Begin Again

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do – away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.” ~Art and Fear: The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orlund

I was sitting with my friend Mary on her sofa in Long Island the other day. We met at yoga camp in July and spent four intense weeks together pulling each other through the tough moments and making each other laugh every day. My god, I haven’t laughed like that in ages – certainly not every day. By fall, I knew I had to see her again. So here we were. Mary had out her bag of cards and her runes – tools for talking about where life is headed, where we are now. We were talking about my writing and whether to continue with a particular project, as well as what my relationship is to writing in general. In considering future possibilities, Mary said, “Just think where you were this time last year.”

That stopped me. This time last year, I had no job. I had no clue that I’d be going to Kripalu. I was about five months into a new relationship that while exhilarating was still new enough to be filled with pockets of doubt, e.g., “Is this right? Will it last?” I was, after all, fresh off a divorce that though mild as these things go, had been draining and deeply saddening. My kids were a year younger, meaning they needed that much more intensive care. I believed in less; I worried more (believe it or not, as I still fret plenty). I wasn’t writing anything I enjoyed, save for this blog. I certainly didn’t know where I was going.

On New Year’s Day last year, Chris and I did a double feature. We hadn’t intended to, but Sherlock Holmes was so unfulfilling that we went and got food supplies and returned an hour later to see Up In the Air. I loved it. My favorite scene was when the young mentee of George Clooney finds out that her boyfriend has left her. At 20-something, she’s stunned. Sobbing in an airport lounge, she explains that she thought they’d have a Jeep Cherokee, a dog named Buddy, and double 401(k)s. She had in other words, a narrative. A big ol’, way-too-complete story of what life should look like.

Put the shoulds on the should pile.They ain’t doing anyone any good.

Looking as weathered as either Clooney or Vera Farmiga can, the pair of 40-somethings listened to her with a touch of bemusement and plenty of empathy. They’d been there, done that. And now they knew that life rarely turns out as planned. The December of a year rarely ends as you thought it might back in January.

When I was 27, my boyfriend of two years and I were sitting in our favorite Italian restaurant in Seattle. There was often a great jazz combo playing, and though I can’t be sure they were playing this particular night, it adds a nice ambiance to the memory. We were talking about our Five Year Plan. I am by nature a tad disorganized – I do well by the seat of my pants. But I always think I should be more organized – lists and planners and longterm goal setting are what I should be doing. (Now I try to remember, as one friend says, “Put the shoulds on the should pile.They ain’t doing anyone any good.”) So the Five Year Plan talk was no doubt my idea. We were thinking of trying to teach abroad, but the programs that interested us wouldn’t place a couple together unless they were married. “Do you want to get married?” came from the other side of the table. I was surprised; I hadn’t expected this – not tonight, not yet. But by night’s end, that was the plan. I know we would have gotten married without my need for a Five Year Plan. Still, it strikes me as amusing and a bit wrong that what is often a romantic gesture came from such a practical place, from a place of needing to know.

As I look ahead now, I’m less interested in specifics and more interested in ways of being. I find a Five Year Plan laughable. But I am interested in addressing fear – fears about money, fears about my kids, fears about the state of the world – and finding ways to embrace faith. I also want to recognize that which does not serve me well and soften or remove it. This relates to my writing, for sure. With so little time to write and with lofty aspirations pretty much gone, I’m left with the craft itself and the pleasure I take from it. What can I do with these simple yet rich building blocks? Leave perfectionism at the door (see quote above), that’s a given.

Just take everything that’s not you and get rid of it.

Watching the film Englighten Up! the other night, I was especially taken with the Yoda-like advice of an Indian guru toward film’s end. “You just need to be yourself,” he tells the film’s main character, who by this time is very confused about how to move ahead in his life. “But how do I do this?” “Just take everything that’s not you and get rid of it.”

I love this. If I sit with a decision – from buying a pair of shoes to spending money I hardly have in order to study yoga for four weeks – I can feel in my body if it’s the right thing, if it’s “me.” And I can reflect on things already in my life – practices, possessions, habits of the mind, relationships – and feel if they aren’t me, at least not any more. Ridding myself of them is usually more difficult than weeding the garden, but just identifying them always proves to be a wonderful first step.

I walk into 2011 with excitement to see where I’ll be come December of this year. I never thought I’d be in Long Island (from which I barely returned – a strange, long trip). I never thought I’d do a head stand or a back drop. I never thought I’d teach yoga. I never thought I’d be in the job I am now. And those “never” thoughts only show a lack of imagination and faith. So this year, who knows what will happen, but I look forward to the unfurling.


And now for a few favorites of 2010….

Book:  Just Kids by Patti Smith – which elicited this favorite post.

Blogs: I love Jen Lemen with all her doubts and her heart on her sleeve, and Jena Strong for her courage. For color, I go to Artsyville, and for a new way of seeing I head to my old, dear friend Flynn’s photo blog – Seeing Things (those are her lovely fruits). I don’t read it regularly, but when I do – as this morning – I get a kick from the unexpected, funky thoughts at Crossroads Dispatches.

Food:  The single best moment of food hitting my mouth was the first bite of Nutella Crunch ice cream I took while standing at the counter of The Scoop in Lenox, MA after two weeks of no dessert and almost no sugar. It knocked my mouth for a major doozie. A close second up was sitting in the backyard in late September as my kids gathered what was left of the garden – chives, green tomatoes, chard – and held their own Top Chef-style cook off. The chive salad with nasturtiums and tomato dressing was sublime.

Song:  “My Foolish Heart” by Krishna Das

Movie:  I did love Up In the Air, but I think the somewhat loopy, reflective Beaches of Agnes was more important to me.

TV: We resurrected “The Waltons” and have been watching episodes via Netflix. Now, every night before bed we say goodnight to each other and then say, “Goodnight John Boy.” On the flipside, Mad Men never disappointed. I think of Donald now, so hopeful in his new relationship, so unwilling to burst narratives even though by nature and job he, better than most, understands how false and fleeting they are.


9 thoughts on “Begin Again”

  1. I love the quote you begin with. You know my quote on perfectionism. I know I am one, I just suck at it! You have a gift, let it fill you. Love you too much!

  2. ahhhhhhhhh…

    I feel refreshed for having read these words–something akin to a Spring sun shower. The genuine-ness and truth of this post, the surrender I sensed while simultaneously gripping the trust was deliciously empowering. More…I crave more….

    I wish you magical miraculous discoveries as you venture unknowns. I wish you ever color every conjured. I wish you breathless moment of beauty and tear-filled ones of awe. I wish to some day see you face to face and stare a while.

  3. Aw Jen. Lovely post. You are right on the money, Ms. Mot Juste, as ever. You are blessed by an ability to gently untangle the chunkiest psychic knots.

    Fear and perfectionism, in their eternal lockstep, kept me stifled for ages. And “shoulds”! Don’t get me started. My current mantra is: “dare to be average”.

    You are the most awesome possum. Thank you for your writing.

    And now I feel I must hunt down Enlighten Up!

    1. I am flattered and pleased as punch to be commented upon by you, Ms. Barsema. Eager to catch up! I like your motto, too!

  4. dear jennifer, i really love reading your blog–and this post in particular is helping me, making me feel good. thanks for writing–happy 2011


      1. I’m teaching Monday mornings at 9 am at Heartland if that’s ever a possibility. $10 for students…

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