Tag Archives: perfectionism

The Mistaken Gardener

Middle age is great fun. I’m constantly amused at how much time I spent during the first half of my life being ineffective. I’ve always had heartfelt intentions, goals and plans and I’ve always worked hard, but I’ve never understood a thing about simply letting life be. I know all about discipline and almost nothing about surrendering to the natural flow of anything, including myself.

A few months ago I read an article about what makes plants happy . It was a revelation.

I call myself a gardener. During some periods I grew most of my own vegetables and herbs. It was a lot of work. In Colorado, water was always a problem, and in my rural gardens deer were a constant threat. Keeping a garden weeded, mulched and watered, along with raising two little boys, working and running a household on a shoestring, was quite a challenge. I thought I knew a lot about gardening.

Here in Maine I don’t garden. We don’t have dedicated garden space protected from the deer, for one thing. For another, my diet has changed and I mostly eat meat now. I’m also older, my knees complain bitterly if I spend a lot of time kneeling, and my body does not want to bend over in a garden every day.

On the other hand, we probably have thirty or more apple trees, wild raspberries (red and black), wild strawberries, highbush cranberries, blueberries, elderberries, roses, an ancient and persistent grapevine of unknown variety, sugar maples, pear trees and nut trees spread out across our land. The whole place is a garden.

We also have a short hedge of beach roses, thickly thorned and tough, that runs right along the road on the east side of the house. It gets the snowplow drifts of snow, ice and sand in the winter and the heat, exhaust and sometimes trash of every passing vehicle in the summer. I couldn’t kill them with an axe. It’s not a tall hedge, but it blooms pink in the spring and provides a small barrier between the house and the traffic. In this season it’s loaded with fat red round rose hips.

In the spring, we saw a lot of dead wood in the rose hedge and we began to give it a heavy pruning. It had been neglected for years, and I was certain it would come back, thicker and healthier than ever. It was miserable to work on because the thorns, though short, are numerous and tough, and defy the heaviest work gloves. We got about halfway through the task and then Spring caught us up, along with many other projects, and we never finished pruning the hedge. I raked up what we did take out, pitched the debris over a bank so the thorns were out of the way, and did nothing else for it. The denuded hedge looked spiky and ugly until it leafed out.

In the ensuing months I’ve watched that hedge bloom as usual with its bright pink flowers. One day I saw wild buttercup was also blooming in the places we’d pruned. Wild violets crept around the edges. Yellow hawkweed moved in. After the buttercups came white and yellow daisies. Then a froth of Queen Anne’s Lace draped around it, and tall purple clover beckoned the wild bees. As those faded, I recognized goldenrod and wild asters beginning to grow. Every couple of weeks my partner mowed between the hedge and the house. That’s the only care and attention it ever got.

Wildflowers have bloomed, each in their season, mingling with the roses, all summer and fall. Now there’s a foam of purple and white wild aster and the roses are blooming for a second time, mingling with hips. The hedge is a riot of color.

Beach rose hedge 09/17

This takes me back to the article I mentioned about what makes plants happy.

The article points out that plants grow in the wild according to their evolution, needs and contribution in a system. Some plants are tall and grow in isolation. Others are immensely social and form clumps or swathes. Some plants like to creep along the ground and grow low. Others are quite high and grow with tall grasses because they need the support of the surrounding stems. Look at a natural meadow or field in summer that hasn’t been grazed or recently mown, and you’ll see a system of plants and grasses growing together with no input from humans. There are no bare places that need to be mulched. Nobody comes along and dead heads and tidies things up. As flowers fade and plants die, or are fed on, vegetable matter and seeds fall to the ground and become food or sprout into the next generation of plants. The meadow or field, if healthy, will have a full complement of insects, birds and small rodents present, and so on, up the food chain.

Okay, you get the picture. Biology 101, right? But that’s not a garden.

A garden is where we prepare the ground by banishing “weeds;” amend, dig and turn the soil by exposing it and sterilizing it and wearing out our backs; spend money protecting the area with fences, animal repellents, insecticides and herbicides; buy bags and bags of expensive manure, peat, top soil and mulching materials; spend more money buying plants, often without particular regard to whether they’re native to our area and with no idea or interest in how they grow in the wild; and plant them in solitary confinement, carefully spacing them out in sad little oases amid the mulch. We do not give them appropriate companions or communities, allow them to build a family around themselves or allow them to make the contributions they were evolved to make to other plants and wildlife.

We hold gardens to our own standards of neatness, cleanliness, obedience and beauty. We cut and tidy away brown leaves and spent blossoms lest they offend the eye, never imagining we’re depriving our plants of the free food they were evolved to need. We plant to please our color and variety preferences, never asking ourselves or bothering to find out what those particular plants need in order to be happy. We never imagine ourselves a shrew, or a chipmunk, or a grasshopper, and it doesn’t occur to us to lie on the ground with our chins in the dirt and appreciate the complex layers of plant life that cover it. The only view we consider is looking down, and the only layer we see from that vantage point is the top one.

That’s what we call a garden. Isn’t it beautiful?

