I don’t know where I learned it but somewhere as a child I started to believe that “perfect” was the goal. A perfect score on the test meant that I was OK, read: not flawed, excellent, deserving of a prize. I think somewhere someone well meaning had taught me that we should always strive for perfection and the rare moments when I hit the mark filled me with a deep relief that I mistook for joy: “I AM good enough”, I would think. As I grew, such a mindset pushed me to excel, but it also pushed me into a kind of deep unhappiness and state of panic.
I only jumped into things that felt like I had a chance of perfecting–if it was truly hard or my progress was slow, well I gave up and put my attention to the areas where I was naturally talented and where perfection was more “attainable”. I shied away from things I was bad at, sat on the sidelines if I could. And I carried great shame about the things that I struggled to master.
And I carried that shame a lot. Because of course, in 99.9% of the things I do, I am not perfect. Not even close.
I am happy to report that I for many years now I have been on a mission to let go of the story that I need to be perfect. In some areas, I have found it easy to be gentle with myself. For instance it was easy to make the choice to let go of having a perfect house when faced with the choice of doing that so that I could spend time with Max. But its been harder for me to let go of perfection in my work. Even though it made me crazy at times, I gained a lot of self-satisfaction from being so GOOD at it. It was only after I realized that the projects that were good worked just as well as the ones that were perfect that I realized I could actually enjoy the work and the process, versus enjoying the fleeting 30 seconds after I finished something supposedly perfectly.
But the greatest gift of letting go of perfect, has been allowing myself to really dig in and try things that I am not naturally talented at and will never be perfect at, but I really enjoy. Like art, and music. Like playing my guitar. My guitar playing is sloppy and my hands are slow to learn. It has taken me almost 3 years to play an F chord clearly–and still, you got it, its not perfect, but there are few things I enjoy more than banging out a Pogues song or strumming a little Dylan.
Letting go of perfect has freed me up to take risks. I will never have the perfect words to say to a friend who is struggling, but its OK to just sit with them and hold the space, or better yet, imperfectly and awkwardly stumble through words that might bring comfort or a new perspective. I am willing to try something completely new for the sake of experimentation with no attachment to being able to do it well. Like picking up iceskating after more than 20 years or learning to swim. Or speaking a new language in a new country or playing at an open mic, despite my disasterously messy playing. I am bit by bit allowing myself to live more fully, more authentically and more joyfully.
Of course, I am not perfect at this practice either and I can find myself slipping into real unkindness toward myself when I don’t hit the mark when I think I should do better. Like communicating with my loved ones. Or in disciplining Max. I am practicing this kind of self compassion every day. Its the practice, not the mastery that matters.
I love that Brene Brown is holding a Perfect Protest and encouraging us all to throw off the heavy weight of perfection to more freely live into our own lives. I can’t wait to read her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.
Click over here to play along with this beautiful woman and lets create a most imperfect revolution.
When I arrived home from Boston after my birthday trip to the Mother’s Plunge, it was late. We pulled into the driveway and the automatic security lights came on. Like a spotlight they shone directly onto something new.
In my front garden where there had been nothing before, a tree stood. A beautiful tree with a cluster of slender trunks all reaching up to the sky, like a yogi greeting the sun. It was new but it looked as though it had always been there.
A half hour later I stood in front of it with my friend Edamarie, a garden designer who had placed it there, a gift for my birthday. She told me it was a witch hazel. Every healer needed a native healing tree in her front garden.
I have come to believe that everyone who shows up in my life is a teacher, and this tree, no less has much to teach me.
Witch hazel, so strong and flexible that its wood is used to construct bows: teach me to bow to life as it is, to bend not break.
Witch hazel, used to calm inflammation and wounds: teach me to gently take the sting out of life, to soothe those I come in contact with.
Witch hazel, which is so connected to the earth and magical. Witch hazel with your branches used to make divining rods and to discover underground water and energy: teach me to pay attention to the treasure underfoot.
