Be Perfect

“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” -Matthew 5:46

I have hated that verse. It’s always felt so unfair. How am I supposed to be perfect? Why even bother trying to get better at all, if perfect is what I both should and never can hope to be?

Well, I tried. From years of in depth research, with a sample set of one, I am prepared to share my results and even a conclusion or two…not making mistakes is simply impossible if you live as a human in the world. I try to cook all the healthy things. I try to say all the kind and wise things. I try to advocate for others when I sense they can not advocate for themselves. I try to teach my children how to be true people even as I try to learn that for myself. I do many of these things very well. But I certainly don’t do them perfectly.

So have I failed?

I think the teaching I grew up under would say yes. That me failing is the point, because that’s how I’m supposed to know I need Jesus. Like God is this terrible middle school boyfriend who needs you to feel like crap about yourself before He comes and says something kind of nice and you’re so grateful you’ll do anything to keep Him around.

Somewhere along the line I stopped thinking about God that way. God’s no longer a fickle boyfriend I have to figure out how to please Or Else. The problem is, the things that are part of the soil we grew in somehow become part of our very being in a way that is difficult to change. Not impossible. But difficult. So while I can say (and mean) that I don’t think God works that way, I still behave in ways that belie that confidence. I find myself afraid to make mistakes (because as every good little Sunday School student grows up hearing, you may be the only Bible some people ever read so GET IT TOGETHER).

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matthew 5:46 again recently, and how living under the tyranny of it for years may not actually be true to the original intent. What was Jesus getting at? Did he really mean that people shouldn’t make any mistakes? Has he met people? Because words are important to me I went back to the original Greek and found that Teleios, the Greek word for “perfect” used in this case, can mean “without flaw” but it can also mean something like, “having gone through all the steps of a process and reached the end.” Even in English, the word perfect can also mean “complete and absolute” (example: a perfect stranger is not a stranger who makes no mistakes…so an admonition to be perfect in that sense would mean something like “whatever you are be that thing”).

So then, maybe the point of this verse isn’t “don’t make mistakes.” Maybe the point is, “go through all the steps.”

Going through all the steps is how we complete the process of becoming….well I don’t quite know yet. That’s where faith comes in for me. My faith is a belief that if I just keep going, this next part will lead to something…different. Maybe the next moment will be better than this one; maybe not. But I think with faith the general idea is that we move through the world as though the end goal is good and the good points along the way are meant to remind us of that. When people ask me how I’m doing these days, I usually answer, “Lots of ways! But a general upward trend, I think.”

In any given day, I will feel sad, overwhelmed, relieved, grateful, angry, and many more things. I will succeed magnificently, and I will fail spectacularly. I will be perfect.

 

“Enter Title Here” (On Miscarriages and Wisdom)

I had a miscarriage a couple of weeks ago.

I was waiting to write about it. Partly because it’s my story and I can tell it how I like. But partly because I was waiting until I had something clever or wise to say about it…maybe there’d be a pithy title like “How To Succeed in Miscarriage Without Really Trying,” and you’d know it was really hard for me but that I’m doing a Good Job going through it with all the characteristic wit and charm I aspire to have someday.

Or maybe I would call it “Critical Failure” because in my family we often explain things to our kids in terms of gaming. We told them that being pregnant is like rolling a 4 sided die so when the miscarriage started we told them we were rolling a 1. In gaming terms, rolling a 20 is called a “critical hit” because it’s the highest and best roll. Rolling a 1 is called a few different things. Critical failure (though it really isn’t…it’s not like you did something that caused you to roll a 1), Critical fumble (just…nope), or critical miss (this feels the closest to the truth).

Then again, maybe I’d come up with something serious, wise, and broadly applicable. Something that would help other people who have gone or will go through this. That’s a lot of people, by the way. At least a quarter of all pregnancies end this way, which means way more than 1 in 4 women has had a miscarriage. Maybe I should’ve shared my miscarriage story because while birth stories are easy to find, miscarriage is awkward to talk about. Maybe there should be a space where I share my story and invite others to do the same if they want to, so we could feel a little less alone, and maybe someone who is in the middle of it would have a place to look for information about what happens, so things don’t feel quite so scary. One of the hardest and most unnecessary parts was being so unsure of the process of miscarriage and what to expect when you stop expecting. I might still do that at some point. The pithy title for that essay writes itself.

