Lions, Lambs, and Fools

March was a wonderful, terrible kind of month, which means more writing material than I could put in one post. While I’m glad to be back, taking the month of March off from blogging was a good plan. I’ve refilled my mental reservoir, wrangled with some writing demons, and have reoriented to continue my mission.

On the Domestic Front

I am celebrating 18 years of wedded bliss today. We’ve survived each other’s foibles and families and now we’re just watching each other deteriorate. But we’re still laughing and that’s not nothing. In a few years, when our daughter sets off on her own, we’ll be shuttling each other to doctor’s appointments and not speaking for hours on end because we’ve already said it fifty times before. We just need to wait a little longer until we’re more forgetful and it will all seem new again. Ah, the ties that bind.

canstockphoto1577266We’ve had another busy month with our in-house band. In addition to playing viola, violin, and piano, my daughter has decided to pick up saxophone. We should get a bulk discount for rental instruments and I should get some parenting points for letting sax happen. When I was 14, I was listening to Rick Springfield and playing Baroque music on my flute. My kid is playing Ellington and Dvorák and songs from Hamilton. I love how the internet has enabled us to experience a wider slice of the world.

Winter returned with a vengeance after a couple of false springs. We’re in for sub-freezing temps for the next week with a chance of middling depression.


In this episode of “free isn’t free”, I closed my Facebook account. I wasn’t using it, didn’t find it interesting, and finally stopped lying to myself about what professional tools I needed. I wasn’t much help to Cambridge Analytica. To make up for it, I just mailed all my critical data to the RNC and the Kremlin. Привет, Господин Путин.

canstockphoto12227677.jpgWhen The Atlantic hired Kevin Williamson last month, I cancelled my subscription. I’ve finally hit a wall with media entities that give platforms to every wingnut on the spectrum lest someone accuse them of being biased or they lose a market share. The defense for the hire is that his writing is great – if great means deliberately provocative. There are a lot of great writers and most of them don’t advocate that women who have abortions be hanged. Skill does not excuse malevolence.

I started digging into Twitter, trying to decide if I need that account out there, collecting dust. What I learned is that people feel very strongly about Roseanne Barr and like to pick on high school kids. I’m not sure that this is useful for me to know. I don’t watch evening television, nor do I care for celebrity fealty, a concept that baffles me on many levels. I’m still not sure if Twitter is particularly useful as anything but a distraction. I dusted it off, took a look, and put it back on the shelf until the next time.


I wrote more in the last month than I have in the last year. I also forced myself to submit an essay for a contest, only to be overtaken by the worst panic attack I’ve had in years. It led to a lot of soul-searching and I’ve gotten fierce about how I approach writing and my work process.

I finally finished Hillary Rettig’s The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to canstockphoto5169727Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block, spurred on by my disastrous attempt to submit work. There were moments in the book where I was gut-punched, as she accurately described my experiences as a writer. She also gave a lecture worth looking at, if any of these issues are yours. I don’t get writer’s block, but I do drive myself crazy with perfectionism and procrastination (which are blocks of my own design). She provided some very helpful insight.

While I’ve learned that every writer and their process is different, the key word is “process”. What is really happening with the writing? What are the habits and thought patterns that serve as obstacles? And holy shit, lady, can you please just write without editing for once? These are the tough questions I’ve been wrangling with in the quest to be more productive, creative, and successful.

Coming to a Blog Near You

canstockphoto7243840After my futile search for a book club aimed at writers, I’ve decided to set up one of my own online. I’ve been doing a lot of research on what might work and have put together a website, so look for a blog post announcement in the next week or so for the TGS Writers’ Book Club.

Happy April!

Back to the Beginning

canstockphoto21954338Once upon a time, I had a business card with a job title. Over the years, I’ve saved each job’s business card, a potpourri of assistants and coordinators and managers. For a good portion of my working life, I did not have a business card and it felt meaningful when that first box arrived at my desk.

After my daughter was born, I spent two years trotting my wiggly baby to a daycare each morning and commuting downtown with my husband to a many-storied building of glass and metal. One year of hauling a breast pump and hunching over in the corner of a windowed conference room. And a breaking point – my misery seeping into the office. I left the job, got my baby, and came home.

