When Just Enough Is Just Enough

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I suppose that I have always been a perfectionist. At times my compulsion has served me well. On the whole, however, it has often lead to more stress than I actually needed to have. I not sure where or when or how I picked up such tendencies, but they seem to have been part of my nature for as long as I can recall. My mother never really pushed me, but she was certainly proud when I did my best. Nonetheless I can’t say that she was responsible for my obsessive need to strive for the ideal. I sometimes wonder if my tendency to continually refine the quality of all that I do is simply a quirk of nature rather than the result of nurture.

When I was still in my early twenties I worked as a teacher in a pre-school program where I had a student who reminded me quite a bit of myself. She was never satisfied with a simple fulfillment of my requests to the students. Instead she endeavored to continuously do just a bit better. She was quite pleasant about her self motivation, but always unwilling to accept anything less than perfection. I eventually asked her mother how she had raised the child to be such a model of hard work and devotion to being her best. The lady, who had five other children, just laughed and shrugged that her little girl was an anomaly who seemed to have been born that way. She noted that her house was home to chaos and a “live and let live” attitude that hardly lent itself to teaching someone to always strive for more. She was not sure at all where her child’s drive originated, but felt that it had certainly not come from any guidance at home.

In my years as an educator I heard many such stories again and again. The family whose son was accepted to Rice University and later became a doctor had no idea from whence his intellect and his perfectionist proclivities had come.  They seemed to believe that he was an outlier whose genes somehow came together in a manner unique to the rest of the clan. They saw his proclivities as not less than a freakish combination of all of the best possible traits in the family’s genetic code.

Being a perfectionist certainly has brought a great deal of positive attention to me both as a student and in my career, but it has also been a kind of demon that makes me all too often dissatisfied with myself even when I know I have done my very best. Like most type A personalities I am my own judge and jury, and sadly I often fall short of the demands I make on myself. It can be exhausting being me, even on a seemingly uneventful day. I have had to retrain my brain over time to make allowance for just being ordinary or even subpar, two very normal human conditions. Of late I have been striving to accept that just enough is just enough. It is a state that is both terrifying and freeing at the same time.

I have learned that being perfect all of the time is totally impossible and actually unnecessary. Each of us must pick and choose our battles so to speak. It’s important to differentiate between times when a bit of perfection is in order and those when slacking is a healthier choice. I suppose that I have been greatly inspired by one of my grandsons who appears to have that concept down pat.

He has both the intellect and the will to be the best of the best at whatever he does, but he doesn’t use his talents and skills at every single turn. In high school he considered exactly how much he needed to achieve to reach his goals for acceptance into college. He did that much and then thoroughly enjoyed his teenage years, building memories that will always sustain him while also doing just enough to graduate with honors and gain acceptance to a prestigious program at a good university. Now he is focusing with laser sharp precision on earning the respect of his professors and keeping a GPA that will help him to gain access to the kind of job that he hopes to one have. While he’s working quite hard, he still manages to find ways of balancing perfection with just enough. He’s a really healthy and happy individual because he has already mastered incredible self awareness and an ability to chill when needed.

An engineer designing the navigational system of a space craft must insist on precision, just as a surgeon cannot allow anything less than perfection in the operating room. Doing just enough in less important areas is not only acceptable, but no doubt necessary. None of us is one hundred percent perfect, and attempting to always be so can become destructive.

I’ve known individuals who are so intent on appearing perfect that they rarely invite people into their homes. They continually insist that “when things get settled at the house” they will send out invitations. Others laugh, kick the clothes and toys strewn on the floor out of the way, and brew a cup of coffee for anyone who drops by. They are welcoming and willing to be seen as questionable house keepers because enjoying time with a friend is more important to them than keeping up perfectionist appearances. They have learned, like my grandson, how to walk the fine line between demonstrating pride in important work and knowing when just enough is the right approach.

