The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
Our language has descriptors that are sometimes compliments and sometimes slights. I’m not thinking, here, of qualities that come in multiple flavors, of tenacity, for instance, as the more charitable vision of stubbornness, or of mildly sardonic use of gentle descriptors for obviously unpleasant traits (“He sure is direct!”). I’m not thinking of words that can mean different things when said in different tones, but of qualities that are themselves of ambiguous worth, both greatly admired and derided.
I think of stoicism. I think of fearlessness, or even loyalty.
And of course there is perfectionism. I’ve always had this tendency, and it has caused me to do things like over-study dramatically for a pass-fail test or re-print a legal brief because there is a pair of straight, rather than curly quotation marks. It has engendered the trial run of recipes to be prepared for close friends who wouldn’t care if they bombed and we ordered Chinese, and the creation of a card catalog for the modest personal library I had amassed at the age of nine. I’d be the first to tell you that it has its down sides, but certain contexts demand this kind of persnicketyness. I defend people accused of serious crimes; I want it done right, as I want my accountant to make no errors on my tax return, and I would very much like any surgeon operating on me to do so not pretty well, but flawlessly.
There is clearly a place for perfectionism in this house-building process. There are the measurements, the engineering of the thing, the need for everything to fit where it’s supposed to go and bear the load its supposed to bear and insulate and be waterproof—in short, all the things that are somebody else’s job.
But for my part, for now, there are design choices. We’re at the very end of the schematic design phase. How do I pull the trigger? How do I decide that yes, it’s what I want, it’s done? Building a house is a huge undertaking that will take a long time and cost a lot of money—it should be exactly how I want it. But it should also actually happen, and not be tied up in months of agonizing about that second bathroom. (It’s back on, by the way).
Our collective ambivalence about these qualities surely comes in large part from their appearance in useful contexts and in appropriate measure—which means that they are of their greatest use to us when we are able to modulate them. Of course, we can only do this when we recognize them and study them and, terrifyingly, let go of them. It’s frightening to suggest I should relax my perfectionism a bit, because if I decide it’s okay that the corners of the wrapping paper aren’t straight, how do I know I won’t have permanently diluted the quality that lets me make sure the brief is perfect before it goes to the judge?
I wonder if perfectionism itself isn’t a sign of deep-seated ambivalence. We are always trying to make it more perfect because we are not certain we want it at all; the identification of the inevitable flaws creates reasons for rejection. When applied to other people, it insulates us from loss. When applied to the self, it cuts external criticism off at the pass.
To declare that the design is complete, that it is how I want it to be, that it is perfect, is to commit to being who and what I am, to needing what I need and valuing what I value and craving what I crave, to being a small but not tiny-house person, to doing most but not all of what could actually be done because I weight my own personal comfort more heavily in the equation than some other person (some better person, says the voice of the perfectionist) might. It is to declare that, with all of the choices mine, from a completely blank slate, this is what I want. It is to act, if not to feel, certain.
So I press on, proud and afraid, excited and anxious, wanting what I want, building what I am.
Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at email@example.com or leave a comment here.