IMG_6347Summer was a fever dream, coming in with a graduation and by turns, lingering lazily and racing headlong to its own demise. It was sandy and salty and sweet, with trips “down the shore,” cool sweet ice cream, and moments spent with family and friends, around campfires and tables, on river rapids and in lighthouse lookouts. It was a million years long, and the blink of an eye. It was nostalgia, always, longing to hold on to those moments where the joy is so sharp as to be almost painful, crystalline and pure, dissolving like an ice cube in a glass of sweet tea. It was work and effort, interspersed with absolute sloth, sprinkled liberally with fun. It was life, and breath, and restoration. It was renewal, and creativity, and connection. It was trips down memory lane, and the inevitable progress down the ever-changing path to our future. But if the future looks anything like this summer, then I know it will be wonderful.

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Back in the day, when I was a freelance journalist for the local paper, I had an editor who was a rare bird indeed. He was a stickler for ethics. One of the first things he told me was that, as journalists, we could not accept gifts from anyone involved in any of our stories.

“Of course not,” I thought to myself, barely imagining that this was a thing, let alone a thing that might actually pertain to me.

But it was.

Now lest you think I was writing any nitty-gritty, hard-hitting exposés, I should disavow you of that notion. I was not. Rather, I wrote for the lifestyle section of the paper; human-interest stories and the like. You would hardly think there would be temptation there…and yet there was.

It took some time before the offers came in, but they did. Now, to be clear, these were offers of goods or services from people whom I had already written about in the paper; they weren’t seeking to curry favor but rather trying to show appreciation, which was nice. As a journalist making pennies per word, the offers were sometimes tempting; never sizable enough to induce guilt, but a little extra “bonus” as it were. It was that exact thought that made me stiffen my spine and reject any such offers, well-meaning as they might have been.

You see, my editor insisted that any such gifts would compromise our journalistic integrity, and he was right.

Suppose I wrote about a bakery, and they then offered me a free cake. I like cake. I am now a bit more kindly disposed toward this particular bakery, over any others. After all…free stuff, right?

But it’s not really free. It comes with a gossamer invisible string that runs from me to the bakery owner; a silken thread of obligation. It may never have been stated, but come on – we’re all humans. We know it’s there!

So now I’ve accepted this free cake, and so far, nothing bad has come of it (except a few hundred empty calories, but hey, who’s counting?)

So when the next free offer comes along…say, a massage from a local day spa, suddenly it doesn’t seem as taboo. (Slippery slope in action.) So I accept the massage, because hard-working journalist and all that.

This is just paving the path to my corruption.

Now the baker calls me up with a “story idea” featuring his bakery, and I feel a little bit in his debt because of the free cake, but I also wonder about what I might get for free if I do a whole article about him…so I do. And I ignore that I’ve heard that his quality has slipped, or that the place seemed a bit less clean than when I was there last, and write about how great he is anyway, because quid pro quo.

Now that may not seem like such a big deal, but RIGHT THERE is where compromise starts. RIGHT THERE is where I’ve decided that my own personal interests are more important than the collective interests of my readership. Integrity gone.

And I was just a journalist for a small, local paper.

Imagine if something like this were to happen to a politician?

*no journalistic ethics were compromised in the writing of this post.

Today I ran.

Because it’s summer, and folks are vacationing, and sleeping late, I ran alone, which means that I stayed local.

It means that I ran…there.

There is a lovely place to run, when I am pressed for time or short on the motivation needed to drive to the woods and run 5 miles or more.  But to get to there, I have to pass the scene.  The scene where weeks ago, my world changed.  The scene where I stepped out of the back of a police car to see my baby boy – 13 years old, but always my baby – lying bloodied and battered in the street, surrounded by emergency responders, and flashing lights.  The scene of my nightmare.

Now of course, weeks later, we know that it has a happy ending.  My son is alive, everything seems to be in order with his body and its functionality, and now it is just a matter of him healing.