Perhaps if we are to be truly insightful parents and teachers we will show our children how to achieve such remarkable balance in their lives. Demonstrating how to differentiate our efforts depending on the situation is an invaluable lesson. Letting them know that mistakes are an inevitable part of existence is an attitude that is more important than always being the best. Life is a series of up and downs, praise and criticism, winning and losing. The best adjusted among us know when just enough is just enough, and when giving it all that they’ve got is the ticket. They achieve the joy factor of life, and in truth nothing is quite as wonderful. 

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There’s A Place Where I Can Go

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Mornings have become my favorite time of day. It wasn’t always so. When I was working mornings began before the sun announced the dawn. I’d rush around half asleep readying myself for a busy day at work. I’d eat my breakfast on the fly hurrying as quickly as possible to get into my car and hopefully missing the worst of the rush hour traffic. Even with my best efforts a wreck, a stalled car, or a rain storm might land me smack dab in the middle of an immovable jam of traffic. I’d sit in a half asleep stupor wishing that I lived closer to my work so that I would not have to endure the horrors of a long commute in a city with virtually no mass transit. I never felt as though I had any affection whatsoever for the earliest hours of a new day, but that was before I no longer had to leave my home to join the daily rat race.

Now I arise without benefit of an alarm. No longer do I feel as though someone has awakened me with a cattle prod while in the middle of a lovely dream. Instead my body and a hint of sun tells me when it is time to begin the routines of my day. I have no sense of hurry for I am now the mistress of my schedule. I wander into the kitchen to prepare my morning tea and a light breakfast and then repair to my sitting room. It is an area filled with things that have meaning for me, things that make me feel comfort and happiness.

It is a somewhat old fashioned place because it is filled with things that once belonged to people that I have loved. I might tell a thousand and one stories just from glancing at the objects that decorate every inch if the space. It is dominated by an art print that once hung in my mother’s home. She and my dad chose it when I was still a young child and I recall accompanying them on the shopping excursion in which they selected furnishings for the living room in the first home that they had purchased. It is a lovely rendition of magnolias which at the time complimented the colors of the sofa that they had selected. Long after my father had died and the original couch was gone my mom still treasured the piece and it came to represent both her and my father in my mind. It calms me in an almost spiritual way even though it is only an object. Somehow I feel the presence of my parents and remember the happy times that I shared with them whenever I gaze at the lovely work of art.

Ironically I had purchased a floral chair long before my mother gave me her prized picture. The colors in the chair look as though they were produced solely to go with the painting. A dear friend eventually created pillows to place on the couch that pull the entire room together. It is comfortable and quiet in the room and it has become my refuge.

After my mother-in-law died my father-in-law gave us her secretary desk that I had always admired. It stores other treasures that I have either inherited or collected over the years. There is a cookie jar that my brothers and I bought for our mother one Christmas with money that we had saved from all of our little odd jobs around the neighborhood. It also features two little blue teacups that had once belonged to a set of toy china that my mother had as a child. There are lovely ceramic birds from New Orleans that Mike’s Aunt Elsie collected when she lived in that glorious city for a time. My treasured piece of the Berlin wall is nestled in a lovely wooden box from my eldest daughter along side a lovely china container from England. There is also a clock that my brother gave me when I earned my college degree that is still working long after I have left the career that it launched.

Perhaps my favorite piece is an antique vase that once belonged to my great grandmother Christina. My grandmother Minnie Bell gave it to me when I was still a girl, admonishing me to always keep it safe. It meant little to me when I was young, but over the years it has found a special place in my heart as I think of how precious it must have been to Christina as she lived out her hard scrabble life. I have moved it from one home to another with great care. It is a tangible link to my history and to the women who came before me.

