Learning To Be Good Enough

cenotes

The Yucutan cenotes: one of my happy places.

Whether kin of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or media-bandwagon-hopping, I am seeing it discussed everywhere lately, from the Times parenting blog to Fast Company. . .  it’s apparently Winter 2015’s “introverts and lumbersexuals”:

Perfectionism.

I wish I could say I am a reformed perfectionist. Unfortunately I am an active perfectionist. I know that it’s “not necessarily a personality trait to aspire to” as Terri Cole points out in last week’s HuffPost Canada article. I am working on it.

A former boss of mine had a sign that read “perfect is the enemy of done.”

This, too, I know (though can any writer or editor ever truly reconcile the two?)

I grew up with a parent who never even asked what my grades were, although diligence in all things was certainly expected. I was the one who felt absolutely crushed at not attaining the A. Truth be told, anything less than A+ is disappointing (which made college’s omission of this option rather tragic for me). Interestingly, I often expect, require, and desire the accolades even if I haven’t worked particularly hard for something. My mother will tell you that this is because everything “came easily to me.” (Which is certainly not true of sports, which I dreamed day and night of being a star in).

Perfectionism creates a deep fear of trying things we might not be good at, or alternatively a deep conviction that we’re just not good enough at what we’re trying. Either condition is ripe for creating crippling anxiety. (And in the case of sports, an additional vicious cycle of inactivity and weight gain).

I can trace some of my perfectionism to having an older brother who was practically worshipped in my family, who was good at literally everything he ever tried. He won a creative writing prize at college with his first short story. His art was entered into shows in school. His poetry was good. As a teenager. In his second language. He was an athletic star in every sport but basketball (he being only five foot three), a talented musician, a brilliant orator and debater.

I am still not sure how I am supposed to live up to that.

Especially, you see, as he died young. And everyone knows that the pedestal grows even higher for those we have lost.

I felt for a long time that since he was my mother’s favorite it would have been so much better were I the one to go. Which is a heavy burden for a child, I suppose. Part of me thought that if I was smart enough and talented enough I could somehow make her as proud and heal some part of that devastating wound. But I rebelled and rejected her, too, perhaps so fearful of not being perfect that I might as well go ahead and be the worst.

When I finally graduated from BU after sixteen years of night school, although I’m not one for gowns and caps and all of that jazz, I was excited to walk across that stage and have them say “magna cum laude.” So my mother could hear it. Two B’s in my entire college career, Ma! At a renowned university! (Where, may I toot my horn, it is apparently harder to get an A than most places!)

The Dean stumbled over my difficult name and missed the honors section of the card, apparently. There was no announcement. My boyfriend, knowing how much I’d been looking forward to my mother hearing the news, turned to her and explained what had happened.

“Well, of course Desiree got honors,” she scoffed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I cannot identify myself by how excellent my grades are, or how many accolades I get at work for a job well done, right now. I have to find other ways to measure my own success, and perhaps this has given me the freedom to be good enough. I promised myself I would volunteer when I got laid off, and I did, for over a year for a local parks organization I love. I was proud of myself for following through, for doing something meaningful, for working to improve my skills during the lay-off period. Then my boss retired, and I had to spend several weeks caring for my (other) brother who had been in a bad accident and then helping my mother who had her hip replaced, so I resigned. I accomplished what I set out to do, and I will find another organization to donate my efforts to, but it was enough for now.

Even if I haven’t found a new job yet, the right one is out there for me and I will keep looking. I’m not worthless because I don’t have full-time work. I have found my own “worth” again, in being a better mother and sister and daughter and partner, in making music and in writing, and I will find a way to balance those things and cobble together some kind of income. I am learning that I don’t have to be perfect. I can be good enough, which is a much happier place to be.

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Let’s Talk About Ink, Baby

artselfie

According to the New York Times, 27% of Americans now have a tattoo. They’re not just for sailors and loose women anymore, ma!

My uncle John was a sailor when tattoos were just for sailors and “loose women” (and those newfangled motorcycle clubs). Some of my fondest memories are of his incredible storytelling (many long nights reading The Princess and the Goblin aloud to us with unrivaled inflection and drama), and while I loved getting a glimpse of the dragon on his bicep, I always asked for the story behind the question mark tattooed on his forearm.

“What does it mean?” I’d beg while my cousins and I sprawled on a lumpy old bed, in the eaved rooms of the summer house we all shared, for our bedtime story. And with a gleam in his eye, and a conspiratorial grin, he’d say, “Ah, Desiree. . .” and give each time a new version of the answer “that’s only for me to know.” Such mystery! Such intrigue!

So strong was my longing for my own mysterious ink that I tattooed my first “jailhouse,” as they’re called, when I was about sixteen. With Bic ink. I knew that needle + ink = tattoo, but was not so much aware of the imperative nature of that ink being India. I was not so foolish the next time.

As a budding young palm-reader, I had become exceedingly alarmed that my “decade lines” on my inner wrists were rather tragically abbreviated. Palmistry holds that your dominant hand carries the fate you are born with and the other the fate you create yourself. Neither of mine has more than two and a half lines. My birth mother died at twenty-seven. So I tattooed (permanently, at last!) an ankh, the hieroglyph for life, over those lines on my left wrist. (Call me superstitious or silly, but it’s holding strong so far!)

At eighteen I rushed into a small mistake which I regret and will someday cover, but each of my other tattoos holds great meaning for me. . .  A dragon of my own, in honor of my uncle and for my son whose name means Dragon in Old English, on my right bicep: my strength. A butterfly in flight (not pinned down flat and dead): metamorphosis. A wave inside a circle that I needed to get on my first trip to Maui. My brother laughed; he also felt compelled to get a tattoo on his first trip. We promised each other that we would “come full circle” back to that perfect place in the middle of the ocean, together, again and again.

I have a consultation with a new artist for my next ink: a map of the place where those summers with my aunts and uncles and my cousins held so much magic, the place where my cousin and I now each visit our lost brothers buried on a cliffside overlooking the Bay, the place where a piece of my heart will lie forever.

Don’t ask me what I’ll do about my tattoos when I am old. I will be thankful to have grown old at all, and certainly to carry my memories and my sense of self on my skin.