So I guess it’s now that all of the hoopla has died down, all the traipsing back and forth to the hospital, all the doctor’s visits, the phone calls and sympathy, the wonderful outpouring of support and dinners…now that we are back to “normal,” I am finally getting a chance to work through my feelings.

So when I run, and I cross that street…it’s like flashbacks, to that terrible, terrifying time.  And running is supposed to be an escape for me…so I try to escape, past the street, into the park where I was watching a soccer game when I got the news.  Up the hill that I was sitting on that day, sweat, now, push a little harder, around the corner to the shade and relief from the memories.  I did not round this bend that day.  Here, I am free.

I run my loops, each step putting distance between today and my memories, until I am merely on a gravel path, sweating in the sun, panting in the shade, watching a small group of older gentlemen practicing for softball. (One hits a beauty. His friend reaches his glove for it; it tips the glove and continues on its course. “Nice catch,” calls his friend, the batter.  They all cackle; I smile.)

The breeze kicks up, soothing my brow, cooling me as I crunch on the gravel beneath the trees on my favorite section of track, the part where I can pretend that I am not running around fields and playgrounds in the suburbs, but am rather beneath the trees in the woods.

I come out, head down the hill, and on my phone, “Paradise” by Coldplay comes on, as the wind carries the fragrance of wild roses to me, and in that moment, it is paradise, and I say a prayer of gratitude:

Thank you, for this exact life.  Thank you for my son. Thank you for the things you are teaching me through the lessons you are giving me. Thank you.

Like that, it all falls away.

It will be there again, the next time.  But I will run anyway, and somewhere in the crunch of the gravel, the sting of sweat in my eyes, the music of laughter and companionship…it will fade again, until I, too, am healed.

Most of us strive to always do our best; especially when what we are doing is something that will be for public consumption. Whether it is our personal appearance, preparing our house for company, Facebook posts, or something we have created, from art, photos, and writing, right down to our children, we always want to be reflected in the most flattering light possible. It’s human nature.

But many of us become derailed by this, as our need to “do our best,” under pressure both real and perceived, morphs into the diamond-hard need to be “perfect.”

On the surface of things, the word “perfect” seems like something to aspire to, or high praise. In reality, it is a sticky snare, baited with alluring fragrance, pulling you in and then trapping you, since, as everyone knows, nothing is, or can be, perfect.

It's a trap!  Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day, Love, Mother Nature

It’s a trap! Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day, Love, Mother Nature

So while we justify our journey down the rabbit hole in seek of perfection, there is a part of us that knows perfectionism is just another word for procrastination; another way for us to subconsciously sabotage our own work so that we don’t have to face our fear of failure and rejection when we put it out there for public scrutiny.  We don’t have our friends over because our house isn’t impressive enough; we don’t take that class because we’re not smart enough; we don’t write that story because we’re not talented enough.  When perfection is the goal, we will never measure up; we will never quite be enough.

When I posted yesterday about pressure, a friend who is also an author started an interesting conversation with me on my Facebook page. One of her comments was about impostor syndrome, and wondering if there could be a bit of that going on. I’d written about impostor syndrome a while ago; how surreal it seems, and yet how many people seem to suffer, silently, with it.  As far as I feel I’ve come personally, and as much as I’ve grown, there is still that underlying feeling of not being good enough; that fear that if people knew the real me, they would never like me, the way they seem to like “surface” me.

So how does perfectionism connect to impostor syndrome?  Web site fastcompany.com sums it up like this: “Since you don’t feel you’re the absolutely most perfect person at your job [or insert other flawed facet of your life here], you quietly accuse yourself of being a fraud, and then feel shamed for being so phony, and then intensely vulnerable for feeling shame, fueling a need for further self-protective perfectionism.”

It’s a pretty vicious cycle, and not a fun way to feel at all, not to mention what it does to your productivity.

So how, then, do we break the cycle, so we can live normal lives, feel good about being ourselves, and create without fear of judgment?

Well, to quote Nike, “Just do it.”  Or if you’d prefer, author Susan Jeffers, who wrote Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway.  (Note:  I haven’t read the book, but the title is catchy enough to stand on its own as a quote or a mantra for self-motivation.)

If nothing quite that glib works for you, remember Ann Lamott’s oft-touted (because it’s awesome) essay, “Shitty First Drafts.”  Not only is it fun to say and a great read, it’s one of the definitive pieces on…well, getting over yourself, as a writer.  And really, if you’re any good with metaphor whatsoever, you can translate this into something that applies to whatever it is that you, personally, struggle with.

If that doesn’t work for you, or you’ve been-there-done-that, what about this little beauty, mentioned to me by my aforementioned friend, in the same conversation:  the 50 pounds of clay experiment.  I’m not a designer, nor a potter, but I can figure out how this relates to my life.  How in order to improve at anything, you have to actually work at it, without fear of judgment or critique – whether from outside, or inside your own head.

Finally, author Ira Glass says it so well:

So, just do it.  Do a huge volume of work.  Get better.  Ignore the naysayers both outside and inside your head.  Remind yourself that you are a work in progress, and the only way to get better is to DO.  Remind yourself that perfection is an unattainable goal, and that you should strive only to improve yourself, and do the best that you are currently capable of – and that will change, from one day to the next, fluctuating much like the stock market does, but overall, given time, your end results should be of higher quality than when you first started.

Assuming, of course, that you do it.

Put aside your perfectionism, and know that you are good enough, right now, exactly as you are.

Along with writing, another of my passions is photography.

I suppose I use the word “passion” rather loosely…it’s not as if I have ever taken a photography class, have a fancy camera, or even really know what things like f-stops are. But as I mentioned yesterday, I see beautiful things everywhere, and my first response is to want to preserve and share them…so, yeah. I’m that “photographer.”

Along with pages I like and groups I belong to online, I am part of a photography group that specifically focuses on monochrome images. I don’t contribute as regularly as some others; after all, most of them are “real” photographers, and I’m just a hobbyist.

But one day, I took an image that I liked, and thought they might enjoy too. It’s this one:

monochromatic monday

One of the members of the group, who seems to be an experienced and accomplished photographer, paid it high praise. In fact, what he said was: “a superb Fall image! I am deeply impressed with this photograph…this is the kind of abstract capture we all should strive for in our work!”

How awesome, right? “…the kind of abstract capture we all should strive for…” Believe me, I was puffed up with pride. It feels good to do well, and to be appreciated, and even held up as a positive example – especially among a group that consists of many professional photographers!

But then a funny thing happened…

I couldn’t post anymore. I’d have an image – a perfectly good landscape, something I would have been happy with before – and I’d think “This will never be good enough! How can I compete with that other photo? What will they say about this one? Will they think less of me as an artist if I post this picture?”

Seriously. I was as hamstrung by high praise as I have been in the past by criticism.

Once, I sent out a draft of a novel I had written, and revised, and tweaked, and edited, and revised again, and again, and again, until I could no longer see the story clearly. That’s when I asked for help from a few trusted readers.

It took a while to get feedback, but when I did, one comment derailed me – hard. I didn’t write again for…months. Months. Because someone I trusted had questioned not my ability, but an aspect of a story I had written.

I don’t think of myself as a “delicate flower,” but these were two circumstances where either praise or criticism completely stopped me in my tracks, keeping me from activities that I love, because of the pressure to perform, and not to fail.

It’s very real, that pressure, and it can surprise you when it wraps you in its grips at the unlikeliest of times.

I’d love to say I have the perfect advice for getting past this, working through it…but I don’t. Like so many other changes and improvements in life, the will to continue has to come from within you, and it can only happen when you’re good and ready.

I am pleased to say that I am still doing both things that I love: taking pictures, and writing. I am in that lovely, nebulous gray area where no one either loves (too strongly) or hates (too vociferously) my work, so I continue blithely, doing what I do.

I hope that when the day comes that I either peak the next mountain or plummet to the depths of the next valley, my skin will be a bit thicker, my spirit a bit more resilient, and I will be able to pick myself up, brush myself off, and continue on…not unchanged, but perhaps a bit wiser.