Witch hazel, winter bloom, which only blooms after letting go of its leaves: teach me faith and to bravely let go so I might blossom.
Yesterday I was rear-ended. I was on my way from taking Max to hockey camp, on my way into work. A little bit ahead of schedule but still later than I liked. I drove the route that I thought would involve the least amount of traffic, the one that would be me there the quickest. I was ready to turn onto the road that would carry me in the direction of work. I was stopped, waiting for the cars to pass me when it happened.
I was jolted, a bit addled, not entirely sure what had happened, momentarily confused. I sat for a moment that felt like a lifetime before getting out of my car. I checked my bumper I wandered back to my car. I sat down. Still in a fog, not entirely sure what to do.
The stranger who hit me got out of her car and came running. “I am so sorry” she said. “Are you OK?” I swallowed my initial instinct to wave her off with assurances that I was fine. I wasn’t entirely. “I am a bit wigged out” I admitted. She was near tears. And pregnant. “Me too” she said and I noticed how frail she looked, how shocked and sad . We moved our cars out of the intersection and into a church parking lot.
When I stepped out of my car, that second time, as my head and heart cleared I knew the only response to this situation was gentle kindness. She was OK. I was OK. We were both scared, both shaken. We both needed nothing but understanding. The only response was to wrap my arms around this stranger, hug her hard and tell her it was all OK, that all would be well. To soothe and be soothed.
We fumbled for our information, talked about her baby to be born, begged each other to go to a doctor. We hugged some more and talked about how pregnancy will make you cry. We consoled one another and spoke our gratitude for being OK. There was no accusations about sudden stops or not paying attention. There was no defensiveness. We both instinctively knew that it would help neither of us to rehash what had happened with a goal of assigning blame. The accident was over. Now there were just two people in a messy moment, with each other on the side of the road, in a moment of confusion and fear, in full realization that kindness is the only thing that would fix the situation.
Later in the day we called each other’s cell phones. “What did the doctor say?” we asked. “How are you feeling?” We were happy to learn that all was well, continued to speak words of kindness and empathy. I hung up feeling warmed and cared for and not at all hit.
How often do we bump into people, only to inflate like puffer fish, spiky and defensive, fearfully protecting ourselves from the wrath that might come in response to our mistake? How often are we bumped into and lash out–out of fear, out of hurt? How is violence simply an outgrowth of that–our hurt, our fear, our need to protect ourselves, spiraling out of control?
What would happen if we instead shifted out of defensiveness and into kindness, even when we are slammed from behind unexpectedly. Even when we make a mistake that could cost us? What if we forgot all our fears at the moment and just breathed out kindness. What miracles could occur? I can’t stop thinking about how our world might be different.
As I stood on the side of the road with my arms around a stranger I thought how lucky I was to be given the gift of connection that day. Here was a beautiful human being, vulnerable and rushed and a mama just like me. We might never have met, might never have realized that the person driving behind me on that busy road was so kind. I might never have been tapped on the shoulder to be reminded how kindness changes everything.
Every connection starts with a bump, some harder than others. Human connection starts with a touch–how we chose to react will determine whether we destroy or care for one another, will determine the fate of our tribe.
Its an important lesson to learn.
I just saw this new film at the Silverdocs film festival, which miraculously takes place within walking distance from my house.
I wept out of joy, out of horror, out of the beauty that comes from brokenness, out of what happens when we attempt something crazy and magical–just because. What happens when we take risks. It comes out in October. Go see it. It just might change your life.
The day we landed in Mexico for the first time, we sat in the formal living room in the Mexico City house, cooled by one solitary fan and drank cold coca colas on sticky vinyl covered couches. My legs, made bare by my pretty little sundress stuck to the plastic and I looked longingly at the plush velvet beneath the clear barrier. “Protection”, Juan leaned over and whispered to me, reading my mind. “When something is this precious, we can’t afford to leave it unprotected.”
