I am a recovering perfectionist, which means I wage daily battle with my desire to do things perfectly. I thought I’d come far in my recovery: I had admitted powerlessness over my affliction and acknowledged that it made my life unmanageable. I intentionally dropped my standards and allowed myself to embrace striving and imperfection.
Until a white horse came along and sent me back to step one.
A white horse can never be perfectly clean—at least not one that lives in the orange clay of central North Carolina. I used to joke that chestnuts were the perfect-colored horse for North Carolina, while white horses belonged in the snowbelt.
Then Mystic the white horse came into my life, and the joke wasn’t so funny. This is how he looked the other day after a light rainstorm:
I tell myself this is a karmic challenge: my charge is to let it go. Let Mystic stay spotty orange-brown. Horses, like children, haven’t had a good, full day unless they get dirty. Dirt means play, earthiness, gusto, freedom. It means the opposite of neurotic perfectionism.
If this is a karmic challenge, the cosmos is winning. I can’t do it: I can’t keep from washing Mystic when he’s dirty. I’ve assembled a heavy-hitting lineup of shampoo and conditioning products:
My ace in the hole is Quic Silver shampoo, which comes out dark purple and turns dirty white hair into a magically brilliant silvery coat. I have no idea how it works, and I’m happy to keep it that way. I don’t need to know how computers work either. A finish coat of ShowSheen Hair Polish helps repel dirt, though I’d prefer plastic wrap.
Mystic does not particularly enjoy being bathed, especially because I’m a novice and take a long time to do it. When he tries to exit the bathing stall prematurely, I say things like, “Well, you shouldn’t have been born white!” I guess blaming is another bad habit I need to work on.
During the extensive, turbulent, tsunami-like bathing process, I travel through the emotional states Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described in her landmark study on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I suspect Mystic is also moving through them, though stopping short at acceptance. Then, when it’s all over and he looks like a shining unicorn—minus the horn and beard—from a medieval tapestry, I reach a sixth stage: bliss.
The trouble with bliss is that you keep grasping for more of it and feel lousy when it eludes you. I’m sure the Dalai Lama would tell me I’m the architect of my own suffering: by longing for a clean white horse, I’m keeping myself chained to samsāra, or the wheel of life. My latest effort to let go of my obsessive need to wash Mystic involves visualizing a sand mandala, an intricately patterned circle made entirely of colored sand. Buddhist monks spend weeks creating a mandala, then destroy it to symbolize the transitory nature of material life.
In my interpretation, bathing Mystic is like building a dazzling sand mandala. Then nature steps in and dismantles what I’ve created, reminding me that everything is fleeting—beauty, happiness, desire, life. And cleanliness.
This strategy is kind of working. Sort of. Okay, not really. I guess I’ll have mastered the karmic challenge when I stop fighting the process and quit thinking of far-fetched analogies like the sand mandala.
Meanwhile, my friend Ben, who keeps his dirt-colored Clydesdale cross at Fiore Farms, loves to tease me. “That horse is looking mighty dirty,” he’ll say, or, “Can’t you keep your horse clean?” He teaches religious studies at UNCG and knows all about soul struggles. The twinkle in his eye comforts me, telling me he understands it’s tough to be a human chasing perfection while trying your best to let it go.