Let’s start with a game.
I’m going to ask you to pick three words. The first three words that pop into your mind, OK? The prompt is: What drives your day?
Three words … and … go.
Got em? OK, what were they?
Full disclosure, so it’s all out in the open, my three words were: work, schedule and kids
Don’t forget your words.
So, I wanna talk about this book I read. Because we NEED to talk about this book I read. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, the dope pages of “Present Over Perfect.”
Present. Over. Perfect.
This audiobook came in for me at the library on the same day the Lauren Graham book, “Talking As Fast As I Can” came in. I was getting ready to leave for my Florida trip, I wanted something light, and so I opted for Lauren first. Now I’m watching Gilmore Girls because, let me just save you the suspense, the book is likely one trillion times better if you are watching or have watched the series. Which I hadn’t. So now I am.
Anyway, her mouth was really moving because it went super quick. Having wrapped the Gilmore diaries, I looked down the Tuesday after my quick Tampa weekend and saw the other audiobook, “Present Over Perfect” sitting on my passenger seat. I’d almost forgotten about it. I put in the first CD and a sweet voice filled the cabin of my SUV. Minutes later I was crying, clutching my chest and holding my breath. I think I was nodding, too.
Um, wait, did I write this? No, I didn’t write this. I’m not that good. This was instead a classic case of my very favorite thing; when it feels like the author, in this instance Shauna Niequist, chose her words specifically for me, her attentive audience of one. Shauna is, naturally, part of the poignant sorority that boasts the likes of Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton and Jen Hatmaker that I so wholeheartedly worship. These truthtellers have got it goin’ on, you guys, I’m tellin ya.
Sobbing like the latest Bachelor cast-off after just 5 pages is a promising sign. And it proved a match. Completing this book in its entirety was like having a conversation with myself after we hadn’t spoken in years. It drudged up a lot of honest crap I’d been denying or shrugging off for years. It was a mirror I’d tucked in the back of my closet and now I was staring right at all the blemishes and cracks and imperfections.
Let’s dive right in.
“Present is living with your feet firmly grounded in reality, pale and uncertain as it may seem. Present is choosing to believe that your own life is worth investing deeply in, instead of waiting for some rare miracle or fairytale. Present means we understand that the here and now is sacred, sacramental, threaded through with divinity even in its plainness. Especially in its plainness.”
Let it soak in. Let it marinate and send sweet reflections through your scattered mind. But don’t linger too long. This is good. Really good. But Shauna was just getting started here. She was toying with me; Dangling her heart-squeezing verbiage in front of me like a gorgeous orange carrot to a tired, famished bunny, so I’d wrap my front paws around them and she could just then … at the perfect moment … yank me into her web of truth.
“Many of us, myself, included, considered our souls necessary collateral damage to get done the things we felt we simply had to get done – because of other people’s expectations, because we want to be known as highly capable, because we’re trying to outrun an inner emptiness. And for a while we don’t even realize the compromise we’ve made. We’re on autopilot, chugging through the day on fear and caffeine, checking things off the list, falling into bed without even a real thought or feeling or connection all day long, just a sense of having made it through. … I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back and realize that the best thing about me was I was organized.”
Or capable, or a great multitasker, or punctual or anal. Remember your words?
“But what I eventually realized is that the return on investment was not what I’d imagined, and that the expectations were only greater and greater. When you devote yourself to being known as the most responsible person anyone knows, more and more people call on you to be that highly responsible person. That’s how it works. So the armload of things I was carrying became higher and higher, heavier and heavier, more and more precarious.”
My current currency is completion. A demand comes in, I respond and then I’m paid in checkmarks. I can take something off the list. I can crawl into bed knowing I’m rich in lines drawn through the middle of pressing matters like ordering new checks, refilling the dog’s prescription and sending peanut-free, gluten-free, sugar-free cookies in for the school fundraiser. I’m walking through my life collecting chores and calls and duties and no one is keeping track of the gold stars I get in return, how many pieces of flair I have on my lapel. Except me.
My collateral damage can be tallied in many forms, but perhaps saddest of all is my connection with my husband. This is not to say that we aren’t in a good place or we’re having problems, but the life and the routine I’ve built for our tribe certainly has the potential to break what has always been so good about us. The rich stuff. The stay-up-late-talking-and-laughing-over-gin-and-tonics stuff. My hand to God, he sent me a calendar invite to “hang out” this past Sunday. A calendar invite! I accepted and then immediately felt the asshole aspect of the situation rain down upon me.
