One Sunday morning I was pressing my lips shut and clapping my hands when the minister sidled up next to me. "Why aren't you singing?" he asked. "I can't sing," I whispered to him, afraid of attracting too much attention. "I have an awful voice." Then the minister looked at me and said five of the most beautiful words I have ever heard. He said, "Do you think God cares?"
Ever since that glorious day, my love for singing has grown exponentially. I sing in the shower and around the house. I sing in the car, at church, and on the dance floor. The DJ who plays Gloria Gaynor is just asking for me to put a hurting on "I Will Survive."
I've learned that it's a blessing when you can take something you once weighted down with shame and turn it into a pleasure. There's an art to doing things badly, especially in a society that puts so much emphasis on beauty, perfection, and achievement. Most of us talk ourselves out of doing anything we're not good at. Maybe we don't admit that our egos drive us to put forth only our brightest and best selves. We are, after all, so busy. Who has time for something we fully expect to be miserable at?
Liba, an artist friend of mine, gave me a set of watercolors and paper. It sat on the shelf for years because I'd never learned to draw, let alone paint, anything more than a smiley face. I couldn't waste that lovely paper on smiley faces. Besides—and this was always the clincher—who would I show my artwork to?
I don't think I'm alone in my elementary school affinity for show-and-tell. Why learn a piece of music unless it's to be performed? Why knit a sweater unless it's to be given to a loved one? We think everything we do has to be up to snuff, and we forget that the pure, uncensored joy of living in our own skin comes when we are not attached, 24-7, to either our fans or our critics. We can paint just for ourselves. We can belt out torch songs in an empty office when everyone else has gone home and tango across the living room solo. No one's going to stop us from baking soufflés that fall and eating them in the privacy of our own kitchens. Trust me on this one: Chocolate doesn't have to be beautiful to taste really, really good.
Sometimes ethnic stereotypes make our shortfalls all the more painful. My posse of friends is brimming with black girls who can't play basketball, Latinas who don't speak Spanish well, and Asians who can't do math. "Black girls are supposed to be able to dance!" moans my friend Ali, who awkwardly muddled through our hip-hop adolescence and its complicated dances. These days Ali is more comfortable with how her body moves, whatever people might say or think. She keeps on grooving even when she reaches that inevitable moment on the dance floor when, she says, "I realize I have lost the beat with no clue where to find it."
The fear of doing something badly can affect more than just our choice of pastimes. My friend Jenny remembers that before she decided to have a child, she was deeply afraid of being a bad mother. Off-key sonatas will be forgotten, but the mistakes we make with our children threaten to haunt us our entire lives. It was only when she got comfortable with the idea that she would certainly do many, many things wrong as a mother that she was able to go ahead and get pregnant. "The thing about doing things badly is that if you keep doing them, sometimes you get better," she says, as we walk down a tree-lined street toward the pizza parlor, her daughter screeching happily on Rollerblades ahead of us.
Alas, I fear that no amount of practice will improve my singing. "I want to tell you something but I don't want you to be offended," my fiancé said several months ago as we washed the dinner dishes and I crooned along to Ella Fitzgerald. "The thing I love about you is that your singing is so wretched but you do it anyway." His backhanded compliment confirmed not only why I'm marrying him but a truth I had long suspected: The things we do badly set us apart; what we consider our failures have a surprising ability to charm. We think we have to be perfect for other people to love us, when in fact the opposite is true. We are loved for our imperfections—for our funny faces and walks and dances and songs.