The Perils of Perfectionism

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At the gym, the substitute Zumba teacher called out new steps with a determined cheerfulness. From the back of the room I peered through three lines of shuffling, swaying bodies to catch sight of the moves. I was not thrilled with this teacher; she tended to stray just enough from the music’s rhythm to make it hard to watch her, harder to follow. My neurological and emotional instincts were to move right with the beat, not miss it by even a smidgen. I knew the others also had complaints yet they remained attentive to directives. They looked good from where I was moving along a bit haphazardly. I felt frustration mount until I veered off the proscribed steps, modifying a couple, throwing in a spin. Think I will slide my feet instead of bouncing, swing hips side to side instead of back and forth–more natural to me and becoming. Then I came to a standstill as I tried to figure out where everyone else was.

Irritation with the class had given way to a need to correct the choreography, to hit my beat, not the teacher’s. I was right, after all. I loved to dance and embraced Zumba’s vigorous fun. (A goal of mine is to be in good enough condition by summer to take a yearned-for flamenco class at a dance studio.) But now the old sass I’ve had to often quell all my life took over until the urge to break out and dance my own rhythmically attuned dance was pushing me toward….well, I closed my eyes a moment. Imagined the room transformed by low lights and live music, people dancing with lovely abandon. I was jolted from that brief reverie when I jostled a man next to me. He was keeping close to the metered measure but also all instructions. And no stumbling. He knew the value of sticking with the group, staying in line. I took a water break, stifling the desire to walk out as a few already had.

I’ve begun to count on Zumba to help keep my heart in good working order. It’s a prescription, part of a broader regimen my cardiologist and I agreed upon nearly twelve years ago: if I maintain my health with daily cardio and practice diligent self-care, I get a chance to live a few more years. Maybe many more. So what was my complaint? Why couldn’t I just do what was expected this time? Why did I think I could diverge from the norm when the benefit in this case came from following along? I felt I was different. I needed things to be exacting, correct as well as fun and that led to ignoring the exercise mandates Zumba provided.

The truth was, I was not doing so well; was the beat off or was I? Maybe I thought I deserved more for the money and time. But I forgot my real intentions. Did I think I was on Broadway? Who had made me soloist, leader or critic? 

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I learned early that it was important to do things the best I possibly could. The American way, at least where I lived. Mediocrity was never good enough, was, in fact, equal to failure. “Excellence Above All” was a favored motto as a youth. My school notebooks were covered with those words, as though noting it multiple times would make me impervious to the possibility of imperfection in all I undertook. It succeeded in that I worked hard and was confident much of the time. Feedback regarding various endeavors assured me I had some intelligence and talent. But I was on more deeply intimate terms with my flaws and weaknesses. As a young cellist and vocalist I despaired some days of ever completing a certain measure of music just as my teacher or my musician father required. Demanded. I worried I would not get the awards I strove to achieve. Everything I attempted had to fulfill a goal set highest. It meant everything to excel. It meant I was good enough. Acceptable. Pleasing to others. If I didn’t think I could manage to achieve something I didn’t try or gave up quickly. 

Like sewing, for example, a talent at which my mother excelled. Her seamstress work was actually art; I wore her often custom-designed clothing proudly. But my seeming lack of feel for the mechanics of creating with fabric only brought anxiety. My mother sat beside me correcting errors, her voice soft but insistent that I try, try again. I couldn’t get beyond tangled thread, a crooked seam or hem to resurrect the vision of a beautifully completed dress. I just saw failures. So I gave up, except for a few things years later made of necessity–simplest shorts for my children, basic curtains. I sometimes had ideas for a sewing project to create–but only if like my mother. Years ago my children bought me a sewing machine for Christmas. When I unwrapped it I burst into tears–because they knew I yet dreamed of being good at it and were cheering me on. But also because the very sight of that machine daunted me. It had defeated me. Could I even bother to try again when it brought mediocrity at best, poor results at worst?

Sewing is one thing. But a desire for perfection as a human being is another. I had that urge, as well. I suspected if I tried hard enough spiritual prowess would be attainable and once that occurred, I would be all set. Foolish mistakes would not happen. Tragedy would be averted. I would be the sort of girl who the sort of guy I wholly desired would instantly be mine, utterly beloved. I would set to my tasks and find them far easier. Since I had a powerful faith in Jesus’ uncommon wisdom, it seemed reasonable. It was clear that such Divine Love deserved full attention to the expectations: kindness, patience, courage, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, fortitude and so on. But lo and behold, I was not able to succeed for long before my attitude would slip a little here and there. My personality and will seemed governed by moods, impulses and defects–those aggravations that would not help bring me anywhere close to a state semi-holiness. How did the great sainted souls of eons manage it? Trying and praying very hard weren’t nearly enough to get a good foothold on spiritual bliss. I had to content myself with random mystical moments and a sustaining belief.

