parting ways with perfection

 
  ©  kelly rae roberts

© kelly rae roberts

Dear blog reader, I don’t generally like to share too many intimate details of my life on the Internet, but I think you should know that Perfection and I just broke up. We tried to make things work for a long time, but there were too many issues between us. Although deep down I always knew that we weren’t a good match, I didn’t want to accept it. I was hopeful that we could be happy together, but he only seemed to like me when I got everything right, and that didn’t happen very often.

The truth is, even though I felt an underlying sense of discontentment with Perfection for the last 30 years, it wasn’t until a few months ago that something really felt off. It all started when I was in the recording studio one day, working on my second album. I was having the hardest time with one of the tracks and he was putting so much pressure on me—it was exhausting. On the car ride home I finally told him, “Darling, I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore. I love you and I really want the best for you, but I know I can’t be what you need; I’m too imperfect.”

He gave me the silent treatment for a while, but later that night we had a good conversation. In the midst of talking I realized that I couldn’t blame Perfection for anything; he was just doing his thing and I was projecting. All along I thought Perfection wanted me to be like him—perfect—but in reality I was the one who wanted me to be like that; he just reflected my shit back to me. Well, now that we’re separated all of my issues are in my face and I have to deal with them.

For the last several months I’ve been making an album. Until recently, Perfection used to come to most of the recording sessions, but now I’m flying solo. It’s a bit weird without him there, but the good thing is I’m starting to see my insecurities in his absence. To be honest with you, I’ve been having a tough time working on this CD. While the process has been beautiful, right now I don’t really like the way anything sounds and I just want to throw the whole project in the garbage.

The fact is, while I’d love to go into the recording studio and bang out my songs in a few hours, the process rarely unfolds that way. Usually I start out enthusiastic and then as things move along and don’t turn out exactly how I want them to (when I want them to!), I get frustrated. Ah, the creative journey.

Several years ago I was granted a writing fellowship. For one month I lived at an artist residency in Vermont with a bunch of other poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, and inspired humans. I went there to work on a memoir, but the piece never actually materialized because I spent most of my days sitting in a green velvet chair and dozing off, staring at a blank computer screen, and watching the icicles melt. Every evening, after an oh-so-successful day of writing absolutely nothing, I’d listen to people share stories of their creative process—how they just downloaded some mega chapter of their book or made a piece of art out of twigs and duct tape. Let me tell you, it sucked. Why? Because I could not stop comparing myself with everyone else for even one minute! All of that wasted energy made it impossible to write.

I felt like such a failure. Did the people on the selection committee know that they granted a fellowship to a total charlatan writer? Probably not, and I sure as hell didn’t want them to find out. Strangely, as I work on my album, it’s like a deja vu: I don't want anyone to know how messy the process is—how often I lie awake at night and wonder if the project will actually come together, or if any sentient being will ever want to listen to the finished product.

Fortunately I’m learning not to take all of this drama too seriously because it’s just part of the path. In my experience, the creative journey is not a straight shot to the finish line. There are twists, turns, and some really massive potholes along the way. Doubt is a frequent companion, and so is frustration. Some days I feel exalted and want to throw myself into the invisible arms of my music with wild abandon; other days the sound of my voice makes me want to hurl a shoe at one of the speakers right there in the recording studio.

What intimidates me is that once I publish my songs, technically they exist forever—as much as anything in this world exists forever (which it doesn’t). That means occasionally I get anxious and self-conscious about how the tracks sound. Mostly I retract when I hear a lot of vulnerability in my voice because that feels scary to preserve in sound waves, even though it’s where the real beauty lives. Often when I sing my voice trembles with emotion, especially when I feel my heart. In such moments the engineer says, “Oh, that’s great—let’s keep it!” while I squeal like a distressed hamster and implore him to delete the part.

It’s not that I don’t want to share my vulnerability; it’s just that doing so feels frightening sometimes. When it comes to my music, I don’t hold anything back. As soon as I start to sing, it’s like I become transparent and whatever is inside of me exists for everyone to see. That’s how it feels anyway—sort of like I’m see-through. It’s beautiful when that happens because all of my self-consciousness falls away and I’m at peace with whatever is. But as soon as I step aside and watch what’s going on, my ego gets a little freaked out.

While it’s definitely gotten easier to surrender and trust the gift of my vulnerability, it’s still not all that comfortable. When I feel raw and ripped open during my performances (which aren’t really performances per se, but music meditations), most of the time tenderness breezes through me and moves on. Once in a while it does stick around and I cry or feel a huge pulse of energy in my being and forget that there are other people in the room, but none of that gets recorded. It’s just a moment in time, preserved in the heart alone. When I’m in the studio, however, I have to listen to the longing in my voice for hours and that can get pretty intense.

Years ago I tried hard to conceal my so-called “humanity”. I wanted to be perfect and did everything I could to hide my insecurities, frailties, and sensitivities from the world. As you might imagine, that didn’t work too well. The thing with perfection is that it’s a huge illusion, but it looks so damn good to the mind. While the illusion still entices me sometimes, I’m learning to see it for what it is: a pretty little lie. That’s because trying to be perfect is like sticking your hand in a cloud and expecting to find something solid—it’s impossible. There’s nothing inside of a cloud but vapors, and as soon as you try to grab some of it, the whole thing vanishes. Perfection is the same way—it doesn’t actually exist, but oh how we want it to. There’s something safe and stuffy about the idea. After all, if we strive for perfection, we never really have to take a risk or reveal ourselves to anyone.

Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage,” and I absolutely agree. It takes courage because the only way to be creative is to jump off a cliff and trust that we’ll fly, or at least have a soft landing. Just like love, in the creative wilderness there are no guarantees. We may end up with something lovely, or not. There’s no way to know what’s going to happen when we set sail into the wild ocean of the soul. Whether we wish to make a painting, write a poem, cook a meal, or love another human being, we have to follow Rumi’s advice and “dive into the boiling sea of passion;” otherwise, we may never transform.

In my humble opinion, the true artist must be willing to burn­—because in that burning her false self-concepts turn to ash so something new may emerge. That burning doesn’t have to be painful—it’s just that we have to let go and surrender in order to birth something and the mind doesn’t like that very much. But the creative journey really can’t be forced. Sometimes things flow, sometimes they don’t. The trick is to not get attached to either polarity, but rather to trust in the underlying energy. (In case you’re wondering, I haven’t mastered this.)

Ultimately making this album is just a brilliant opportunity to drop my ego games and let the music come through as it will. That is the most important thing because the music I make has nothing to do with me. In fact, the main reason I sing is to let go of "me". I don’t sing to have a career or manufacture a new identity. I sing because it helps me unburden my heart and create more space inside. I never set out to be a singer or recording artist, never mind a music producer, but apparently that’s what is meant to happen. It’s humbling, and sometimes it’s hard. But I also know that it’s righter than right, so I keep moving forward without any idea how things are going to unfold in the next moment.

In some sense everything already is perfect—we just need the eyes to see it; that’s what a lot of wise beings say anyway. Since the mind is full of preferences we often miss this. That's because true perfection doesn’t have an agenda; it’s a total acceptance of what is. I try hard to remember this, especially when Perfection says, “Can we try again, my love? I promise things will be different this time.” But I know they won’t be different, and if I keep going back to him this album will never get done.

Bye, bye, Perfection. It’s been amazing. Best of luck finding another flawless woman to shack up with. Love, Carrie