A Reflection in Three Books

I awoke the other morning with the phrase “The perfect is the enemy of the good” arising in my mind. It is a phrase that I have long tried to remember, but over and over again, the quest for perfection centres itself in my mind. Perfection is a lofty goal, and I approach it poorly. I approach it to be free of criticism, free of judgement, but more often than not, it paralyses me. Why, then, did this phrase alight in my mind?

Some months ago, by chance I found The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes (Gary Rubinstein, Mark Pett) while selecting my son’s weekly library haul. Beatrice Bottomwell never makes mistakes, and everyone in town knows her as perfect. Of course, the premise of the book is that one day she does – a very large, public mistake – and lucky for Beatrice, she accepts it with grace. There is a palpable relief in the pages after her mistake, as she returns to her life more comfortable, anonymous, and free.

I feel that relief for Beatrice, too, and I am glad for her since at the age of eight or so, she finds that relief. I am 35, and question whether I’ve found it. I wish that Beatrice Bottomwell had been there for a girl who is captured on home video at the age of six or so, trying desperately to perfectly pick out some tune on a tiny keyboard, making a mistake, and devolving into an anxious mess.

But I can appreciate Beatrice now, and admire the grace that she brings to her big, public mistake. I can empathise with Beatrice before her mistake, and know the anxiety she surely felt every day, the pressure to be perfect — perhaps put upon her by herself at first, but then by others, and then by herself again and again to meet those expectations. I wish that I had had – wish that I can have – the grace of Beatrice after making a mistake.

At times of great change, I always return to the call of monasticism. Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk is a favourite of mine, and I find comfort in its pages. Kathleen, a poet, recounts the liturgical year she spent with monks as a Benedictine oblate through a series of essays and reflections. Whenever I accompany Kathleen on her Walk, I identify with her more: her age, her repeated statements about her lack of training but perceived expertise, her confidence in herself yet openness to learning, herself returning to the liturgical year for comfort.

But Kathleen is writing in 1996, reflecting on 1991, before cell phones and smartwatches and social media and the expectation to be constantly connected. Kathleen is writing where she could be more free, more herself, without worrying about personal branding and content creation and ad revenue. Kathleen is writing before everything was a product to be sold, and I feel it in her words, in her personal exploration. Kathleen is not having experiences and (while having those experiences) wondering how she is going to translate them into a blog post for her subscribers. Kathleen is experiencing her liturgical year with the guidance of others, with the support of longstanding tradition, with hundreds of years of history.

I reached out to a friend and coreligionist yesterday, lamenting how I did not know how to return to my practice and my communities after having a child and placing all of my devotion there. “I feel like I am four years behind,” I told him. “The pace of your advancement is your own… We are pioneers, in a way,” he said.

But perhaps I do not wish to be a pioneer. I want to be like Kathleen, and return to longstanding tradition, to find a quiet place and write, recognizing that it is not my place to lead. I have tried that once, and I deeply apologize for not recognizing my own limitations, for trying to overcome my flaws and failing, for any harm that I caused. My cloister is this home, the hearth, and every time I return to her words – indeed, every time I return to my own words that I have written in a fit of inspiration or sad lamentation or divine vision – it is the illuminating fire and stability of the hearth, where the gods call me to be, to be a timekeeper and observer of the natural and cosmic ways.

There’s This Thing (Connah Brecon)

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