Friday, March 14, 2008

The Quest for Perfection

Recently, in my struggle to (a) pick up the books the cat and dog have knocked down and (b) catalog all our books, I came upon one of the first "How to Be Perfect" books I ever bought. It was a small paperback I bought in 1972, either in Berlin or California: The Well-Organized Woman by Christine Collange. I still remember her wise saying, that of the three desirable conditions, Ease, Elegance and Economy, it is only possible ever to have two at once.

There are an amazing number of books published on organization and housekeeping, and I have most of them. Don Aslett, the Sidetracked Sisters, The Messies Manual, Martha Stewart and Cheryl Mendelson (Home Comforts, which teaches you more than you ever wanted to know about laundry and other things) -- I've got them all, and my house is still messy. The fact that it's better than it used to be is attributable mostly to there being fewer people living here now.

I've also got a number of books on organizing and dealing with paperwork -- and a number of plastic storage boxes filled with random stacks of important stuff. (Primarily family memorabilia and genealogical data -- the financial and homeowner documents, at least, are neatly filed in a filing cabinet, so there is some progress.)

And that's not all! There are books on economical living, all the way from Champagne Living on a Beer Budget to the Tightwad Gazette oeuvre; diet, nutrition and health, and even one or two exercise books; books on how to dress and how to decorate. There have been books on cat care and, recently, a few books on the care and training of dogs have entered the house. (Another sign of progress--the dog books were either gifts or bought used.)

But it's not just physical perfection I long for. Back around 1960, my parents bought a set of The HarvardClassics . One slender volume that came with it was a year's reading plan, 15 minutes a day with the classics. I know I started this on more than one New Year's Day (with a reading from the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin) and that I seldom got beyond about 10 January. But did I learn from this? I did not. I'm still a sucker for Lifetime Reading Plans, lists of the 100 best books, movies, recordings or whatever. A few years ago I bought The Well-Educated Mind, a guide for reading and reflecting on classic literature and other knowledge. The first book to work on was Don Quixote. I still haven't finished it.

The hope of spiritual perfection, too, often comes packaged for me in books of daily actions -- prayers, readings and the like. Not that I don't have, and read, spiritual books that can be read in a few days, but give me a book that promises to discipline me to daily prayer, reading and reflection, and I am likely to buy it. Phyllis Trible, Simple Abundance, Celtic Daily Prayer -- I've got 'em all.

Why do I do this? I'm sure I'm not the only one, if the sales of such books are any indication. I don't think my parents were prone to this activity, nor did they demand perfection. But, I do think my grandmother had some of these tendencies. She was a poet, freelance writer, gardener,quilter, farmer's wife, and mother of ten.

Some of her freelance writing (mostly for small church and women's magazines) touched on themes of self-improvement. And, years after her death, when my parents had also died and I inherited a box of Grammie's papers, I found among them more than one list that looked so familiar I could have written it myself -- goals for the future, a future of unattainable perfection or at least significant improvement.

To the right is a photo of my grandmother holding one of her grandchildren. She really wasn't a sad person, but like mine, her face tended to look sad in repose or thought.

Is it any wonder one of my favorite Bible passages is Philippians 3:12-14?

"Not that I have already obtained this [resurrection] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."

Or as our former pastor Jim Slocum paraphrased it, "Not that we are perfect; but we press on." Toward what are you pressing on?

1 comment:

Sisterknits said...

hmm, yet another passage that supports the UCC slogan, "Never place a Period where God has placed a comma", don't you think?

I like that picture of your Grammie because her face does remind me of you!