I’m selling my house. It’s a project.
My house was built in 1900. So, there’s no driveway, because there weren’t cars in my small Connecticut town in 116 years ago. The walls and ceiling are plaster, so they have cracks from the house settling over time. The wood floors aren’t gleaming and new. They have decades of wear and tear on them, including the time they spent covered in avacado green shag carpet.
So I interview realtors and we talk to each other about my house. We say, “it’s an old house. Someone who wants to buy a house like this comes in knowing it’s not going to be perfect. They’re interested in character.” We keep coming back to the idea of charm and character in contrast to some Platonic ideal of house perfection.
And I want to know when character became the opposite of perfection.
Of course, a house is a Jungian archetype of the Self. So this lends itself to the larger metaphor.
When did we start to think of “perfection” as spotless and untouched? Why is a repainted wood door worse than a new plastic one? Does a surface-level crack really make a structurally sound wall worthless? Were people always this judgmental? Did newness always equal quality? Do buyers need a house to be a virgin so they know its offspring will be theirs?
I have lived in happiness, contentment, frustration, joy, anger, anxiety, and celebration in my house for twelve years. None of the cracks in the walls kept me from experiencing the greatest thrills and deepest pains. The squeaky step never made Thanksgiving less fun. The lack of a driveway was inconvenient when it snowed, but it never stopped me from getting where I wanted to go as long as I was willing to put in some effort. So why are these signs of age and wear such an impediment for so many people?
I worked with other faculty and staff at my university preparing to sing at our commencement ceremony. So many people who don’t usually sing feel uncomfortable with their voices — believe that their singing is only acceptable if it’s pristine and perfect. Their spouses and their children tell them they “can’t sing.” That they “shouldn’t sing!” And, no, they don’t have training. But they can match pitch and maintain a tonal center a capella. Their voices are clear and accurate, and they can hold their own part when singing with others. Their voices aren’t “perfect,” I guess; but I want them in my choir, and I know I can make them sound awesome together. I did make them sound awesome together. So why do they feel like they shouldn’t sing at all just because they won’t have a career as a recording artist?
And I can’t help but think that we’ve somehow come to a place where only shiny, polished things are acceptable. Voices. Houses. Bodies. Personalities. Performances.
Was it always like this? Is this a 21st century problem? Is this a problem of privilege? Of the TV-ification of aesthetics? Are we ruled by fear that a surface fault is a sign of underlying tectonic activity?
Perfection is a lie, as any artist can tell you. Every house is a project. Every performance has mistakes. Every body has lumps. Every face has blemishes. Every voice and every wall will eventually crack. But that does not reduce their value or usefulness.
My house was built in 1900, and it’s perfect. Not because it’s new and shiny and unlived-in. Because it’s everything it needs to be — strong, reliable, warm, safe. Every performance I’ve ever been a part of has had wrong notes, rushed diminuendos, untidy cutoffs; but the human beings who participated in those performances were worthy, hardworking, passionate lovers of music who poured themselves into their singing. And that is what a choral performance needs to be. Every singer I know has missed an entrance, sung out of tune, and forgotten lyrics. But they have also lived deeply in their music making, bringing something original and new, yet universal and recognizable to audiences who might never have experienced it otherwise. And that is what they’re supposed to do.
My house is 65 miles from my job. That’s its “flaw.” So I need to sell it so I can move closer. But I hate these conversations about what “work needs to be done” on my house. I hate the conversations where grown ass men and women apologize for their voices, letting me know that their friends and family have made them aware of how bad they sound. I hate when the choirs I hear are working so hard on singing “correctly” that they forget that it’s singing.
I would much rather enjoy things as they are.
p.s. If you have ever told someone they can’t sing, but you’ve never taken a vocal pedagogy class, please STFU.
p.p.s. If anyone has ever criticized your voice who didn’t have at least a master’s degree in vocal pedagogy, feel free to tell them they smell like penguin farts, and their teeth are crooked and yellow. You’ll be speaking with equal intellectual and critical authority.