So I despaired while growing up, youth being a time of great hope and misery. Despite medals and awards and honor roll and opportunities to do what I loved–the arts, athletics, academics–I felt the terror of failure like a gaping chasm between me and my dreams of fulfillment. I worried about missing the other side when I lept. If I could not be who I believed I should and wanted to be, then why even bother? There were things I ceased doing because of this. Like music. It was more than perfectionism that waylaid me but the joy of it was lost somewhere on a stage. Even, or maybe because, the applause came–but also could evaporate. When I lost my edge for many reasons, grief followed. I thought the price paid might kill me but it was that need to be perfect that threatened my well being. Despite giving it up, music has breathed its magic into every day in countless ways–even in a Zumba class. Even as I whistle, hum or sing along to a CD.

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It took some years to realize I was not very unique. I would have both triumphs and wipe-outs, just like everyone else. I have what I was born with to help or hinder me, but I’ve also had chances to garner insight, knowledge, self-acceptance and mercy. Mercy is key here. For others, yes. But when we live without consistent kindness towards ourselves we court disaster. Holding ourselves responsible for our actions is crucial. Perseveration regarding our mistakes, not even necessary. That creates an irascible, angry and fatigued person. Or a self-righteous one. Another side effect is that nothing anyone else does is good enough, either. And if we get to the point where we are tough as nails and no one should get in our way of achieving, we’ve become blind to the freedom of self-forgiveness. God already embraces and carries us when we are fighting for a better life but running in circles. Only for love. We can help by waking up and slowing down. By being gratefully equalized by life. Being perfect has nothing to do with it.

Perfectionism determines that there is no worthiness save for those who achieve one hundred percent, every single time. How does this help me, and you, to experience the diversity and richness of being on earth, to appreciate the manifold wonders of ordinary life? What is exquisite is whatever, whoever dwells and moves in love. What is acceptable is becoming one’s true self. What is perfection is that we are necessary components of the cosmos, a connecting thread of the universal symmetry. That we overlap one another in spirit on earth and beyond. All we have to do is be willing to give all we can, be ready to do what we can barely imagine. Not perfectly but with commitment.

I stayed for the full Zumba class. I fell into place, then changed up steps a couple times, discreetly. I joined in the fun. And the fact is humility has to teach me things the days my health is not feeling like a win. I practice acceptance, but still give things a shot. It’s also my nature to experiment with rules. Taking a small risk is more fun than doing things the same way every time, perfectly. What matters most is jumping–or walking–into life’s bold yet tender core, right where I belong. This way I honor myself; it helps me honor you. There is no failure in this, only freedom. This, I can do.

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Do Not Forget Your Own Heart

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I am not wild about Valentine’s Day. Like many, I believe it is a commercial ploy to boost lackluster sales following the holidays. That said, I still made a Valentines’ Day card with two of my grandchildren recently. We love poster paints, acrylics, watercolors, felt tips, crayons and colored pencils–the lot. They are natural artists, finding new ways to make old concepts interesting, into magnets for eye and heart. I just like to play. The card I made included seven hearts for my five children, my spouse and even myself.

Why me? Well, I’m part of the family, after all. But there is more to it than that. You will begin to understand if you look closely at the image I have shared above from the American Heart Association. They posted it on a Facebook page today, and asked how viewers loved their own hearts. And since I was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at the comparatively young age of fifty-one, it struck me as a good thing. So I want to share with you these thoughts today:

Respect your heart; it’s place in your life is paramount. Adore it. Take it out for a rousing walk every day, even on adventures you think you can’t manage but somehow do. The deeper it beats the greater its joy. It will perk up at the attention and be good company no matter what’s around the corner.

Talk to it. Share your awe at its mighty power. Then tell it stories that are rooted in triumphs over trials, random altruistic deeds and vibrant, far-reaching hopes. Show it the best seat in the house, like an old trusted friend who attends every single show. It will want to see every last scene.

Make sure it has opportunities to be courageous; it has the impulses of the brave and stalwart already. Has your heart forgotten you when you forgot it? If it has even failed to give your sinew and bone the strength that it needs, it is not for lack of trying. It came into your possession already a fearsome warrior.

Let it sing even when you are startled by its plaintive or peculiar sounds and thumps. Tend to it immediately if it falters. The rhythms of its compositions are from the stream of celestial music that powers the spheres and lights our skies. Be reminded that God is the grand composer, you the prefect instrument.

Listen to its wisdom; we are given a heart so that our every plane of existence has ready guidance. Encourage it to laugh so that it expands every cell and finds relief from all its labors. But please also let it weep, for the potent tears of the heart purify its blood; without weeping it will close up and then divide against itself.

