My best guest: Because you are trying to do it perfectly.
Because despite being inspired by someone else’s words, loving them, wanting to be like them, when it comes to being yourself, you freeze.
Here’s what turned me around:
When I started out on a new journey in my life, I had some doubts and confusion in my heart. An online friend gave me a coaching session. The game-changing question she asked me was, “Are you a perfectionist?” Yep, I have that tendencey. Her reply?
“When we are a perfectionist, we are full of knowing, and nothing new can come in.”
WOW. That blew me away. It still amazes me, years later.
I decided to trust my heart. To move forward one step at a time, to ask “stupid questions”, to be open to something new.
It changed everything.
So back to your writing block:
Every writer on the planet has—or has had—a writing block at some point in their life. (Okay, PROBABLY every writer.) There are many reasons, but I’m guessing most are afraid of doing it wrong. Afraid it won’t matter. Afraid it won’t be good enough.
I’ll share what often stops me:
Not believing that what I have to say matters to anyone else except me.
Not believing I can sort out my thoughts, and tidy/tie them up into a pretty little package with a bow on top.
Not believing I can figure out where I’m going, let alone how to get there.
And right now, not having a paid work commitment with deadlines, which FORCES me to write SOMETHING, even when I’m having these thoughts.
But what I’ve learned over the years is, this is a time in history, when no one can stop us from having a voice in the world.
Your gender, your color, your religion, your views on life, cannot be used against you from writing, nor from publishing your words online: On Facebook, on Twitter, on Reddit, on your blog. (Unless, of course you use your words to incite violence, to slander/libel, to scam people.) (I’m assuming you don’t intend to do that?)
And then what helps me is to start writing. Even if it’s “I just don’t feel like writing today.”
Because then I go into, “WHY don’t I feel like writing today?” Oh yeah…because of that thing that happened, or what that person said to me, or how I’m feeling ‘less-than’ today.
I write that down. And I keep recording my thoughts, even when I get frustrated and simply write “blah blah blah” a dozen times.
Sometimes I have a point to make, and I get this all sorted out in my head before I even begin.
But sometimes, I have no idea where I’m going, and writing is how I get there.
My goal started from a writing support group that required I write three pages a day, even if it were only several hundred “blah blah blahs”. Now, I just make myself write one page.
In your case, aim for 100 words, maybe.
In my case, I realized I need to get it all out, then edit to get it more clear.
So stop reading “how to” stuff, just for now.
For now, just write down what’s in your head, and listen deeply to what’s in your heart.
If you really do freeze up, write down ONE SENTENCE that describes how your feeling.
Be the scared, uneasy, feeling less-than person you are right now, and be your authentic self.
Write about where you are right now, what you want to do differently, where you want to go, and where you want to be in a week, six months, a year, a decade.
Because YOU are the only YOU in the world.
It’s not about having an audience, it’s about having a voice.
After I learned of a friend’s painful loss of a loved one recently, I decided to offer them a gift, a small wallhanging. I checked in on their preferences, gathered my materials, and got to work.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done any sewing/quilting in my studio, from at least before the pandemic shut-downs began. So it was frustrating to realize that the office chair I use at my sewing station is way too low to work efficiently.
Maybe I could swap out the chair for another taller one? Great idea, right? I carefully measured the heights of several swivel chairs, the ones in my studio, and a couple at home. Found one that would work, hauled it to the studio, and brought my former sewing station chair back home. It’s now my computer work-chair.
But when I sat in it today to work at my computer, I realized it was too short for that, too! Argh….
I tried to figure out how to raise the seat. The one I’d just taken to the studio is adjustable, but this one isn’t. (Why not??!) So maybe I just have to move this chair on, and find another one at a thrift shop (where I found all the others.)
Then I realized I have a sofa pillow that isn’t really comfy for sofa-sitting. It’s big, it’s thick, it’s made of rough, scratchy rug material. But it would be perfect for a chair! So I brought it in and tried it out.
Ironically, a fellow artist/friend had just emailed me with some questions and concerns (which is why I needed to type an in-depth reply to them.)
But replying to that email is where this thought came from:
Sometimes the solution to a problem is sooooo much simpler than we think….
And sometimes the best solution is right in front of us.