We humans have an incorrigible, idiotic kind of blind arrogance, myself included. I confess I never once thought about observing how Nature gardens and modeling my gardens on hers. Not once. Yet Earth has survived for millions of years, creating rich, self-sustaining forests, swamps, grasslands and other habitats without the interference of human beings. We don’t think about the plants’ point of view, though. We come along, wear out our bodies, spend money, try to reinvent elegant and sustainable life systems and wonder why gardens don’t thrive.

Duh.

Beach rose hedge 09/17

I’ve been thinking about this article about what makes plants happy for months, and watching our little rose hedge. As we move into fall, I spend a certain amount of time pruning away dead wood and crowded saplings in many different places. We’ve cut a couple of old and dangerous trees. As I work, I carefully lay all the debris at the base of the plants I’m working on. I don’t uproot things. I don’t disturb the soil or the layer of wet rotting leaves on the forest floor. I cherish the sight of mushrooms growing everywhere, because I know they signal a healthy mycelium net underground, serving every plant and tree on the place and beyond. Apples and berries fall and rot where they lay, sinking back into the ever-richer earth. I notice how the wildflowers grow and spread and who they grow and bloom with. I’m making friends with the low ground-covering plants: Wild chamomile, wild strawberry, white clover, wild basil with its purple flowers, the sweet little violets and rabbit’s foot clover.

Unless in our way, we let trees lie as they fall and rot over time. We run the mower over autumn leaves and let them lie. We carefully stake volunteer or rodent-planted saplings to avoid mowing them, so the next generation of black walnut, maple, oak and beech can grow. We leave the tent caterpillars alone, because they provide food for birds, bears and other creatures.

I realize now all my neat gardening was driven by perfectionism, by a desire to feel in control, and by a need to please the eye of myself and others. I invested a lot of sweat equity in trying to garden “right” without ever questioning what that really meant. I made it much, much harder and more expensive than it ever needed to be.

It’s worth noting this is exactly the way I treat myself.

The rose hedge reanimated itself. It grows in the most inhospitable area of the whole place, but it knew just what to do. I stood back, let it alone and marveled.

You know what? I take it back. I’m not a gardener. But I do humbly enjoy a 26-acre garden.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Perfectionism

I’ve developed a practice of jotting down a list of events, conversations and observations at the end of every day, not only as a repository of creative prompts but also to identify patterns in my experience. During the last few weeks, perfectionism has appeared repeatedly in my daily lists, my own pursuit of it as well as my observation of it at work in others.

The first blog I ever wrote was about people pleasing . As I draw word maps and play around with the idea of perfectionism, it’s impossible to separate it from people pleasing. They seem to be shackled together. When I think about that duality, it occurs to me that perfectionism, like people pleasing, is a total abdication of power.

Trying to please others is always about someone else’s needs, and it’s always attached to a particular outcome that I have no control over. Perfectionism feels the same way to me. It’s not about me. It’s not centered in my integrity or intention. I don’t even get to define what perfect is. It’s always about striving to meet the demands of others in order to obtain something I think I need from them.

Perfectionism is an old habit for me. I clearly remember trying to make beds perfectly, trying to sort laundry perfectly, trying to take care of my younger brother perfectly and trying to learn to tie my shoes perfectly. In fact, the entirety of my earliest memories are of struggling to be perfect in order to stay safe.

It didn’t work.

The problem with the concept of perfection is that it’s a chimera, something desperately hoped or wished for but impossible to achieve. Perfection is not static. It’s as elusive as a dust mote dancing in a shaft of light. The second we try to capture, control or define it, it vanishes.

When I imagine a perfect lover, a perfect friend, a perfect house or a perfect day, what I’ve done is pin the butterfly of perfection into a velvet-lined case. In the effort to preserve it, I’ve killed it. To describe perfection as always winning, unchanging, uncomplicated or in any other terms is to limit it, and, diminished, it crumbles into dust.

Photo by Austin Ban on Unsplash

My best view of perfection is always over my shoulder. Perfection defies my expectation and agenda, but I glimpse it clearly as it passes by me and dances away in the distance. Whatever has been; that was perfect. Whatever is now is perfect. All the nows of my life, strung together like pearls on a silk thread, rippling behind me in the current of my passage, are perfect, including, and maybe especially, the knotted repairs, the frayed silk, and the variations in colors, shapes and sizes of the nows.

Perfection is nothing more than a frame. If perfection means without flaw, what is a flaw, exactly? That’s subjective, too. A flaw is just another frame. Either perfection or flaw can frame a moment, a day, a life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I’m the only one with the power to define what perfect means in my life. I don’t have to buy in to anyone else’s interpretation. A perfect score, a perfect grade, a perfect 10, a perfect record, a perfect job, a perfect gift and all the rest are powered by competition and outcomes. Even if I win or achieve the outcome I desire most, that moment of perfection is fleeting, a brief second of shimmering wings, and then the butterfly of perfection has once again flown and the current of my life sweeps me into new territory.

Perfectionism, for me, is a compulsion and an addiction. It seduces me with promises of feeling valued and loved, but it never delivers. Practicing perfectionism is practicing self-hatred and fueling my internal critic until I’m paralyzed and beaten. Perfectionism renders me anxious and powerless. I still find myself in its grip occasionally, but I recognize the taste of it now. It’s the taste of futility, of exhaustion and unending effort. It’s empty and barren.

