Day One

Assignment #20 – the future.

Today my future looks imperfect.  I am not going to go back and do Assignments #12 through 19 before I allow myself to write #20.  I may never go back and do the assignments I’ve missed, been late on, started but not finished, thought of but never started, completely ignored out of sheer overwhelm…

I’m going to write this assignment because no one else gets to decide if I pass or fail this course, no one else is telling me I can or cannot take another course, no one else can expel me from being creative my way.

Today Several days ago, I read a post on recovering from perfectionism, Pregnant with Possibility, on the blog Forced Bloom.  I felt compelled to examine my own relationship with perfectionism.  Have I accepted my imperfection?  Or have I merely accepted my failure to live to my desired standards?

Am I okay with the fact that my house is a mess and it’s 2:00 pm and I still haven’t gotten dressed?  Or is that a failure that I no longer have the energy to fight?  Am I okay with that one year of university where I failed every course because I stopped handing in assignments and then stopped going to class and instead stayed in my one-room basement suite alone?  Or do I hope that year of my life will somehow dissolve in the brilliance of my later university years where every grade was an A (as it should be) and scholarships simply showed up on my tuition statements?

I looked at all the areas of my life that I felt I had “let go” of perfectionism.  Truth is, they all fell into 2 categories:  1) I accept myself as a failure or 2) I hope I’ve done enough to hide or recoup my failures.  I may have thought I had let go of perfectionism, but perfectionism hasn’t let go of me.  It still has the power to make me feel less than who I am.

So I am not letting go of my failures.  I am embracing them and telling Perfectionism to start walking and not to bother looking back.  I suck at several things – but not one of those things is limiting my future potential or satisfaction.  All I really have to let go of is my desire to be good at everything.  Embracing my areas of suckiness should put a sock in the mouth of perfectionism.

I once sat in a basement room with no windows, seated in a circle with about 40 other people, and participated in a sharing circle.  This is a pretty way of saying no one is above anyone else and everyone will be heard.  I spoke of brokenness – in myself, in the people who contributed to my breaking and and the brokenness hidden in people who pass by, shiny and smiling.

As we went around the circle, someone responded to the idea of brokenness with this statement:  “You are only broken if you can’t be fixed”.  Mind boggled as I was I did manage to not shout out my thoughts on that possibly being the stupidest statement ever, which was good because that would definitely have been against the rules of the sharing circle.

broken adjective bro·ken \ˈbrō-kən\

1.    having been fractured or damaged and no longer in one piece or in working order.

2.    (of a person) having given up all hope; despairing.

In fact, if we are using the word “fix” in the sense of repairing something, I think, by definition, that something has to be broken.

repair verb

1a :  to restore by replacing a part or putting together what is torn or broken :  to fix

b :  to restore to a sound or healthy state :

 

However, I did not think this person was stupid.  I knew them to have a good deal of wisdom and experience which I respected and I have always wondered if perhaps there was something more behind their statement that I was missing.

On that cold Sunday afternoon I couldn’t fathom such an idea.  Was it not patently clear, looking at me, that I was a broken person?   Would not the evidence of brokenness – the cracks and scars left from the past – be the first thing revealed by any casual glance?

I may be broken, but I am still good.  Not perfect, but good.  And, since I have no way of determining whether I am good enough, I will be satisfied with good.  Good is….good.

This song is a great booster when you feel buried in the rubble of failure.  I recommend listening to it daily, or, if you’re like me, put it on when you start assembling dinner for the crockpot, realize it is on repeat when you are up to your elbows in raw chicken, and listen to it 17 times in a row.  That works, too.  Surprisingly.

So this is a new day for me; a day of not spending countless hours that I don’t have reworking every word and every phrase to my satisfaction, a day without the Kevlar, a day of being grammatically incorrect, a day of letting go.

Today I am writing because I need to churn it out.  I don’t know why and I don’t know who needs to read it, but I need to put it out there.

Imperfection.  There it is.