I don’t have to make my chair higher (especially if I can’t!) I didn’t have to swap out chairs. (It was kinda tricky hauling them in and out of the studio, go down steps, load them into the car, etc., especially with my recently-replaced new knee.)
All I had to do was find the right pillow.
My friend was struggling with the need to update their website. Another was overwhelmed with mastering a new (to them) social media site. A lovely neighbor was sharing how down and out they felt, and they couldn’t understand why.
After publishing that first blog post in a few months, sharing how hard it’s been for to get back into my life after surgery, so many people shared how they’re feeling the same way, with their own hardships and the (seemingly eternal) pandemic. It’s obvious now that we are all affected by the chaos, the uncertainty, the dark side of the world we live in.
Here’s my advice (which you didn’t ask for, I know, but at least it’s free!):
Sometimes it’s just enough to know you’re not alone.(“We’re all on the same lake, in a different boat.”)
Sometimes a problem has a very simple solution. (But it might take awhile to realize that, and a little experimentation to get that insight!)
Sometimes, we don’t have to master something, especially right away. We just have to take a few steps forward with it.
Sometimes, especially if we already have an audience, it’s not necessary to totally master a social media platform, or to strive to grow our audience. (It can simply be a way to stay in touch with the people who appreaciate who we are, and what we do.)
We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to care about doing (a little) better.
And how ironic is it that I just noticed the grammatical error in its title! Proof again that the heart of it is more important than the details.
Not all problems have solutions, of course, let alone “easy” solutions. But it helps to truly understand the ones we need to work on, the ones that need our immediate attention, and the ones that can wait a little while.
I hope this helps you find your balance again today. If you’ve already found that place, share it in the comments. Someone else may find your experience enlightening!
If you found this helpful, and know someone else who might find it useful, share it!
And if someone shared this with you, and you found it useful, you can either follow my blog (upper right corner), or sign up for my email newsletter (at the top of my website home page) for more random (but free!) advice.
Here’s an entwined set of stories that gave me a flash of insight today.
As anyone who’s visited my studios over the years knows, I have a lot of stuff. A LOT of stuff. I have supplies for every contingency, every project, every medium I work in: Fiber, jewelry, assemblages, print-making, etc.
Because I’m afraid to use up the ones I love the most.
I’m afraid I’ll use them up, and the work will be mediocre. (Yup, I have Imposter Syndrome!)
I’m afraid I’ll never find more.
And yet, I’m getting pickier about buying new….er…new OLD boxes. They’re a lot more expensive in California. An old cigar box can sell for $25-$50. (I thought $10 was too much in New Hampshire!)
So I found a stash of small wood boxes at a very reasonable price at one of my favorite antique stores this week. (It’s the ONLY non-grocery store I’ve shopped at since March.)
But I hesitated. They didn’t seem all that special, they were pretty small. So I passed. I was very proud of myself.
Then, two days later, I found the exact same box in my stash. It was nicer than I thought, and it really was a great deal. ($5!)
Turned out I’d pulled it out because it was the PERFECT size to pair up with another bunch of boxes, all the same size, I bought before we moved here, for a series I’ve been dreaming of for ages.
Finding another stash of the same boxes, in exactly the size I need…. Do you know how rare that is? I made a mad dash back to the antique store the next day.
And I couldn’t find them.
I searched the entire store. I carefully searched the two spots I was sure I’d seen them in. Nope.
I was so upset at myself! I started to stomp my way out of the store…. And then I thought, why not ask?
So I went up to the cashier’s desk, and asked if the dealer might have taken them home to switch up their display. It was a long shot, and I was embarrassed to even ask.
The cashier was new-ish, was trying to help. But another person who works there, who knows me said, “I know where they are!”
She led me back to a totally different booth, one I’d barely glanced in because it did not look at all like the one I was sure I’d seen them in.
And there they were!
I almost started crying, I was so happy. I snagged them all, and today I scrubbed them up in preparation for painting and waxing them.
As I worked, I looked at other boxes. I’ve been hoarding them for over six years now. Why was I stalling on that project??
Go back and read the part where I was talking about fear.
Every time I start to put together those shrines, I am flooded by self-doubt.
And it’s holding me back from making the work of my heart.
So I started writing in my blort book. These are the journals that should be burned when I die. They’re where I write when I’m angry, scared, frustrated, stumped. And they are also where I write my way back to my happier, kinder, more patient self, with others, and with myself.