There are other wonderful things as well that may mean nothing to others, but everything to me. I have end tables and lamps that belonged to Mike’s grandmother, including an old style Tiffany lamp that also compliments the colors in the room dictated by the picture on the wall. Pewter coasters crafted by the Norwegian uncle of our dear friend Egon hold my morning tea and make me smile as I thing of the friendship that we had with this man who left the earth far too soon. A whimsical frog catches my eye and those of my guests making me think of a sweet colleague named Jane, an extraordinary woman who so enriched my life when I was still a working girl. A shadowbox contains door handles and some of the wooden flooring from the home that Mike’s grandparents built when my mother-in-law was only a child. It is gone now but I can still see it and imagine the dinners and the parties and the ordinary days that they enjoyed there.

My sitting room is a peaceful place, a refuge that I now have so much time to enjoy. It is where I go when I need to think or just relax. It looks a bit old fashioned but I have yet to find anyone who does not feel the same sense of serenity as I do when enjoying its comfort. Best of all is the fact that I am now able to linger there as long as I wish. I feel a sense of joy in recalling the lives of the people represented in the contents of the room and sense that their spirit still resides in me. It is so much more than things. It is a respository that speaks of who I am, where I have been, and where I might one day go. It’s a place where I can go to truly be me.

That’s Not What I Meant At All

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Words matter. The words we use and how we choose them matters. Even when we are careful the things that we say may appear to be offensive. Communication can be like walking through a minefield. One misstep in how we express ourselves may lead to irreparable misunderstandings. Even the tenor of our voice might be misconstrued. When we write things down the potential for imprecise interpretations of our thoughts becomes even more likely. For that reason it’s generally a good idea to really think before speaking or writing lest the nuances of our communication become twisted into something that we never intended.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock has always been one of my favorite poems because it encapsulates so much of our fragile humanity succinctly in some of the most clever lines ever written. For some reason I have often thought of the words of the protagonist of that work when he stammers, “That’s not what I meant at all.” Each of us has found ourselves in situations in which we meant one thing, but were thought to have said something completely different. Crawling out of such a hole is both difficult and dangerous because as we attempt to set things rights we often find ourselves falling deeper and deeper into trouble. This is particularly true whenever we speak without much forethought or in the heat of an argument. Our words become muddled, distorted and capable of taking on new life in a manner that we never intended. In the world of education we refer to such situations as having unintended consequences.

I was once participating in an exceedingly heated discussion of school policy that turned nasty when one of the members of the committee verbally attacked another member. Thinking that the moment called for a bit of diplomacy I attempted to forestall the ugly comments by reminding the speaker, who was a black man, of the kinder methods of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The combative nature of the meeting cooled down and we ultimately found solutions without insulting one another, or at least that’s what I thought was happening. I later learned that many members of the faculty who had not even been at the gathering were intensely angry with me for what I had said to the man who was verbally attacking another member of our group. I was befuddled because my intent had only been to find a way to cool the heat of the arguments in a non combative way. I did not see that I had done anything wrong and wondered why the argumentative man was seen as the good guy while I was being viewed as he villain.

I immediately went to the man who had been so outspoken in his criticism of the other faculty member to find out how and why what I had said had been so insulting that it had created a frenzy of anger and mistrust aimed at me. He was not shy about insisting that my mistake had been in using the words of the great Dr. King against a black man when I was a white woman who had no way of truly understanding what they had meant to an entire people who still struggled for their rights. I was so shocked and taken aback that I burst into tears in front of him, something that I rarely do. He was stunned by my stammering, “But I love Dr. King too! He is my hero. I was honoring him, not insulting you.” With my admission our mutual understanding of one another was suddenly complete and we hugged by way of apology.

I’ve thought about that incident for years. I did not understand in the moment in which I chastised the man who was haranguing another that I might as well have stabbed him in the heart. He heard my words as just another attempt by a white person to cut him down. The insult was compounded by my use of the words of someone who, like him, had suffered the indignities of racism. I thought that I was simply defending a colleague, but what actually happened was steeped in a long history of struggle. I had embarrassed this man publicly and in the worst possible way without ever realizing what I had done. Luckily the evidence of my sorrow as witnessed in my tears demonstrated to him that I had not meant to hurt him at all.

