Friday, May 25, 2012

Perfectionism's Lies

The thing about Perfectionism is that it often walks and talks like Hard Work. It's adept at dressing up in the clothes that pass it off for a well-meaning, diligent character who only wants what's best for our lives. But the lie of Perfectionism is that it's never fulfilled--like a bucket with a hole in the bottom, so that we pour endless amounts of water into the thing, only to find that the level never rises above a certain point.

Here are five ways I've seen Perfectionism masquerade as a variety of other things--five lies that identify Perfectionism for what it is, along with some ideas on how we can call out these lies with a very loud, silver-ish whistle and a bag of carmelized popcorn (used for throwing, hard, at Perfectionism when he appears, of course):

1. RESULTS: Perfectionism's entire livelihood is built on the result of some project, dream, vision, or endeavor. Where Hard Work is concerned with the actual doing of something, Perfectionism only considers the action-part as a useless requirement in order to get to the result, the outcome. Perfectionism therefore holds the vision of a prize, an achievement, an award as real success and accomplishment, and leaves the fallible, day-to-day work undone. Perfectionism is concerned with glory, where Hard Work is concerned with journey.

2. GROWTH: Perfectionism will often try to convince us that it's only concerned with growth. Improvement is all we're talking about, after all, right!? I remember a student I had once who earned a 94 on her essay. I was so proud of her. I wrote loads of encouraging and congratulatory comments on her paper, as a 94 was a strong showing on a challenging essay assignment. But her reaction was only, "How can I get a 100 next time?" Perfectionism never allows us to enjoy what we have done because it's always screaming at us that we need to do better the next time. It pretends that it's about growth, but really it's an insatiable inability to rest or to be proud of the work we do.

3. PROOF: Perfectionism often tries to convince us that if we can manage to follow it obediently, we'll finally know that we are enough. Finally, you'll be able to feel peaceful inside and understand that you're okay! Because you'll have proof--you'll have evidence! But the lie of this costume of Perfectionism is that there will never be enough evidence. The proof that Perfectionism requires lasts for a few fleeting moments, and then we're forced to gather up new proof. What you accomplished yesterday won't stand in court today. And with Perfectionism, we're always on the stand, daily enlisting a trial lawyer to try and prove that we should be free. The tragedy of this is, of course, that there is no actual court case, no judge, no jury. We harbor the critical voices of others and put these messages on replay to construct a courtroom for ourselves, where we can battle over and over a case that has already been won on our behalf. Perfectionism's need for proof can never be fulfilled.

4. ENERGY: Perfectionism tries hard to convince us that it's a source of energy--a way in which we can find motivation to keep on going. In a way, it is, but it's energy is self-sapping and unsustainable. For a while, Perfectionism may feed a drive to accomplish and achieve, but continued despair over its impossibility eventually yields a feeling of claustrophobia. Perfectionism-as-energy puts us into a room and gives us a bag of balloons. Under its guise, we keep blowing up balloons, believing that we're accomplishing something. Finally, we look around ourselves and feel totally overwhelmed. Stuck. We can't even move. The reality is that the forty balloons that keep us locked in place only feel formidable; but they're just air, zero substance. The obstacles that Perfectionism throws in our path can fill a room with what could be held in the palms of our hands--once the hot air is removed.

5. LOVE: This is Perfectionism's most insidious disguise: to masquerade as a form of love. Sometimes parents send this message to children--it's the conditional claim of love: I do love, you, I just want you to be the best you can be... Essentially, such a claim really says, I don't love you, unless, you can achieve... Conditional love isn't, in fact, love. Vocationally, we start to believe that if we achieve enough (and achieve it in the right manner) we'll earn love or somehow possess an ability to love others better. Neither occurs.

In light of Perfectionism's incredible capacity for shape-shifting, what are we to do? I think one response lies in the remarkable power of Grace. Essentially, Grace responds with You don't have to. But the thing about Grace is that it frees us to want to. Some people claim that Grace is cliched because it tells us that we don;t have to work hard or have big dreams or entertain visions for the future. But the reality is that Grace gives us all these, but it allows us to work from a place of desire rather than a place of need. When we're parenting, writing, working, relating to others from a place of freedom, we can actually feel the joy of desire: we can want to grow, love, create beautiful results, forge proof, and sustain energy. If we need these things to happen, they don't. If we try to live from a place of must, then what happens isn't really ever organic--instead, it's always manipulated.