The insight I got to today?
I am really good at remaking my work. In fact, it’s part of my process.
a big shaman necklace I updated with a ‘better’ horse.
People loved them when I made them. People say they still love them now.
I’ve only sold a few of my shrines and big necklaces, and fiber pieces. They cost more than my entry-level jewelry, of course. But that’s also normal for the work I do. It can take years, even decades, and suddenly, it sells. I’ve gotten used to it. I thought.
But sometimes, when I look at all the work in my studio, I get overwhelmed with how much work is there. Especially after a period where galleries close (the recession in 2008, the Covid-19 recession), and a lot of work is returned. And, of course, if the galleries carried the work for awhile, then it’s older work, too.
So reworking stuff is a habit. I like to take an older piece and remake it along the same lines, but updated: Longer necklaces, and more pearls and gemstones for a new line I’ve created. Horse artifacts with more detail, more 3-dimensional. (Older animals were flat-ish, which was fine until they weren’t.)
That was my “Aha!” moment.
I can make that new series.
I will do my best work.
And if I still have them years from now, and I see what could be better, well, I’ll remake them! Just like I always have.
So today I celebrate two little miracles. One, realizing that working in media that allows me to rework old designs. As I know better, I can do better. And two, acting on that weird impulse, to ask an odd question about little boxes, in front of the one person who knew exactly what I was talking about.
Okay, THREE miracles! Knowing that blorting will get me to a better place, even when I’m stuck in the same place for six years.
How do YOU work your way through roadblocks and self-doubt? I’d love to hear what works for YOU!
But it needed something. So I spent the day adding tiny bits of sanded and plished driftwood, and…an otter!
It’s not that the first version wasn’t good enough. Nor the second. I liked them both!
But sometimes, one of my pieces just keeps ‘growing.”
It’s also part of my story.
I started with a big quilt, then moved to baby quilts. Then quilts for my kids’ dolls and toy animals. Then they became wall pieces, then wall hangings, and now including framed fiber collages.
My aesthetic was always ‘time-worn’, influenced by Amish quilts (reusing/repurposing pieces of worn-out clothing for the quilt squares) and Japanest scroll paintings (which, when damaged by time, were carefully remounted on new silk backgrounds.) Then wabi sabi, the acceptance–and new beauty–to be found in the worn and broken. The knowledge that, in ancient times, every effort was made to repair, emake, reuse, repurpose whatever took a lot of effort to create.
So every time I remake/repair/add on something to an older piece, it’s actually part of my process and aesthetic.
It only stops when it goes to YOUR home.
Unless, of course, your rabbit nibbles the edges, or your dog breaks your necklace, or your cat knocks my sculpture off your piano. (All of these are true!)
And then I come to the rescue, again. Grateful that these re-do’s and repairs are inherent in all the work I do.
Happy to be able to restore your broken and damaged work, so they can continue to give you years of joy.
A long-time admirer contacted me earlier this month, looking for the perfect wall hanging for their home. After many emails and sent images, they decided on a framed fragment:
But they had their heart set on a wall HANGING. Would I be willing to turn this into one?
Well, sure! The framed version would be harder to ship, I haven’t made hangings in awhile, and this would be a good opportunity to get back into the swing of things. A practice piece, if you will.
It took many, many more hours of work than I’d anticipated. Still, if I charged by the hour, all of my work would have to sell for several thousand dollars. Which didn’t seem fair….
I added a backing to the fragment, created a hanger for the back, and searched my extensive stick collection for the perfect stick. It has to be the right length to work with, a shape that works with each fragment, etc.
Surprisingly (not!), I always find only one stick that meets my needs.
I found it! A beach-combing find from the Sonoma coast. I test all my sticks before I use them in a piece, to make sure they aren’t too brittle or fragile. This one passed the test–I thought.
It was already worn smooth by waves, it had beautiful branches, it sanded up easily. After waxing and buffing it to a soft gleam, I got to work drilling holes for the ties that would secure the fiber fragment to it, the beaded side “drapes”, and the cord to hang it all with.
For some reason, my new power drill didn’t work very well. Maybe my drill bits are dull? So I used my little hand drill (pin vise) to make the holes. Yep, more hours….