I’ve been home ever since, spending some of the best and worst moments of my life without a business card. It was easy to justify. My husband has a decent job which has survived multiple layoffs. We have health insurance. The house and car are paid for. It didn’t make sense to pay child care, which had become increasingly worrisome with each developmental stage. I also had the big dream of establishing a writing career.

My daughter is 12 now and shaking off the yoke of an attentive parent. A writing career would be a surprise, given my work habits. And while I’m still chugging away at it, I’m not counting on it. I have a business card that says I’m a writer and every once in a while, I dust off the box, open it and then close it again. The genie stays in.

Today, I start a volunteer job. I volunteered twofold – to tutor high school English language learners and to help in the volunteer program office. Part of me dreaded the idea of data entry and filing, but I’m good at those things. I’ll have a boss and a system to learn. I’m sure there will be jargon and acronyms. Every job has them.

For a moment, I felt a twinge of despair. What had I gained by all these years at home? I volunteered, threw complex birthday parties (treasure hunts and crime mysteries – holy shit, what was wrong with me?). I grew gardens and taught my daughter the words to canstockphoto24937827Elvis songs and how to draw cats. She remembers very little of those years. All that effort and awkwardly conscientious parenting, just a figment of my imagination.

I talked not too long ago with a mother at the school where I’d been PTO president. All those hours planning fundraisers and staffing book fairs. Of talking with teachers and parents and doing assembly presentations. My name occasionally shows up on old documents, to be replaced by someone else. I was the uber-volunteer until I burnt myself to the ground.

canstockphoto1854942For years, I’ve helped take care of my mother-in-law. She lived two blocks and one phone call away. Running her to doctor appointments, taking her grocery shopping, writing note after note as her memory failed. Guiding her through daily physical therapy exercises. Doing her taxes and paperwork. Sitting with her until the paramedics came. Now she is in a nursing home. And no one, especially her, remembers all the years before.

My resume has a canyon in it. A vast expanse of about a decade, filled with dirty diapers and strollers and wheelchairs. Silly songs about dinosaurs, patient and impatient answers to questions about the remote control and the telephone. A filling in the sandwich generation.

When I interviewed for the volunteer job, I put on the only dress pants I own, Talbot suits long gone to consignment shops. I talked too much and laughed at weird times. I tried too hard. I realized that I’d been away from things too long, that I feel uncomfortable with small talk and I have to make a conscious effort not to use swear words.

Self-pity was in order. And boy, did I ever feel it. All of it was for nothing. There was nothing to show for my efforts, my time, my love, my exhaustion. Not even a business card.

As with all self-pity, my reasoning was severely flawed. My daughter is this amazing person – loved and loving, kind and funny. She fills our home with music and light. She may not remember how many times I sang silly songs to her, but her heart does. My mother-in-law spent many years in her own apartment, the last few only because she was protected and cared for and loved. She doesn’t remember my name sometimes now, but her face always lights up with recognition when she sees me.

As for all the school volunteering, well, the very nature of it is transitory. I did some good things, like filing for nonprofit status, which will lead to corporate donations. But it’s all like so much smoke, evaporating and invisible.

canstockphoto3210183This morning, I sat on my cushion and prepared to meditate. I’d been feeling a tad smug that I’ve managed this practice for the last few weeks, without fail, building up from 5 minutes to a shiny 13. As I settled in, our tom cat began his caterwauling. I focused on my breath. He yowled louder. I kept my focus, feeling a little proud that I’d managed to let go of my sensory irritation. Then I realized that I had forgotten to set the timer.

My perfectionist self was tempted to start over, but I decided to continue for a bit longer.  With a laugh, my eyes popped open. It was all about humility. A messed up meditation. Love without recognition. Not having a good answer to what do you do?