The power of Grace is that, in a world of people who are desperately trying to shove proof of our worth and lovability in front of the eyes of others, God doesn't need it. He doesn't ask for it. God's radical love instead utters a compelling, constant refrain: work from joy, not from shame.

You are no longer on trial. You have nothing to prove--to yourself or anyone else. In freedom, you can choose the work because you love it, not because you need to do it to earn status, belonging, or love. The lies of Perfectionism will relentlessly try to convince you that these can be obtained via its rigorous program. But Grace offers another avenue--still involving hard work, great sacrifice at times--but a way in which the work you do is liberating, not suffocating. Now is the time to pop the balloons that have been filled with the empty words of others and of yourself. Now is the time to embrace the gospel of Grace over the punishment of Perfectionism. There's a whole room--rooms!--in which you'll find you can move, live, and work.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Popping Salad Bags

It was Lollipop Day--Thursday--yet the grocery shopping needed doing and Tyler and I needed a Morning Adventure. So: all the pieces fit. I decided I'd take Tyler to Aldi, the grocery store about seven and a half minutes walk from our home. The night before, Tyler hadn't slept well, and Jennifer and I had traded going-into-his-room duties back and forth until neither of us knew what time it was when another call for Mommy and Daddy rang out--only this: Your turn? No, my turn? Okay. My turn? No, your turn? Heaven Pie.

Now, it was eleven in the morning. Grocery shopping time for the little man and me.

The trip to Aldi was relatively uneventful: we saw people, said hello, saw more people, said hello to them, saw some teenagers who seemed like they were probably skipping school, said hello, got laughed at by them, laughed with them about being laughed at, then got a hello from the teens, a 'high five' from Tyler for the teens, and then onward Tyler biked through puddles that lay thick across the sidewalk en route. I jumped over the puddles. Tyler splashed through them, aglow.

We arrived. At Aldi.

And it was Lollipop Day, remember, which carried the designation of an entire day even though the act of purchasing a lollipop takes a mere minute. But in the beginning, I needed a way to designate days--to give Tyler and I a sense that Thursday--yes!--was far different from Monday. (Monday is Playgroup Day.)

So Tyler sat atop the grocery carriage and I pushed him around the store, grabbing the cheapest deals on Aldi-brand hummus, Aldi-brand bread, Aldi-brand baked beans, Aldi-brand free-range eggs, Aldi-brand juice, Aldi-brand frozen chicken breasts, Aldi-brand yogurt.

(We purchased other Aldi-brand items, which have all been excluded from this narrative so as to save us both useful time and mental clarity for a perspicacious look at what really matters here.)

So here's what really matters: the thing is, Aldi doesn't sell lollipops. (At least, last Thursday they didn't have a single licking lollipop available on the premises.) And it was Lollipop Day. We can't notget a lollipop on Lollipop Day. That would be like celebrating President's Day if the United States had never had a single president; like celebrating the Queen's Jubilee here in the UK if the UK didn't have a queen; like going to school on Sunday; like offering advice about ergonomics while pretending to be somebody named Noland who doesn't even exist.

So, Tyler and I are in the checkout line, our massive collection of Aldi-brand items on the conveyor belt, inching ever closer to the cashier as the following conversation ensues between my sleep-deprived three-year old and my sleep-deprived self:

Tyler: I want a lollipop. It's Lollipop Day, Daddy. You said this store would have lollipops.

Daddy: Yes, that's true. All of those things are true. But I was wrong. There are no lollipops. Not even--excuse me, sir, can I ask your name? John, okay, thank you, John--not even John has a lollipop. And believe me, Tyler, IF there was a single lollipop in this store, John would have his hands on it, wouldn't you, John?

John: [Clears throat. Eyes me suspiciously.] Of course.

Tyler: I want a lollipop.

John: [Clears throat, looks away.]

Daddy: Tell you what, T-Man, today will be a VERY SPECIAL Lollipop Day. You can get these Chocolate M and M's instead of a lollipop today; that sounds great, right!?

John: [Continues clearing throat--and John begins to look like someone whose real name is Noland--and shakes his head.]

Tyler: But Daddy, it's not Chocolate Day; it's Lollipop Day!

Daddy: True. But sometimes Lollipop Day can become Chocolate Day, as well---because both of those days are super, super cool.

Cashier: Sir, can you please move forward?

I push the carriage forward, and the conveyor belt stops as our cashier--Daniel--begins to ring up our items. There is no turning back.