I put almost 8 hours on drilling the holes, stringing the color-coordinated glass beads for the drapes, attaching the fragment to the stick, and adding the beads that adorn the hanger. I’m pretty fussy about the beading. I use a lot of antique glass trade beads in my work, and many of them have really big holes. I have a stash of smaller beads I use to fill the holes so the beads set evenly.
After it was all put together, I picked it up to take a photo…..
And the stick broke.
It broke where I’d drilled a hole. Fortunately, it was a clean break. I was able to glue it back together (with construction adhesive!), restring that part, and wound some cord around it for support. Part of my aesthetic is creating the look of a well-worn, often mended piece of art. So it fit right in!
I clamped the repair and let it sit a full 24 hours, like the instructions said. Came back to the studio, gently tested the repair–good!
I picked it up to photo it. And it broke in my hand again.
This time, the wood shattered. So I was back to square one. (Okay, square three, but it sure felt like ‘one’.)
It took awhile, but I found another, completely different stick that I loved.
It has a sad history. Bark beetles are highly-destructive, destroying millions of acres of forests.
And yet, the damaged wood is hauntingly beautiful.
In New Hampshire, I looked for beaver-chewed sticks. The chew-markes look like writing, strange writing to be sure. They became part of my story, echoing the mystery of the cave paintings of Lascaux in my art: A message that was not addressed to us, a message we cannot read.
The trails made by bark beetles echo that story.
I’ve collected a lot of their chewed sticks from the coast, too. The good part is, the beetles are long gone and probably long-dead, too.
I sanded the stick carefully, and wiped it clean. I painted it black to back-fill the little chewed channels, then wiped off the excess. Then waxed it with brown Brio wax, and buffed it, then drilled more holes.
Finally, it was done!
Today I’ll find the right-sized box to pack it up and ship it to its happy new owner. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought, but I never regret a profound learning experience. Well. I regret them in the moment. But I’ll get over it.
My little journey from “the perfect stick” to one that many people would consider as a tragedy (destruction of national forests) and trash (a bug did this? WTF!!!) has me thinking again about my art process and my stories.
I obsess about getting everything exactly right, in an imperfect way. Asymmetrical yet balanced. Ordered color palettes.
One of my most powerful insights, in my life and in my art, is recognizing when something is ‘good enough’, and letting go of perfection. (As a wise woman once told me just before I began my hospice volunteer training, “When we are a perfectionist, we are ‘full of knowing’, and nothing new can come in.”) (Thank you Quinn!) (Another gift: I didn’t know she’d started a new blog until I linked to hers here.)
We all have visions of what that ‘perfect’ thing is. The perfect job. The perfect marriage. The perfect home.
Then there’s reality. There are the slog jobs, the times in a relationship when things can feel wonky, and homes? Renting here in Northern California, it’s whatever one will let you have pets….
Yet even in the worst of times and places, there is something of value.
Insights. ‘Aha!’ moments. Healing. Reconnection. Beauty. New ways to retell old stories. Seeing our loved ones for who they are, instead of the perfect person we sometimes expect them to be. Learning to see ourselves the same way….
Sometimes the ‘perfect’ needs to make way for something bigger and better, more human. Sometimes, we need to make way for something else.
And sometimes, it makes way for a tiny little beetle, with its own way of creating a powerful story.
Often when I look back at a particular difficult time in my life, I realize there was something deep going on. There was a major life lesson involved. Something I was struggling to understand.
I could read about it. I could see it. I could hear what other people said about it.
But I hadn’t quite gotten to the point where I knew it in my own heart. I didn’t have that “aha!” moment, that little insight, the recognition of, “So that’s what this is about!”
And of course, the recognition of what’s going on isn’t enough. You can’t stop there. Nope, you have to practice it, over and over, until you finally, really, really get it.
Here is one example: Years ago, I had a boyfriend who worked at a “campy” store in town. His coworkers were tight, and socialized often. I would tag along. They were a good group to hang with.
There was one woman, a little older than the rest of us “20-somethings”, who was respected and liked by all of us. There was only one little problem… She was often brusque with me, and rarely talked to me.
I asked my then-boyfriend about it, and he was mystified. I noticed she didn’t treat anyone else this way. I resolved to be even friendlier and nicer to her.
One evening after work, she showed her medical illustration portfolio to us. Her drawings were astonishing, and I told her so. “Yeah, thanks,” she replied shortly. “No, really, they’re very good!” I said. She turned away. I sat there, baffled at being rebuffed yet again.
And then it hit me, out of the blue, like a ton of bricks.
She didn’t like me.
I know you’re probably also thinking, “Well, doh, Luann! What was your first clue, darlin’?!”
But I had been clueless. Because I’d always been pleasant and obliging. Because I couldn’t think of a single reason why she should dislike me.
But though I didn’t know the why, I certainly recognized the what. Everything that had puzzled me became crystal clear and obvious. Like tapping that last little puzzle piece into place.
After that, I left her alone. I quit trying to “win her over”, because I realized that was salt in the wound to her. I still liked and respected her, but I accepted the fact that she didn’t like or respect me. Years later, I found out some of the “why”, and it had very little to do with me. That’s another story, and another life lesson.
But back to this life lesson.
Here is what happens when you listen (to someone who does know what they’re talking about: A few years ago, I found myself in a rattled state about my artwork and my art biz. I had a session with life coach Quinn McConald, of QuinnCreative.
I listed all the things I was stuck on. Then I said, “Oh, and for some reason I feel compelled to sign up for hospice volunteer training, and I have no idea what that’s about!” Quinn bookmarked that and returned to it later.
She asked if I were a perfectionist, and I said yes. Who doesn’t want to always do their best??
“The trouble with being a perfectionist,” she said, “is that you are full of ‘knowing’. And when you are full of knowing, nothing new can come in.”
Let me repeat that amazing, seemingly-simple little sentence….
When you are full of ‘knowing’, nothing new can come in.
That simple thought allowed me to be wide open to the hospice training. I understood I was entering this realm with complete ignorance. No expectations, no assumptions. Just humility, and a willing heart. A heart willing to be open, to be WRONG, to be taught, to be filled.
That little moment of understanding, of recognition, of clarity, is a blessing. There is a clarity. The story you’ve made up about “all that” is wrong. And now you have an opportunity to get better, to do better, to learn something new.
This transformation does not happen when you’re busy trying to be the smartest person in the room.
This is my current life theme.
I am accepting that I don’t always know. That there are things I think I know, that I really don’t know.
And I’m willing to learn.
I’m learning that some people who have been very dear to me, are themselves full of knowing. More painfully, I am seeing that they are not letting anything new come in. Especially not from me.
Because when you try to talk with people who are “full of knowing”, their argument is something this:
Who do you think you are?!
That stops the discussion, doesn’t it? If people don’t believe you have anything to say that would contribute to their understanding, it all ends there. If they believe they know more than you do, without bothering to ask, or listen, to what you do know, it all stops.
What do we say to that?
We say, “Who do I have to be?”
There are people with no experience with sociopathic behavior, no knowledge of how they work. People with little experience with or knowledge of sexual abuse and sexual predators. They’ve never been trained to work with people with illness, with dementia, with alcoholism, and they don’t understand it. They don’t see the signs when it sits across the table from them.
I was one of those people. I still am, about so many, many things.
Now I know better. I know the areas where I still need guidance. I know I still have a lot to learn.
But I also now know what “blaming the victim” looks like. I now know what “killing the messenger” looks like. I now know what happens when you leave a group. I now know how to genuinely apologize. And I now know what a real apology is, and what isn’t.
And unfortunately, this means I also know what happens when you try to enlighten people who inherently don’t believe you have anything useful to say.
It hurts when I engage with people who are so convinced they know better, they will actually stop believing I am who I show myself to be. For example, I do not knowingly cause physical or emotional pain, even with people I find difficult. I may feel like being mean, but I rarely do or say mean things, not deliberately. (Okay, stuff slips out now and then, okay?!)
I do not argue with people lightly. In fact, I tend to back down, so I don’t lose my temper and say something that cannot be unsaid. When I do speak up, it’s when I realize there is a chance I can change the dynamic. Otherwise, I may seethe, but I rarely act. So when I’m accused of “being mean”, I am aghast.
I am not a lazy dog owner, I am not a cruel dog owner, and I’m not a “clueless” dog owner. But two Facebook “friends” called me that today. (Really, people?!) They totally dismissed my own experience with the discussion topic, and similar evidence given by others. Would they say those things to me, to my face? I doubt it. It’s easy to be dismissive on Facebook. It’s like giving someone the finger while driving. But if you wouldn’t sat it to me directly, don’t say it to me Facebook.