This morning, sitting at the dining room table drinking tea, the Sun peered over the mountain, deemed it safe, and rose up in a brilliant, blinding, life-giving, spirit-lifting display of solar ecstasy.

Right in my eye.

But as I squinted and teared, I also rejoiced.  You see, like Tom Hanks in his cave in the movie Castaway, we can track the time of year by the sun’s position when it crests the gentle rise of the weathered “mountain” (really more of a humble hill) behind our home.

As we move toward spring, our benevolent Sun inches ever leftward on our elevated horizon line.

An interesting thing, this.  Each day, a slightly different position.  Each second, a slightly changed angle.

One day, again, looking out the back window, I noticed a face in one of the stones in our tumbled stone wall.

I had been in this house well over 15 years at the time, and had never seen the face before. Some magic of light, time, and perfect angling conspired to highlight and shade the rough surface of the rock in such a way that it appeared to have a face.

I have been in my house over 18 years now.  I have only ever seen the face but once.

“Mono no aware” is a Japanese phrase that means an awareness of the of the transience (or ephemeral nature, if you will) of beauty, and a gentle sadness at the knowledge that it will pass.

I see beauty everywhere.  Whenever possible, I try to capture it digitally, for my own memory, and to share with others.  But there are more times than I care to think about when that just isn’t possible; when I see something particularly beautiful and especially transient, and know that that moment is all I will have to remember such beauty by.

I think that I will remember it; I try to preserve the memory like autumn leaves pressed between the pages of the book of my mind.  Sometimes it works; more often…not.

Mono no aware.

But I choose to believe that these memories of beauty are not lost; I like to think that they are part of a tremendous, beautiful, ever-growing collage that lives in my brain.  Some images I may not be able to access individually, but they are part of a greater whole being painted every day.

A beautiful sunset over the reservoir.  Trees silhouetted against fog.  Water still as glass, reflecting evergreens like a mirror.  A particular formation of clouds.  The rare sighting of an eagle, an owl, or some other avian star.

I wish you beauty today, despite the sorrow we will share when that beauty is lost.

 

 

On line in the grocery store the other day, bagging up my order, the woman behind me looked out at the falling snow, and said, “OK, that’s it.  I’ve had enough.  It can stop now.”  Very dour, very serious, very already-exhausted-by-the-snow.  There was less than an inch.

I smiled, as if I agreed with her, but in my head, and in my heart?  I didn’t want it to stop.  I certainly didn’t want any Buffalo-like totals, but the 8-12″ they’d forecast for our area felt just about right to me.

I brought my groceries out to my Jeep, everything getting soaked by the very-wet snow as I struggled to wedge them into the small spaces available in the Jeep – not normally my choice of car for grocery shopping.  So, wet, and cold, and loaded with groceries…I just couldn’t help smiling.

I mean…I had bags and bags of food for my family!  And I was putting them in my car, and taking them to my house, where I knew a warm fire was waiting for me. Many of the groceries were for Thanksgiving dinner, in case we got the forecast snowfall and weren’t able to make the drive we’d originally planned.

I drove home, up hills and down, in a quite reliable 4-wheel drive vehicle, looking at a landscape that was being slowly frosted and swaddled in white.  It was gorgeous.  I had Christmas music playing on the radio, and the scent of the Christmas wreath I’d bought perfumed the small interior of the car.

I thought about the fact that we had our own Thanksgiving feast now, but also about the not one but two friends who were insistent that if the snow canceled our original plans, we should come to them.  It’s good to feel wanted, and loved!

So often, we lose sight of all the wonderful things we already have, because we are so focused on the things we lack, the things we want, the things we think we need to keep up with those damned Joneses.

I think that’s what’s best about this time of year is that it makes us slow down our lives and be more present, which in turn gives us the opportunity to appreciate all that’s good and right about our lives.  And when you do that, you start to realize just how much you’ve been blessed with, and how much you have to be thankful for.

So the school year has started, and we are in our first full week since going back.  I’m thrilled to be at the same school, although the experience is proving to be wildly different.  The few people I have mentioned this to have apologized to me, as if my saying it is different means that it is worse.

