Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

I just started reading Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott, and it is making me feel so much safer inside of my skin.  She has a way of embracing her fears and flaws and turning them into something humanizing.  The book is a story of her struggle to keep it together as a single mother with a newborn baby.  She’s a recovered addict, an enthusiastic Christian, and most of all, a raging liberal.  I love it.

Sometimes it seems like books find me at just the right moment, when I need I really need to hear the information.  Ten years ago, this book would have flown right over and above my head.  But, now, I have so many questions about what it’s going to be like to be a parent.  So many questions about how to deal with tough things in my past and fears about the future.  And though Anne doesn’t claim to have many answers, in a way, this book is a clear testimony to her faith and sense of absurdity.  She retells bits of her frustrations and joys, and lays her thoughts bare with a courage that I can only admire.

As a writer, I wish I had her honesty.  Even in my little blog, which very few people stumble onto and only one other person in my real life knows about, I’m afraid to share my truths.  I worry that my husband will spill the beans on my blog, after I’ve poured my soul onto this space, and that my mother and father and–god forbid–my in-laws will get to read what I really think of them.  I hide so many small insecurities and so much pettiness inside that I can’t seem to do a damn thing about.  I worry that some faceless troll will find this blog and ridicule the softest parts of me, until I don’t have the guts to write anymore.  And I’m sure just having those fears draws those things to me faster than if I didn’t give a damn.  It’s hard to make someone feel small if they just don’t give a damn.  But I’m still young, and I still give way too many damns.

Another chord this book struck with me is Anne’s faith.  I’ve been struggling with my faith lately.  I wan’t to believe that there is a benevolent, loving presence in my life that watches out for me, that accepts me and loves me.  Who wouldn’t want that?  But when I try to plug myself into Christianity, I feel so uncomfortable.  I have known too many Christians who, in their evangelical zeal to save the world, managed to look down their noses at me because, despite my baptism and many hours of confirmation class in the Methodist Church, I had not been officially saved.  Having not been “saved,” therefore, I would be joining the hoards of heathens that crowd together in hell.  This experience came from my best friend in high school, who was artsy and beautiful and increasingly involved in her scary church.  When I tried to press, to understand exactly what being saved felt like, I was told it could happen at any moment, as soon as I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  Being open to the possibility, I went home and attempted to do just that.  When it came up later, and I claimed it had worked, she didn’t believe me.

She wasn’t the last person to not believe me, either.  I wanted to get married in my grandmother’s church, and during pre-marital counseling, her pastor ignored the issue of me and my husband’s relationship, and instead focused on our personal relationships with Jesus.  Once again, trying to be a good person while attending church weekly as a child and growing up the granddaughter of his church organist was only camouflaging my glaring lack of acceptable saved-ness.  I ended one of the sessions in tears, and to this day one of my only regrets about the wedding is not finding someone to marry us who made me feel comfortable.  And in my fantasies, when I’m feeling really ballsy, I even tell him to go to hell.

So to read about someone whose faith is as vital to her as breathing, but who also embraces her homosexual friends and rails against George Bush, made me feel better about Christianity.  It made me feel more willing to explore my roots, and to not cringe a bit when someone assumes that I’m Christian, and all that the associations that has come to encompass, which have much more to do with Fox News and embarrassingly literal interpretations of the Bible than the heart of what I believe Jesus was trying to say.

So I’m glad this book found me, for $2 at a used book store, at just the right time and place.  And sometimes, when things like that happen, I think maybe God does have something to do with it.

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Lessons from the Road: What Driving Taught Me About Applying to Grad School

Keep the Car on the Road

I am applying for graduate school, which means that there is a whole lot of uncertainty as I try to pull applications together and wait for decisions from the schools.  The ambiguity can be enough to break me.  This morning, when I reflected on how to cope with all of the pressure, I realized that many of the same skills I use in driving apply to life.

