My daughter Zoey looks up at me, her face a mixture of excitement and anticipation. In her hands she holds a pastry bag, squeezing it just tightly enough that a bit of the rich, dark chocolate, buttercream frosting inside has begun to escape its shiny, silver, open star tip.
“Can I frost it now, Mommy?” Zoey asks hopefully, her voice faintly twinged with impatience.
The cake that sits on the table in front of her—the one on the business end of the buttercream pastry bag—has been our labor of love for the past two days. After Zoey announced that the only thing she wanted to do this weekend was make a “fancy” cake, I made it my mission to make sure I provided the perfect cake-making experience for her. And after hours of baking, making buttercream frosting from scratch, creating colorful flowers out of flavored Tootsie Rolls, and mixing, rolling out, and covering a two-layer chocolate cake with pale turquoise marshmallow fondant, it appears that we have perfectly executed the task at hand.
It looks simply delectable.
But as happy as I am with the result, when I see that frosting precariously perched on the edge of the pastry bag tip, mere centimeters from haphazardly landing on the cake’s perfectly smooth, untouched fondant, I feel a familiar uneasiness settle in.
“Mommy?” Zoey asks again.
I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and, almost imperceptibly, tilt my head forward in the direction of a yes.
* * *
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a perfectionist.
As a child, I sat at my school desks with my feet crossed at my ankles and my hands clasped together in front of me, silent and determined to be the most perfect student possible for my teachers. I outlined the black edges of the pictures on my coloring pages, determined this extra step would help me stay inside the lines. I beat myself up whenever any letter other than the first one of the alphabet graced my report cards. When I was allowed to start writing with pens instead of pencils, I made sure they were the erasable kind—that way, in case I made a mistake, at least it wouldn’t be a lasting one.
As an adult, my perfectionism still run so deep, I worry I may never be able to escape its pull. Instead of appreciating and enjoying the process of a project, I tend to focus on the end result. I push myself to cross-off a seemingly impossible amount of to-do’s every day, believing that if I’m unable to accomplish them all, I somehow must be failing. It’s hard for me to leave my apartment without making sure the beds are made, the sink is empty, and everything else is put away in its rightful place. And I’m also extremely critical of myself, especially my appearance; recently, I even believed that if I consumed a perfectly-calculated amount of calories each day, my body would eventually achieve that elusive title, too.
In a way, I feel like my entire life has been spent trying to make a series of perfect, little, untouched, fondant-covered cakes.
* * *
I stand here in this flash of a moment, knowing that when I open my eyes, our cake will no longer be perfect. That, most likely, Zoey has placed her buttercream decorations everywhere, and in no particular order.
Given my past, I know those tiny, new ‘imperfections’ placed upon that previously perfect cake will be the first thing I notice. I also know that I don’t want this to be my first instinct anymore.
I know my own thinking is itself so terribly, terribly flawed, because although I might want things a certain way, that’s simply not how life goes. I know I need to let go of that control, to let go of my desire for perfection. It know it will be a tough journey to embark upon, but I know it is one I need to make—for both me and Zoey.
For me, this journey will be about so many things.
It will be about not worrying where haphazardly piped frosting is placed. It will be about enjoying the process and evolution of something. It will be about embracing the messiness of it all. It will be about seeing past all of life’s supposed imperfections and flaws, and seeing the really important, beautiful things in front of me instead.
It will be about learning to let go.
* * *
Zoey’s little voice snaps me back to the present, and I open my eyes.
“Mommy!” she excitedly proclaims again. “Look! I’m doing it!”
I watch as Zoey decorates the top of that beautiful, pastel fondant. She makes dots and lines and swirls and shapes, and then, side by side, she pipes out our initials.
I avert my gaze from the cake to her, because buttercream isn’t the only thing that is overflowing right now. Zoey also seems to be imperfectly frosting the sweet confection in front of her with heavy helpings of happiness and joy and excitement and love.
“Look!” she says again. “I’m doing it perfectly!”
I can’t help but smile. Zoey’s radiance in this moment is such a perfect, wonderful, necessary reminder for me: Children don’t have a lifetime of expectations and warped perspectives about what ‘perfect’ means.
To them, what they do is perfect because they simply believe this to be true. I want to believe this, too. Don’t we all?
* * *
“When you’re done, do you think I can I put a few decorations on it, too?” I ask.
Zoey smiles and hands me the pastry bag. I place its tip against the fondant and make a few quick swirls, and then, because I love the way this simple improvisation is making me feel, I add a few more.
“There,” I say as I finish up. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s perfect,” Zoey announces. She places her sticky, sugar-laden hands on my cheeks and gives me a quick little sweet kiss. “Don’t you?”
* * *
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word perfection as the state of being free or as free as possible from all flaws.
To an outsider, one might say that, right now, the two of us are sitting in the midst of imperfection. It seems like there’s a week’s worth of dishes piled up in the sink. There is cocoa powder on the floor, a pool of melted butter on the table, and from the looks of it, a pound of powdered sugar dusting Zoey’s light brown locks. I look at the cake, one that no longer looks like it should grace the cover of a magazine. The warmth of our apartment has caused it to slump a little on the left. I see flecks of butter peeking through the decorations, proof that it wasn’t perfectly mixed into the frosting.
And there, smack dab in the middle of all of this mess, I take stock of the two of us. I look at Zoey’s shining eyes and feel her contentment with this moment. I feel a gentle soreness in my cheeks, and I realize I’ve been smiling all day. I feel a lightness in my heart, one that, in my previous plight for perfection, has often eluded me.
I look at the mess that surrounds us, at these moments—at these memories—that we are creating. It’s a mess and a moment so beautiful, I can’t seem to find any flaws, no matter how hard I look.
It seems we have just developed a brand new recipe for a completely different, renewed definition of perfection.
“Yes, Zoey,” I agree. “You’re right: It’s absolutely perfect.”
* * *
How can you redefine what ‘perfection’ means to you?
Just joining me on my journey? Catch up on the Everyday Nostalgia series here.
At The Nostalgia Diaries, our goal is to help you simplify, enhance, and engage your lives by focusing on the most important things: remembering, appreciating, believing, and becoming. It’s all about celebrating the past to create better days today.