I am a perfectionist. True story. I wash our white sheets obsessively, often twice a week, much to Jack’s chagrin. I agonize over my papers, despite the fact that I am in graduate school, where grades, truly and finally, matter less. I worry constantly about everything from the fate of our planet to whether the dinner I ate an hour ago was nutritious enough. I am rigid and stubborn. Despite what my therapist says – ‘There is no right decisions, Sarah, only many good options.’ – I truly believe there are right decisions and right principles. I believe that if I think long enough and hard enough, if I channel my anxiety into my choices and my body, our white sheets and cleaning the dust on our floor, I will achieve a sense of peace. I will have arrived in life, where exactly I don’t know, covered in gold stars.
The problem, of course, is that I perpetually fall short of my aspirational perfectionism. Our apartment remains dusty despite the air purifier I placed in the middle of our living room. My papers have deadlines that are unfortunately placed the midst of other important life commitments. And my body, like everything else in my life, is constantly in flux. Every measurable thing, the contents of my blood, the color of my scars, the puffiness or definition of my face, changes every single day, no matter how often I take salt baths or do Pilates or apply scar cream.
My perfectionist tendencies have made my wedding planning experience interesting to say the least. I spend 95% of my time, of my life, processing and thinking about difficult topics. I read complicated epistemologies about colonialism and racial injustice, about the meaning of human fragility and the nature of death, about empathy education and trauma-informed care of children. This is how I am wired and certainly how I was raised: to be mindful of the needs of others and not to ignore the suffering of the world. This period of my life, eight months of planning my wedding, has offered a sweet intermission. My daily life has been filled with more creative moments. The un-feminist in me has loved choosing coordinated shades of cream-colored peonies and hydrangeas, comparing calligraphy styles, and deciding which flavor of buttercream frosting complements almond cake best. Although, at this point, on the other side of wedding planning, I’d argue these delights can be reconciled with feminism, but that’s a topic for another day.
This limited and liminal time has offered a welcomed contrast to theo-political epistemologies and worrying endlessly about whether my work will be capital “I” Important. Wedding planning has given outlet for creative expression that I haven’t had since I was a child spending long summer days painting, searching for wildflowers in the woods behind our house, and writing plays. Through cake and ceremony music, I reclaimed that part of myself that finds pleasure and restoration in beautiful things. Wedding planning, at its very best, has had a wonderful purpose: expressing Jack’s and my love for one another and bringing the people we love the most together in one place for the first and perhaps only time.
However, wedding planning is aspirational, a perfectionist’s dream and trap. Brides are fetishized as fashionable, timeless, scarless, perfectly healthy. Brides make all the right decisions. Brides are engaged for over a year and spend countless hours reserving the right vendors, finding the right venue. Brides’ dresses are chosen perfectly. All things I’ve learned from the bridal etiquette book I’ve kept on my nightstand and the bridal magazines that papered our coffee table for the last eight months, sources that argue that there is a right answer for every wedding-related question, and there are choices that lead to perfection and happiness, so long as a bride is committed, discerning, and self-sacrificing enough.
So, in the hands of Emily Post and Brides Magazine, I sought bridal perfection at times without realizing it. I picked on my own body unfairly: the scar on my wrist from cooking dinner one winter evening that won’t fade, the chronic back issue that affects my posture, my skin tone, my haircut, my arm strength. And I second guessed my decisions around the wedding, often crowdsourcing affirmation from friends and family: was the blue envelope really the best choice for our wedding? What if my wedding dress isn’t tailored correctly? Are my wedding shoes tacky? Should we actually have reserved a church instead of getting married in a garden??
Then, on the Sunday three weeks before the wedding, I came down with a stomach virus. It washed over me like an uncomfortable hot flash. While walking down a sleepy street in Brooklyn with Jack and a coffee in hand, I keeled over and had to go straight home. I recovered within two days, and then when things were finally looking up, on the following Thursday, I came down with a terrible cold and the worst sore throat I had in years. Sipping clarified broth and Gatorade, praying my cough would go away before the wedding, I realized that the body, being human, and even being a bride is not about perfection, but rather, about creativity.
The moments of joy – and there were so many – I experienced through delighting in flowers and cake and our invitations, in conversations with loved ones traveling to the wedding, in growing closer to Jack and to my family were moments grown of creativity. Every decision we made together about how and when we planned to become married were moments of evolution and new life. Perfectionism makes wedding planning frivolous, meaningless, but creativity makes wedding planning, life planning, and meaning making, rich with possibility and hope. Perfectionism is antithetical to a creative life, and if wedding planning taught me anything, I do want a creative life, a creative, well cultivated, and purposeful life.
This year has not been an easy one for me. I have struggled with my sense of purpose and my perfectionism in much broader and deeper ways, ways that have pushed me to ignore potentially important changes in other areas of my life on the horizon. I have often felt lost in my career life, yet so found and loved in my personal life. However, I have grown more into myself, into the lived experience of being a human: being a human with a body that shifts and aches and changes that is fickle and fluctuating, that seizes control of days when necessary with no regard for stress or schedules or an approaching wedding day, that is always working, that bears inconvenient emotion, that knows how to heal itself and that grows stronger with attention and nourishment.
I am human and messy. I am also now married to the love of my life. My wedding day was amazing, thoroughly beautiful, and just as it was meant to be. I woke up to a blue skied, lush day in Ohio with all the cream-colored flowers arranged, the almond cake baked and frosted, the blue envelopes printed, and my wedding dress tailored correctly. My scars still showed, my back still ached, and I felt nervous about being photographed, but my heart was full because everything, that day, was clearly awash in love.
The perfectionist in me is taking the rest of the summer off. She’s not going to criticize every flaw in every wedding photo. She will not protest about the tinge of sadness that I feel that wedding planning is over and other more complicated decisions will now be my focus. She’s not going to suppress all the feelings of ambivalence about my future work. Because the rest of me is tired and ready for more rest, more truth, more growth, more freedom, and more love. Love and everything that makes life worth confronting each day is born of evolution, of creativity, of wisdom. Not perfectionism.