The other day in meditation, I silently asked myself if I was giving enough to my marriage. On the drive to work that morning, I saw a “Henry’s Plumbing” van. I’ve never seen a “Henry’s Plumbing” van in this town, or in my life and now a toilet tender’s business bearing my husband’s name was turning in front of me. Just 24 hours later, a sign we kept in our bathroom that said, “I love you because _____” fell down. You know, the kind you write on with a dry erase marker? We’d had it for years. We’d leave silly and sweet little notes on it from time to time. Well, it fell off the wall. Gabrielle Bernstein talked a lot in her book, “The Universe Has Your Back” about signs. Ask for them. Look for them. Be open to them. Well, I got three of them in as many days.
I made the comment to Hank that I often feel like we’re business partners, particularly during the week. We are tending to our tasks and checking in on the progress of various projects. “How’s that poop test result coming, Jones?” “Doctor said to have Sloppy Joan lay off the corn kernels, Banks.” And so on. I can’t pinpoint when I committed to full-on ruining all of the things that made us fun and all give-a-damn about everything. I just know that it happened in spite of our best efforts to stay cool.
“It seems to me that one of the great hazards is quick love, which is actually charm. We get used to smiling, hugging, bantering, practicing good eye contact. And it’s easier than true, slow, awkward and painful connection with someone who sees all the worst parts of you. Your act is easy. Being with you, deeply with, is difficult.”
“It is better to be loved than admired. It is better to be truly known and seen and taken care of by a small tribe than adored by strangers who think they know you in a meaningful way.”
“What kills a soul? Exhaustion, secret keeping, image management.
And what brings a soul back from the dead? Honesty, connection, grace”
“The world will tell you how to live, if you let it. Don’t let it. Take up your space. Raise your voice. Sing your song. This is your chance to make or remake a life that thrills you.”
I know, brothers and sisters. I know.
This particular thread running throughout the pages was the big one for me; The slap that jolted the reality to the surface for me. If you think of your social connections like an onion, the center is likely comprised of your husband, kids, immediate family and ride or dies. Next, would be good friends and extended family. Then we’re looking at friends. Then acquaintances and gym buddies, and so on. As you work your way out through the layers, the connections get softer and softer. But what happens, and what has been happening with me for years, is we spend so much time committing, saying yes, donating our time and our talents to the people in the outer layers that we exhaust all our good stuff.
By the time I leave work, take care of any outlying obligations, make dinner and get through the kids’ checklist of “necessities” for the next day, I certainly don’t have the mental lightness to roll around and play tickle torture. I am depleted and primed to fail.
And while this all seems to be the norm these days, and I know that my priorities, in all their backwards glory, are not uncommon for mothers, the whole thing really is super freaking messed up, right? Because I volunteer to help causes that are important but not that close to me personally, I miss hearing JoJo’s recount of her bee experiment that day. And we all know those stories are always best the first time around. Because I said I could step up my freelance game for extra sitter money, I rush through the bedtime ritual and feel annoyed that my five year old dare ask for “one more butterfly kiss.”
It’s a mess.
My flow is all fucked up.
It’s clogged with boulders of bullshit excuses and obligations made to third- and fourth-layer acquaintances. I have to learn to choose no when yes means less of the good stuff. Less cuddles, less sanity, less conversation, less eye contact. I have to learn to say no even though the yes is wearing pretty clothes. Even if it means more money or smart connections. I have to learn that if yes doesn’t feel good in the moment, it’s not going to feel good on a Thursday night at 9:30 when the laundry needs folded and Sloppy Joan has gotten out of bed for the 14th time.
“I almost left her behind. I almost lost her when I started to believe that constant motion would save me. That outrunning everything would keep me safe. You cannot be a mystic when you’re hustling all the time. you cannot be a poet when you start to speak in certainties. You can’t stay tender and connected when you hurl yourself thru life like being shot out of a canon, your speed a weapon you wield to keep yourself safe. The natural world is so breathtakingly beautiful, people are so weird and awesome and loving and life-giving. Why then did I try to hard for so long to get away without feeling or living deeply?”
Go back to your words. Think about what they mean to you and what you wish they were instead. Because, why not wish for what you want?
I want to move work to love, and schedule to passion, and kids to … well, the kids can stay. But I want to stop letting responsibility be my defining asset. So I can get it all done? What’s the good in any of that if I’m miserable? Who’s keeping score anyway?
It’s time to shake things up and slow things down and really, truly, deeply focus on the middle of my onion. People are always saying they need to work on their core, strengthen their core, build from their core. Well … there ya go. This is the kind of core work I need. Screw abs, I want to be present for Spike’s story hour and the chicks’ gymnastics show in the front room, with Sloppy Joan wearing her “bathing soup” as a leotard.
These are the people I so desperately want to hold close to me. Because at the end of the day, I’d rather be focused than frenzied. I’d rather be late to a meeting than missing as a mother. I’d rather be known for my mess than tidy and tired.
I’d rather be present than perfect.