Four Ways Applying to Graduate School Is Like Driving a Car

1.  Stay focused–keep your eyes on the road.  When my husband’s driving, he’ll see a barn that he likes, an owl perched on a telephone pole, or a funny looking tree.  Then, he points and demands I look as he drives past–still staring, while my eyes are glued to the road in fear that he won’t remember to look back before he hits a guardrail.  I have a similar problem when it comes to dealing with daily distractions.  It’s easy to be pulled by a million things that I want to do in life–I know that I should be exercising, writing, and spending time with my husband.  I also want to read books, play the piano, learn to speak Spanish and guitar, hobbies that make me feel grounded and happy.  But with all of these competing priorities, I have to first make sure that my eyes are on the road ahead–getting into graduate school.  That means preparing for the GRE, job shadowing, and doing my homework.  It’s all manageable if I don’t let myself get overwhelmed by everything else I could be doing.

2.  Make small adjustments to keep the car on the road.  Driving for long stretches rarely involves cranking the wheel.  Rather, it’s about making small adjustments to compensate for alignment and curves in the road.  The movements are minute, but they require skill and constant motion to make the difference between staying in your lane or crashing.  While it feels like I need to make huge amounts of effort to keep everything together, what it really takes is a million small adjustments that keep me on course–whether it’s realizing I need more time on a homework concept or checking in with my husband on dinner plans.

3.  If something surprises you, don’t panic.  This is an important one.  If a rabbit jumps out in front of the car, the worst thing you can do is swerve and hit a tree.  Things come up all the time that freak me out–worrying I won’t have enough observation hours, fretting over a test that was hard, or finding out that my pediatrician won’t sign off on my chicken pox history–despite the week I spent with the chickenpox when I was six.  If I panic, it could throw the whole timeline off course, and set me back professionally.  Instead, I have to slow down, maneuver past the challenge, and keep going.

4.  Know where you’re going, and how to get there.  My mother is the queen of wrong turns and bad directions.  We spent much of my childhood driving lost through the cornfields of Illinois, a place my mother has lived her entire life.  It wasn’t until GPS came along that she began to arrive at her destination without several tense calls to my father and stops to ask gas station attendants for directions.  Applying to grad school requires an ability to follow directions, and a focus on the end goal.  Though whether or not I’ll get into graduate school feels like a mystery, schools are actually fairly upfront about what they’re looking for:  knowledge of the field, good grades, high achievement, and strong personal skills.  This means that though it might feel like wearing my lucky underwear for the next three months might increase my hopes of being accepted, superstition will serve me less well than following the directions.  If I focus on demonstrating the qualities schools look for, I’ll have a much better chance of getting into grad school.

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Sweaty, Smoky, and Naked: The Camping Trip That Wasn’t

Beautiful View from the Prime Campsites

One week after we moved from Louisiana back to Illinois, my husband arranged for us to go on a camping trip with friends.

Stop for a minute.  Consider that timeframe.  I was doing good to know where my deodorant was after a cross-country move, let alone have enough wits about me to pack for and execute a camping trip.  I had already started taking college classes that week, with my first college test in five years coming up that Monday.  After a minor melt-down from being overwhelmed, I pulled myself together, and we hit the road.

We showed up at about nine at night at the state park.  I was anticipating wilderness, but as we drove back to the campsite, I realized it looked more like a cramped tailgate, with each campsite featuring a smoky pit.  There were spacious sites that sat on top of a ridge, with a view over the valley that could have been in a camping commercial.

Not our campsite.  Our campsite was downhill, smushed between two other tiny campsites and across from one of the more elaborate shanty-trailers.  The smoke from all of the campsites rolled downwind to our space.  Cujo’s friends asked how big our tent was:  tiny, I told them.  I had bought it with the intent of back-packing with it, so it was light and itty-bitty.  They assured us that their tent was a two person tent, too.