My mother repeated the old saw about taking care with how we communicate over and over during my childhood., “If you can’t say something nice. Don’t say anything at all.” We might do well to make that a national goal for a time much like the campaigns against smoking or drugs or drunk driving. We take our freedom of speech so for granted that we have pushed it to a new level of insult and hurtfulness. We bandy about words and phrases without really thinking about how they may sound. It’s just way too easy to tap our fingers on a keyboard and post our grievances in the space of seconds. We react without considering who may be hurt by what we say. Even when we believe that we are protecting some person or some group we may inadvertently be inflaming another. We think ourselves immune from the consequences of our utterances because we have grown to honor the most outspoken among us and thought of those who measure their words out of respect as wimps. Little word bombs go off all around us and we have grown immune to the dangers. Friendships erode. The tension rises.

There is nothing good about verbally attacking someone. We should all agree on this, but it is also wrong to be unwilling to admit and clarify unintended mistakes or misunderstandings. We are not less of a person when we make amends for hurtfulness that we did not expect to happen. It is a sign of courage to be willing to hear and understand differing points of view and to attempt to come together as people with the common goal of bettering the world. The bravest among us think before they speak, and strive to unite rather than to tear apart. Maybe we’d all be in a better place if we were more circumspect when we speak. Words are powerful and we must bear that in mind each time we choose to utter them. 

A Cry For Help

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Life is serendipitous. In spite of our best efforts there is so much about each day over which we have no control. We may leave early for work to get a head start on the day only to encounter a huge traffic jam caused by a stalled car. Our outdoor wedding may have to be rushed indoors when an unexpected rain storm comes roaring through. Of course there are even worse things that burst into our world like a phone call in the dark of night bringing us unwanted news of a loved one’s death or a serious look from a doctor delivering a diagnosis that we don’t want to hear. None of us can escape such moments. They are an inevitable part of our humanity, and yet we all know of souls who appear to be stronger and more optimistic and capable of overcoming even the most horrendous situations.

We often wonder why one person falls apart in the face of challenges and another appears to react with grace and courage. Is it good fortune? Is it a quirk of DNA? Are there actually people who don’t have to experience as much pain and sorrow as the rest of us? These are the kinds of thoughts that may come to mind whenever we feel beaten down by life events. It always seems as though the whole world is spinning in delight while we are left alone with our worry or grief.

I’ve said little about the historic fiftieth anniversary of mankind’s landing on the moon in 1969. In different circumstances I might have been ecstatically happy when I watched Neil Armstrong plant the American flag on the rugged surface of the orb that seems to light the sky each night. I had been watching the progress of space travel since my science teacher, Mrs. Colby, heightened my enthusiasm in the seventh grade. I watched Alan Shepard become the first American to travel into space in her classroom, and later gathered with my classmates in front of a black and white television to witness John Glenn orbiting the earth. My brother had walked around the house clutching my father’s copy of a book describing a journey to the moon written by Wernher von Braun. I lived in the very city where NASA was headquartered. I should have been over the moon with joy on that July day, but instead my mind was focused on other things, worries that were threatening to overwhelm me.

The summer of 1969 had begun well enough. I was a young bride of only seven months still in honeymoon mode. My husband Mike was working as an electricians’ helper for the summer, taking a hiatus from his graduate studies at the University of Houston, and making good money pulling cable under the floors out at NASA in preparation for the big journey to the moon. He worked long hours, sometimes coming home only to grab a bite to eat, shower, change clothes and return to his job again. He traveled with his uncle so that I might have our car to run errands and visit with family and friends while he was occupied.

