This morning, I ran the vacuum over the living room carpet to pick up the leaves the animals have dragged in. It wasn’t the most thorough job—just a spit-shine because the baby is coming over and I don’t want her putting leaves in her mouth.
For some reason, as I moved the footstool aside, I thought of how much I used to worry about things being messy when my boys were young. I’m not mis-remembering; they were often really messy—piles of clothes to be washed or to be put away, toys and shoes and coats and books everywhere. It was a crowded little house, four rooms in a row downstairs, two big rooms upstairs, and four people cozied up in there with various hobbies and interests and friends.
Only I never let my friends come to my house. Ever. We had a writing critique group and we always met somewhere else. I was embarrassed about the old carpets, some of which had been salvaged from a hotel renovation; the ancient kitchen (truly, for awhile it was the worst kitchen in the world) and the constant clutter that I could sweep away on Saturday and would reappear on Sunday, exactly as it had been, as if the objects all had souls that animated them and they moved around at will.
This morning, with twenty years between me and the woman who worried about those carpets, it struck me as tragic that I’d been so worried about what my friends would think of my housekeeping that I wouldn’t let them come over. They lived in newer places, all of them, but my own house was a charming old beauty, full of light and my special quirky loveliness. Not everyone’s taste, but comfortable, welcoming. How did I not understand that?
It is the same unfounded worry that makes us all, as teenagers, exaggerate some imaginary or real flaw—a big nose or skinniness or fatness—into some Major Thing That Everyone Is Noticing. When actually, they are so worried about their own flaws they don’t even see ours.
Which led me to wondering what I worry about now that might be just as tragic. What impossible standard am I setting?
It’s not so much about appearances these days. For one thing, there are no armies of seven year old boys racing through the house, and I don’t live in that small, charming old house, but a spacious suburban sweetie that has plenty of space to put things away. I still have to clear the clutter away regularly, trying to find the kitchen counter or the surface of my desk, but even if my friends come over and see the big mess, I don’t think they won’t love me. They do.
I feel a certain freedom in my physical appearance, too. I accept it, flaws and all, even if I don’t like pictures of myself all that much sometimes.
What I do worry about, all the time, is about attaining a certain level of perfection, of No-Flawness, maybe like Snow White or Belle, that would render me then a Really Wonderful Friend and Human Being, on every single level. Kind, always. Never lazy. Never grumpy. Always well turned out, instead of sometimes running to the grocery store in yoga pants with my hair in a ponytail. In my imaginary perfectness, I would never drink too much coffee and give myself indigestion, or too much wine and give myself a hangover. I’d eschew sugar and bad fats and eat clean and green. I would listen earnestly to someone who wants to talk out a problem and probably be able to balance my granddaughter on my hip while stirring a pot and writing a novel, all at the same time.
But if I were that woman, who would even want to be my friend? I mean, seriously—would you? I wouldn’t!
In Sharon Salzman’s book Real Happiness, she writes about the Buddhist practice of Lovingkindness as a way of loving ourselves and others unconditionally. Science tells us that it can be learned, she says.
“It is the ability to take risks with our awareness—to look at ourselves and others with kindness instead of reflexive criticism….to care for ourselves unconditionally instead of thinking, “I will love myself as long as I never make a mistake.”
That phrase, “reflexive criticism” caught me. I recognized the action instantly, that meanness, that monkey-mind judgment that so often shows up with a really nasty undernote and narrowed eyes and passes judgment on something or someone or myself.
Anna Quidlen says we begin the work of authentically becoming ourselves when we let go of being perfect. That sounds really lovely to me right now, a person who has been worrying about things for decades, only to find most of them weren’t worth a single moment of my precious hours.
So today, I’m just going to go with imperfection. I’m going with love, that simple answer to every question. Every question. Love. Toward me and my work and the people around me and even the people who irritate me, and maybe in that way, my heart will be more open to the everyday, to my friends and my children and the lady at the grocery store who shoves her cart in front of mine, and even, maybe, myself.
Can you think of a time when you worried a lot about something that ended up not mattering very much? Are there things you worry about now that it might be better to put down?