When it was all gone, when there was no money, no accolades and no title, I still sought a sense of importance, even in the most mundane activities. To learn humility is to be grateful for the gift of starting over again. And again. And again.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

All in a Morning’s Meditation

canstockphoto1432692This morning, as I sat in a meditative pose, I could feel the throbbing pain of my knee. I let my thoughts tumble one over another – how I’d failed to do the daily exercises to deal with the injury, forgot to take ibuprofen, took the stairs too frequently. They continued to tumble down on me – I hadn’t met my writing goals for the week. I ate too much. I didn’t spend enough time with my family. I wasn’t patient with the cats. Tumble, tumble, tumble.

When I find my meditation the center of a campaign of me-shaming, I can only practice acknowledging the thought and letting it float by. I try to loosen its grip on my psyche, imagining stepping on its fingers as it clings to the side of a cliff. My meditation is not a peaceful one. A thought steps out of the shadows. No more suffering.

There is pain and then there is suffering. I began to think about the pain I was feeling and how every action I took or didn’t take, prolonged the pain to the point of suffering. Why would I make myself suffer? Intellectually, it makes no sense, but emotionally, it’s apparently my jam.

I come from a long line of martyrs/survivors. It’s a mindset I both admire for its tenaciousness and despise for the very same reason. The problem is when the abusive parents are dead or reformed, when you can stop turning in pop cans for a meal, when you finally stand on your own two feet, find stability and have the potential for happiness less than fleeting, your brain is still in crisis mode, still waiting for the next shoe to drop. And when it doesn’t happen, the brain gets creative.

canstockphoto5504066Even as I write this, I’m chastising myself for writing about first world problems – that all I have to do is watch the news and I’d see real suffering. But suffering, regardless of the source or how minor, does not make someone a better person. Pain is different – pain tells us something is wrong. Pain tells us we are in need of a solution, a palliative, a different direction. Suffering is like guilt or anxiety – only good for the lesson, a reminder to change course. Beyond that, it’s cruel and exhausting and pointless.

I finished reading a book about overcoming perfectionism. I gave it a B- in my notes and that made me laugh. The author’s target audience would not be generous in their reviews. She did a good job of building and explaining scenarios from whence perfectionists emerge. And it wasn’t about people with high standards for their own work. It was about people like me, who nearly choke on the phrases “This is good enough. I am good enough.” When good enough seems like an insult.

Sometimes when I write things, I think how often they’ve been written about, how often I’ve heard “get out of your own way” or “say positive affirmations”. I can hear that advice a thousand times over and I never absorb it. It sits in a mental waiting room. It waits for a connection, like a call on hold. Waiting for me to figure it out.

I rarely read newly published books or go to movie theaters. One day, I’ll be in a bookstore and pick up a book on the clearance shelf. It was published ten years ago. I’ll read that book and it will feel like this new, wonderful discovery that no one has any interest in discussing. It’s mine – an organic discovery. Like most lessons, they don’t take hold until we discover it ourselves.

canstockphoto5927403Meditation can be one of those westernized new-agey things that can come couched in a lot of fuzzy terminology and equipment (you can buy meditation pillows, stools, incense, books, CDs etc.). For me, these are things that give meditation all the appeal of a new exercise class using bowling balls and colanders (I’m sure it’s coming).

There are enough books that tell you how to meditate. There are testimonials that make it seem like you are shortly to be transported to nirvana if you can just touch your fingers and thumbs while sitting cross-legged. But you’ll need the special magic carpet. Or you can read accounts of people who sit and do this for hours on end.

I just wanted to make space in my life to stop everything. I can be very self-assured when I talk about running and gardening and how it’s meditation in motion. And then my body smacks me upside my ego and kneecaps me until I’m shuffling about and wincing at every move. So what are you going to do now, you smug bastard?

Am I done yet?

My meditation is messy and imperfect. I remind myself to adhere to the advice of Pema Chödrön. Approach it with curiosity and see what arises. So I get up in the morning, grab a pillow and timer and I make myself sit, breathing in and out until the timer beeps. I started at five minutes and now I’m up to a grand total of seven. Seven minutes in which I implore my brain to let the thoughts float by. Seven minutes that I fidget or, as happened last week, begin to snore softly.

Sometimes I imagine it’s like having to watch an entire campaign speech just to get the sound bite for a news story. I have to sit every day, rolling my eyes at my attention-seeking brain, just to find that sliver of light, that second of wisdom or insight. But I’ve made the space and I am curious to see what’s next.

