Shaking to Breathe: Shakers and the Suffocation of Perfection

I’ve always been intrigued by the Shakers as a religious movement. On one hand, their way of life has a strange appeal. The way they provided for themselves from their own land, created their own medicines, and lived in seeming communal harmony sounds…idyllic. The idealized version of them is mesmerizing in a society of broken communities and hectic life.

However, underneath the superficial fascination has always lingered a certain kind of sadness for me—the same sadness that I get when I read about the mass suicides of Jonestown.

It’s the sadness of a system dying out.

The Shakers didn’t have the violent implosion of the People’s Temple. There are still three members living; however, like the white rhinoceros, the Shakers are only death away from extinction. It’s a movement that is slowly asphyxiating in a system that leaves no room for breathing.

While the majority of people focus on and stop at the picturesque way of life that is preserved in history books, I’ve always seen the death throes that followed. It seemed incongruous. If they had achieved “utopia” as so many claim, how could they die out?

When I found out there was a Shaker museum near where we were staying on vacation, I couldn’t resist visiting. You could say it was a morbid fascination born of a curiosity to see what a non-violent cult looks like when it expires.

It wasn’t like visiting other historic places. There was no sense of life having passed through and moved on, leaving just relics behind. I got the sense that life hadn’t moved on at all in their buildings. It had just . . . stopped. The energy in the rooms was one of quiet desperation. The perfection—the symmetry—practically screamed in pain to me.

I thought as a perfectionist that I would fall in love with it, but I just wanted to cry.

I didn’t see beauty in the perfection. I saw the erasure of individuality. They had obliterated the identifying marks of a person, a room, a chair. In a way, they had achieved the purpose of perfection…

I had never really thought about the difference between perfection and quality before. They had seemed to coincide. Good quality objects should be as near to perfect as possible, right?

I don’t think so anymore.

Visiting the former Shaker settlement was like a rebirth for me, but not in the way they would have liked. I left craving imperfection, chaos, individuality, and art like never before.

Afterwards as we wandered around some local pottery shops, I gravitated towards the “seconds,” marveling over how beautiful they were—still good quality, functional items but with something that made them far more valuable to me than the “firsts.”

I knew that the flawed pieces were completely unique.

It’s not a luxury that I’ve granted myself in the past. While I might have subconsciously appreciated the individuality of artisan works or simply not cared about the flaws that I couldn’t find, I would have never considered that my own mistakes in my creative process could be considered gifts rather than blemishes.

I wouldn’t have valued them as an expression of my unique humanity.

Up until now, I have been trying to teach the perfectionist side of me that it’s okay to make mistakes. The world won’t end if I drop a stitch on a knitting project. Nothing bad will happen if I accidentally spell a word wrong. No one will punish me for burning supper or forgetting to return a library book.

It’s a start, but I don’t want to stop there. I’m starting to see that it’s more than permissible to make mistakes; it’s beautiful to be imperfect. It’s creative. It’s human. It’s the way we instill messages and stories in our work and the way we grow. Without it, there’s no breath in our process; there is no life.

Learning to Play My Violin . . . Again

My relationship with my violin has been a tumultuous one. Once upon a time, I actually couldn’t get enough of music. I wanted to play every instrument I saw. I fell in love with the sound of violin and chose that one to study officially with teachers, but I taught myself to play piano and flute as well. I’d spend hours in the music room of my parent’s house just lost in the notes.

But Wednesday night, when my partner came home to find me polishing my violin, his eyes widened with surprise as he exclaimed, “You really do love your violin!”

It’s true. It’s like a dirty little secret of mine. However, you would never guess that I love my violin anymore if you saw my normal interaction with it.

What happened?

Somewhere along the way, I forgot how to play.

It probably started when practicing became an obligation that didn’t allow me to choose to play because I wanted to. It got worse when family members started demanding performances, regardless of how I felt.

But it was perfectionism that eventually obliterated my memory. It was like a tumor, taking over my mind. I was taught that I had a responsibility to always do my best for God. As a high-achieving preteen, my brain translated that to mean “the best,” aka perfect.

As anyone who has touched a violin will know, it is messy—not the instrument for perfectionists. I came to fear it. It symbolized my inability to be the best for God—therefore my unworthiness of love. Practice became a tormented game of trying to never mess up. When I failed, I punished myself to try to show God that I was serious about trying to be my best. There were days when I would leave my room with my legs covered in bruises (all above the knee where I was guaranteed they would be hidden by the modesty rules). My violin was my shame.

But I still had a love for music, which I nursed on the piano that I kept mercifully free of my perfectionistic expectations. My senior year, I got a teacher who managed to coax me out of my shell during my lessons. He approached his teaching playfully, interspersing hilarious stories and outrageous exercises in with the more serious technique.

“Sing out, Louise!” he’d tease, launching into a story about Gypsy.

I would try just a bit harder because, with him, I remembered that it was fun . . . until I practiced again with myself—my biggest critic and biggest punisher.

Perhaps if I had stayed with him long enough, he would have been able to break through my shame, but the following year I went to Bob Jones University. I wanted to leave violin as my hobby, not my career. However, my parents pressured me into a music minor, adding the guilt of wasting their years and money for lessons to my fear of failing.

My first teacher there spent the semester ensuring that music became as boring as possible, systematically breaking down any expression or individuality. It was like it was her mission to seek out any positive influence from my other teachers and destroy it.

Stripped of my joy of music, I went on to another teacher. She was exacting to a terrifying degree. Whereas before, my teachers would give me a technique to learn and allow me to practice it for a week before expecting any progress, she expected me to master everything in her half hour of teaching. I not only dreaded practice; I feared lessons. I left crying so often that the teacher in the class I had after lessons eventually stopped asking if I was okay when he saw my red face. I could no longer goad myself into playing better by hurting myself. I froze up in terror every time I picked up my instrument. My technique regressed, and with it, my desire to play.

“Some people just don’t have it in them,” she finally told me. From then on out, she took no interest in my progress whatsoever, and my fears that I was an utter failure at violin were confirmed.

I dropped the minor, but the damage was not so easily forsaken. Even my beloved teacher back home couldn’t recognize my playing. Eventually, I put my violin in its case and walked away.

I spent the first year of my marriage thinking I was going to give up violin for good. When my partner gave me a new electric/acoustic violin for Christmas, my excitement was almost immediately overshadowed by worry that I wouldn’t be worth the expense.

I started practicing again, but there were months where I couldn’t even stand to touch the violin.

It wasn’t just that I was afraid of playing in front of others. I was afraid of playing . . . alone. Somewhere down the road, “playing” violin became a performance, even in the privacy of my own home.

So how does one learn how to play again?

Well, I got off to a good start by not playing when I didn’t want to. I saw my four years of sporadic interest as a sign that I was giving up . . . until my interest began to grow again and the desire to play came more often. In the last few months, I’ve managed to have several afternoons where I lost myself in music for a few hours.

I’m also teaching myself to make mistakes and giving myself permission to explore–turning my violin into my toy. Perhaps it seems backwards to deliberately give myself something to mess up on, but it’s the very permission to mess up that frees me to find my instrumental voice.

But the most important element in learning how to play my violin again is claiming my right to it. Playing isn’t about pleasing or impressing others. It’s not about making money. It’s about me. I do not need to prove that I am worthy of love or musical investment. It’s enough that I enjoy playing.