What I have discovered so far is that there is no broadly applicable wisdom for this. There is no one correct way to go through having a body start to grow in your body and then suddenly stop. There are things that might be helpful to me along the way, but that doesn’t mean they will be helpful to everyone whose path converges for a minute. I spoke with a friend who was going through the same thing at the same time and she was feeling very comforted by thinking about the bigger picture and finding the beauty in or around what happened. I would never want to take away what is helpful for someone else, but that place is not where I start. I need to sit with my sad first. For longer than may feel comfortable to watch. If you are reading this and that’s the case, I invite you to look away. At its core this is really kind of a one person job anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. People have come around me in amazing ways. A lot of people. We’ve had friends and family bringing food over (crazy vegan food for our crazy vegan family because my husband had heart surgery 6 months ago…it’s a long ridiculous story but basically the gist is that we’re hard to cook for so when people take the time and effort to figure that out and feed us anyway…it’s a big deal). People who care about me have called to check up on me and come to entertain my kids while I stayed in my bed, bleeding and crying. People have spent time reminding me to breathe when I seemed to forget how. People who have their own stuff have continued to reach out to me through their own pain in really brave ways, and even allowed me to sit with their things sometimes which reminds me that even when I feel broken and small and afraid I am not really made of glass.

Even if I had something that made me feel better every single time I thought about it…I wouldn’t tell it to someone else as a cure-all for their problems. The confusion is part of the process as much as the joy. Trying to take someone’s confusion or sadness away by force will not work. Because it’s not actually possible. Telling someone else how to feel or how to process is like changing someone’s written recipe after they’ve already begun mixing the ingredients together. If you don’t list “baking soda” in your muffin recipe, it’s not going to make sense when the baking soda (which is present in their recipe because they are not you and you weren’t there when they started) and the acidic ingredients have the chemical reaction that causes the muffins to rise. If I really want to help someone, I have to respect that the work has already begun. The recipe is already well under way and instead of telling them what to add first off, maybe a better place to start is to find a way to identify what they have in the mix.

The way that translates into daily life for me right now is that when someone offers me an extra ingredient, like “It’s not that bad…it was early!” or “You can always try again” or “Everything happens for a reason” I can appreciate the kindness behind it, but recognize that it does not belong in my recipe at this moment. I can allow other people to comfort themselves at me without being confused about why the exact words don’t feel helpful. The care is helpful, and that’s enough for me right now.

 

 

Operation Chin Down: Losing Your Mind to Find It

It’s come to my attention that my preferred mode of processing is Quickly and All at Once. I think about things thoroughly, and have a hard time letting something rest until I’ve really processed it. So with something life-changing like heart surgery in the family, what I really want to do is to completely shut down for at least a week. Except I still homeschool my kids. I still have to drive places, make the meals, do the laundry, take the dog to the vet, call the doctors, fight with the insurance company, etc. etc. etc. (etc.). Life doesn’t stop because I’m a mess. Still, I’ve realized that in order to move forward, I need to prioritize being a mess for a while.

When E was a baby and I had postpartum depression, a really smart friend told me, “you have about a hundred hours of crying to do about this. If you work really hard at it, you could be done by the fall.” That was such good advice. The point isn’t to keep track of how long or how many tears. The point is to frame this time as long and intense, but not permanent. It’s a tunnel, not a dead end. There may be cave-ins and things that have to be dug through, but if you keep going there’s light eventually.

I’ve kept my chin up. My chin, literally and metaphorically, hurts. It’s time to stop trying to hold it up all the time.