Those who hold us to their standards of perfection are not loving us. They’re controlling us, and people who control others do so because they cannot control themselves. Their expectations of perfection are about them, not us. There is no love there, no success, no safe harbor. Requiring perfection from ourselves murders our ability to live authentically, freely and fully.

My youngest son, wise beyond his years, used to say to me, “Mom, perfection is not a goal.” In those days, the pursuit of perfection still had me by the scruff of the neck and pleasing people was the only hope I had for earning love.

Now I’m older and feistier and I don’t want the pretense of love I have to earn. Perfection doesn’t interest me. I can do much more than achieve perfection. It’s not deep enough, not wide enough and not juicy enough. The false promise of perfection contains nothing I want or need. I want clouds of goldenrod and fields of butterflies and the long streamer of nows I collect, string and knot into place, one perfect pearl at a time.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Don’t Be Where the Blow Lands

My partner has trained in Aikido, and he relates hearing the above advice years ago from his teacher. Ever since he repeated it to me, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

We lately found a Tai Chi teacher and joined a class. I’ve wanted to do Tai Chi for a long time, and it’s every bit as much fun as I always imagined it would be. I practice it every day, and part of my practice is meditating on that wonderful piece of subtle Eastern wisdom: Don’t be where the blow lands.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Tai Chi  is a Chinese martial art focusing on energy manipulation, practiced for defense and health. Many of the people in the class we joined are there to address balance and strength. I’m happy to support both my balance and my strength, but I’m learning Tai Chi primarily as a grounding and centering tool.

We’re learning a series of specific slow, repetitive movements that flow into one another. Each movement is called a form, and each form has its own, often poetic name: The bow, the crane, windmills, the lute. Tai Chi emphasizes locating and moving from one’s center, and it’s interesting how difficult I find that.

Learning the forms and stringing them together is no problem for me. It takes a lot of repetition to get arms and legs coordinated and figure out proper positioning, but I like repetition and want to practice. What I notice, though, is how easily I lose my center. I reach or step too far. I find myself up on one toe or another when I’m not supposed to be. I put one foot directly in front of another, like a model on a catwalk, instead of maintaining a more stable, wider-based stance. My ankles are weak and unsteady. If I’m doing one form at a time in isolation, I can tighten my core and be solid, but Tai Chi is flowing movement, albeit slow, and after a few different forms my center is gone.

Losing my balance in this way is a perfect metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life until recently. My energy and attention were always directed outward. I had very little ability to support myself; I relied on external support and I didn’t distinguish toxic inputs from healthy ones. I was too hungry and had too many unmet needs; I took a lot of poisoned bait. Not only did I stand where blows landed and bullets sped, I made a camp there and called it home. I believed I needed those blows and bullets, that they meant love, that it was my responsibility to endure them, and that I deserved them.

We can’t avoid life. Harsh words, verbal attacks, physical violence and unexpected events like fire, flood, riots and sudden public violence are going to happen. Even so, there are ways in which to meet life’s blows with all the grace and elegance of Tai Chi, and as I practice the forms and movements, I think about the skills that allow me to absorb the blow, to flow with it, and to step away from where it landed before it can be repeated.

I’m a big proponent of self-defense and I always carry a knife. I’m not afraid to fight. One day soon I’m going to learn to shoot and buy myself a gun, which I will carry. That kind of self-defense is a separate thing from my practice of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not about any kind of an aggressor lurking in an alley or a parking lot; it’s about emotional and energetic safety.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Tai Chi, along with swimming, dancing, ritual work, walking and writing, is a way to call myself home, back to the center, back to my bones and the source of myself. Maintaining my center absolutely requires my undivided presence. I can’t center properly if I refuse to know all of who I am. I can’t maintain balance if I refuse to love all of who I am. The minute I try to amputate bits and pieces of myself, deny my thoughts and feelings or start tearing myself down in any way, I’m standing (again) where blows are guaranteed to land. When I catch myself justifying; pleading; waiting for external validation; trying to please; choice-making out of fear, denial and self-doubt, I know that I’m standing on the shooting range with a target pasted over my heart and head.

I’ve spent too much of my life staggering under loads of other people’s shit, carrying vampires and dragging chains. Confusion, fear, perfectionism, disempowerment and constipated unacknowledged feelings have all kept me standing where the blows land. Arguing with what is has cemented me in the path of bullets. Clarity, self-confidence, making friends with my feelings and reclaiming my power allow me to deflect, block or better absorb the blows that come my way.

I’m intentional about living with the wisdom of choosing not to be where the blow lands. Reclaiming my center and moving mindfully from danger, not only physically but creatively and emotionally, all but eliminates my fear and anxiety. Concentrating on grounding leaves no room for anything but strength and rootedness. The meaning of my life is not out there, in the noise and chaos of what others think, say and do. The meaning of my life is in here, centered within the container of my body, expressed by what I think, say and do.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can remember the windmills and the lute from yesterday’s class.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted