The Dark Side Of “Perfect”

Although I adore my family and it’s beautiful up here on Lake Erie in Ohio, the place I’m spending my summer vacation with my mother, daughter, nieces, and nephews isn’t the kind of place I’d choose to hang out left to my own devices. We’re vacationing at a Methodist-owned resort peopled by those who claim to share virtues and religious beliefs, pride themselves in being “old school,” and live by the four pillars of education, religion, the arts, and recreation.

It’s all very… I don’t know… Pleasantville. I almost feel like I’m in The Truman Show, the unwitting star of a reality TV show everyone but me knows is fake. Only this is real. Sort of. And as far as I can tell, there are no Big Brother cameras lurking around.

Things Are Too Perfect

The houses are all well kept, and the gardens are filled with fragrant flowers and blossoming bushes in color wheel-matching hues, even though this place experiences some brutal winters, and you’d think some brown-thumbs or lazy people (like me) would be tempted to let their gardens go.

The lake is always full of splashing, giddy children, squealing (but not too loud), playing (but not too rowdy), and eating ice cream cones that seem to get licked up before they melt (even though it’s quite warm here.)

There are art classes throughout the day, where children and adults alike spin clay on pottery wheels, carve soapstone sculptures, make their own jewelry, paint, and fire glass beads. In the evening, there are ice cream socials and hot dog roasts and square dancing in the park (yes… square dancing, complete with someone calling out the do-si-dos.)

It’s all very idyllic, really.

Or Is It?

Smoking and alcohol are prohibited, so the pizza parlor “Sloopy’s” is free of the frat-party aroma that tends to accompany such pizza joints.  And cars are only allowed for pick-up and drop-off, so the kids can freely ride their bikes on the streets that coast down to the lake, while adults in golf carts cruise around at low speeds so the children can rule the roost.

The teenagers are well-dressed and seemingly free of teen angst.  The adults appear to be happily coupled off here, holding hands and smiling sweetly to each other as they survey their brood enjoying a jolly good time. I haven’t seen any single women my age, and since I’m here without Matt (he’s home on an art retreat), I almost feel like I’m wearing a scarlet letter, especially when I dare to prance around in a short sundress without a bra or wear the low cut bathing suit that shows off my barely-there cleavage. (Trust me, I was the only one. Apparently, I missed the memo forbidding sexy clothing.)

I’ve learned, after living in La Jolla and then working in Mill Valley (both photo op-perfect California towns) that I tend to feel more comfortable in places that are a little rough around the edges.  When things start to look too “perfect,” I start feeling a little edgy, like I am right now. It rouses my rebellious streak and makes me want to scream “Fire!” (Don’t worry. I didn’t.)

The Dark Underbelly

I consider myself an optimist, and I trend towards the Pollyanna, but I tend to think that, when life looks “perfect,” it doesn’t take much more than flipping up the rock to see the bugs crawling on the dark underbelly of perfection.

Take the fact that all the dogs seem to behave perfectly. Unlike my precious Grendel, who I lost last month, these dogs are all docile and well-behaved. While my ten-pound Bichon Frise thought she was an alpha dog pit bull and barked at anyone who came within 1,000 yards of our house, these dogs barely raise a hairy eyebrow when I walk by, much less bark or jump up on you.

But it turns out they have laws against that. If your dog barks, you have to keep her home. Grendel would have been banned.

And the no-booze law – what’s with that? The grocery stores and restaurants here are alcohol-free, but the convenience store right outside the gated, fenced-in, locked community (you have to pay a fee and have a pass to get in and out) is stocked full of liquor, and every night you see people sneaking in and out, hoofing it on foot, so as not to get spotted in their golf carts. As the sun sets, you can’t help smelling the boozy breath of the men who stand outside, holding their bourbon and watching the sunset. You wonder whether the women are sneaking their wine inside.