I was so fortunate in my first year to be paired with a student who was just such a sweet and easy child, and to be in the classroom with a teacher who became a friend.  I got to eat with the teachers and didn’t have to do “lunch duty,” so I rubbed elbows with an entirely different crowd.  I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the school.

This year I am not paired with any one teacher, but rather switch around over the course of the day, eat lunch early with a handful of other paraprofessionals, have a period of lunch duty, and no place to really call “home.”  I am with an entirely different group of kids in an entirely different section of the school, and it is an adjustment. 

But it is not a bad thing.

In fact, I think one thing that I seem to be realizing about myself is the fact that…and wow, I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but…I sort of enjoy change.  I like the fact that I’m all over the place.  I like the challenge of learning different kids in each room, and figuring out how to work with each of the different teachers.  I feel like it’s all experience and all of it will lead me towards figuring out just what exactly it is that I think I want to do in education.

The student that I am predominantly with this year is much more of a challenge than last year’s student.  And yet I feel the start of fondness for Student 2014…sit with anyone long enough and their goodness will reveal itself to you.  And with kids, it doesn’t take that long, their goodness is so close to the surface.  But so are their wounds, and those stab at my heart too.

While I am paired mainly with one student, there are a handful of others that I spend a fair amount of time with during the course of the day, and each of them has a story, and some goodness, and some heartbreak, and wedge themselves into crevices that I did not know existed in my heart, until I feel like I have my family, and my children who were born to me, and then all these other peoples’ children who weave into my life for a brief time but leave indelible marks on my heart and become, in a way, mine as well.

Today…ah, today.  There is a child who I spend a minimal amount of time with.  This precious, quiet mouse of a child who will not raise a hand or speak up in class but only turns their pale face in my direction and stares at me until I notice. 

I have spent approximately 2 hours, in total, in the presence of this child – not even engaged one on one.  But this child will leave tiny mouse prints on my heart, for sure.

Today, Mouse was getting ready to return to their classroom and came and stood silently before me.  Before I could ask, M. stepped in close, angled their head, and put their arms around me.  I was stunned at the unexpectedness of it, and also deeply moved by that simple act of trust and affection.

It is these moments that let me know that I am on the right path, and that I am, for right now, where I was meant to be.  Learning.  Becoming.  Loving.  And being changed by it all.

image

I am back from a 7-mile trail run with a friend. That’s always my favorite way to start the day, even more so this time of year when the morning light makes everything so precious.

Home now, having my coffee at my bistro set – witness my cheery new seat cushions – and I am just mesmerized by the dappled play of light and shadow on the lush greenery of the woods behind my house.

A breeze stirs my damp curls and the windchime overhead swings into action, adding its sonorous chiming to the chorus of summer: chirping birds, rustling leaves, the occasional distant “ping” of a baseball being hit by a metal bat.

Life is lazy and languorous and altogether luxurious, and I am loving it!

image

So the past few days have seen me saying lots of good-byes…

…To a dear friend and her husband, moving halfway across the country…

…To a new friend and coworker who I’ve quickly become fond of…

…To a classroom full of children who, for the most part, have each laid claim to pieces of my heart…

…To my son and his 5th grade class. Although he isn’t technically going anywhere, he will be in middle school next year, leaving behind his old school and a part of his childhood…

I know that I am being maudlin, but there is a reason the the word “bittersweet” exists; there is something dark and sweet to this nostalgic melancholy, like deep dark chocolate that you nibble and savor.

I know this too shall pass, but for now I want to wallow a bit in these feelings; to savor and study them, to pull apart their strands and see where they are connected, and what happens if I tug on them.

My logical mind knows that none of these good-byes are necessarily permanent.

And yet there is that realist inside of me who refuses to let me forget that all of life is a fleeting, ephemeral thing; we are guaranteed nothing beyond this very moment in time.

This is the part of me that clings to farewells, weeps silent tears, arranges photo collages, and always, always fervently hopes that they really are only temporary, and better expressed by the French farewell, “au revoir,” or “until we see each other again.”