From my perch on my plastic velvet throne something magical caught my eye. In a living room that was rather sparse, a simple table, a lamp nothing more, the corner exploded in decoration. A waist high table was filled with fresh flowers, plastic flowers, candles burning despite the sun which bleached out the room, red beaded lamps, pictures of saints in gilded frames, ancient toys, figurines carved out of wood and stone. I got up and wandered over, mesmorized. Juan followed me and touched me on the shoulder. “It’s my tia’s altar”, he said. I had never seen anything so gaudy and so beautiful.
Before we left to travel to Oaxaca, Juan’s tia called us over to the altar for our blessing. She pulled out a fresh candle and lit it with ceremony, laid her tiny hands on our heads towering above her. She said prayers for a safe journey and with the saint’s protection firmly in place, she finally let us go out of her watchful sight. When something is this precious, we can’t afford to leave it unprotected.
I was swept up in the mystery of this magical country, I would soon call my second home. I loved, and became a student of the altars I saw built everywhere–in businesses, by roadside stands, in formal rooms and in the corner of shacks. A place for the Virgin to watch over and bless all who labored, loved and lingered there. Yet, the altars struck me as charmlng, antiquated, habits of old ladies with time on their hands, connections to a superstitious fate-based culture, a culture where angels and demons made choices instead of people and gods were arbitrary and mean in how they doled out joy and pain.
When I saw little altars constructed by friends of mine back home, I thought of them as glorious art pieces. A showcase of spirituality. I thought they were things constructed like window dressing to declare one’s love of God. I didn’t judge them, I was enthralled, in love, caught up in them. But I saw them as “extras” as “statements” as artful expression.
That was until the bottom fell out, after that night when Juan whispered to me that he was leaving me. That was until I was plunged head first into the realization that all my expecations and illusions about how my life would play out were dashed.
Night after sleepless night, I found myself whispering prayers in the dark to my tia’s Virgencita, the only woman who I thought might be able to hold my pain. Anxious hands, flitted about while my words poured forth, as though the very emotions, heart breaking needed to make themselves real and physical. One night I woke up and I stumbled into the living room. I suddenly remembered my sister in law, constructing her “Day of the Dead” altar for her young daughter, creating a space to grieve and honor her short life, to give thanks to her children who lived. Old toys and pieces of birthday cake and candy–a celebration of her life, an acknowledgment of her death, a pleading for the safety of her remaining three children.
And suddenly I understood what drove her to create her altar each year–what mad forces drove her forward through tears and turmoil as she laid the table cloth and arranged each item. I found the handthrown clay Virgen de Assumption I had purchased from a local potter in Oaxaca, moved her off her spot in the background of a shelf on a waist high table. I scrambled for a tea light. With a flashlight I went outside and cut wilting flowers from my garden, shoving them into a jelly glass. I found a picture of Juan and I happy and smiling and full of love and hope and bursting with joy at each other’s presence. With tears streaming down my face, I wrote a letter to sweet gods and goddess whoever would listen, imploring them to save my marriage, or at very least to protect my child, my heart, my sense that I would be OK. I thought about all of us flayed and bleeding. My heart whispered to me: When something is this precious, we can’t afford to leave it unprotected. And then I fell into a deep sleep. When I woke, I arose with a new peace. I had found a place to park my grief, to concentrate my dream, to make sacred my worst fears and deepest desires. And suddenly, I had found the strength to go on and to bear life as it unfolded, however it unfolded.
In the last six years, I have constructed countless altars. I take them down and refresh them frequently. When I am going through transition or transformation, their creation guides me. They are not art or window dressing or decoration. They are not a statement about my belief in god. They are a survival skill. An anchor. A thing I do so that I can keep going, despite the chaos and uncertainty and pain and messiness that I experience day after day living life on the edge. I currently have four in my house. Each one is place to hold my fears, my dreams, to learn to trust. I have one dedicated to my community, another to my tenuous and turmoil filled relationship with God and the Universe, my doubts about Her/His intentions, my questions and struggles. I have one dedicated to following my path–where I can park those fears that come up when I listen to my heart. And I have one, tucked away in my bedroom which hardly anyone ever sees, my most private space where my heart dwells. Each one is a place where I can acknowledge, grieve and celebrate. Where I can concentrate my prayers and honor the fears that try to protect me. Each night I light the candles. And then, I can say to my fears, the ones who try and protect me from life’s sorrow. “Stay here and rest, my loves. I must go out and bear life without you in the way.”
On Monday, a young teenage friend of mine set off for the journey of a lifetime. Headed to Rwanda to follow his path, I know his tender heart will see and experience both extraordinary beauty and pain. His mother, so strong, swallows her worry and speaks out loud over and over why this trip is good for him. I too, find myself thinking of him constantly, my prayers of protection, my pleas that he will find mentors to help him process what his tender heart experiences rising up and clouding my thoughts. Sunday night as I wandered through the grocery store, I passed the Latino section and saw the guardian angel candles–the very same ones with their paper wrappers and baroque images of an fair haired angel guiding a child that my tia places on hers whenever we set off from Mexico. The very same ones she lights when we leave her. I bought two, and placed the first on my community altar.
Monday morning, bright and early, I walked to my friend’s house. His parents just back from the airport were upbeat but strains of anxiety showed around their eyes. “This may be corny,” I said “but I brought a candle. To protect your boy. Its a space to hold the fear I know you have. I have one burning in my house for him too.” Furiously we searched for matches and lit it, said a little prayer and then went on with our day. Parking our grief and our worry so we could move on, but knowing full well that our hearts’ love had been concentrated and sent out like a magical golden net to protect him while he walked his new tightwire. When something is this precious we can’t afford to leave it unprotected.
For my dear friends E and K who reminded me this week why I build my altars.
Update: As I finished this sentence my friend just appeared with her phone in hand so I could read the email her son had sent, describing a land that had already captured his heart. I am in tears with joy. If you keep an altar would you light a little candle on yours for a boy, so brave, so wise and so connected to his heart that he left his comfortable life here at 16 to answer the call to love? May he be held up and protected and carried through the countryside by hundreds of prayerful hearts.
I have a big dream I have been holding deep in my heart. Over the last year or so I have been holding the possibility of that dream coming true. I have been getting used to the fact that maybe, just maybe, it will all work out afterall and that my story about dreams this big being for other people will finally get blown to smithereens.
This year has been one of deep rest. After declaring my dream and putting some things in motion, I have mostly been in a lull. There are lots of reasons for that lull–some logical and some that look stubbornly like fear. But mostly, my life has needed tending in the way that my overgrown garden needed tending this week. And also, even more importantly, I have needed to learn about mystery.
I am a planner. Every project I tackle with ferocity and strategy. I break things down into doable steps–I make lists. I throw myself in knowing full well how the completion of each step leads to the successful engagement with the next one. But somehow, when it comes to figuring out how I am going to rearrange my life and my finances to follow my path and learn how to heal, I have been at nothing short of a loss.
For much of the last year, this stuckness has been a source of frustration for me. I wish I could explain how many tears I cried for lack of knowledge of what to do next. How I beat myself up for my lack of movement. How I bemoaned my own stuckness. Like a horse tethered to a post for the first time I bucked and pulled and kicked and wore myself out. Until one moment, when frustrated and exhausted from all the suffering I was broken and just gave up–or maybe I gave in.
Something deep inside me, my inner wise woman, my intuition, tells me that this process is part of the curriculum. That maybe, just maybe, the lesson here for me is about not knowing what comes next and be willing to surrender everything, even the dream itself to faith that everything is unfolding exactly as it should. The learning how to “not know how” is the lesson.
I have a meditation which I have been settling into. I imagine myself climbing up on top of my mountain and sitting peacefully with a bowl in my lap. And I imagine that everything I need to know, or find, or discover will appear in my bowl unbidden.
This runs counter to everything I have always believed about how one makes their dreams come true, this slow, trusting, almost passive way of waiting. Its a lot like being pregnant. You take your vitamins, you eat well and drink your water, you sleep a lot and you wait to birth a miracle. It feels like nothing is happening and yet everything is happening efficiently and without conscious effort.
This weekend I have some steps to take. I have forms to fill out, even though I am not sure that they really matter. I have some shots to get, even though I am not sure I will actually need them. I am taking these steps because they are in front of me without any attachment that they will lead anywhere and without any knowledge of what comes next. I will do them simply because I am not sure what else to do and I am willing to just do what I can and surrender to whatever comes next, even if that is more waiting or profound disappointment or maybe just maybe a blossoming in the most unexpected way.
Two weeks ago, in the very moments that one dear friend lay dying, the most extraordinary thing occurred.
My phone rang. And I said hello.
On the end, from an airport city very far away, was an old friend, an old love, the one who had held my hand as I passed from innocence to knowing. It had been over 20 years since I last heard his voice which now sounded both familiar and strange. We talked light heartedly as I drove toward home, catching up on the basics of life, until his flight was called, until I pulled up at a neighbors to pick up Max. We would talk again we promised. I felt a circle drawn complete in the sweetest of ways.
I picked up Max. I talked to Jackie. I went to the grocery store. I came home and checked email. And then, only then, I learned that my friend Jenni had died, ending at long last her long painful struggle with cancer. As I wrote down time she had passed away for my journal, I did the math and realized that as I was saying a hello to one I thought I would never talk to again, another I held dear was saying goodbye forever.
And I held that simple fact in my heart. For days, I held it.
This fall I have been learning about letting go. I have been mourning my friend Jen for so long, but I have been working through other changes as well. I have been letting go of old habits, letting go of my favorite defenses, letting go of my most cherished stories. Our foundation has been wobbly as the cornerstones of our life have been, one by one, shifting, transitioning, creating space. Its been hard, scary, at times heartbreaking to see things I loved so much dismantled. As we have managed the bumps and the inevitable fear, I have carried around a mustard seed, convincing myself that I only needed a tiny bit of faith. Stumble forward onward onward–a path would appear that would make it all make sense.
One day, I asked my soulsister Kaiya, “What ever happened to the burning bush? It would be very convenient to see one, you know, with a booming voice and everything. It would be lovely for that voice to let us in on the plan. I am all about the small and subtle, don’t get me wrong, but these days I am feeling so dense and tired and lacking in faith that I would like someone to please let me know what this is all about through something as concrete as a burning bush. It would be a great comfort.”
I don’t think that phone call was a burning bush. But I do think it was a bell. A bell telling me that there is no such thing as goodbye. No such thing as forever.
Nothing is ever really lost. No matter how far away, no matter how long past, no matter how faded-it is there, tranformed perhaps, but accessible in some way, at the end of a ring, a simple as saying hello.
Every year it helps. I sleep in the woods. Long deep sleeps to the sounds of crickets and bullfrogs, with the breeze rustling the tent. It helps me transition.
This time of year is hard. I long for the internal space of autumn and winter but its always so hard to let go of the big beautiful bountiful round juicy summer–the late evenings at the pool or hanging out on a porch watching fireflies and sharing wine, the spontaneous community that seems to erupt when we are all out in summertime. I am a social girl and I am drawn round the fire of summer, the stories, the laughter, the adventure.
It is always so hard to let it go, to exhale that gorgeous summer and breath in the autumn coming round the bend. It feels like a loss, as though I lost the way and I am now somewhere else–not where I need to be. The fall always feels like a tumble.
But sleeping under the trees, it puts me right. The early dark, the migrating water birds singing their goodbyes, the leaves that are already starting to turn–it all whispers to me that this is exactly where need to be–this moment, this space. This letting go is the gift.
Saturday was the “end of summer” camp out at the pool. Max had been waiting for this moment all summer long. The thought of swimming in the pool until midnight tickled him, the thought of not having to leave his precious pool when the day was done. Though we woke up to a sky full of grey clouds, as we ran our errands the sky started to clear, the sun peaked out, then finally burst out in full hot humid August glory. A perfect night for sleeping poolside. We breathed a sigh of relief.
As the day turned to evening though, as I lounged at the pool, it suddenly felt cool. At first it was a welcome relief from the August heat but then it started to warn of a change in the weather. I looked at my neighbor lounging next to me. “It will blow over” I said. He nodded solemnly. We checked the doppler map on my iphone just to be sure. We saw the storm coming straight at us. “It will blow over” we said nervously, already feeling the crushing weight of the children’s disappointment looming. “Let’s stay”
As we started to cook dinner we felt it, the few drops of rain. “It must be from the trees” we speculated. The lifeguards kept the pool open. No thunder, no lightening, its fine. Too early to call it a night. “We could always go home” we rationalized. “But not now, let’s stay. Its bound to blow over.”
A few hours later we were huddled in the gazebo. A few families had left not wanting to set up their tents in the lashing rain. The rest of us shared food and drinks and told stories and laughed while the kids slid down the hill in the mud and rolled around like little pigs, jumping into the pool when the life guards deemed that the rain was not too heavy. “It will blow over” I laughed over my wine. “Maybe not until tomorrow but it will eventually. It always does.” When it slowed down enough to start the campfire we wiped off chairs and huddled around the warmth, breathing in the magic and saying, “Yes…we knew it would blow over.”
It was after midnight that a showered and exhausted Max was tucked into his sleeping bag, snuggled up against a night totally unexpected, but thrilling never the less. I whispered to him the only mama wisdom that seemed to matter at that moment.
“We should never be afraid of the storms. They carry us to places we never would have journeyed, if only we are brave enough to stay.”
“Its all bullshit”, I said as I slammed the pots into the sink. Tears dripping down my nose. Nothing had happened, so the tears seemed absurd, but maybe that was the point.
Big shifts are taking place in my heart but they are so small. They are the kind of changes that can only be captured by the words…”and then she grew up”. I am finding that unlike the divorce or learning to parent, or discovering my community in this round of the adventure there is no drama. There is no crescendo or aha moments. There is no story worth telling. I keep asking her, my teacher, WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO. She smiles at me and says this time there is no doing.
This time there is just me–learning to feel unconditionally loved–learning to love myself as fiercely as I love my tribe. Learning to be my own rock without letting that rock become a wall. Learning that I can drink my fill from a bottomless well–there is no needing to ask permission or earn my way there. Its is there for me–and it is there for you too.
Learning to receive love…Its not about doing anything at all. Its simply about being.
This can be excruciatingly difficult. And I can’t explain why. Giving up all the stories about why I can’t or don’t deserve or shouldn’t try…Giving up the conditions…”I will be lovable/worthy/accepted when…”, it can set a girl in a tizzy. Its a series of explosion that is knocking down a life time of rules that somehow made it all safe–that set up the game–and gave me a plan. Its pushing my buttons. I am resisting in every way I know how.
Getting rid of the doing as a condition of being loved. It can drive a girl to exclaim that its all bullshit and slam some pots into the sink and wash them.
And then, with tears and pots both dried, there is nothing to do but admit its probably not bullshit afterall.
Sitting in meditation a lot here this week. And simply settling into a practice of doing nothing big or bold or magical but rather simply what needs to be done–Folding the laundry. Sweeping the floor. Paying the bills and shredding the papers. Shopping for groceries and putting gas in the car. Returning the library books. Going to the pool and coming back home again. Going to work. Eating. And kissing Max goodnight.
And noticing, tiny, almost imperceptible shifts that feel like earthquakes…
How do you open up to the love of the universe? How do you stop the endless tap dance that insists we need to hit the performance marks to be loved? How do you give yourself permission to settle into the lap of the world and be held? One breath at a time. Just one breath at a time.