You also can’t help noticing that everyone is white as the snow that envelopes it all winter. I haven’t seen a single brown-skinned person here, other than my nephew, the son of my adopted sister, who is black and must feel like a fish-out-of-water here. He asked my mother, “Nana, why is everyone here staring at me?” She said, “Because you’re so handsome, darling.” And it’s true. He’s gorgeous.

I Trust Shadows        

Don’t get me wrong. I’m having a great time in Mayberry. The lake is beautiful, and I’ve been grateful every day for the blessing of this time with my family in this ethereal place full of good old-fashioned midwestern charm. But I agree with Sheila Kelley, my friend and founder of S Factor, who once told me at an S Factor retreat, “Lissa, I didn’t trust you until you let me see your shadow.”

That’s how I feel here. I don’t mind darkness, like the black storm clouds that are building to the east right now, threatening to thunder and lightning on our perfect parade. But I like to see the darkness, right up there next to the sunlight, plain as day, unashamed of the pain, grief, deception, arrogance, judgment, rigidity, and imperfection that plagues us all.

Places like this make me wary. Like Sheila, I’ve come to realize I don’t trust people who hide their shadows. Within those shadows lie our connection, the place we touch each other, the portal into intimacy. We are all imperfect, so there’s no point judging ourselves or each other, and in the understanding of this truth lies our perfection.

My Heart Opens

As I walk around here, I can’t help wondering, not out of judgment, but out of a desire to connect, how many others feel the way I feel here? I’m tempted to stand in the middle of the gazebo and yell, “Imperfect people, we’re dancing over here! Bring your flaws and come hang with us!” I want to play Lady Gaga’s Born This Way too loud.

I look at the women and wonder how many long to tell the truth about the pain that comes with their love for their children, the secret longing they’re hiding because they gave up their dreams and traded them in for summers on the lake and the illusion of security.

I look at the men and wonder how many lovers they’re sneaking in on the side, unbeknownst to the wives who think they found the perfect, faithful Christian husband. I wonder if the men ever dream of quitting the jobs that allow them to pay for their summer homes on the lake.

I wonder how many teens lost their virginity in the gazebo at midnight to the hot lifeguards with the tans and the blond hair, after sneaking out when everyone was asleep? How many young girls are pregnant, about to get abortions or secretly give their babies up for adoption, only they don’t feel they can confide in anyone here because they might get booted? How many of their mothers and fathers, who came of age in the 1960’s, did the same when they were children, only they don’t want to share the truth with their children, for fear of setting a bad example?

How many kids are sneaking over the locked gate into “townie” parties, where they’re drinking beer and getting high? What happens when they get caught?

Maybe It’s Just Me

Maybe I’m making all this up. Maybe it really is perfect, and everyone here really is happy with the old school charm this place exudes through its pores like sweet Classic Coke.

But I doubt it. As I write this, a dog just escaped from the house, chased a skunk, started barking, and got sprayed. His owners came barreling after him, screaming and threatening. The dog is in doggie heaven, and the neighbors are apologizing to everyone, going door to door, making amends on behalf of the dog who apparently missed the memo of good behavior, like I did.

I’m Sincerely Grateful

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly grateful to my mother for the gift of this vacation. Right now, even with the skunky musk smell, I’m experiencing that feeling of being radically alive that often accompanies getting out of your comfort zone.  I’m reveling in the flower bed next to me. I’m marveling at the sounds of happy children. I’m delighting in Siena’s unbound glee, as she rides around on the back of the golf cart, yelling “Whee!” while showing off the anklet she made today.

I’m grateful. Really, I am.

I just wish we could all feel more free to be openly imperfect, to let the dark underbelly of our imperfections show, even as we try to live more in alignment with our Inner Pilot Lights and our highest selves.

What About You?

Do you ever feel uncomfortable when things seem too perfect? Or do you long for a place like this, where time seems to have stood still?

Checking my desire to be blatantly naughty,

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