Within three minutes, we had our tent set up, so we could watch as they pieced together their super-size McMansion tent.  When they finished, they had a queen-sized blow-up mattress to inflate.  Cujo and I had forgotten pillows, but we rolled my yoga mat to help cushion our sleep.  I took a calming breath and went to the bathrooms, realized there was a man hanging out by the dimly-lit women’s door, and retreated.  Cujo, being the chivalrous guy he is, went with me and waited while brushed my teeth.  After all of that, we were all ready for bed.

Our tent was so hot that we immediately stripped off most of our clothes.  Even nearly-naked, it was too hot to sleep.  Not only that, but all of the smoke from the other campfires collected in our tent, plugging up my sinuses and making it tough to breath.  I imagined Cujo’s friend, an early riser, coming over to wake us up and getting an eyeful of things I’d rather he never see.  So we lie, squirming and pillow-less, listening to the campers pass our tent on their way to the road.  Two hours in, Cujo broke.

“Do you want to get a hotel room and meet up with them tomorrow?” he whispered.

Yes, yes I did.  We snuck out, but before we left we texted Cujo’s friend so that he wouldn’t worry when we weren’t there in the morning.  When Cujo sent the text, his friend’s tent lit up, and an electronic rock jingle rang.  And rang.  And rang.  We stood outside, helpless to stop it, as the single text lit up their McMansion tent with rock-and-roll strobe lights.  We know how to make an exit.

The McMansion Tent

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Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw

I read anything and everything I can get my hands on, especially if I can inter-library loan it (I doubt my husband and I will ever be wealthy enough to support my book addiction independently.  I’m not even sure Bill Gates could cover it.).  When Cujo’s friend, currently working as a waiter, suggested that I check out Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, I put it on my mental list of Books I Must Read.

I checked out both Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw for good measure.  I’d seen Anthony Bordain’s TV show No Reservations and found it sometimes enjoyable, sometimes repulsive.  I suppose I would say his books are more of the same.

I’m a little shocked that I made it through both of them in two days, to be honest.  I enjoy cooking and trying new foods, but I mostly enjoy ethnic food like Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian.  Bourdain’s book referenced hundreds of French food items and cooking techniques that I not only have never heard of, I’m not quite sure how to pronounce.  I’m not an insider on the NYC restaurant scene–I’ve never even been to NYC.  All of his references to famous chefs went over my head–including most of his references to the Food Network chefs, since I never, ever watch the food network.

So why did I keep reading?  Because Bourdain knows how to bring in all of the senses when he writes.  He paints a picture where you not only see the food, you can practically taste it, smell it, feel the juice dribbling down your chin.  And when he writes about the characters of the restaurant underbelly, he brings them to life.  I may not have had any idea of who these people were, but I could appreciate their quirks and their camaraderie.

If I had to chose one, however, Kitchen Confidential is leaps and bounds better than Medium Raw.  Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential while he was working as head chef at Les Halles.  He was in the kitchen up to 17 hours a day, 6-7 days a week.  Everything he wrote comes through unfiltered, with an honesty only found if the author’s fairly certain no one will read it.  In fact, much of Medium Raw seemed to try to explain Kitchen Confidential.  Apologize for it.  Soften the blow.  He stepped on people without having any idea how far the reach of his writing would be–and while it brought him wild success, his later book suggests it came with a high cost.  When he’s not addressing his past, he’s describing elaborate restaurant meals that, prior to Kitchen Confidential, he’d never have found the time to enjoy, let alone afford.  His book reads like someone who has too much time, money and guilt.  After all, his job allows him to live the dream, for all the schmucks who would love to travel and taste the world, but have to work nine to five.  It seems like he as an underlying sense of:  why the hell did I get so lucky?  And maybe that’s why his audience can’t quite bring themselves to hate him for his success–he is so honest about his flaws, his major f***-ups (of which there are many).  Who can hate someone who agrees:  I don’t deserve any of this–but I’ll share it, through words and film.  Even though I don’t agree with him on many of his philosophies, I appreciate his candor.