The Perfect Choice

I can hear the cracks in the wall before the tidal wave lays me low. They sneak up on me – the whispers of shoulda, woulda, coulda. I am paralyzed by my imperfect perfectionism.

Before I can rally, I need a breather. I watch a movie, flip through a magazine or read a book – media filled with perfect people, perfect writing, perfect pictures of a well-adjusted life. I’d love to say I feel so self-confident that these images and words don’t push me farther under the bus of self-loathing. But it’s not true. When I’m feeling low, these are the proverbial kicks to the gut that say “See? I told you so!”

There is, as an NPR blog writer called it, a New Perfectionism. Perfect parenting, perfect workouts, perfect household hints, perfect ways to be an effective and efficient employee, perfect time management skills, perfect possibilities for every aspect of life.  I don’t doubt that there are many people out there who aren’t anxious or overwhelmed or filled with self doubt. I am not one of them.

I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It’s been recommended to me at least 20 times, so I finally cracked it open on vacation. When it comes to my own introversion, it’s not been particularly enlightening. I’m good with the fact that I am an introvert who can function as an extrovert when needed. What I found interesting were the chapters about how extroversion became the ideal in our society – the valuing of personality over character. Selling one’s self became more important than ensuring you weren’t, deep down, a complete shithead.

The idea that how we appear is more valuable than our character is designed to teach us to judge a book by its cover – to sort, categorize and label people based on first impressions. If you have perfectionist tendencies, this value system exploits that need in an endless procession of how-to articles, cults of personality and advertising standards. Perfectionism sells.

While on vacation, it struck me that I’ve been so tired over the last year – working hard, struggling against entropy, trying to be better at everything.  I’ve expended tremendous amounts of energy with very little in the way of return – or at least returns I’ve been able to recognize. I don’t want to be exhausted all the time and it’s not necessary. The New Perfectionism indeed – now I want to be the perfectly balanced person. Nice work, brain. Any more circular thinking you’d like to do?

Friends often say to me: You’re too hard on yourself.  A cliché won’t stop 40 some years of pushing myself. And like any other character trait, there’s an upside. I have worked hard to become a productive member of society, to have stable relationships, to be a decent parent. Those things have not come easily to me. The downside is that not only am I tough on myself, but I’m often tough on others and I don’t know how to relax (And don’t tell me to relax – I’ll just want to punch someone in the face).

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to question this perfectionist mentality. I can’t physically sustain a driven life. Many activities, which take up vast quantities of time, aren’t really important. And lastly, I’ve moved beyond the survival and self-sufficiency stage. I’m here. I get to be a bit of a dilettante. I get to dabble and meander and be a little lazier.

I felt a huge mental harrumph after typing that last sentence. Says who? Now get back to work. Maybe it would be more honest to say that since I will likely continue to push myself, I should redirect those efforts towards fulfilling work, family time that doesn’t involve force marching everyone through chores, activities that enrich instead of deplete. There are choices to be made.


After reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the idea of choices took on a whole new meaning – and it explains much of the anxiety people feel in our modern society. By pursuing perfection, we are inundated with choices at every turn. Of course, Mr. Schwartz decided the proof was in the pudding by immediately following up with Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. With so many other volumes of What You Are Not Doing Perfectly on the shelves, I’ve resolved any paradox by choosing not to read it.

Faced with so many experts and how-to gurus, the choices are overwhelming. But these choices are only necessary if your perceived goal is perfectionism. And what is perfect? Perfect is often what you want other people to see when they look at you, your home, status, possessions, children or body. Perfection represents love, power, respect – any number of things to people, but perfectionist behavior rarely yields those results. It can be, as I’ve discovered, quite tiring and unrewarding.

If perfection is through the eyes of someone else, then perfect becomes subjective. If definitions of perfection are subjective, it can be ours to define. It may end up looking entirely different than as advertised. Contents may settle. Results may not be guaranteed. Objects might be closer than they appear. There might be unintended side effects – like uncontrollable laughter, unexpected napping, small pleasures and infinite joy.