And here's the thing about Aldi: the stores have a vendetta against any millisecond of wasted time. They employ one cashier per checkout lane, and they don't allow bagging at the cashier's check-out point. The cashier rings up an item, whoosh!, passes it back to you, at which point you deposit it into your carriage. This procedure is repeated over and over until you both surpass the Speed of Light or all your items have been rung up--whichever occurs first.

Problem: our grocery items are stockpiling on the tiny counter space because I am trying to come to a Resolution about the Lollipop Day / Chocolate Day dilemma. The dirty looks begin. I can hear the venomous voices of the other Aldi=frequenters in our line and even among the lines around us.

Aldi Virgin.

Did you see the MASSIVE SIGN about how to check out properly!?

Promised his kid candy. Big mistake, buddy. B-I-G. Mistake. Massive.

And John-Noland looks back at us as he exits the store: At least I'm safe trickles back to us, and I swear he clears his throat again.

Daddy: Okay, after Aldi, we're going to walk to the Lollipop Store and get our normal lollipop form Vera. Okay?

Tyler: No, I want Chocolate Day instead.

Cashier Daniel: Dirty look dirty look dirty look.

Daddy: Great! Problem solved. Throw those M and M's on the conveyor belt and let's rock it!

Tyler: No, I want Chocolate Day and Lollipop Day.

Daddy: No, we can't do that. One or the other. You choose.

Cashier Daniel: Dirty look multiplied by smug sigh of disgust.

Tyler: No, I want both of them.

Daddy: No.

Tyler: Yes.

Stockpile of Grocery Items Now Falling onto the Floor off the Tiny Counter Space: For goodness sakes', man, at least take care of us! We've got nothing to do with this fiasco!

Daddy: Look--we're going to do Chocolate Day instead of Lollipop Day, and that's the end of it.

I grab the M and M's from Tyler's hands and throw them on the conveyor belt.

Earth and Heaven: [Explosion.]

Tyler: [Undecipherable screaming, crying, sobbing, melting down at the speed of light multiplied by the fastest Aldi Cashier / Customer Tag Team ever.]

Beneath Tyler's massive, screeching, full-blown tantrum screams, Cashier Daniel and I complete our transaction--dirty look dirty look dirty look--and I wheel our grocery cart over to the back of the store which is the Appropriate Place to Bag Your Groceries.

Tyler: [Undecipherable screaming ensues.]

I begin stuffing the groceries into the massive black over-the shoulder reusable bag I've brought with us.

Problem: the groceries won't fit.

I take all of the groceries out of the bag, as Tyler manages to top his previous threshold for volume, and while the two of us garner a prodigious display of various dirty looksfrom customers and cashiers all across the store.

I begin stuffing all of the groceries back into the bag again.

Problem: they still don't fit.

I take all of the groceries out of the bag.

[Screaming; dirty looks.]

And in that moment I wish T.S. Eliot were with me; I wish Gwendolyn Brooks were with me; I wish Robert Frost were with me; I wish Tony Hoagland were with me; I wish bell hooks were with me. I wish there was a chorus of poets with me there in the Appropriate Bagging Section of Aldi, ushering their lines at a volume previously thought unreachable for human vocal chords--their lines just drowning out the tantrum of my three-year old--I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled--and we jazz June--and His house is in the village though.

But there are no poets with me, and I must do this on my own resolve, the lines of these heroes ungrabbable in this instant.

So I glare at the various grocery items now scattered in anger across the floor of the Appropriate Bagging Section and I find the weak link: salad bags. There are five of them, each bag containing at least 67% air. That's almost two-thirds of occupied space in my massive black reusable shoulder bag being spoken for by air.

Nothing but air.

So I pop them. All five bags.

Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! [Pause for dramatic effect.] Pop!

Tyler's screams stop momentarily. The dirty lookscease in exchange for genuine surprised looks by what the American has chosen to do in this predicament looks.

The groceries fit, I throw the bag over my shoulder, and Tyler and I leave the store.Outside, where the air is exponentially increased and sound travels slower, disperses faster, Tyler finally calms down. We talk. I explain with force and might the point of what happened in the store. If T.S./ Eliot were there, I swear he'd be proud.

And while in the past I might have caved, eventually given Tyler the chocolates and forgotten the whole thing. (Yes, certainly, in the past I would have caved--yes--even a few months ago, I would have relented and here come the chocolates!).

No, I do not cave. The Popping of the Salad Bags and given me a taste of how sometimes the most dire of situations call for creative, bold action. I have done so. Therefore, I do not cave and give over the chocolates.