I’ve been called “over-sensitive”. I’ve been told that, as a redhead, I have a short temper. (What’s the excuse now that my hair is red by the miracle of modern chemistry? Oh…right. Genetically I have a redhead’s temper.) I’ve been told I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Who do I have to be? And if you don’t respect what I do know, what I do have expertise in, what I have learned, then I can’t talk to you. Because you can’t–or won’t–hear me anyway.
This is what it’s about, my current life lesson. This is where I am right now. And this is why I’m here.
Yes, we all have blind spots. We may never completely “know” ourselves.
But I’m guessing that you, like me, have often seen a shadow, a reflection, the secondary evidence that there is something you’ve made assumptions about, the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, you are w*r*o*n*g. You get a moment of doubt, a sliver of insight that maybe there’s another side, another angle, to what you “know” to be true. And that maybe somebody else has more information, more experience, more insight than you do right now. One of the smartest thing I ever did was to admit how little I really knew about alcoholism. I thought I knew, then realized I knew nothing. So I asked a few trusted friends who did know, for advice. I listened, deeply, and well. Thank you forever, Karen. Thank you forever, Mary Ellen.
Here’s another tip-off: When you realize you don’t know quite as much as you think you do, do you bluster? Do you get defensive? Do you attack the other person before they can have their say? Do you call them “over-sensitive” and blame them for the difficulty between you? Do you dismiss them as “not as experienced as you”, when in reality, you do not know of what you speak? Do you find yourself always blaming others for your woes?
Does your conscience squeak just a little?
Do you ever wonder if maybe a little more knowledge, a little more insight, a little more understanding, might get you to where your heart really wants to go?
I want to learn from people that really do know more than me. I’m willing to ask the dumb question. Humility is hard, hard, hard. Especially when you are bright, knowledgeable, skilled. You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable in order to grow. It takes practice. And the practice never stops.
And the people who are willing to do the same with me? I respect them 100%. This is part of “doing the work”. Being willing to ask. Being willing to listen. Being willing to learn.
Being open to what you don’t know.
Not trying to always be the smartest person in the room.
Those who don’t know what they’re talking about? And don’t know what I’m talking about here? They have their work to do. If it hurts me to be around them right now, well, that’s where I am. I have my own work to do. I can’t pick up theirs.
And all I can do is to write, to share, to give, to those people who are in the same place I am. People who are open to what I have to say. People who are also willing to look into the dark place in themselves that are filled with excuses.
People who think that maybe, just maybe, once in awhile…. I may know what I’m talking about.
I was writing my morning pages today. And I got stuck.
I did what I tell my students to do when they get stuck. Just write something, no matter how silly or tedious. For me, it’s often, “blah blah blah” or “I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write.” I kid you not.
Today I was writing, “Keep going. Keep going.” Actually it read like this:
keep going keep going keep going
Because when you’re doing morning pages/free journaling, the trick is to not even stop for correct spelling or punctuation. No editing, no anything. Just write.
And the miracle happened. As it always does.
Sometimes this silly repetition keeps my inner critic/left brain busy, just for a few seconds–long enough for my inner wizard/right brain to grab the steering wheel and hit the gas pedal. Many of my insights, over-the-hump strategies and yes, gentle readers, even blog posts, come from this wild ride in the kidnapped taxi cab that was going nowhere slowly.
Today’s insight was the writing itself. Though I rarely focus on good penmanship when I doing this exercise, suddenly the repetition took me back five decades, to third grade. (Yep. I’m old.)
I wasn’t a bad kid in grade school, but I would get in trouble for talking (surprise!). Or for drawing pictures when I was supposed to be paying attention. And then I’d be assigned that infamous penance: Writing 100 sentences that began with “I will not….”
“I will not talk during geography class.” “I will not doodle while the teacher is talking.” “I will not wait until the very last minute to ask permission to go to the bathroom.” (That was an awful day!)
I didn’t mind it, though. I loved to write, even the same stupid thing over and over and over.
It became a little game to me. How perfectly could I form each letter, each word? And could I actually write the entire sentence perfectly, beautifully?
I never could, of course. At the last second, my pencil would skitter, or my lead would break. Oh well. Plenty more sentences to try!
And suddenly, I realized the beauty of that 8-year-old’s spirit. Perfection may be only a few pencil strokes away. I never got there.
But simply trying was…..fun.
Somehow I knew, and accepted, that it wasn’t about being perfect, or doing perfect. It was the practice that brought the joy. There was plenty of paper, and a pencil sharpener right near the door. I had all the time I needed. (I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to geography, after all.) I liked being indoors and didn’t mind missing recess.
With another stroke of insight, I realized this powerful attitude drives all my practice. All my interests and processes.
Except, of course, when I’m not messing myself up by falling into the adult’s version of private hell….PERFECTION.
Lose the striving for perfection, and I’m in heaven.
It’s why I can write about the same topics in my life, over and over, and never feel like I’ve written the definitive take yet. It’s why I love to ride horses, though I’ll never be a great rider, and was certainly never a natural rider. It’s what kept me going through tae kwon do, kick boxing, and back to tae kwon do. That’s why I can do kata all through tae kwon do class, and never feel like I’ve quite mastered Basic 1.
I may never get back down to fighting weight. I may never get my black belt. In fact, as I struggle back from yet more injuries and another upcoming surgery, I may never even regain the level I was at six months ago.
None of that matters. Just the practice.
It’s about the joy, plain and simple, we can find in our practice, if we let go of the outcome, the “finished product”. Because we are human beings, and there is no “finished product.”
I read a review about this book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. (It’s being billed as the not-so-exotic-and-more-domestic version of Eat, Pray, Love.) Some people love it, some people hate it. But what I loved in the review was the comment that the practice of yoga isn’t about getting to perfection in yoga. It’s about practicing yoga imperfectly and doing it anyway. I like that.
So yesterday I went to yoga, for the first time in six months. I’ve lost strength, and flexibility. I have to watch the twists, and I had trouble bending.
When someone is going through something profound and difficult, sometimes all that’s needed to make it bearable is the presence of another human being. A hand to hold in the dark. The soothing rhythm of someone breathing along with you.
It’s been a year since my initial training as a hospice volunteer. An amazing year.
I’ve had several assignments–clients–since then, too. As powerful as the training was, putting it into action is even more so.
As a “recovering fixer”, I was not surprised that the hardest thing to do as a hospice volunteer is…..
They told us that, they warned us. I thought I got it, too. (Remember how I let go of being full of knowing…?)
It was harder than I thought!
Every time I felt compelled to “do something” or “fix something”, it always became clear that was not my task.
Troubled family relationships? There’s a hospice social worker for that. Pain and disability? There’s a hospice physician and a hospice nurse for that. Light housework, feeding, cleaning? There’s a hospice nursing assistant for that. Questions about the soul, heaven, the afterlife, whether there IS an afterlife? There is always their minister or priest, or the hospice chaplain for that.
“Doing” was very hard to let go of.
As a hospice volunteer, all I had to do was be there.
Because that is what a volunteer does. We just show up. Sometimes, all we do is sit.
If we need to be there but the client doesn’t want us to–say, a spouse or family simply need respite care–we read a book in another room and simply give peace-of-mind to those who just need to get out for a cup of coffee or a haircut.
If the client asks for a volunteer and later they change their mind, then we come for a little while–then leave.
If the client simply wants someone there to hold their hand, that is what we do best.
We can be the most expendable part of the team, or the most important, for a few moments, a few days or few weeks.
But here’s what’s certain–it’s impossible to try to be the best.
It’s very hard to be the best “be-er” in hospice care.
In a world where we are encouraged to always be our best (like the sad little refrain in Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse), it is very hard to let go of that.
Even as I urge myself and others to recognize the creative spirit in ourselves, to nurture the skills, talents and passion within, it was profound to learn another truth:
Sometimes, all you have to be is….human.
Was it boring? Never.
There is something deep and real about serving in this way. I will have to work my way toward recognizing what that is over the next few months…or years.
Was it depressing? Not really. There is something about being allowed into this person’s life, at this time, with all the clarity that brings to your heart, that made it always poignant, and often exhilarating.
And oddly, I think it made me cherish my art all the more, even knowing that it could be taken away from me in a heartbeat. Even knowing (because I’ve seen it) that there will come a day when I would leave it all behind without a thought, without a regret.
