One Eager Hostess, Short on (Perfect) Talents

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I have a somewhat secret and intense leaning toward hospitality. It especially steps forward every holiday season. The problem is that I have perhaps less talent than interest and desire. Also a smaller budget than allows for all accouterments and provisions I’d appreciate utilizing. And time can feel squeezed. But the truth resides more with the “less talent” part. Christmas, in particular, would be a welcome and industrious time of year except for this reality (allowing for obnoxious commercialism and its wearying impacts).

To start, I am not a great cook–alright, perhaps I am not actually a cook, at all, now. I’ve done little the past twenty-plus years (my husband cooks when he’s around– we slap something together at last minute or we eat at a restaurant/ order take out– after years cooking for my family. And I admit I cooked out of need, in a utilitarian fashion for the most part. Though I created full meals every day for five kids and spouse plus neighbor kids; used recipes from multiple cookbooks; learned by watching the few relatives whose cooking I admired and then determining to do better…well, I just got by. I did feel enthusiastic about baking. I deeply appreciate carbohydrates and sugar and spices and nuts and all. I turned out predictably delectable breads, cookies, cakes and a few pies, though pastry could be challenging, requiring tiny and major repairs. But baking seemed was a fun part, nearly recreational, not a required duty of my household responsibilities. Thus, it might get put on the back burner.

I grew up with a mother who loved to cook Southern, all-American hearty food. She, however, shooed us out of “her” kitchen so we could focus on studies, music, sports, and attendant activities–along with dates and church interactions (sometimes that could be the same). Yet it was through no fault of hers that I had lackluster response to an invitation to help her cook. Help make the family recipe for apple strudel? Yes, come get me anytime. But the rest was left to her and siblings with greater interest. Luckily, I could be persuaded to prep veggies and stir pots and make coffee and tea.

Preparing the dining room table, however, was right up my alley–especially for special occasions. I could unfurl and iron any tablecloth with napkins for ten without snafus. I could shop for and arrange the centerpiece with gusto. And I was eager to tidy the mail-laden buffet and organize records stacked atop the stereo cabinet. I looked forward to studying the china cabinet, all those dazzling groups of china and crystal. And give me the place settings so I can complete the whole look. My mother taught me early where each piece of (freshly polished) silverware was meant to be as well as the several assorted dishes, glasses or goblets and after dinner cups with lovely saucers.  Ah, table artistry was worth developing.

From the kitchen floated rich and tantalizing aromas as I went about my work, anticipating the doorbell ringing soon. Her bustling good nature was reassuring, the clattering pans a hearty accompaniment. I’d scan the living room a last time–did we get the errant dust, were magazines and books in their places and pillows plumped, was the baby grand piano duly shining and lighting good but low? Were the fresh tapers in their candle holders and lit? The flowers at their lively best? Cue the music–also my choice unless my father had already chosen symphonies. I was filled with excitement to greet the first family members or other guests.

Thus, my parents entertained off and on but even with family we shared good meals and an attractive table. I learned at a young age how to welcome all who entered our home. I also became attuned to smallest details (my mother, a fine seamstress and milliner, was all about color and details of design). I surely found it akin to setting a stage for the coming scenes, was carried along by anticipation and curiosity about the next restive hours. Anything could happen here, my writer’s mind informed me, and the backdrop felt and looked good.

So I had fine examples and practice for throwing a good party and for concocting delicious if standard meals. Mom knew she was no gastronome, but she did so well all that she knew, and we loved her scrumptious, near nightly desserts. (This was before the food culture proposed self-deprivation or at least self-restraint when it came to that fine finale.)

All this comforting history prepares and buoys me. Still, I have second thoughts each time I start to plan for holidays. It is an insecurity of mine, not being the desired whiz of a wife and mother, a devoted healer and comforter at the domestic altar of the kitchen. For one thing, I am not too wise in the ways of fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, the benefits of kale and heritage tomatoes and hormone free meats and organic everything. For another thing, we have family with all sorts of dietary needs: vegan, vegetarian (I didn’t know there was a big difference until a few years ago), gluten-free, lactose-free, soy-free, poultry-only or no legumes or no shellfish, and occasionally not even fresh salmon (one of my top foods)… versus “bring on the whole feast” that most families must get to enjoy. Each gathering requires careful lists for tricky diets and we painstakingly figuring out menus–unless they bring their own dish, which can happen, thankfully. It requires both my husband and myself to pitch in–and an early start. It requires stamina and skill. I suppose all holiday meals do for everyone. I’m not quite up to the feed bits, clearly, but it works out.

There is also a personal characteristic, a defect, I have to battle: perfectionism. I’ve worked on this my whole life. I understand from where it derives in my childhood and youth. But I don’t like to do things poorly–okay, I tend to prefer those activities I know I can do extremely well, that are road tested and time tested and end with the same result: a job very well done. I have made progress on this, though. As a young woman, I would not even attempt something I didn’t expect to excel at accomplishing. I could become paralyzed with the fear that I’d fail, so the experience of learning could be flat out miserable and my sense of self felt pummeled by any incompetence. An “average” grade was not even considered, an “acceptable” result was not worth anything. Thus, I did not even begin. What a miserable decision that was, for I felt worse about myself for not even trying–who of any fortitude just gave up? I couldn’t win.

