Answering the Questions

I'm thinking about how some of the questions you ask in your youth can reappear later on...

In the suburbs, we question…

So my husband and I were talking as we were drifting off to sleep, as we often do.  He said something about how odd it was that all the big questions we had as our younger selves, well, they’d all been answered.  He said it with a hint of sentiment, like maybe there were no big questions left.  You know the big questions of your story: Who will I marry?  Who will my children be?  What will my career look like?  Where will I live?  Who will my friends be?  and the biggest big one… Who am I?  So I got to thinking, I’m only 45.  I can’t have answered all my questions yet.  Or have I?

Maybe in your twenties, like me, you dreamily thought about who it was that you would marry.  Husband, wife, partner, lover:  Who would it be?  And when that question was answered, and the flowers faded and the music in your head stopped playing…20 years later…were they really the one?  Some of us answered yes and are still enjoying a growing and evolving partnership (because as we all know, it changes).  And others of us found out that the glass slipper was actually the wrong size.  But I think in relationships; whether spouse or partner, new or old, we still have to ask ourselves some questions.  Am I the partner I want to be?  How can we work together when times change?  How can I be the best partner I can be?  What goals do we both have?  What can we both do to get it right?  The questions aren’t the same.  Hell, they’re not as sexy as they once were either.  But they remain, even though firm thighs, uncolored hair, smooth skin and pain-free days may not.

Ah, then those dreams of your children.  They laughed, blond and blue eyed, one boy and one girl, adequately spaced apart with no allergies or faults or ugliness of any kind, as they ran through a field of wildflowers.   They were virtually perfect, innocent, without a whisper of sarcasm or dissent.  They had no need for technology of any kind and their thoughts were purely aspirational and altruistic.  In fact, you armchair parented on many an occasion, judging the parent with the screaming child and the unruly hair.  Your parenting would be so good, so fucking exemplary, that your children would be well rounded individuals with perfect SAT’s who never talked back, never rejected foods you prepared, hurt another person’s feelings or had bad breath.

Then your children came.  And your questions were answered.  Mostly.  But, as with marriage,  the questions continue.  Who is my child?   What kind of person does my child want to be?  How can I get out of the way and help him/her get there?  and the last question…I’m not even shitting you…Who will my grandchildren be?  Zowie!  

In your twenties, did you make assumptions about your career and where you would be now?  Like, I was “never” going to go part time to raise my kids.  Not to mention (heaven forbid) switching careers after investing 10’s of thousands of dollars on an education.  (For our kids, it will be 100’s of thousands.  Just sayin’.)  I am fortunate to have a job that I still find rewarding even after close to 25 years of practicing.  I am one of the few.  Some of us keep reinventing ourselves in a different direction over and over again.  Some of us keep getting beaten down by the same asshole boss in the same shit-eating company and yet we stay put.  Some of us are climbing the ladder, grabbing the brass ring and pulling in some major coin.  Others, content to be in the non-profit world, give of ourselves in lieu of a hefty paycheck.  Whatever your career has brought you, it is no doubt different from what you had in mind while you were drinking a beer bong and making out with that guy, what was his name again?  The questions are different now.  What is my career and what is my calling?  What feeds my soul vs. what feeds my family?  What is my vocation and when is my vacation?  You may just find you have a choice after all.

Who your friends were and where you lived in your twenties may be very different than today.  And then again, they may not.  For me, I got the itch for the west coast after a couple conferences I attended made me yearn for mountains and a more laid back lifestyle.  I thought I’d come here to live for maybe a few years, then go back home.  Turns out, this is home.  Yesterday was Thanksgiving and we were fortunate enough to spend it with some great friends.  Did I miss my family: my new niece, my hilarious older sister, my precious mom, my insightful younger sister?  Yes, of course I did.  I thought of them all day.  But I also embrace the family I have made, the connections that deepen every day and the choices which brought me here.  Our house, built in 1950, has a litany of idiosyncracies, too.  Creaky floors.  Lots of knotty pine.  Low ceilings.  A dripping roof.  In spite of it all, it holds inside the sturdiest of beams, the firmest of foundations and the truest of hearts.  Is there another place which is better for us now?  Who is our community?  Can we afford to stay?  Home is where you make it.

Lastly,  the question of who you are.  More often than it should, we ask ourselves who we think we are.  Really, the answer changes constantly, that is, if you keep moving.  Who you are today is not who you were a year ago or who you will be a year from now.  And that’s how it should be. To feel alive, it seems to me, there are more questions than there are answers.  Then living is the answering.

I'll never stop asking "Who am I?"  The answers are endless...

I’ll never stop asking “Who am I?” The answer never ends.

What questions are you answering?