Breathe. Breathe the fragrances of your beloved’s skin and your grandchild’s hair, the scent of warm bread, wild and subtle winds from the four corners. Rest among wild things. Revel in the earth’s treasures and the blessed waters. Pull beauty into the heart’s chambers and grant it peace.

Dance with your heart, leap and fling your arms wide so it bounces against your ribs and resettles when you drift along the horizon of your living. Let it carry you into odd moments and release you into wonder. Are you sitting still even now? Get up and move for no good reason. Jump into the center of you; give your heart its due.

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Create for it. Expose your dreams, feelings and fascinating random imaginings. The heart likes nothing more than to be moved or flabbergasted by something new. Submitting to the thrill of capturing an idea and giving it structure refuels us. We are born creators because we are part of God. Your heart knows this even if you do not.

Feed it so it runs as well as it can. Not too much, but foods fresh with color and taste that prepare you for greater things. Eat only what fills the need so that your body is grateful for its nourishment and not burdened. And add chocolate or chilies; be impertinent and surprise your body.

Share this heart that you were made to have and to hold all your worldly days. When someone reaches, hands echoing with emptiness or regret or misery, reach back. Don’t be afraid. If there is a lack of grace, just let your heart speak. When someone falls to their knees, let your heart lie down beside theirs and speak to it. This is all that you both will need.

Do you believe you are alone? You will be made ready for love if you tend it and offer it. It may take patience; it does take courage. Your loneliness is the result of forgetting you live here among friends. We all are alone. But we have human hearts that want to know one another. They save us from ourselves. Our hearts know we are in this together.

When your day is done, do this last thing: look to your heart. Unload any weight it carries. Pray for its freedom from resentments. Soothe it with psalms for the living. For this day has brought you to this moment, to this night. And whether hearty or frail, your heart is still beating, beating like the wings of a mighty messenger, teaching and carrying you through this brief life. Be merciful, be kind to it, and it will fill you with strength enough to go the remaining miles.

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Living Strong, Living Whole


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At the gym I start to think about the Olympics, my primary spectator sport. I am excited about the athletic prowess I will witness but try to follow each difficult and elegant move of Tai Chi in my class. Then I work up a dripping sweat on a treadmill. I have brought a psychologically probing mystery (Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street) to read as I briskly walk. I once made the mistake of responding to someone who had something to say about everything. Talking and power walking do not mix well.

I glance around at the end of a chapter. Twenty men and women, mostly past forty, are huffing their way towards a goal. I like the environment there. No flashy decor, no semi-pros or perfectly proportioned folks to daunt the rest of us. Twenty-five years ago I had engaged in intense weight training, so understand the propelling desire. But in this gym we still mean business. Not even close to that territory Olympians occupy much less the same mental zone, granted, but still, it counts. I am grateful to be among those who take ordinary well-being seriously, no matter fitness level. I attend Zumba weekly, dancing and working with concentration and pleasure. I appreciate the eighty year old woman who is more excited and committed than younger attendees.

But I have to tell you, the tightly packed rooms, the sounds of thunderous feet on treadmills and harsh clunks of barbells, the raucous redundancy of stationary bicycle wheels–all this gets to me if I stay too long. I work two hours to make it worth the fees. By midway I am wishing the televisions would die and I was hiking in the woods. Couldn’t there at least be a video of a trail through the forest or across a mountain meadow instead of CNN or a game show? Hence, another reason for a book. But I long to be outdoors. I engage in this extra fitness routine only at the behest of my cardiologist.

I wrapped it up a bit early in the morning. I had heard we were getting snow in Portland, a wild event. The rest of the country has been wrestling with polar vortexes, but Oregon has been in good shape, sunny and dry for weeks. Daffodils already arisen from the earth. Snowdrop flowers shimmering amidst forever-green grass. This winter the rain has been a bit scarce and I have missed it. But, really, snow?

It hit me as soon as I walked out the doors of the gym: snow swirling and stinging my face; that bright, sharp scent; flakes landing on eyelashes, melting into damp spots on my cheeks. I caught my breath. Wind drew my long hair across my face as I unlocked the car.

And I was transported to Michigan, thrust back to my youth.

Even though I, like my siblings, was studious, focused on developing musical abilities and given to somber introspection, I had an abiding need to be outdoors. Like children everywhere, I loved my serviceable bike, a blue Schwinn, and traversed streets and sidewalks, excited as a world traveler. My legs needed to stretch and sprint. Although not formally involved in track and field (though I did race–and often beat–the boys in our elementary schoolyard) I challenged myself, running races with friends. Neighborhood games were spontaneous: “kick the can”, “red rover, red rover”, playing baseball, volleyball and badminton. We had to move. Not even television snared us for long. The big maple in my back yard was a favored refuge–like a jungle gym and a good spot for the swing. It was a mountain to conquer. I was fascinated by trapeze artists. I dreamed of their routines, hands to hands or feet across treacherous gaps of space, then tried out moves on rings and swinging bars at parks. It felt amazing.