So I present, mostly for my own benefit (if you’re reading along please note that these are my rules and aren’t meant to apply in a broadly prescriptive sense):

Operation Chin Down: The Ground Rules

  1. By all means, make a few terrible decisions. Allow them to remind you (usually by the lingering bad feeling afterward) why you make good decisions most of the time.
  2. Own your selfish, unhelpful thoughts. Recognize them. Just don’t always act on them. Tell your partner you don’t want him to go play cards on a Sunday afternoon, when he watched the kids all morning so you could get out by yourself. Then tell him he should absolutely go anyway because he deserves a break too and because you’re overwhelmed, but you’re still a grownup.
  3. Repeat after me. “No, Dear Daughter, I don’t want to play Monopoly right now.” In point of fact, I never want to play Monopoly. Ever. It sucks away a little of my life force every time I even see the box. Someday I may again have the patience to play anyway, but today is not that day. Don’t say this part out loud.
  4. Create and listen to a playlist of empowering songs that encourage you to feel whatever you feel and not apologize for it. Do NOT listen to this playlist when the kids are around. They don’t need to be repeating that shit at Thanksgiving.
  5. Say curse words when you need to. It really is kind of like the steam valve on the pressure cooker. Better to curse a little than to let your head explode completely.
  6. Try to have a care where you direct your intensity. Not everyone can handle it, and not everyone should have to. People have their own stuff going on and it makes sense to establish that it’s a safe space before you just start erupting like a volcano of neuroses.
  7. You will likely make mistakes in regards to number 6. Forgive yourself. You’re doing the best you can.
  8. Be honest about whatever you think and feel about God. God is big enough to be able to handle it, and won’t hold it against you. Having faith, for you, has never been about being ‘fine’ all the time. Having faith is about being able to move through things, and about being able to recognize that what you see and comprehend can not possibly account for everything that is. You’re allowed to feel bewildered and unable to form prayers. That’s what liturgy is for. “Amen” doesn’t always mean “this is how it is”. Sometimes it means, “I sure hope so.” Amen. Lord have mercy.
  9. You’re allowed to mourn the clarity that you had before all of this happened. You’ll find a way forward eventually; that doesn’t mean that you weren’t doing a good job before (thanks to my friend Sarah Wilson Belzile for that language).
  10. Go to therapy. There’s no shame in this. Find the right psychologist…you can tell it’s the right person because you can tell they get you and because you believe they are smart enough to tell you things about yourself (lots of therapists are smart enough…but not everyone will make you feel that way…that’s where the “getting you” part becomes especially important).
  11. Go to yoga.
  12. Eat all the carbs.
  13. You’re an extrovert. You have a lot of people. Ask a couple of them to come sit with you, even if you’re in a bad head space. You’ll be able to tell who can really be present in a helpful way, because they won’t need you to be smiling before they leave (it’s ok if you do smile, obviously, but the pressure to appear completely fine according to someone else’s definition is really unhelpful to the healing process).
  14. Have people around you who will tell you if they become worried you’ve gone too far off the rails. Believe them when they tell you that you haven’t.
  15. Recognize that the rules may need to change as you go. This is not failure. This is progress.

One Couch at a Time: On Crisis and Cognitive Distortions

 

There’s this episode of Friends that most older millennials or younger generation x-ers will be familiar with. If you’re not, here’s a clip (the part I’m talking about starts around a minute in). Ross has bought a new couch but refuses to pay the exorbitant delivery fee. Then this:

Ross picks up one end of the couch, then stands there watching Rachel expectantly.

Rachel: Hehehe…are ya kiddin’?

Ross: Come on! It’s only three blocks. It’s not very heavy. Try it! Come on, come on!

Rachael: *lifts the couch* Oh! Oh, I can do it.

~~~~~

Living through a crisis and then trying to reintegrate back into the world is like having this moment 600 hundred times a day. It’s disorienting.

Somebody’s hungry? Oh! Oh I can do it…

Somebody needs to have their pills organized? Oh! Oh I can do it…

Somebody wants to come over and hang out? Oh! Oh I can do it…

~~~~~

A crucial skill I’ve needed during this time (as I type this we are 6 weeks out from a hospital stay and angioplasty for my 35 year old husband) has been to figure out which couch I actually need to lift in a given moment. I’m writing about it because I think maybe it applies to other times too…during times when we are prone to the cognitive distortions that come with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, it becomes very hard to sort out what we actually need to spend our emotional energy on, and what can wait or even be disregarded completely.

