Saturday, November 14, 2009

Martha, Martha

The annual Christmas issue of Martha Stewart Living just arrived in my mailbox, its colorful bulk barely fitting through the slot. As always, the pages are filled with time-consuming creative projects that walk a fine line between kitsch and beauty. I love flipping through the glossy pages, filling my head with ideas for handmade decorations and show stopping desserts and thinking smugly to myself, "Yep. I could make that. Mm-hm. I could definitely do something jazzy with those!" Some of the cookies in this issue are almost pretty enough to dip in shellac and turn into family heirlooms. Martha. She's got tips on how to apply little candy snowflakes with a pair of craft tweezers. Craft tweezers. These recipes are sprinkled all over with nonpareils and faux bois. Their beautiful possibilities give the perfectionist in me a thrill. And who wouldn't love to present friends and neighbors with a plate of candy-coated perfection?

But here's the problem: Achieving the perfect Christmas cookie requires skill and patience. It requires time and quiet concentration. It requires an organized workspace and a steady hand. It requires conditions that are, quite frankly, not to be found in my kitchen. I would be shooing away greedy toddlers, with warnings not to handle, not to taste, not to touch. I shudder at the thought of chubby fingers pressing into my work of art before the royal icing had dried. And if I achieved the perfect cookie, what then? What would be its end? Confinement in a lighted glass case in a hushed gallery? No matter how many careful hours I spent on its aesthetic development, a cookie is still, after all, a cookie; all its yuletide perfection would be ground to mush between the teeth of unwashed plebeians like my children. Like me. How could we eat perfection? How could I think of doing so as anything but a waste?

Martha. Her magazine is crammed with page after page of homemade potential. Issue after issue, I imagine all the great things I could be making—so many great things that I don't know how to begin. Clearly I do not own a sufficient supply of felting needles or snowflake-shaped paper punches or ultra-fine glitter. But I lack more than a room full of specialized craft tools. What I lack is a willingness to fail. Or to see all my work go to waste.

I've been planning on making a dress. Or maybe a skirt. Planning may be too strong a word; I want to make one. For fifty cents, at the Saint Mary's Catholic Church rummage sale last year, I bought some fabric. It is so lovely—has so much promise—that I can't use it for just any old article of clothing. It's from Thailand. It's raw silk. It's the warm orangey-red color of oak leaves in fall. It's embroidered with gorgeous cream-colored vines and flowers. It is beautiful. This is why it has been waiting in a plastic bin under my bed for more than a year. I cannot bring myself to touch this fabric with a pair of scissors until I am certain that I am about to make it realize its full potential. If I were to make something merely acceptable out of this precious fabric, what a waste it would be! Or if I make the perfect skirt and then ruin it with spilled wine, how, again, could I think of it as anything but a waste?

This paralyzing pursuit of perfection has led me to give up on projects of all sorts before I even begin. I don't want to paint a picture; I want to paint the picture. I don't want a decent apple pie recipe; I want an apple pie recipe that will win prizes. I don't want to speak mediocre French; I want to speak it fluently and with no accent whatsoever. If I'm going to take the time to knit a sweater, it must be knitted as though it's the last sweater I will ever finish. (But at the rate I'm going at picking out the perfect yarn and the perfect pattern, it probably will be the last sweater I ever finish.) If I'm going to sew a skirt, the skirt must be lovelier than any I could find at Macy's. If I'm going to decorate a cookie, I want it to be worthy of a magazine photo. Otherwise, why start? If I have the potential to do something with excellence, how could I settle for doing it by halves? Or even worse, how could I settle for flat-out failure? We have potential, people. Potential must be realized. We, too, could become president of the United States. (Yes we can.)

If we don't, how could we think of it as anything but a waste?

If only I had realized my potential, I could have been a graphic designer to the stars. What a waste. I could have been a four-star chef. What a waste. I could have been an ivy league professor. What a waste. I could have been a first-chair violinist (if I had ever taken a lesson). What a waste. I could have been a published writer. What a waste. I could have sewn the perfect skirt or baked the perfect cookie. I could have been Martha Stewart. What a waste and a shame.

It is a waste. Unless I have wasted my life for the sake of others. And if that is the case, then all that wasted potential is not a shame at all; it is a glory. It is costly perfume—perfume worth a year's wages—wages with the potential to do much good—poured out with love and with tears. A lifetime is not enough to pursue half of what I want to do. But a lifetime is not all I've been given. So I am free to waste my potential on my friends, my enemies, my neighbors, my husband, my children. My God. I am free to begin a sweater and never complete it. I am free to let muddy shoes run across the clean floor. I am free to be an amateur, free to burn the pie, free to press delete. I am free to spill glitter, to write wordy blog posts, to let little fingers smear the icing. I am free to let the wine spill over my perfect skirt. Free to eat perfection.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Take, eat. Perfection is meant to be eaten. Take the cup. Wine is meant to be poured out. Christmas is coming. I will sew. I will bake cookies. I will raise a toast to one with all the potential in the universe, who "made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."


Carissalayla said...

Hannah, I love you, thanks for another great read!

Brittany Martin said...

Thank you for "wasting" all of your talent on us lowly internet perusers!

Jackie said...

I resonate very much with your sentiments. Last year I finally cut up some fabric I'd bought in France in 2000. And, frankly, after waiting 8 years, I was still dissatisfied with what I made out of it. Thankfully it wasn't the end of the world like I'd feared!

Erika said...

I do that ALL the time, I think of a craft or project that I want to do, and I really want to do it. But then somehow I discourge myself because it won't be what I'm picturing in my head. So then of course I never actually accomplish the project let alone start it. When you do decide to put up what you make with that LOVELY fabric. We'd all like to see.

Claire said...

Amazing. You're a good egg, Hannah. Happy Thanksgiving (next week...we'll be gone for it)! And thanks for yet another gorgeous collection of thoughts.

DeAnna said...

Hannah, your reflections make me smile. Perspective for a mother's heart. Thanks!

Miss.Jen said...

so there are other people JUST like me! phew...and her I thought I was the only Martha wanna be! Take that beautiful rummage sale fabric out from under your bed and get sewing girl!
Love your blog, btw!

Kjerste said...

Thanks for the great post, Hannah! Started the sweater, and went out and bought a copy of the magazine! Can't wait to see what you do with that gorgeous silk. :)

Natalie_S said...

Came over here from Femina -thanks for a truly inspiring and convicting post. Coming from one of those "you have so much potential" families it can be very hard for me to "waste" myself on "lesser" things. But I'm learning. Thanks for such an encouraging post.

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