Instead, I pop open a bag of cheese curls and Tyler and Daddy both dig in.

Friday, May 4, 2012

On the Train to Scarborough

I wouldn't have believed it unless it were me telling the story (which it is) and yet the event is still hard to believe--almost as hard as believing in the microscopic process of mitosis on the wings of minuscule fairies.

And yet.

It happened.

It happened as fast and as furiously as the flapping of the wings of fairies on a very, very small planet not unlike Planet Earth (but a little unlike Planet Earth in that the Planet on Which the Fairies Reside is almost fully land, with very little water, and each fairy that lives There has a free lifetime supply of Doritos (Cool Ranch flavor)).

(The water that does exist on their planet is of a purple-ish hue and smells like teen spirit, and so it is often avoided. Yet, when brought into contact with toenails, it has the incredible capability to produce the oddly riveting sensation of being slowly tickled--as if one were eating a deliciously crunchy Dorito while being slowly tickled, that is.)

So there I was: on the train from York to Scarborough. I was heading to the seaside for a conference that was to take place there, entitled HOW WRITERS CAN LEARN TO CRAFT BETTER FICTION BY BUILDING SANDCASTLES. I was very interested in this conference, and Jennifer encouraged me to attend the day-long festivities, which were going to include lectures by William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, and Margaret Wise Brown. I say "were going to include" (in the line above) because I will never know. I never arrived in Scarborough.

(Nor did any of us on that train that fateful day (which was today).)

See, the events that transpired on the train that fateful day (today) prevented any of us from getting to Scarborough, and therefore prevented me from ever hearing the deliciously wise and probing words of the aforementioned authors. (Furthermore, it also prevented me from taking part in the Literary Sand Castle Building Contest, in which I totally would have taken Faulkner easily. I know it.)

Because on the train that fateful day (still today), I happened to overhear the conversation of a man talking aloud to himself. He looked vaguely familiar, yet I couldn't be sure so I asked Rush Limbaugh if he was, in point of fact, Rush Limbaugh. The events that transpired from this seemingly innocuous question have changed the course of my life forever---as well as of the other people on the train with me that day, including Lisbeth Salander, Ryan Gosling, and Aunt Jemima.

So as to prevent any further unnecessary intrusions of my narration, I will henceforth allow the ensuing conversations and events to speak for themselves (as much as this is possible, which, according to Jacques Derrida, is highly possible, though not probable, but exists in a state of eventual occurrence (perpetually)).

Rush Limbaugh: Yes, I am Rush Limbaugh. And who are you?

Me: I am Luke Reynolds. I am on this train to Scarborough in order to attend the HOW WRITERS CAN LEARN TO CRAFT BETTER FICTION BY BUILDING SANDCASTLES conference. And you?

Rush Limbaugh: I am here to bring my message into the burrows and the wurrows of England.

Me: Oh.

Rush Limbaugh: It is a message that desperately needs bringing. True 'dat.

[From the seat behind me, I hear a massive crunching noise--much like a bag of Doritos being smashed underfoot steel toe work boots, except multiplied by a thousand. Then, a mysterious young woman with jet black hair emerged from the smoke and crunching sound (there was also smoke).]

Mysterious Young Woman Who Emerged from Smoke and Crunching Sound: How dare you bring such a message here!

Rush Limbaugh: I dare!

Mysterious Young Woman Who Emerged from Smoke and Crunching Sound: I dare to you to dare!

Rush Limbaugh: I already dared! I am here, daring. You can't dare me to dare something I am already daring to do. See, this is the thing about women's libbers like yourself--

Mysterious Young Woman Who Emerged from Smoke and Crunching Sound: Enough! Silence!

Rush Limbaugh: How dare you to dare me to be silent! Nobody cuts me off! That's MY job to--

Mysterious Young Woman Who Emerged from Smoke and Crunching Sound: [And another Dorito bag crunching sound emerged as this woman ripped an empty seat off its attached space to the floor of the train. Much smoke ensued, and the sound was like a bag of Doritos being crunched underfoot the leg of a large dinosaur--only the sounds would have been like a thousand bags being crunched underfoot of said dinosaur (simultaneously, but of varying Dorito flavors).]

Rush Limbaugh: Who ARE you?

Mysterious Young Woman Who Emerged from Smoke and Crunching Sound: I am Lisbeth Salander. And I WILL BE HEARD.