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The Discus Have Moved to the Bedroom

My Husband’s Discus

My husband’s discus fish, which had been living in his office, have officially moved into our bedroom, until the Big Move next week.  My space has been invaded.

I don’t much mind, because they are pretty.  But it means that where Cujo and I might otherwise have been able to talk to each other, instead I enter the room to a barrage of questions.

“Look at my fish!”  he’ll whisper urgently.

The Now-Living-in-my-Bedroom Discus Fish

I look.  They are hovering like big round pancakes.  “They’re very nice,” I’ll say for the fifth time that day.

“Do you think they’re getting bigger?” He’ll ask, transfixed.

“Much bigger,” I’ll say solemnly.  He’ll look at me with accusing eyes, hunting down even a whiff of lack of enthusiasm.  Nervous that if I don’t deflect his gaze soon, he’ll increase the interrogation methods, I’ll pick something specific to comment on.

“The stripes on that one look really pretty.”

“Which one?”

Um.  I try to pick out which one had briefly caught my eye–they all look similar.  “That one.” I’ll point.

He nods his head, satisfied.  For now.  And he’ll go back to lying on the bed, staring at his fish tank.  I’m glad he’s happy, but I can’t help but feel a little unnerved that though he’s now spending most of his free time staring at the fish, the fish are spending all of their free time staring back at us–almost like orange alien spies.  And now, they have moved into the most intimate of chambers, my bedroom.  If discus could talk…

The Discus Are Watching

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Toilet Atrocities

The Unsuspecting Toilet

Cujo and I went to visit his elderly aunts up in northern Louisiana last weekend.  Since we’re moving, it was our last chance to visit them.  I feel a little ashamed we didn’t get up there sooner, but I had been reluctant to go considering my run-ins with his family have mostly been just that–run-ins, not pleasant encounters.

So we visited, and the aunt we stayed with for two nights, I’ll call her Aunt Neda, was wonderful.  She was sweet and kind and tickled that we came.  We had a blast, though I felt like a wilted flower for most of the trip from the Louisiana heat.

Unfortunately, her toilet didn’t survive our stay.

We stayed in the upstairs room, which has its own bathroom and shower.  The second day, Cujo noticed that her toilet seemed to keep running instead of shutting off.  Our toilet at home has this problem, so he thought he could jiggle it and shut it off.

He jiggled it and broke it.

That was, by itself, bad enough.  But Cujo’s father is a retired plumber.  Though it’s inexplicable, Cujo’s father expects Cujo to be able to fix everything that he is able to fix, in spite of the fact that Cujo has never been to plumbing school or apprenticed under one.  Cujo might not admit it, but he secretly agrees.  It didn’t help matters that these were his father’s people–extra pressure to fix it.

We went out for the day, during which Cujo and I bickered a little.  I can’t for the life of me remember what about, but it was probably as much about the heat and the stifling air as anything.  Mildly pissed off, I stomped upstairs and, forgetting about the broken toilet, peed in it.

Mad at myself that I forgot, and preoccupied with what we could do about it, I reached for my toothbrush.  It was crammed into a single travel toothbrush dispenser with Cujo’s toothbrush, because Cujo had thrown out my plastic toothbrush pouch that easily held two toothbrushes.  Why he was so opposed to it, I don’t know.  As I pulled my toothbrush out, his came out, too.  And plopped right into the unflushed toilet.

I stared in horror.  And then I laughed.  When Cujo came upstairs, he found me breathless with laughter.  Concerned, he checked me up and down and then inspected the bathroom. “My toothbrush?” he said.

“I’m so sorry,” I choked out around the the tears streaming down my face from laughing.

He just shook his head.  “I’m using yours.”

Fair enough, I thought.

We (ok, I’m ashamed to admit it, but mostly he) fished the toothbrush out, threw it away, and filled the toilet to flush it down.  The next day he bought the parts to fix it, but found that the nuts and bolts were so old, they were rusted together, and we had to leave for home anyway.  So we left behind a very broken toilet.  Thankfully some of his other relatives are handymen, too, and have a pretty good chance at installing the new part.

