When my kids were little I thought it would be a good parenting move to put them in piano lessons with a woman down the street.
Marjena was from eastern Europe and spoke with a thick accent. In the waiting area of her home, she prominently displayed a photo of herself in a feathery boa, and taught my trembling children piano like a Russian gymnastic coach.
As a young mom I was a bit alarmed, but thought perhaps this is just what piano lessons had become since I was young. So we continued for a season.
During one lesson Marjena told me under her breath, "Do not worry about my daughter waking up to disturb your children's lessons. I have given her a sleeping potion."
Another time, when my eldest didn't curve her little fingers enough, Marjena yelled at her in a shrill voice, "If you don't curve your fingers I am going to S-C-R-E-A-M!"
One afternoon my most sensitive child sat down with Marjena to play a beginner's song she had been diligently practicing for weeks. Tracy was a bundle of nerves.
She played her song whilst shaking in her boots and, even though I heard some hesitation, she made it through the song quite nicely.
"Phew," I thought, "she'll get a little gold star and we can go home."
Instead, I heard Marjena say to Tracy in her lovely, but now terrifying accent, "You played that song perfect, but NOT QUITE PERFECT. Therefore, I will give you a gold star on this piece, but first I will RIP OFF ONE OF ITS ARMS, so you will always remember that you played it perfect, but NOT QUITE PERFECT."
I fired her on the spot and was sweating bullets as I did it.
We found a gentle, loving piano instructor and never looked back.
Why do I tell you that story?
I have been profoundly influenced by the work of a Duke Divinity School professor named Kate Bowler.
Bowler studies the history of the "prosperity gospel" movement in the United States. She has a rich understanding of how tenets of that pseudo-gospel make their way into both the church and culture.
She describes the very air we breathe in this country as one of a constant, unhealthy, obsession with being "good, better, best." An infatuation with the idea that with enough work, positive energy and good behavior we can perfect ourselves.
Because this myth of perfection will break our hearts Bowler encourages us to accept the lives we have, and to see them for the beautiful gifts they are, warts and all. She offers us relief from the misconception that happiness and joy can be found just one promotion, one diet, one self-improvement project away.
She also reminds us that this myth of perfection has been commodified to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. None of us is beyond temptation.
I need that reminder at the start of a new year when my inbox and social media feed erupts in what Bowler would call "LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE NOW" advertisements.
I think back to my trembling Tracy trying to play her little song perfectly. The joy of music was ripped from her by this nonsense. But with a loving, good-humored instructor, she learned to love music for music's sake, mistakes and all.
Perfectionism is a lie and it can rip the arms off our imperfect lives if we let it.
Let's shoot for enjoyment rather than perfection, shall we?
I give us all gold stars.