So the first gift of hospice is to recognize the power of simply being.
I’m learning that perfectionism not only limits my options, it limits the options of others.
I’ve always been a serial friend.
By that, I mean I have very few friendships that lave lasted more than a few years. Partly that comes from moving so much: I left home for college at age 17 and never really went back. We went on to live in three more states. Even as I write this, we are contemplating where our “next state” might be.
I’ve also changed my “groups” a lot. First there were school friends. Then there were work friends. Parent friends. Now artist friends.
I have many online friends–people I’ve met in discussion forums and through blogging, many of whom I’ve never even met in person.
I have riding friends, martial arts friends, knitting/yoga/climbing friends. I’m sure I will now have hospice friends, too.
One reason I make friends so easily is, I am open to it. An old school chum said, “You have made more friends since I’ve known you than I’ve even met!!” I must have looked chagrined, because she added quickly, “No, that’s a good thing! I don’t made friends easily. I envy you.”
But that means I’ve also lost a lot of friendships.
It’s impossible to have deep friendships with everyone you meet and like, of course. Not all friendships can pass the test of time, distance or changes in circumstance. If you want to discover who your true friends are, see who hangs around after you or your spouse is laid off. You will be dismayed. And astonished.
But I still regret the loss of some of my more profound friendships over the years.
I’m thinking maybe…actually, I know…I lost them to perfectionism.
Because here’s another drawback in perfectionism:
When you expect it in yourself, you will demand it from others.
And that, as we all know, is totally, hopelessly, humanly, impossible.
I like to think I have been a good friend. But I’ve always suspected I could have been a better one.
Looking back, I can see that sometimes the best friendships were short-lived for good reasons. I love this little essay by Brian Andrew “Drew” Chalker, “A REASON, A SEASON, A LIFETIME”.
But I know sometimes–many times–I simply asked too much of people. More than they were willing, perhaps even capable, of giving. And that has served neither of us well.
So now I strive for a little less perfectionism.
I hope I can do that really, really well.
I’m hoping, if I can learn to forgive myself for not being perfect–if I can learn not to expect it from others–I will truly be a better friend.
And wife. And mother. And artist/writer/climber/rider/owner of silly pets.
I learn that trying to be perfect limits your options.
Another quick thought to share with you today.
I read a comment that Quinn McDonald (of Quinn Creative) left on my last post about my hospice training experience.
(And btw, let me thank all of you who took the time to write such thoughtful, beautiful, powerful words of support to that post. Each of you, and your words, are a gift to me.)
I had a coaching session with Quinn a few months before I began hospice training. She said several very valuable things to me, thoughts that helped me stay centered and calm.
The most pragmatic were her observations on perfectionism.
When she asked if I were a perfectionist, I answered, “Yes!” I’ve worked hard at everything I’ve undertaken with my art biz. I’ve always tried to come up with the best solutions for everything. When I teach, I try to create the perfect workshop experience. When I speak, I work hard to say exactly what I want to say to an audience. When I write, I cull and edit and re-edit to make sure everything flows logically. It drives me nuts to find a spelling error after I publish a piece.
I know that is perfectionism exhausting. I recognize it eventually produces diminishing returns for our efforts.
Quinn pointed out another drawback:
“When you are a perfectionist,” she said, “then you are full of knowing. And when you are full of knowing, nothing new can come in.”
Nothing new can come in….
I had to really think about that one. If I am to learn as much as I can from this experience, I have to be open to what is there.
And what I’m learning so far is that there is no need to excel in the class. There’s no need for intellectual brilliance, or to even ask great questions. There’s no need for extreme competence or great listening skills or excellent communication skills. This is not the place for perfect anything. The skills I’ve relied on all my life do not serve me.
In fact, as our training leader says over and over, every class, it’s not about “doing” at all.
It’s about “being.”
Being present. Being there.
We can help by simply offering the gift of ourselves.
This is new territory for me. But what an odd place to end up, this year. Somewhere where nothing is asked of me, except to have an open heart. In a way, it feels a lot like yoga….
I feel like I am learning to simply listen. And breathe. Perhaps hold a hand.
P.S. I edited this little article about two dozen times. Until it was almost perfect. Obviously, I am still imperfect at being imperfect.
additional P.S. The implications for my art–and my life–are not lost on me, either.