Natural Perfection

It surprised me, my own heart. Swollen with expectation and disillusionment, it caught me off guard in the middle of that grocery store aisle. Occupied in self-debate, I concerned myself with two comparable cans in either hand:

Which brand of stewed tomatoes is best? Which is more authentic? Or should I stew them myself? Now that would be impressive. Yes, I’ll stew them myself. Wait, how do you stew tomatoes?… 

I wish I could claim that marked the end of the internal dialogue, but it was far from over. From one aisle to the next I considered what ingredients might go into hosting the perfect dinner party. Always improving on my initial plans, I left the store with twice as many items as my list and three new recipes to try for our Friday night gathering.

Why? Well, at this juncture I would love to spout claims of hospitality and generosity, but therein lies my surprise. My heart’s contents are not nearly as honorable as all that. Brimming with ideal images, my heart cast Friday night’s hosting in quite the unrealistic fashion: the finest food in the oven (all made from scratch, of course), a glass of wine in every hand, my husband and I making all our guests laugh, and a table set with dishes we don’t even own. In all of this, I am gracefully sitting in the living room, wearing a favorite outfit, and looking quite the hostess part.

In my mind’s eye, everything is perfect.

Ah, perfection: the ever-ambling standard, the elusive goal of femininity. It haunts and evades us, condemns and tantalizes us. It is the drug we cannot quit, and the mirage we will not stop chasing. Should we think we have perfection’s standard met, our own self-appraisal gives us away. We could have done more, made more, made better…

But it isn’t the perfection alone that is troubling me about my ideal hostess self. It is the effortlessness that is entangled in it all. In all the scenes playing out in my mind, I could not have a care in the world. In my guest’s eye, the dinner was flawless and I barely lifted a finger. And here, I believe, is something powerful lying beneath our quest for perfection. Like the root of a weed that sprouts in numerous directions, we have fixated ourselves in the soil of perfection with by insisting we are not working for it. We are effortless entertainers, natural hosts, facile mothers and natural-born leaders.

We have made and idol out of being “natural.” Consider, just for a moment, the billion-dollar industry that is warranted by products claiming a natural effect – natural makeup, natural tans, and natural hair color. Women in particular spend gobs of money on products that claim to make them look “naturally” improved. And embedded in the claim of “natural” is just a bit of deceit, hiding the reality that any effort was involved in this new look, improved appearance, altered image. Even when it comes to complimenting someone’s success or accomplishment, we evade the language of effort – “She is such a natural,” or “She made it looks so easy.”

While I have bought into this mindset myself, I have a dire problem with this notion. Even with the cool-aid on my lips, I cannot deny the toxins: What does this say, then, about work? If we believe so much in being natural, what do we believe about hard work? I’m afraid that in making an idol of being natural has put us in a precarious position from which to approach work.

I don’t know about you, but some of the best things I have experienced in my life have consisted of or resulted from hard work. The most delectable meals have taken hours of preparation, the best albums take years of production, the most commanding pieces of literature have taken several rewrites. Good things take work, and work is good. After all, what photographer takes only one shot? What designer works off a first sketch? Whose favorite meal is fast food? And who sends a love letter without at least three wrinkled pages in the trash?

Our Friday gathering will not be perfect, and it will take work. And, I suppose, therein lies hospitality itself: an invitation to come on in, make yourself at home, and to join us in our imperfect lives. I will splatter on the stove and probably burn one or two dishes (don’t worry, there will be appetizers). I will probably run out of time to change out of my jeans and tee, and will probably forget an item on my grocery list. But when I run back to the store and as I walk down those aisles a second time, something will be different. It may not be the list in my hand, but hopefully it will be me. 

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