[And suddenly, in that very instant, the temperature of the train rose almost the length of the full thermometer that I happened to be holding in my hand (it was a very cold train to begin with). I looked around, and there--dare I report it--stood Ryan Gosling.]

Ryan Gosling: And I am here to make SURE her voice is heard, Rush. You've been trying to stomp out women's voices for far too long. You've been using the mindless power of the microphone to synthetically magnify your message of misogyny for far too long; because that message doesn't transmogrify the souls of the men and women who hear it. No, Rush. No. It may provide ratings for a while, but the enduring qualtiy of such a message of patriarchal posing does nothing but offer a pose of poise, never the real thing, Rush. Never. People are too perspicacious for that. It's high time you get taken to task for the reckless message of misogyny you proffer--preying on the weaknesses of men and women. Not here, Rush. Not now.

Lisbeth Salander: YES!

[I stood up from my seat in that instant, in a show of solidarity with both Lisbeth and Ryan. If it was going to be the two of them versus Rush, I wanted them to know they could count on me. I was in. Fully. Committed. Even though we were outnumbered (Rush had brought various microphones with him, and could broadcast direct worldwide from the train, which meant that he had about 20 million people with him, while we had various crunching noises and an incredible articulate man, we didn't have the microphones.]

A Voice from Behind The Three of Us Standing in Solidarity: And you three are not alone. Mmmm-mmm, no.

[The three of us turned around at that EXACT moment, and we saw the reality of a mocked-up, stolen-by-advertisers woman. In reality, as she stood before us, Aunt Jemima's smile was less sweet and more strength. Less doormat and more I'll-slam-your-fingers-in-this-door-right-now-if-you-don't-respect-me.]

Rush Limbaugh: No, it can't be. I ate your pancakes as a kid, I--I--I--

Aunt Jemima: Enough.

Lisbeth Salander: That's what I said!

Ryan Gosling: Me too, just with a few more words.

Aunt Jemima: And you were both spot-on right. Rush, you've been stepping on women for far too long. Now it's time you got a real education.

[And right there, before my very eyes, Rush was speechless. He faced our quartet, and he was speechless. And what ensued, I can honestly report, was nothing short of magnificent. Miraculous. Rush listened as Ryan, Lisbeth, and Jemima told him about Other Experiences of Life, in which power was shared, growth occurred, and people treated one another with respect, dignity, and compassion. (I even managed to sneak in a sentence or two, but my input was like a single Dorito in the presence of a Dorito Factory from the triumvirate with whom I stood shoulder to shoulder.)]

Since all this occurred on that fateful day (today), much has changed. Rush Limbaugh now no longer verbally abuses the rights and dignity of women on his radio show. He has lost a view listeners due to this change. But he has gained three listeners for every one he's lost. (That's like going to the grocery store and walking down the SNACKS aisle and seeing a "Buy One Bag of Doritos, Get Three Free" sale--which is pretty awesome.)


No.  Not by a long shot. In fact, I'd trade lifetime supply of Doritos (Cool Ranch flavor) just to be back on that train, in that very moment, again.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Baritone, Banjo, Belief

As a kid growing up in Windsor, Connecticut, my favorite place to go was Mystic Seaport. Something about the place spoke of legend, of mystery, of the great power of the ocean and all that lives within it, and of the great power of the banjo.

My Uncle Don Sineti's banjo, that is.

Don isn't really a complete, exact-meaning-of-the-word-uncle Uncle. Don is my mom's sister-in-law's brother. And yet, growing up, Don was always playing songs on his banjo for us--in a voice as booming and folksy and resonant and full of base (and soul) as any that I have ever heard. Whenever my parents and my four brothers and I drove the hour in our overflowing Ford Taurus station wagon to Mystic, we could always count on Don to amaze us with his renditions of old seamen's songs, or that great spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

When Christmas rolled around, and my mom's massively extensive Italian & Irish family gathered at my Grandpa and Grandma's house in Bloomfield, Don was there to, yes, raise high the roof with his lower-than-low baritone voice. The thing was an instrument itself--but add the banjo and the duo became a superhero for a kid like me.


So a few days ago, after a year and a half here in York, I felt the sudden, inexplicable craving for Don. That baritone, that banjo. That soulful singing that vibrates floorboards and arm hairs. So I was downright delighted when I found some videos of Uncle Don Sineti singing online. Watching them brings me back to Mystic, back to Bloomfield, back to the times when five strings could so overpower all the fear and worry that life can gather and allow only Belief to pass through.