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Mommy Dearest Called

Comfort Food

My husband and I are moving back to my hometown in three weeks, and I am not at all sure this is a wise thing to do.  But it seems to be the best option we have at the moment, so we’re going with it.  I can’t shake the feeling in my gut that things might not be smooth sailing, but decision’s been made.

So when my mother called today, I answered.  Usually I answer the phone with trepidation.  30% of the time, she wants to talk at me, requiring only the occasional “Mmhmm.”  40% of the time, she’s calling because she has a “very-important-question-she-has-to-ask-right-now” that involves something like what color of curtains should she buy.  The rest of the time, she’s laying an ambush.  Today was one of those days.

She asked something about moving, then said, “Are you going to stay here or with your grandmother?”  I told her grandma’s, because the last time I was home I couldn’t stop coughing when I was in mom’s house.  Was is psycho-somatic?  Don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter.

“But if you weren’t having problems here?” she asked with a whine of self-pity.  And I did something really stupid–I told her the truth.

“We’re staying with grandma no matter what.”  There are a lot of logical reasons for this. Grandma’s 92 and needs someone to help her take care of the farmhouse this winter.  But that’s not the heart of it.


“Because sometimes you say things that are really hurtful.”  Now I’ve done it.  But there it is–the truth.  My mother can be cruel–she’ll use things that I’ve told her in confidence to hurt me.  For a long time, I bottled up the hurt.  I had an eating disorder for the last three years of high school that resolved itself as soon as I left the house.  She may not be in control of herself when says these things, but they cut right to my core.  Out of self-preservation, I try not to expose myself too much to that.

“I don’t remember you ever being hurt by things I’ve said.”

The last time we were home for the summer, she brought me to tears because I sided with my father over whether or not he should be allowed to pack the moving van full of my brother’s stuff the way he wanted to, or the way the third article she’d printed off the internet recommended.  I told her that dad needed to start packing, and since he’d already read the first articles she gave him, she should maybe step back and help him.  She told me I was jealous of my brother and resented them helping him.

I had been frustrated that my brother left for NC three days before he expected our 60 year old father to pack up a moving van and drive it by himself to NC.  In telling my mother this, I opened myself up for the guilt trips and manipulation.  She continued to glare at me, then say things like, “You are just sitting in your room and pouting, not even helping me!”  I continued to take trips out to the car, tears streaming down my face.

She apparently doesn’t remember this at all.  “Well, I remember you said things that were very critical of me,” she said.

I didn’t.  I could have that day.  I would have liked to.  But I don’t lash out in anger like my mother does.  Because it’s wrong.  It’s wrong to say cruel things to people and expect them to love you.  It’s wrong to hurt people just because they disagree with you.  And it made me sad that in demanding the truth from me today, my mom was hurt.  I wish that we could have the kind of relationship where she and I can laugh and talk, where I could trust her with my problems and lean on her for advice and support and love.  But that’s not reality.  Reality is that my mother has a lot of emotional issues, and though she’s alright much of the time, there are also times when she is hateful and ugly.

I used to think that there must be something wrong with me–that if I were just careful enough, closed off enough, she couldn’t hurt me.  I made myself as tough as I could, but the only real solution was to get away.  I ran away to Michigan, North Carolina, Thailand, Louisiana.  I don’t know what going home will do to me.  I like to think that I’ll be able to stop running, that I’ll find the strength to stay without falling apart.  But when I’m honest with myself, I know that my mother’s problems are big enough that they won’t go away on their own.  And I know that I can’t fix them.

So why do I seem to be drawn back there again and again, almost like a magnet?  Maybe it’s because for all of the places I’ve ran, I’ve yet to put down roots.  And as much as I would like to kid myself, I am tied to that place more strongly than I’ve ever allowed myself to be connected anywhere else.  So I guess I am, once again, going home.

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Turns Out, Vanity Can Be Inherited

I had a rude blow to my self-perception recently.  It all started with an eye exam.

I have a weird thing where my right eye doesn’t work quite as well as the left eye.  My eyes cooperate really well, and together they see just fine.  I’ve known about this since my driver’s ed instructor gave us a vision test and I was informed I wasn’t reading the far right letters.  Apparently that’s because I couldn’t see them.  Oops.

Ten years later, I have been getting by, but I decided it would be prudent to visit the eye doctor, for a check up and maybe a pair of glasses (to take some of the strain off of my right eye, which gets squinty when I’m tired).

I got a prescription, which I was told would help with depth perception, and sent into the lobby to pick out the frames.

I know this is the part where you’re expecting me to talk about how opposed I am to glasses.  Thing is, I’m not.  If I was, I would get a contact for my right eye and not think twice.  But glasses will help me look smart, and I have absolutely no problem with my intelligence–shoot, I might actually look more capable, which won’t hurt.  Problem was, almost none of the glasses looked right.  Most of them sat too low on my face, and my big eyes stuck over the rims.  Any frame with rimless bottoms gave me a unibrow.  I apparently have a wide face, so the frames had to be wide enough.

Ugh.  I finally found a pair, but they were too tight for my face.  Everyone agreed that, in spite of that, they looked great.

So we ordered a bigger size, and went on our way.  When they came in, they didn’t look at all like they did before.  They were gigantic on my face–I looked terrible.  Problem was, they’d already put the prescription lenses in.

I could see better–things looked almost like a 3-D movie.  But I couldn’t wear them in public.

I blame my mother.  And grandmother.  Those two worship at the alter of beauty.  My grandmother gets her hair done at least once a week.  At 92, she still perms her hair and dyes it red.  She refuses to leave the house without her make-up on or wearing anything less than dress slacks (her clothes take up four closets).  She told me a year ago I needed to start using wrinkle cream (I’m 26 years old).  My mother also gets her hair cut by a particular beautician, and passes on make-up and nail polish to me (because she knows I’m too clueless to buy my own).

The funny thing is, neither of them are good-looking.  My grandmother didn’t have a pretty face–she looked disapproving and stern in all the pictures I’ve seen of her youth.  She has an almost rectangular face and though she’s always been average weight, she didn’t exactly have a killer body.  My mother, though adorable as a young woman, is 100 pounds overweight.  She refuses to eat healthy or exercise–ever.  But when we’re out in public, she’ll hand me a compact and tell me my nose is shiny.  Or she’ll tell me that an outfit won’t look good on someone “with your build” (with comments like that, it took me a long time to accept my wide hips).  I had serious body-image issues coming out of high school.

So I like to think that I conquered those issues, and that I’m not vain.  I get my hair cut twice a year, I don’t wear make-up, and I don’t spend my free time shopping.  I try to take care of my body, because I want to be healthy, but I don’t base my self-esteem on my weight, and I don’t try fad-diets to lose those pesky 20 pounds.

But it turns out, I’m not a pious as I think I am.  I will not wear glasses that make me look bad.  We returned the glasses for a different pair that were, if not fabulous, at least acceptable.  I feel better.  But the whole debacle has me reevaluating myself.

What I think of as my lack of vanity is really more luck and preference.  I don’t have to put a lot of time into make-up because my face usually looks fine without it.  And I don’t spend hours blow-drying my hair and straightening it because my husband loves my wavy hair (and I don’t really have the skill to straighten my hair anyway).  I may not spend hours shopping, but I usually dress well for my body.  And even though I don’t spend a lot of time dieting, I eat really healthy and have a normal BMI.  Sooo….maybe I do have some vanity.  And maybe that’s not really a terrible thing, if I don’t let it get out of hand or toxic to those around me.  I already know that I won’t be passing make-up to my daughter like she’s worthless without it.  And I won’t make snide remarks about her weight, while trying to make her eat pie and cake.  I will show her how to eat healthy, how to dress smart (if that’s something she wants to learn), and how to feel good about herself.  And if she insists on finding a pair of glasses that compliment her, I’ll smile and think how the apple can only roll so far from the tree.

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Everyday Magic



ImageI believe in magic.  Not in the potions and spells kind, necessarily, but the everyday kind of magic.  The pull of a good book that makes the world around me fall away and draws me into a different world.  A song that hits a chord inside of me, that makes me reverberate with the right lyric or sound.  A musician on a street corner singing his heart out.  A painting in a store window or a mural outside of a school.  The embrace of a lover, surrounded by his smell and warmth and desire.  

These are the moments that I live for, the notes of joy that make life a thing of beauty.  I have drifted away from organized religion, but these are the moments that I feel closest to the universe, to God.  If I had to measure the value of my life, I would measure it in the moments of everyday magic that I noticed, that I took the time to experience.  Because when everything falls away, those are the moments that sustain me, strengthen me.  

And how often do I walk away from moments of beauty?  I think that experiencing beauty is a choice, because the world is full of beautiful things that most people walk right by.  A flower blooming, the brilliance of green after a strong rain, a fresh novel written by a familiar author, a book of poems, hearing someone else’s favorite song for the first time.  Walking through an art gallery.  The way your favorite person’s face crinkles up when they laugh.

These moments are a gift.  These moments are magic.


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You Need to Stop Measuring Yourself

My husband gave me a piece of advice yesterday that had the uncomfortable ring of truth to it.  I was giving him a hard time about how successful his blog has been, and how many hits a day he gets (Needless to say, it’s a lot more than me).

“You need to stop measuring yourself,” he said.

I froze as I tried to work out exactly what he meant.  Measuring myself?  I began counting up the ways that I measure myself, the yardsticks that I use to judge my worth.

And he’s right.  Sometimes I measure myself in pounds.  Dress size.  GPA.  Blog hits.  Calories.  Word count.  Page count.  Minutes spent exercising.  I know I’m forgetting a few.

And what would I do if I stopped keeping count of the ways I’m inadequate?  What if I just loved and accepted myself for where I’m at.  Would I stop growing as a person?  Would I lose my edge?

Or would I gain an edge?  Would I then have the freedom to leap off a cliff into failure?  Freedom to make mistakes and suck horribly while I learn and get better?  Would it be a good thing, or a bad thing?

In a world of trophies for every little league game, I think sometimes we celebrate mediocrity.  But I also think that some children have a lot of pressure put on them to be the very best at everything.  I had the misfortune to be one of those children.  I was a good test taker, and so every test I took told me that I was in the top five or ten percent of the state or the nation.  I got As.  If it looked like I might not get an A, I worked myself into a lather to make sure that perceived failure wouldn’t happen.

And so I succeeded.  I got great grades, I was polite, I was smart, I was quiet.  If I played my cards right, I could both be the very best and blend into the background so I never had to deal with the teasing that a braver child might have received.  But I never once had someone tell me that it would be ok, that I would still be loved, if I didn’t do something perfectly.

There is no way that I’m going to learn to be a great novelist if I don’t have the room to fail.  Because writing is a craft, and it’s one that very few people start out very good at.  Even the best writers I know write shitty first drafts, and their first few novel-length attempts were so horrific I shudder when I think about them.  So I’m not outside of the learning curve here–but I feel like it.  Every novel I read is telling me what the end product should look like–and how very far I am from having publishable material.

So I need to keep writing.  And writing.  And writing.  And reflecting.  And rewriting.  And writing some more.

But do I need to stop measuring myself?  I don’t think any of the type A people I know, NYT bestsellers included, never keep track of their progress.  But maybe I need to cut myself some slack.  Or at least, keep going in spite of the great burden of perfectionism I seem cursed to drag behind me like a ball and chain.  I love the phrase “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”  Maybe I should apply it more in my writing life.

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