling me to stop trying, merely to stop trying to be perfect. And in the spaces of that advice, some corollary wisdom: Keep working, but accept the imperfection along the way. Keep striving toward a goal, but recognize that failure could be a necessary part of the journey.

I look at the branches of my artificial tree. Why does this tree and making it perfectly, evenly white matter to me? Could it be that I have convinced myself that festooning the house full of “perfect” Christmas décor would make a perfect Christmas? Perfect for whom? I have to ask myself. I wedge the branches into their color-coded holes and dance the tree up the steps. I am a lot of things, but not a quitter. I will conquer the tree, I mutter. But I can’t help noticing, as we squeeze into the house, a cascade of fake white fluttering to floor. I mutter nothing’s precious here. Nothing’s perfect and it’s not supposed to be.

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