Almost two years ago my husband and I bought a condo in a cool old building downtown. Great location, hardwood floors, exposed brick, pocket doors—charm and more charm. The trouble with cool old buildings is that they are rife with plumbing and electrical issues as ancient systems jury-rigged to keep up with modern times continually fail.
Our previous home had these same issues. The electrical never bothered me much—an ungrounded outlet here, a shorted breaker there, a little smoke wafting out of the dimmer switch of a summer evening. Life.
But the plumbing. The plumbing is another story. The primary symptom of its troubles (and all of my angst about it) coalesces around what is known in the biz as an “incomplete flush.” No matter how many times you flush the toilet, you can never quite get rid of all evidence that you had to use it.
This creates a low level of stress that’s with me all the time. What will I find when I go into the bathroom? What will remain when I leave? How do I politely explain to guests what to expect and not to worry about it?
“It won’t overflow,” I assure them. “It only looks like it will.”
What will they think of me?
I have a number of recurring anxiety dreams.
One is about being in college and realizing I have a test in a class I’ve somehow neglected to attend for the entire semester. Common. Another common one is a version of “the actor’s nightmare,” in which I’m about to go on stage before an audience only I’ve never seen a script and I might also be partially nude.
The third that I often have involves toilets, some variation of “I gotta go” and I can’t find a single toilet that isn’t dirty, overflowing with waste, in a stall without a door, in a room without a stall, or, oddly, in a flooded gym locker room. I assume this one is pretty common, too.
My friends and I, when we talk about our various spiritual and psychological and childhood issues, often say: “Oh, I’m just dealing with my shit.” Or, “Sorry, my shit was coming up,” when we overreact to a perceived slight or rejection.
Anything that feels like evidence of what we find ugly or gross about ourselves we equate to literal crap, and ideally we could just flush it all away and never have it bubble back up at inconvenient moments, never look messy, never feel soiled.
Sometimes I have a difficult time maintaining relationships once they feel dirtied—and they all get dirtied. I want tidy closures and sparkling reconciliation, for everything that seemed foul and repulsive to be whooshed away into the great sewer of the universe and be completely forgotten.
I have this belief that it would be less painful to be a young widow than to have to struggle through a difficult conversation in marriage, that it would be neater to have no friends at all than to work at loving people and letting them love me once we’ve seen what’s down there clogging up the drain, that it would be better to move on from a job once I’ve sent a regrettable email or missed a deadline.
I guess what I want is for there to never be evidence of my sin. I guess what I want is to never need forgiveness, understanding, patience, or mercy. I guess I don’t want to need saving. I guess I want to be perfect.
I joke about being a “perfectionist” and how it can freeze me up when I’m trying to write. With writing it’s one thing, just a minor symptom. It’s serious, though, when it comes to my spirit and my ability to have meaningful relationships (including with myself) in the light of the gospel.
Though the anxiety of not being perfect crosses every social divide, religious anxiety and some types of doctrine can really exacerbate it. My Mormon friends deal with this, I know, as do my friends from evangelical backgrounds.
But in theory, anyway, it seems like Christians should be the best at being okay with not being perfect. We confess our inability to save ourselves, and exchange our imperfection for Christ’s perfection. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to let Christ’s perfect love live in us and through us, and to know that and nothing else as our salvation.
Still, there is a point in every day where I have some version of the thought: But tomorrow I will be perfect.
The thought isn’t spiritual; a thought nowhere near to taking hold of Christ’s perfection.
It is a thought that encompasses what I will eat and how I will exercise, and that I will say nothing mean or sarcastic to my husband, that I will write a thousand perfect words and only tweet perfect tweets. I will make my hair perfect and my clothes perfect and this will probably involve buying something.
I’ll make sure no one sees me being petty, afraid, envious, stupid, or uninformed. And I will do this all through sheer force of will. Jesus doesn’t even cross my mind.
Then I wake up to the new day of perfection, and I have to use my cranky old toilet and go another round with the fact that I am messy, and my ways are messy, and my thoughts and issues are messy, and my relationships don’t always have the whiff of clean summer breezes, and everybody knows it.
Today I will need grace; I will need salvation.
Tomorrow, I will need it again.
Sara Zarr is the author of five novels for young adults, most recently The Lucy Variations, which the New York Times called “an elegant novel.” Her sixth, a collaborative novel with Tara Altebrando, came out December 2013. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, The Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. In fall 2014, she received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at www.sarazarr.com.
Photograph above by Sharon Mollerus, used under a Creative Commons license.