Thanks as always to Barbara Paulsen, from whom all beautiful photos emerge.

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect After All

I'm thinking about perfection and how I am far, far from it.

I’m thinking about perfection and how I am far, far from it.

Think about all the things you know that are perfect.  The sway of long grasses in the breeze.  The way the sun rises day after day without your even asking.  The symphonic sound of the ocean beating the shore.  The crisp red color of a blooming rose.  Throw in the the looks of your house on a Monday morning and the whole thing goes to shit.  Here in my suburban home, I hear lots of my friends and neighbors talking about how overwhelmed they are, and they use cataclysmic words to describe it, like “hellish,” “killing me,” and “horrendous.”  See, I think we are all trying to get the brass ring, the holy grail of perfection.  And it’s making us all a tad insane.

So, I used to think I couldn’t be a perfectionist because I was so inherently flawed.  I procrastinate frequently, measure myself with a somewhat unrealistic yardstick and long for a stamp of approval.  Until I realized …tah-dah!… these are the hallmarks of perfectionism.  This is not an issue for just a few of us, it’s an unsaid problem in terms of our collective suburban culture.  It’s exhausting.  I have written about this before, but let’s just come clean here and now.  I’m waving the white flag, friends.  Perfectionism is not achievement.  Not even close.

Did you ever play the game “Perfection”?  Where you had to get all the fucking shapes in the proper holes as the timer was tick tick ticking and you could never get it done in time before the whole thing popped up and scared the hell out of you? Doesn’t the suburban juggle sometimes feel that way to you?  Get the kids to school, run to work, finish that report, go to the market, clean on the fly finally making it to practice only to get scolded by the soccer coach that you forgot to bring snack?  Yikes.  At the risk of sounding like I am complaining, it feels a bit, well, overwhelming.  Aware that we are lucky to have such blessings as being able to send them to good schools and provide nutritious food, we regard these challenges as hurdles we must attempt to scale.  Did our mothers read the nutrition facts on the Wonder bread?  Doubt it.

Others have written about this preoccupation with being perfect.  Brene Brown writes:  Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because it doesn’t exist.  It’s an unattainable goal.  Then there’s Judith Warner’s 2006 “Perfect Madness” about how mothers create anxiety by obsessing over having the perfect child.  Recently, blogger Alva Noe wrote an essay on “Are You Overwhemed?  You Don’t Have To Be.”  Her assertion is that the 24 hour news cycle not only bombards us with information, it frightens us into hyper-stimulation.  She calls it the New Perfectionism.  We are sucked into thinking that the terrorists will kill OUR kids, that pesticides on vegetables are poisoning our families, that the newest and latest parenting tome is the answer to our child’s bedwetting and that our marriage could be SO MUCH better if we just adhered the following 20 bullet points.  And also, if we don’t take the bull by the horns, subsequent imperfection, anarchy and mass hysteria is ALL YOUR FAULT YOU LAZY COW.

Another book recently addressing this issue is Kaitie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives.  If you’ve never read her work, she is razor-sharp in assailing all forms of American culture. Her latest book is a collection of essays on how our culture has bent uncomfortably to the puritanical and conservative.  One of my favorite parts is how we all find the chain-smoking, bed-hopping and overtly drunken characters in Mad Men to be so damn refreshing.  Charming, even!  Sometimes, she suggests, it’s good to be bad.  To not tow the line.  To not try to be so goddamn healthy all the time.  On my recent moms-only trip, I relished the lack of structured exercise time as well as the abundance of chips and guac and margaritas.  (Don’t ask me any more about it, though.  It’s in the vault.)  It’s kind of dull to never fuck up.

Practicing being a perfect suburbanite has in fact, not led to me actually being a perfect suburbanite.  I still resist the PTA.  I often forget to send lunch money.  I wonder what other people think.  I let my kids eat macaroni and cheese more than a few times a week.  And it’s not organic.  My yard is currently overgrown and full of weeds.  I have cellulite.  I don’t throw fabulous kid parties.  As I get older, I am more likely to appreciate that Voltaire is right:  Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.  What does that mean?  For me, it means that I make a healthy lunches most of the time, and write lovey dovey notes in them a few times a year.  It means that I wear scruffy clothes and no make up to the store, but can work a cocktail dress when I want.  It means that hosting a dinner party can mean take out pizza and beer.  It means that the short walk that puts a smile on my dog’s face is better no elevated heart rate at all.  It means embracing the messy.

And, through this blog and through writing, sharing a commonality with all of you.  The suburbs.  Us.

Are you perfect?

Now THAT is perfect.

Now THAT is perfect.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen of Mt. Hood Mama Photos.  Her photos are the most perfect parts of this essay.