In time the realization dawned on me that a lot of pleasures, perhaps less important but worthy experiences, were being missed. So I began to get more adventurous out there in the land of imperfection–which dominates so much of human life, anyway. And I also learned how to compromise here and there. Thus, if I was not a great cook but an average one, I could make what was better for me to make comfortably.. And if I felt unqualified to execute a  huge celebratory meal, I could focus on decor and other preparations. I could give even more energy to people, which is what I love most about gatherings for holidays or any occasions.

I was looking at older pictures recently of my granddaughter and grandson decorating sugar cookies with me after I baked them, and gingerbread houses and other activities. Happy memories, now that they’re 12 and 15. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Avery, the older one, at our Thanksgiving. She said she’d recently made a specially flavored vegan cheesecake and shared the recipe.

“Wow, I’m impressed!” I told her. “I know you’ve always liked to cook. You know I don’t…and I sure could never do that. I bet it tasted great.”

“Well, you can find out,” she said smiling. “We could make it together here sometime. You make good cookies and we’ve done that together– so now we can make cheesecake!”

I thought about that a minute; it made me feel nervous, this new recipe thing. But she was right. And she can teach her grandmother something good. It’s the time we spend that matters so much, not whether something gets a little too brown or the icing is a bit thin. It brings to mind another occasion. I like to take her and her brother ice skating  and just last week I posted a picture of Avery and myself on Facebook  from 2012. We skated a long, hand in hand. She didn’t know how to skate confidently; her brother was a bit wobbly. But I do know how to skate well, it’s an old passion of mine. However, neither of them ever balk at getting out there. They are glad to hang out and learn a little, too. So when she saw that picture of us, she responded, “Let’s go again soon!”

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Avery and me, 2012. We’ve skated since then–she has improved!–and it’s definitely time to get on that ice again!

I love being active but lately have lagged some (see, again this note of failure to do better, how maddening). Today I had a check up with my cardiologist about recent episodes of too high blood pressure. We talked of the aging of arteries (drat) and how I should take up Zumba or other dance classes again, hike more, join a new fitness club to blow off steam and get my heart pumping harder, better. I have had coronary artery disease for 16 years, diagnosed too young, but I have been determined to not let it take me down.

Then he leaned forward a little to ask about recent stress levels.

Guilty, as charged. My basic core serenity has frayed some, even flown out the window too many restless nights. One night recently I was awake until 6:00 a.m., then slept for four hours. Quite the experience, watching the sun rise out of the thick darkness, which feels like a too hot and heavy blanket when I am worried.

“Well, yes, I’ve likely had more than usual stress. It’s the holidays, for one thing! And my husband travels way too much and works too hard and he doesn’t like to go to doctors and i worry about his health…. Then I have a couple siblings who have been dealing with tough stuff. Thank the good Lord my adult kids are doing well!”

“Got to work on the stress, Cynthia. Blood pressure is labile, for some more than others. You respond to life deeply, and you need to find more ways to relax. Your slowly aging arteries gradually also get stiffer which causes blood pressure to increase some. But your stress– that can be managed better. Right? But I need to add a new medicine to bring it down and in a month we’ll check in again.”

Right, just relax, I’m not so young now as when first diagnosed–and perhaps not much wiser. As we wrapped it up, Dr. P. shook my hand warmly as always, wished me a merry Christmas and told me I am still doing well, overall. But I kind of missed being told I am his “star patient,” as he has said for so many years. (I outlived my projected “end date” and that is still the gift he gives me with all his care. And I do count my commitment to greater well being.) But honestly–the perfectionism thing again, I have to be so much better at managing heart disease than others? He was so right, I need to intercept smaller but cumulative tensions that can creep up on me. Remember how much I enjoy my life, all I have to look forward to still living. Remind myself to have a good time no matter the worries that come and go. Let go and let God help more. Life is full of eruptions, fissures and letdowns; it is up to me to keep things in perspective and have faith in human resiliency–with support.

So, give a little, take a little: my husband mostly cooks, yes, but I like to create a seasonal atmosphere that feels special and attractive as can be afforded (not too much, just enough; no commercial Christmas craziness with gaudy or cheesy items all about). I enjoy buying personal gifts for our crew and wrapping them prettily to place under our fresh cut tree. I can amp up the Christmas cheer with a little song and dance, throw in good hugs and welcome each person at our door as my spouse contentedly sweats over the stove. I derive a lot of happiness from doing what I can,  the best that I can do. Even if imperfectly.

( Below: Grandkids’ gingerbread houses, a few years back. My cookies with their decorations. I love the snowiness. I’d knock on those doors anytime! )

 

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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