I have an embarrassing story to tell: the first time my parents came to visit us here at Mucky Boots I spent an hour raking all the pine cones off the drive.
I really, really wanted things to be perfect for their first visit. But that's not just a bit overboard - that's diving over headfirst with all my clothes on.
It's not just visits from my mom and dad - I have this problem all the time. If I haven't dead headed the rhododendrons, or the peas are cascading all over the ground instead of climbing obediently up the trellis, or it's hard to see the perennials for all the weeds I feel awful, as if every deviation from a Home and Garden magazine photo spread is a sign that I'm not in control of my life. A sign that our decision to leave jobs and the city behind and try a different way of living was a big mistake.
I've struggled with perfectionism for a long time. I feel as though there's something wrong if I don't have all the strings of my life not only firmly in hand, but woven into a lovely design of historical and cultural significance. I used to think that changing the circumstances of my life would fix the problem. But I've learned that I am truly excellent at transferring my perfectionist tendencies to any and all new pursuits. It's not the circumstances of my life that create the problem: it's me!
Just to have it on record, I am not perfect. My home is not perfect. My garden is not perfect. Neither my life nor my relationship are perfect. All those things are usually pretty great, and sometimes even wonderful, but not perfect. Why, oh why, do I have such a hard time with that?
Perfection, I am learning, is an impossible goal in the garden. There are just way too many things to get in the way, over which I have little or no control. I can't decree the weather, or the size of this year's mouse population. No matter how hard I try I can't always achieve a 100% germination rate. And I have learned that weeds always, always grow back, especially when my back is turned. In the face of all this, my perfectionist streak is taking something of a toll. So once again (for about the fifteenth time in my life) I am suiting up for a good wrestling match, to try to squash it back into submission. Here are the things I'm hoping will help:
- Think of imperfection as a kindness to others. Perfection makes people uncomfortable. When our neighbours hosted a garden tour a couple of weeks ago, one visitor exclaimed in relief over seeing some weeds in their flower beds, saying it was the first garden she had visited that gave her permission to have weeds in her own garden. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's making people feel comfortable. So I'm going to think of those columbines waiting to be dead headed as a small contribution to a happier world.
- Focus on my own pleasure in the garden, rather than always seeing it through critical eyes. I'm going to spend more time just being in the garden without picking up a trowel or a pair of clippers. We have a number of comfortable garden chairs and loungers and we never sit in them - I'm going to change that.
- Think of the garden as a classroom of students. When I was a teacher I was really good at letting my students be individuals and giving them confidence that I didn't expect them to be perfect all the time. I never wanted a classroom of cookie-cutter students in orderly rows. I loved having classes of interesting individuals with funny hair and strange adolescent senses of humour. I tried to teach them not to be afraid of mistakes, but to view them as the most interesting parts of the learning journey. I'm going to try to look at the plants in the garden with the same appreciation of an interesting process, rather than trying to achieve a perfect end result. My students were glorious and fascinating in their messy imperfections - the plants in my garden are, too.
- Cultivate imperfection. I've read enough self-help books to know that new behaviours and ways of thinking usually feel unnatural at first, and need to be practiced. So that's what I'm going to do. I have designated the back field behind the greenhouse my field of imperfection, and have decreed that it will not be mowed. It is a mess of dandelions and scrubby plants, and every time I look at it my hands just itch to get out the lawnmower, but I will resist. Instead I will stand in my field of imperfection and appreciate its many colours and textures.
Even as I write this I am aware of a trap: I am going to be so good at this imperfection business, I'm going to be perfect in my imperfection! Whoa, Nelly. I should remember what I wrote about being especially talented at manifesting my perfectionism in every new aspect of my life. So here's my last advice to myself: