Parallel Perfection

Somewhere out there, in a parallel universe, is a version of me who has it all figured out. She’s perfect.

This person works 40 hours a week at a well-paying job. She’s an exemplary employee who regularly wins awards for her innovative contributions to her company, a Fortune 500 corporation making major strides in social justice, arts, and environmental protection. She never gets frustrated or bored, never gives up on a project, and knows exactly what she’s doing at all times. She never doubts herself. Her work matters, and she knows it.

This version of me keeps a clean and tidy home that was once featured in a magazine with a name like Urban Cottage or Eclectic Nest. There’s an organic garden out back, or – why not? – out front, landscaped into the front yard, with perennials blooming along the curb and free tomatoes for neighbors taking their evening stroll.

She’s healthy and strong, gets plenty of exercise, and eats only nutritious food, except for the occasional exquisite dessert, which she savors with her best friend on the sun-dappled patio of a trendy coffee shop.

She sings well. She plays a musical instrument. She can tap dance.

She’s a writer, of course, who blogs regularly on important social issues and shares insights that change people’s lives. She always has brilliant ideas for her blogs, and never wonders if she’s only putting out drivel to feed her own ego. Her writing serves others. She doesn’t care that blogging takes time and pays nothing, because she’s above money, and anyway, she has that great 40-hour-a-week job at that great company, so who cares if she spends her free time tapping away at her laptop instead of working?

This person, this alternate self in a parallel universe, lives to taunt me.

“Why is your house such a mess, Carolyn?” she demands. “You were going to clean off the kitchen table two weeks ago; why is that pile of papers still sitting there? What is in that pile of papers? Bills? Tax documents? Invitations? What have you forgotten to do this time?”

She prowls the self-help and business shelves at the library and watches TED talks about self-improvement. Then she calls me, from the sun-dappled patio of the trendy coffee shop in her parallel universe, and questions my choices:

“Why don’t you make more money, Carolyn? Don’t you realize you have a good education and marketable skills? And don’t give me that ‘I work in the arts and change lives’ nonsense. That’s no excuse for a sub-par income. Haven’t you ever heard of doing well while doing good? Get a real job, and do your little frou-frou artsy thing on the side.”

She’s not impressed with my theatre career.

“Well,” she scoffs, her voice becoming ever-so-slightly shrill, “if you’re not going to get a real job and make more money, are you at least developing as an artist? Have you practiced a musical instrument today? Have you read any new plays? Do you have any auditions coming up? Projects you should be prepping for? Are you marketing yourself aggressively? What about that cute little theatre company you’re pretending to run? Done anything about that lately?”

She sighs and turns on NPR, or networks with an activist friend, then calls to check on me:

“What are you doing for the world, Carolyn? Don’t you think it’s time to choose a social issue and put some muscle into solving it? And no, that little monthly contribution to the homeless ministry is not enough. You need to get out there on the front lines and do something, or admit you’re a social justice coward. And by the way, if you made more money, you could contribute more. Real Job. Just saying. Think about it.”

Okay.

This weekend, I took up her last challenge and went on a volunteer trip to El Refugio in Lumpkin, Georgia, a hospitality house for people visiting loved ones at Stewart Detention Center. Oddly, Parallel-Universe-Me didn’t come along.

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She might have realized she wasn’t needed. Or maybe she dropped in briefly, got bored or depressed, and left. Because there in Lumpkin, life slowed almost to a halt. I had no cell phone coverage, no television, and spotty access to the internet. There was not a trendy coffee shop within twenty miles of the place, and it didn’t matter. All that mattered were the people who stopped by and the stray cat in the back yard, struggling to nurse her kitten.

I had a quietly powerful weekend. I didn’t make any money, create any art, or change any lives. All I did was cook meals, make up beds, offer hospitality, and feed that poor cat, even though I probably shouldn’t have. I visited a young man in detention. I met an immigration attorney doing his best to get people out, against almost impossible odds. On the way home, I left my wallet at a truck stop and had to go back and retrieve it, and I didn’t care; stuff happens. Compared to what people were dealing with at Stewart, my mistakes and inconveniences seemed insignificant.

Monday morning, I logged on to the internet to see what had happened while I was gone, and realized I’d missed the Tony Awards, the signature event of the Broadway theatre season. I don’t really care; I can catch clips on youtube. But Parallel Me thinks I should care, and sees my failure as proof that I’m not taking even my frou-frou arts career seriously. Sure enough, a voice cried out from the parallel universe:

“Oh my God, Carolyn, you missed the Tony Awards? You didn’t even realize they were on last night? What were you thinking? What kind of theatre person are you?”

Sigh.

I will never be good enough for her. Never. She can taunt me till the end of time from her sun-dappled throne in the sky. I will never do enough, earn enough, succeed enough, or create enough to satisfy her.

But that’s okay. I don’t live in her world. I live here, in the real world, where stray cats and human beings struggle to survive, where ordinary people do ordinary work and always fall short of perfection.  This will have to do.

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Good Enough?

Hey, did you know that everyone makes mistakes? And that nobody’s perfect? Literally NOBODY, y’all. I keep learning this lesson, over and over and over and over and over. Specifically about myself, but it’s helpful to remember that it applies to all of us.

My dad, may he rest in peace, was a perfectionist. And when I say, “May he rest in peace,” I really mean it, because it’s hard to be at peace when you think you’re supposed to be perfect. It’s hard to admit that you’re not going to get everything right. Dad was great at so many things that I suspect he thought he had to be great at everything. He would start a new project, and then see that he wasn’t going to be able to do it perfectly, and leave it to finish later . . . and sometimes, for want of perfection, later never came.

