To the End of the Jetty: Letting Go of Perfectionism

by Sally Jamrog

Commentary

March 29, 2021

On a day in late August several years ago, my family and I decided to take a walk on the Hampton Beach jetty, a thin strip of rocks jutting out into the ocean to protect the peopled shoreline from rough waves. The sun beat down on my shoulders, threatening to burn despite the layers of sunscreen forming a second skin over my body. Large rocks warmed the soles of my feet as we walked farther from the shore, their surfaces out in the summer sun no longer slick with the sea. As the terrain grew rougher, we maneuvered more carefully among the crags on all fours, reverting to our primal instincts. The rocks were more crowded than they had been that morning when my mother and I had made the journey together, just the two of us. Then, it had seemed the jetty belonged to only ourselves and the various ships that swerved around it with each journey past the beach. 

Now, I was climbing quickly, enjoying the thrill of the trail, unconsciously leaving the figures of my mother and younger brother far behind me as I twisted and turned among the rocks. I had been taking rock-climbing lessons at the time, and my little ten-year-old fingers itched to try themselves on real rock, different and more enticing than the plastic holds at the rock-climbing center. Pretending to be a master climber, I whirled and bounded over boulders with ease. 

I reached the end of the jetty, where the stone tapered out in a steady slope to the choppy seas below. Though the tides were out, the surrounding water was still sufficiently deep for boats to sail in, the currents greedy enough to sweep someone under and carry them away. That day, many children were at the edge of the rocks, dipping their fingers in standing tidepools that had formed from receding waves and bounding playfully, to their parents’ horror, over large fissures leading into the rocky depths. 

I stood by the flag marking the end of the jetty and pondered my intentions. Should I go farther? I remembered my mother’s warning not to explore this area without her supervision, but my feet wanted to move, my fingers to climb and grope their way into cracks and crevices. I yearned to join children my age ahead of me who had found starfish. So, spurred by curiosity, I passed the flag. I trusted that I was not so far ahead of my mother and brother, though all I could see behind me was a jostling sea of people. They would be here soon, I consoled myself, and besides, I was not going to slip!

New arrivals to the jetty flag watched me nervously as I steadied myself with hands on the rock behind me, probing the sloping edge of the jetty with my toes and slowly starting the descent. I would prove their worries wrong, for I was a trained rock-climber after all! In front of me, the vibrant hues of a kid’s colorful pails and shovels egged me on. I wondered if the starfish they had collected were as vibrant as some I had seen in the nature magazines that came to our house every month. 

When I had relied on crab-walking to carry myself halfway to the edge of the water, I then trusted it would be safe to shift my weight back onto two feet. The barnacles coating the stone under my hands had lacerated my skin painfully. I tried to wash off the bit of blood blooming on my palm in one of the pools of seawater basined in the crater of a boulder. I turned to face the rest of the distance to be covered and balked when I noticed more white barnacles clustered together, the surface of my upcoming footholds shiny in the sun, slick with sea-slime. A father and his daughter played in a tidepool not far ahead of me. How did they escape the barnacles? I got down on my hands and feet again, probing for any zones free of crustaceans and slime.

Before I realized I had fallen, I smelled the salty tang of seaweed. The crowns of those vicious barnacles bit angrily into my skin, more peering down at me mockingly from the cave mouth above. How did I slip? Water ebbed into the cavern where I found myself, its undulations ricocheting cacophonously in the darkness. Someone’s arms reached down into the fissure, creating shadows on the cave walls, calling for my hands. I could feel myself becoming the center of attention, thinking of the anxious faces I had striven to prove wrong. The face of the father I had seen earlier with his daughter appeared above the hole, asking if I was alright. My embarrassment held me down, shame shackling my hands to the rocks around me. Part of me wished to stay hidden in the shadows rather than face my foolishness, but I thrust myself upward anyway, grabbing onto the hands lent to me. It took a few tries and wrong footholds, the barnacles ever merciless, but soon the sunlight enveloped me again and someone led me to my mother by the jetty flag, who was concerned and horrified at the bloodied sight I had become. 

I would say the hardest part of that day was walking back to the rest of our family on the beach, the sand stinging in my cuts, blood etched down my sides. No vital parts of me damaged, just signs of my overconfidence calling out my carelessness to the general public. I tried to shut out the gasps, fearful eyes, and choruses of “Are you okay?” as I held my mother’s hand, my steps no longer as sure and confident as they had been. Some rock climber I was. 

Although rattled by this experience, I did resume rock climbing the next month, remounting my bike after a fall, as the hackneyed phrase goes. However, the real challenge for me suddenly became trusting in my abilities. “Do I know how to do this well enough?” “Is my work good enough for people to see?” Self-doubt developed into perfectionism. This is still a challenge I grapple with today and face especially with creative pursuits. How do I muster the courage to bring something out into the world when I know I still have so much to learn? Though perfection can provide a standard to work towards, it should not be fixated upon to the point that it inhibits production. Just because I am still learning does not mean that I cannot share what I have learned so far. Thus, I strive to keep my “master-climber” swagger, but with a mind more open and receptive to guidance from others and to the mistakes I am bound to make along the way.

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