Found Poetry

Up all night, afraid of the dark, of being unprotected.  I came across this post Fragments on Time: Found Poetry in My Dashboard from Cheri Lucas Rowlands about using your unpublished drafts to craft found poetry.

My rules: I could pluck phrases from any draft and place them below, on any line, and within any section — but I couldn’t edit words, or the arrangement of words, within these phrases. I left capitalization untouched; I removed any final periods. I was free to repeat phrases I’d already used.

My drafts are building up.  I’m not sure they make enough sense to post them.  Realistically, 4:30 am is not the most sensible time to determine the sense of anything.  But maybe it is a perfectly sensible time for finding poetry.

∗∗∗

I once sat in a basement room with no windows

I spoke of brokenness

the cracks and scars left from the past

an unnatural state of emotional equilibrium

I played the same theme in variations

Clever in a fugue

 depression

no more moved

by my petty games than anger and hurt were

 Joy

tells me, this is who I am

 Lead with your head,

the voice whispers

You can go out for a little

and when you return home

find comfort

 Go out and create things

though you feel empty

 Go out and share what you’ve made

though your self-esteem doesn’t believe in it

Go out

This is me not writing

What do I do when I’m not writing?  Apparently, I obsess about not writing.  Here I am hanging out with my Bestie for a few days.  I’ve got my crochet, my camera, and my Kobo with me on this mini-vacation.  I should be filling up on life, so I can go back to writing renewed.  Instead I am obsessing about not writing.

In order to stop obsessing, I decide – I will finish and post something I have started.  Then I’ll be able to relax and not think about writing.  I sit at the computer, surrounded by half-recorded ideas, first drafts, outstanding assignments;  I don’t know where to start.

Last night I had a dream that all my blog posts were graded and posted on the blog as public record.  The grade for all was ‘good’, except for one post entitled Hairspray Dog.  As I looked at the unfamiliar title and the failing grade in red letters beside it I started to panic.  I opened the post to discover a short collection of words connecting neither to each other nor to my blog, written neither by myself nor anyone authorized to publish on my behalf.  (Read: children)

After the feeling of assured doom began to subside, I (still dreaming) realized I could delete the post.  I could even write another post explaining the Well-Coiffed and Lacquered Canine word soup.  But how would I undo that failing grade?

Recurring nightmares about failure are another of my mental quirks.  Due to absent-mindedness, forgetfulness and the inability to keep track of my head were it not attached to my body (thanks, Mom, for that word picture), I have a couple of times messed up in university – not filled out the right forms, not submitted them in time, etc. – and ended up with a failing, or very low, grade on my transcript.  After the dry heaves stopped I was gradually able to accept that it was not the end of the world if I didn’t have a 4.0 GPA, so what did it matter?

But it matters to me.  It doesn’t reflect what I’m capable of, therefore it doesn’t reflect me.  In my dream I was distressed over the failing grade but possibly more distressed about all the other ‘good’ grades.  Good?  What was good?  What was good enough?

I believe this is the origin point for my obsession; letting numerical evaluations validate my efforts as well as my results.  How do I know if what I’m doing is worth doing if no one tells me that I got it right, and preferably as close to 100% right as possible.

Here’s the thing.  When I was in grade school I took part in some national assessment testing covering aptitudes in verbal learning, numerical learning, spatial reasoning, etc.  I consistently scored in the 98th and 99th percentiles on these tests.  This meant that, across the country, amongst all the children taking these tests, only 1 or 2% of the population scored higher than I did.

In my 11 year old wisdom I literally thought I had to be perfect, at least 98% of the time.  Underachievement became the theme of my life.

I suppose I’m still struggling with IQ and numbers on paper and what that means about who I am and who I’m supposed to be.  IQ and aptitude testing has made me the repeated recipient of advice like, “You should aim higher because you are capable of more.”  More what?  I don’t doubt I could reach higher, intellectually, but what am I reaching for?  What is the purpose?

So now I’ve started this little blog, and I like it and it gives me a place to work on writing and forces me to let my words go and to play nice with others.  And I am starting to freak out about whether it is good enough, and whether I want a blog that’s good enough.

I cannot compare myself to others.  I can’t grade myself on this blog.  I think that would ruin something that is good – not in evaluative terms, but real truth and life good.

Your Starbucks, or mine?

If we were having coffee right nowI’d tell you I think I’ve gone a little overboard with this blogging thing.  I want to be writing every day!  Actually, I am writing every day and that’s a good thing.  The problem is I want to be posting every day, and that means writing and revising and editing about every spare minute of every day.  I either need to get a lot less picky or aim to post less.

If we were having coffee right now… I’d tell you I’m nervous about winter coming.  Fall is my favourite time of year – new beginnings, colour, light, energy – but then there’s winter, a dimly lit sort of half existence where my daily goal is getting out of bed.  I should probably make that goal more realistic this year.  Maybe just get out of bed 5 days a week?  I’m worried about how low I will get this time around and what I should commit to right now.

If we were having coffee right now… I’d tell you that I ate sugar and gluten yesterday.  What is with that?  It seems I temporarily lose my mind, despite knowing I will regret it painfully in an hour or two, and then a few weeks later – I do it again!  Is it ever worth it?  NO!

If we were having coffee right now… I’d tell you my 11-year old daughter is driving me nuts.  The drama!  I swear she monologues about her feelings because she is mentally writing a screenplay for an anst-filled Nickelodeon episode series.  I feel like I’m living in a My Little Pony soap opera.  It is difficult to fathom how a person with barely more than one decade of living could hold all the feeling she lays claim to.  I think she sees herself standing boldly before the oppression of parents everywhere, demanding justice for the young and downtrodden privileged children of the world.  I know, it’s my job as a parent to be patient and loving – but she is being ridiculous!  And is it really fair to me, who doesn’t even like soap operas, to be forced to be in one?  I don’t think so.

If we were having coffee right now… I’d tell you I’m still thinking about that blogging thing and how to balance it with living.  What do you think about 3 posts a week?  That would be more realistic, yeah?

If we were having coffee right now… I’d tell you I had such a bad ADHD day yesterday.  Some days my ADHD brain takes over, like an impossible child holding the keys inside your locked car while you threaten and cajole from the outside.

If we were having coffee right now… I’d tell you I’m seriously frustrated with people who make the most bone-headed statements in order to be “positive”.  I want to write a letter about the fallacy of labeling life and emotions as positive or negative.  What does that even mean?  Are they talking about electricity?  Can the richness of life be reduced to integers?  I am feeling -38 today.  How about you?  Oh, you’re in the pluses!  Good for you!  And who gets to decide on the relative value of our lives?  I am 47 years old and scared to be alone at night.  How do you rate that?  Do you think I’d be less scared if I knew the exact negative value of my fear?  And what about the value of fear in keeping us alive and uninjured?  We have these negative emotions for good reason, bozos (Sorry, that was uncalled for, and immature).

If we were having coffee right now… yeah, so – blogging.  I think I am getting a wee bit obsessive.  And you know how crazy obsessive I can get.  Nothing good comes out of that.  Except for pens.  That’s a good one.

If we were having coffee right now… I’d say sorry for ranting again.  What would you like to talk about?

Ungraceful Dancer

The other day I read a post on Wild Currents written in honour of Suicide Prevention Day.   Here are a few words:

“focusing on the dance might be precisely what I ought to contribute. You see, focusing on the act of suicide is like deciding what color to paint the house when the foundation is crumbling. I contend there is power in the dance. We are all touched by suicide. Shouldn’t we learn to dance with it?”

I see my dance with mental illness as a jarring Argentinian tango in which kicks are flying and abrupt twists and turns are forever catching me off guard.  It is not attractive, it is not graceful, and it would probably make you wish you could look away, only you couldn’t because it’s that bad.

Reading this post I asked myself, would I be willing to have this uncomfortable spectacle televised for the enjoyment education of the masses?  Umm, no actually, I think I’ll stay in this dark corner and hope no one notices me and my ungraceful tango.

I dance this dance, not because I look good doing it, but because the dance may be the thing that keeps me focused on what I do have power over, instead of all that I don’t.  It may be the thing that becomes an inner rhythm in my brain so that someday I will automatically turn with that sudden spin and not lose my footing.  It may be the thing that connects me to others and gives me a net of arms ready for my next fall.  It may be the thing, awkward as it is, that will teach others a bit more about the particular steps and turns of this dance.

A letter to those who are too gracious to tell me I Should Not Think I Can Dance,

Firstly – thank you for caring enough to tender encouragement and offer hope.  Thank you for seeing me.  I want you to know that the words I write here are genuine and from my heart.

I thought I’d share a bit about living with mental illness, from my perspective.  At times I think you see my illness as a thing I could control by being positive or trusting God for healing.  I do believe in miraculous healing.  I’ve seen it happen in situations that seemed hopeless, when the cancer or other disease was beyond fighting.

But healing does not always come.   Sometimes there is recovery through a long, painful process, sometimes there is life at the cost of a part of yourself, and sometimes there is no healing.

You see, mental illness is like any other disease.  There are ways to combat it, ways to manage it, and there can be remission.  There can also be death.  The tragedy, the part that is so difficult to accept, is that death from mental illness usually means suicide.

My psychiatrist once told me that the instinct of a healthy brain is self-preservation.  Suicidal thoughts are a symptom of illness in the brain; a physical ailment affecting your brain just as cancer affects your cells.  Positive thinking, faith – these things can be useful in managing illness, but in and of themselves they do not kill cancer cells, and they do not cure depression.

I don’t mean to single you out.  Most of us in the Western world have grown up with the idea that mental illness, especially in the case of suicide, is an affliction of character, a reflection of one’s personal nobility and autonomy.  We think, “I would never allow myself to consider suicide an option; I would never let myself come to that point.”

I used to think that, too.  Suicide has never seemed a justifiable course of action in my mind.  But I have had to fight with thoughts that came, unprompted, casually into my mind with their gentle persuasion; not repulsive as they ought to be, but simply inviting me to take a closer look.

I was not raging in the depths of despair when these unbidden thoughts entered my mind.  I was slogging onward through depression and anxiety and panic attacks – the majority of the time feeling numb more than anything.  I was doing what I could with professional counsel and medication and God’s grace one twist and turn at a time.

Were those images that sometimes came when I was driving alone, down the highway, 100 km/hour, of closing my eyes and just letting go conceived out of an excess of feeling that I could no longer bear?  No, they were simply pictures that wandered through my mind as a stranger might stroll by you on the sidewalk.  Were they sudden fits of impulse that threatened to carry me away beyond my will to live?  No, they were quiet ideas that followed silently as I walked and drove and slept and ate.

I had to fight these pictures.  I could not allow myself to analyze them or dig through their origins and impetus.  I recognized that despite their unthreatening veneer, they were a danger to me.

This is living with mental illness.  Depression and anxiety are part of my life.  But I am not always pinned beneath their weight.  Like the arthritis in my knees, some days the pain is bad and I have to make accommodations, adjust my activities and expectations.  Some days it’s like it isn’t there at all.

If I chose to focus only on the good days would the cartilage in my knees repair itself?  I don’t think so.  And while I do believe God could heal me, I don’t believe that healing is necessary for me to know I am loved, or to know God’s grace is real.

I would ask you not to assume you know my heart or my relationship with my creator.  Don’t take from me the comfort of knowing God’s grace in every day of this struggle, every step of this dance.  Don’t assume my faith is lacking because I have a disease.  My faith is the hope I carry with me, my shield against the accusations that say I am not doing enough, am not good enough.

One last thing I would ask is this:  don’t tell me I need to be more.  I don’t have the strength to be more than I am at this moment.  I am using all the strength I have and all the grace God gives me to keep up the dance.  Believe me when I tell you that it is possible to have hope without healing, to feel peace through your pain, and to keep faith even while you’re falling.

Sincerely,

Ungraceful Dancer

You scratch my back and I’ll buy another 30 just like you, in case you stop scratching.

“There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.”
William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond, Esq

I don’t know when my love of pens went from harmless quirk to bordering on obsessive, I’m not even convinced that it has, but the panic in my husband’s eyes when he sees an unopened package of pens in my hand gives me pause.  Is it the quantity of Pilot G2 07 blue 3-packs stashed throughout the house; the look of suspicion on my face when I see one of my pens in the hand of another family member; the fact that I refuse to write down a phone message until I can find the right pen?

I am willing to acknowledge this could seem excessive but, as so often happens when one has a point to make, recent events have lined up nicely to reinforce in my mind that this is a good and useful obsession.  This morning I had three pens run out while writing.  Three.

Without my admirable forethought and preparation I could have been racing (undressed and un-coiffed) to the nearest office supply store, realizing it was 6 am and nobody is open at 6 am except Walmart, searching for the pen aisle in Walmart at dawn (one of my recurring nightmares), and racing back home to drive my kids to school because the bus came and went long ago, still undressed and still un-coiffed.

Thankfully I was spared that scenario.  Though my pen supply is getting dangerously low, and I will be taking advantage of my husband’s 1946.2 km journey to the west coast this weekend to remedy that, I was able to find a replacement without ransacking my childrens’ rooms for stolen goods.  (I know they take them…)

I know the power of the pen to channel and order my thoughts.  Out of obnoxious stubbornness I began this post, in defiance to Mr. Thackeray’s words, determined to put my thoughts in order before picking up the pen.  But he was right.  I could not lay hold of any of the reckless ideas running about my brain until I picked up the pen and let the ink spill across the page.

Can you feel it?  …the rhythmic vibration of the ball rolling across the velvet leaves of foolscap; resonating through my arm, across my shoulders – an unbreakable code winding its way up my brain stem.

I have an itch that only the pen can scratch.

Word Junkie

I am having flashbacks to university, and high school, and junior high school – basically school since I first learned to write.

Teacher:  Here’s your assignment.

Me:  But I don’t wanna write that.

And this is how most of my assigned writing projects begin.  After the grumbling, or really during the grumbling, comes the writing and scrapping and whining and complaining and eventually re-writing something quite different from, and often not even on parallel with, the given assignment.

I’m a word junkie.  I am always looking for a fix – a sonic boom of recognition that liquefies my thoughts and starts the flow of words, molten and unstoppable, obliterating assignments, work, intention and all else in its path.  See what I mean?  (Although, reading that back, I think my volcano analogy sounds a bit too much like an I-drank-the-water-in-Mexico scenario.)

The space to write

My space to write is a room lined with windows overlooking vineyards in the south of France, the Pacific Ocean from the northern tip of Vancouver Island, the Tyrolean Alps, or, on days that begin like this one, September sunrise-3677my own Manitoba prairie vista. (Also it has a grand piano, because wherever you are, you should have a grand piano, if at all feasible.)

Alternatively it might be a tiny room with a table tucked under the window three feet from bicycle taxis and street vendors.  It’s all in my head so really my options are endless.

Writing is like taking my brain on a Disney cruise.  The part of my brain that never sits still, never shuts up, is always annoying me with questions or pointless observations or bits of songs sung on repeat (aaaahhhhh!) is kept amused by memories of books I’ve read and pictures I’ve gazed at longingly and imaginings of places as yet uncharted (by me).

I am left in peace.  I don’t even have to think about where I’ve left my child brain – the Disney people take care of that!  And by that I mean I don’t consciously think about where my mental space will be when I sit down to write.  I do not mean I believe people working for Disney are living inside my head.

space to write tuba-3687That’s one side of my brain.  The other side, the part actually engaged in writing, is wringing its hands and pressing its forehead into the keyboard wondering where this crazy trip is going and how I will explain it to my teacher/boss when I get back.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this is the actual room I am writing in.  Yes that is a tuba the size of a smart car.  You would think a girl who could literally fit inside the tuba case would not be able to play such a beast, but you’d be wrong.)

Tune in tomorrow to hear how I feel about pens.  My precioussss…