It’s like standing in a store full of couches but not being able to figure out which one I’m supposed to be picking up.

~~~~~

What if my kids get heart disease someday like my husband? High Lp(a) is genetic and they have a 50% chance of having it. Not that couch.

Did this happen because I saved the bacon grease to fry eggs in sometimes? Just do the best you can with the information you have now. Not that couch.

I’m afraid I talked about myself too much to the people who cared enough to keep asking questions and maybe instead I should have…I don’t know…Not that couch.

I can’t really be there for a family I care about who’s going through a hard moment. I’m going through a hard moment too. Not that couch.

No one will like my food ever again. I love sharing food with people. Not that couch.

I spoke to a prominent physician and researcher on the phone and now I feel like he thinks I don’t care about my family’s health and maybe he’s right. He was in a movie, after all. Not that couch.

I spoke to another prominent physician and she thinks the first one is a quack and now I don’t know what to eat for the rest of our lives. Not that couch. Just eat some taquitos right now.

J’s not here. Wherever he is, there’s a 1% chance that something is going wrong with my husband’s stents. There’s a 99% chance something isn’t going wrong. Not that couch.

We are vegan now. Or something. How will we explain that to the people who thought we were vegan before because they don’t know what that word means? Not that couch.

What if he dies, and I have to support my family and homeschooling doesn’t pay very much and NOT THAT COUCH.

S has three cavities. None of us have ever had any cavities before. Why did this happen? Did I give my family heart disease AND poor dental hygiene? Not that couch.

S has three cavities. I should call the dentist to see about getting them filled. Yes. This couch. Do this thing.

~~~~~

If you’re struggling, I really hope you find the resources you need to pick out your couch from the sea of couches in the crowded store. I know it’s so hard. But if I can do it, that gives me some amount of hope that you can too.

Cerebral Traffic Control

I was driving home from the market this morning and I took a short-cut through a neighborhood near my house.

There were several pieces of construction equipment blocking parts of the road and a person standing there, ostensibly to direct traffic. I couldn’t see far enough down the road to tell what was on the other side of the trucks, so I trusted the person standing in the middle of the road to tell me when I could go.

She held up both of her hands, looking back and forth from me to the other end of the road, then sort of waggled both hands at the same time in a meaningless way. Then she stepped back out of the way. Baffled, I started to go. The trouble was, another driver at the other end did the same thing. Luckily the two of us were able to carefully edge by each other as our would-be traffic controller stood there haplessly looking on.

It made me think of my brain.

Like the lady in the hard hat, I don’t have total control over what comes driving through. I have various expected inputs. Some thoughts barrel through while others come gently by. Of course, brains are much more complicated than two-way streets. Some thoughts approach like a missile strike and others seem to walk by without even stopping, though we wish they would.

Sometimes, I get “busy brain.” There are just too many thoughts. Too many things to care about. Too many puzzles to figure out. So, like the lady in the hard hat, I sometimes get overwhelmed and just waggle my hands ineffectually and hope for the best.

I don’t judge myself for that. But after this morning, I’m left with the reminder that if I can practice effective cerebral traffic control sometimes I might arrive at more conclusions with less inner chaos.

Be the Lady in the Minivan You Want to See in the World

I had a rough week a few weeks ago. My Stuff just got so big and I had a hard time dealing.

This is just part of my process. I know what to do, and I know who my people are (I have a lot of people). So it’s going to be ok. I want to tell you a story though.

One of the Things I Can Do is to go to yoga class. Because having someone remind you to breathe for an hour straight is SO HELPFUL when it feels like you’ve forgotten how. So I took myself to a yoga class at Abide Yoga because I called them the morning after a bad night and had approximately this conversation with H, Yoga Studio Owner and Kind Phone Speaker:

K: Do you have any yoga that’s good for….anxiety….? I mean, I’ll be ok but right now I’m just…ugh…
H: Yes. Please come here.
K: Are you sure? I might cry. I’ll try to be quiet though. Because yoga.
H: Just come here. It’ll be ok.

So I did. After an hour of steady reminders (I did cry, and it was ok), I felt like I could breathe well again. I headed home in my van.

There’s a neighborhood I cut through to avoid the lights on the main streets by my house. I arrived at an intersection where there is no light, but it’s close to another light which was red and cars were lined up. I began to edge into the street to turn left.

A lady in a metallic blue jeep laid on the horn and started yelling at me through her open windows. “What the F*%< do you think you’re doing? STOP!” For her sake, I kind of hope she was just having a terrible day. But I digress.