I’m starting some projects right now. I’m not going to tell you what they are, because I’m afraid they’ll suffer the same fate as my singing recital. You know, the one I was definitely going to do in January?  If you’ll recall, I canceled it when I realized how far from perfect my singing actually was. I still plan to come back to it – to “finish it later”, if you will – but for now it’s on hold, because my standards are too high for my own good.

Kinda like Dad’s.

But Dad learned from his perfectionism, and by the time he was in his sixties, he had mellowed a good bit. He had an expression, probably from his early days in the Army Corps of Engineers, that got him through most projects: “Good enough for government work.” (Only he said “gummint work”, a reference to his beloved Pogo.)

When my daughter was born, Dad wanted to help me get over my own perfectionism and enjoy motherhood. Because he had studied psychology (along with engineering, philosophy, theology, etc.), he talked to me at some length about the writings of Donald Winnicott, who proposed the theory of the Good Enough Mother. You know what’s best for your baby, Dad told me. Perfectionism will only get in the way. Your child needs you, not some Stepford Wife version of the ideal mom.

Of course, my first thought was “Oh God, Daddy, why did you tell me that? Now I have to figure out how to be Perfectly Good Enough!” When you care, when you want to do things right, when a thing isn’t worth doing unless it’s done to perfection, it can be really hard to get out of your own way.

Despite my doubts, motherhood did create a pathway to a “good enough” mindset. Every day was a new opportunity to fall short of perfection. The baby cried and I couldn’t always comfort her. She threw up on my clothes and floor. Her needs took precedence over the housework and laundry. She would not go to sleep. She got ear infections all the time, and we had to choose between making her more comfortable with antibiotics and keeping her off of antibiotics so she wouldn’t become resistant to them. There were lots of ways for my husband and me to be good parents, but there was absolutely no way to get everything right.  We did our best and got on with it.

Good enough,” I would say to myself, at the end of a long day. And “Nobody’s perfect.” And the best phrase, the one I read in some parenting book and posted over the kitchen sink: “Nobody’s keeping score.”

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Funny how things work out. Eighteen years later, my baby has been accepted at the college of her choice, and seems perfectly (that word again!) ready to leave the nest. Her “good enough” childhood has prepared her for life in an imperfect world, just as Winnicott and my dad said it would. If ever there was a moment to celebrate success, this is it.

Yet ironically, at this time when I should be resting on my laurels and breathing a sigh of relief, I am fighting the demons of perfectionism again.

Will my new projects be successful? Will my husband and I become the happy, productive empty-nesters pictured in the AARP Bulletin? Will I ever make Real Money? Will I find new ways to use my talents as I age into the next phase of my career? Or is my best work – as a parent, as an actress, as a person – behind me? There is so much I still want to do!

I can hear my dad’s voice saying, “What are you afraid of, Carolyn? Screwing up? Because you’re going to screw up. You have to get your heart broken. You have to be willing to fail. Perfectionism will only get in the way.”

It’s the voice of experience, and I know it’s speaking the hard, honest, but ultimately liberating truth. I know that my next task is to experiment my way into the future, doing my best, but not keeping score.

I was a good enough mother. Now it’s time to relax and be a good enough me.

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Failure

I’ll bet a dozen red roses that most bloggers hit a wall sooner or later and realize they aren’t posting as often as they’d like.  I am hitting that wall.  It gives me great comfort to imagine I’m not alone.

Tonight I promised myself I would finally complete a post, but I wandered into Facebook for a tiny visit and came out on the other side late for dinner.  Fail!  How does this happen?  (Don’t answer that.)  Now I’ve eaten dinner and set up shop here at computer central, aka my kitchen, to post something.  Anything.

I thought I might write about failure, since I’m experiencing it.  Volumes have been written on failure’s intrinsic value as a teacher of lessons great and small.  I am currently in the land of small lessons, mostly about over committing and not being organized, so I have nothing remarkably new to say on the subject. 

My only insight is this:  when your goal is perfection, you always fail. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.  I take two lessons from this insight.  One, I should give up on perfection in most things, because they don’t require it.  Two, I should strive for perfection in a few areas, and live with failure.

Right now I am pursuing so many interests, I’m guaranteed to fail (by some standard) at most of them.  I wrote about wanting to dance, and I haven’t been to a dance class since.  I planned to spend my month between shows getting the house organized, and it’s as chaotic as ever.  I hoped to get a head-start on my lines for Hamlet, but all I’ve memorized is “To be or not to be,” and if you’ve even heard of the play you know that is not one of Gertrude’s lines.

So.  No perfection in those pursuits, nor in many others these days (e.g. regularly scheduled blog posts).  But the pursuits are delightful in themselves, so it doesn’t matter. 

What about the few things that do matter, where perfection is the goal?  A virtuoso performance, for instance, or a stunning photograph?  Paradoxically, these are the pursuits in which I must be entirely willing to fail, and fail big.  If I’m not striving for perfection, I can content myself with safe choices and easy tricks.  I can do less than the art calls for, and that would be the worst failure of all. 

So there you have it:  the paradox of perfectionism and the inevitability of failure.  I can’t get away from either one, and I think I’ve decided not to try. For better or for worse, I’m going to keep sending my imperfect thoughts into the blogosphere.  See you there.