Ice skating called to me at six or seven. I found the speed exhilarating and mildly dangerous. The dancerly movements mesmerized. I had studied dance, felt deep kinship. Before long I was studying figure skating, performing at times, competing. It demanded discipline. Built stamina and increased courage, not only physically but emotionally, mentally. Nothing but feverish illness could keep me off the rudimentary outdoor rink, the snow a backdrop to challenging figures, falls and successes. On skates I was lifted beyond all cares, and felt free, powerful, joyous. This enchantment lasted until I was about fifteen, when life distracted me, and music had become more time-consuming and crucial to me. But I skated when I could. To this day, lacing my skates up at the side of a rink brings a thrill. And once on the ice this world falls away; I am granted entry to another kingdom.

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When I got home and watched snow drift and whiten our emerald city, I was taken back to years of tobogganing. The two icy runs in the deep greenery in City Forest were fast. Waxing the underside of the wooden toboggan augmented speed significantly. My mother was worried we would fly off and break our heads. Some occasionally did fly off; I was lucky. Four or five of us would squeeze close, hold on to the one in front and when pushed off would howl and scream our lungs out. The rush was beautiful, well worth bumps and bruises, the aching hands uncovered and slowly heated up in the warming house.

I more completely lived outdoors, or so it seems in retrospect.  I pondered life plenty, practiced cello and voice, studied for tests and topics of my choice, wrote poetry and stories, drew things and worried about surviving that netherworld of adolescence. For me, it was like trying to navigate quick sand. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse kept secret, back then I was haunted while asleep and dogged by its specter by day as I also resolved to meet standards set by a high-achieving family and an unusual town that was full of exceptional people. It was critical to move beyond myself and to vacate the confines of artificial place, to further call on Spirit as well as my senses to realign life. I had a wound from which soul and life bled. It had to heal. Delving into the complex organic world and finding my place in it assuaged grief, granted grace often. Even saved me.

I knew that being fully present while developing strength and reflexes, balance and agility held power that nothing else could offer. I felt it as a child and youth; everything worked right. I explored a small woods that was a maze of elegant birches and other deciduous trees, weaving through trails brushed with sunlight and shadow. The creek that ran through it and beyond was a gentling presence as I studied blooming things and rocks and gathered leaves. Sang back to birds. Tracked garter snakes through weeds. I also daily visited the tree nursery just behind our place. There were hours of uninterrupted sanctuary and play. Staff nodded and smiled, my co-conspirators.

I had other playgrounds where work also determined my time. I spent several summers as an arts student at National Music Camp, known as Interlochen, in northern Michigan’s forested lake lands. It took who I was and shaped me more deeply and broadly. It gave me a literal steady ground from which to better launch my life. It was a place where dreams came to fruition more each day, with extra gifts of  lake living, the trees a canopy of delights. Music flows from and returns to the Creator outdoors.

God, ever near, spoke to me more clearly outside, in that wordless language of Spirit. I experienced how well my body served me even if there was also pain in having one. Senses bring knowledge, build skills. Conditioning of mind and body result from discovering possibilities and pushing limits. Sports and play were then, and are now, good ways to learn. Courage arises when we are at our most weakened. This was surprising to me as a youth.

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As human beings, we are built to fight for what matters most; we are made to embrace the difficult as well as the blissful. I was not going to fail because I was unwilling to take a chance, to seek a better way. To find the holiness in the midst of the unholy is the way I choose to live. There is nothing between me and a life lived well but what I put there. Wholeness is our birthright.

I hiked at a state park a couple weeks ago, before we imagined snow coming. I left my husband behind, I confess. The hilly trails and giant moss-clothed trees beckoned like dear companions. My heart beat hard. Birdsong imbued the air with ethereal communiques. Sunlight drifted into microcosms and macrocosms and onto me as though a welcoming hand. I was profoundly at peace, as always.

I can now see the snow accumulating beneath a lamppost. Someone is cross country skiing in an otherwise empty street. Her long strides are efficient and smooth. I am envious. I remember that and snowshoeing at a place called Rattail Lake. It was one of those weekends full of friends, snow, a roaring fire and late night philosophizing. We were bold college students, aflame with life. We thought we had forever. But that reminiscence brings me back to an abiding passion, ice skating. It is time to get out there again, skim that field of ice, revel in the guidance of body and soul as they liberate joy.

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