I was…caught off guard. I called out feebly, “But…the light is red…” She was not convinced. She continued to yell while pulling directly in front of me and sitting there, middle finger extended angrily, until several seconds after her light turned green. Then she pulled away.

What the what?! I thought…but then I looked at the lady in the grey minivan behind her, who had watched the whole thing. She shrugged at me, gave me a kind smile, and waved at me to go in front of her.

I drove home, bemused.

I went back to yoga that afternoon because Abide was having a special day of free yoga for their first anniversary, because my husband is awesome and played with our kids all day, and because I still needed to remember to breathe more. After class was over, I told them the story and said, “Thank you for being the lady in the van today.”

Sometimes the world seems full of stress. It feels like one big middle finger. Ladies in metallic blue jeeps will yell at you, figuratively (and sometimes literally!) speaking. But if you look hard, after that, you can often find well-placed acts of loving kindness. A glass of water. A kind word from a friend or stranger. A yoga class. If you are stressed or otherwise unwell I hope for those things for you, and I hope you are given the grace to see them. It really makes all the difference.

A Princess Worth Mentioning Again: Rosamond

Another excerpt from The Lost Princess by George MacDonald. For me, where I am now, anxiety = group of some dozen wolves and hyenas. As Robert Frost tells us, “The best way out is always through.”

*****

Then said the wise woman:—

“Below there is the forest which surrounds my house. I am going home. If you pledge to come there to me, I will help you, in a way I could not do now, to be good and lovely. I will wait you there all day, but if you start at once, you may be there long before noon. I shall have your breakfast waiting for you. One thing more: the beasts have not yet all gone home to their holes; but I give you my word, not one will touch you so long as you keep coming nearer to my house.”

She ceased. Rosamond sat waiting to hear something more; but nothing came. She looked up; she was alone.

Alone once more! Always being left alone, because she would not yield to what was right! Oh, how safe she had felt under the wise woman’s cloak! She had indeed been good to her, and she had in return behaved like one of the hyenas of the awful wood! What a wonderful house it was she lived in! And again all her own story came up into her brain from her repentant heart.

“Why didn’t she take me with her?” she said. “I would have gone gladly.” And she wept. But her own conscience told her that, in the very middle of her shame and desire to be good, she had returned no answer to the words of the wise woman; she had sat like a tree-stump, and done nothing. She tried to say there was nothing to be done; but she knew at once that she could have told the wise woman she had been very wicked, and asked her to take her with her. Now there was nothing to be done.

“Nothing to be done!” said her conscience. “Cannot you rise, and walk down the hill, and through the wood?”

“But the wild beasts!”

“There it is! You don’t believe the wise woman yet! Did she not tell you the beasts would not touch you?”

“But they are so horrid!”

“Yes, they are; but it would be far better to be eaten up alive by them than live on—such a worthless creature as you are. Why, you’re not fit to be thought about by any but bad ugly creatures.”

This was how herself talked to her.

All at once she jumped to her feet, and ran at full speed down the hill and into the wood. She heard howlings and yellings on all sides of her, but she ran straight on, as near as she could judge. Her spirits rose as she ran. Suddenly she saw before her, in the dusk of the thick wood, a group of some dozen wolves and hyenas, standing all together right in her way, with their green eyes fixed upon her staring. She faltered one step, then bethought her of what the wise woman had promised, and keeping straight on, dashed right into the middle of them. They fled howling, as if she had struck them with fire. She was no more afraid after that, and ere the sun was up she was out of the wood and upon the heath, which no bad thing could step upon and live. With the first peep of the sun above the horizon, she saw the little cottage before her, and ran as fast as she could run towards it, When she came near it, she saw that the door was open, and ran straight into the outstretched arms of the wise woman.

The wise woman kissed her and stroked her hair, set her down by the fire, and gave her a bowl of bread and milk.

When she had eaten it she drew her before her where she sat, and spoke to her thus:—

“Rosamond, if you would be a blessed creature instead of a mere wretch, you must submit to be tried.”

“Is that something terrible?” asked the princess, turning white.

“No, my child; but it is something very difficult to come well out of. Nobody who has not been tried knows how difficult it is; but whoever has come well out of it, and those who do not overcome never do come out of it, always looks back with horror, not on what she has come through, but on the very idea of the possibility of having failed, and being still the same miserable creature as before.”