Perfectionist thinking is hard to unravel. Letting go of the behavior sometimes involves doing a half-assed job, showing up late, putting it off until later, not ironing it, not doing a progressive number of reps, letting the picture hang crooked on the wall. The next step is figuring out what you’d like to do instead  – something rewarding, pleasurable, luxurious, frivolous. I have piles of work to do. I wrote this blog post instead.

Hairshirts and the Good Enough Writer

canstockphoto6711776Up until the 1960s, the hairshirt, or cilice, was worn by nuns and monks as a sign of repentance and atonement for sins. It was an undergarment usually made of rough cloth or bristly animal fur, occasionally with metal spikes, to create constant discomfort. My hairshirt is carefully constructed, not of animal fur or metal chains, but of anxiety, shame and depression. Taught early on that my value lie in aspiring for perfection, in not making mistakes, in being highly critical and highly criticized, I do not wear mistakes well.

The last few weeks have been comprised of some big mistakes. Everything from leaving keys in the lock of an outside door overnight, to being so confounded by multiple contracts that I billed a client incorrectly. I was not murdered in my sleep and things are being worked out with the client, but I’m embarrassed by my episodes of incompetence.

I am a highly organized, competent and grounded person most of the time. When I make mistakes, I feel crushed. Depression slides over me like a dark, wet blanket. I want to hide. I want to quit. I want to run away. I don’t want to make eye contact and my stomach is in knots.  Intellectually, I know this is not a healthy, proportional response to mistakes. I know it’s baggage that I’ve lugged along for decades. It’s painful to be perceptive and yet ineffective at changing one’s gut reaction.

Sometimes I rush to fix my mistakes or make over an entire system to ensure the same mistake can’t be made again. What I’m doing is not leaving time to grieve over this loss of imagined perfectionism. And it is ALL imagined, this world I often live in – where I would never make a mistake, where I am a superhuman, where I will be loved because I do everything right. It never existed except in my head. It was a seed planted long ago and it is nurtured by stress.

I’m the person to whom people are constantly saying “let it go” or “relax”. To which I mentally respond “bite me!” I should point out that telling uptight people to relax is akin to telling a starving person that they need to eat. A big duh is coming your way. As one friend pointed out, I don’t do anything in half measures. I’m intense, focused and determined. Until I fry my diodes. And then things seem to fall apart.

The counterattack is recognizing that my perceptions are not reality. It is talking back to the voice in my head that calls me stupid and irresponsible. It is reminding myself that I would never say these things to another person in the face of their own mistakes. It is practicing what Buddhists call maitri, or unconditional friendliness to oneself.

The journey from self-loathing to unconditional friendliness is neither easy, nor linear. I must constantly retrace my steps. The real trick is to catch myself in the act of attempting perfection, to stop myself from pursuing love and self-acceptance through doing perfectly, when doing good enough will suffice.

I’ve met a lot of people like me. In that dismissive way in which we categorize people, they’re called Type A personalities. Studies have focused primarily on middle-aged men, but here’s a picture of a middle-aged woman: wife, mother, PTO president, part-time business manager, volunteer, writer, gardener, caretaker of pets, children, elders and home. Throw in some unpredictable peri-menopausal hormones and you’ve got FrankenWhine, just waiting to be chased away by angry villagers.

Perfectionism means it will never be enough. Despite all the wonderful, fortunate things in my life, I’m living in a mindset that says I’ll always be hungry and dissatisfied. Except at this very moment. Writing is my way home, my escape from the mental trap of perfectionism. When I write, I feel good enough. And when I don’t write, I drive myself to excel at everything else. Often everything else has something to say in the matter.

Writing is the salve to all self-inflicted wounds for me. It is a world where mistakes are encouraged, tangents expected and thoughts run like muddy little hooligans across white carpet. Time stands still and everything else can wait. The writing is not perfect, but the act of doing it takes away that indefinable longing. It nourishes me, re-sets my emotional clock, plants me back in a world where I am loved because of my imperfections, accepted in spite of my peculiarities and no longer in need of external redemption.

Sometimes my mistakes are simply reminders in disguise. With a gentle nudge, I stop trying to be perfect and get back to being me, the writer.