I beat a path between our apartment and my mother’s home more often than not. At first everything appeared to be normal there, but before long I noticed how preoccupied my mother was with her thoughts. Her usual joyful nature was clouded over in ways I had only seen in the days just after my father died. My mother had been let go from her teaching job and I suspected that her pride was mortally wounded. She had always been quite successful at anything she tried, so this was an experience that she didn’t quite know how to handle. She had also been dating a man for quite some time but had begun to feel that her relationship with him was toxic. She vacillated between wanting to walk away from him and feeling a certain level of love for him. She often asked me for advice, but I was young and inexperienced and unable to fathom the depth of her concern. I thought that with a bit of time she would soon be her old self.

Instead of getting better as June turned to July her behavior became ever more concerning. She kept the blinds and curtains in her home drawn tightly shut, blocking out the summer sun. She became less and less able to follow a simple conversation and tended to burst into tears without warning. She refused to turn on the air conditioner or even open the windows, so her house was stiflingly hot. Nothing seemed to draw her from her ever darkening frame of mind, not even visits to see her mother.

Soon traveling the short distance to see how she was doing became my daily routine. Her behavior was unlike anything that I had ever witnessed in my life. I grew ever more worried when she took to her bed and began speaking of unreal fears. She suspected that our family was being watched by the FBI and that someone was trying to poison her. Her eyes darted in terror as she described her paranoid thoughts. I hoped that with time she would become her old self, but instead she only became worse.

About the time that the whole country seemed to be celebrating the landing on the moon, I was conferencing with our long time family physician and attempting to understand what was happening with my mother. I remember watching the historic moment in a state of detachment. As I planned strategies to get my mom the help that she needed it felt as though I was all alone in an otherwise jubilant world. It never occurred to me that at the very moment when I was feeling so down there were no doubt others like me who were dealing with situations even worse than mine. While in the throes of tragedy we rarely consider that our woes are as much a part of existence as our joys. In the moment of worry and grief it is so difficult to see any kind of light, and yet there are people who somehow find it.

What I learned during that dreadful time is that sharing my story helped. I soon enough realized that I was not as alone as I had thought. There was not a crowd that surrounded me, but those who did were incredibly special, and often unexpected. Over the next forty years I would turn to the kindness of both friends and strangers again and again whenever my mother’s mental illness returned. I began to realize that even in the darkest hours there is a ray of hope. We have all experienced unbelievably trying times during which it is tempting to feel as though we have somehow been abandoned. The real truth is that nobody is ever all alone. There will always be someone who will help. All we need do is open our hearts and humbly and gratefully grab the lifelines that are there. It is the small step that may help us to make a giant leap.

A Most Extraordinary Life

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My cousin and I were having one of those silly conversations in which we asked each other what our favorites are in different categories. I realized as I answered each query that it is truly difficult to narrow down my preferences to just one or even two things. Let’s take the category of best book, for example. I’ve read so many from differing genres that choosing only one is literally impossible. I’ve always loved classics like Jane Eyre, but then more recent picks might be Things Fall Apart or The Kite Runner. I’m a huge fan of nonfiction as well. Isaac’s Storm kept me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, but reading about Czar Nicholas, Queen Victoria, or John Adams was as interesting as it gets. In other words, I so love to read that I’m often taken by whatever I have read most recently which would include The Nightingale and The Tenth Muse.

Choosing a favorite movie is just as impossible. There are some that I consider to be works of art like The Godfather ( both I and II), Apocalypse Now, The Lord of the Rings, and The Mission. Others are just fun and appealing. Those might include Titanic, Christmas Vacation, or Love Actually. I’m such a movie fan that it would literally take pages and pages to list all of the flicks that I have loved. To me there is nothing more satisfying that spending a rainy day watching old Alfred Hitchcock films and munching on junk food, even though these days I try to be good and stick to fruit and vegetables. Just tell me that someone is featuring a movie marathon of some sort and I am in!

The same is true of television shows. How is it even possible to list all of the programs to which I have been addicted over the years. Breaking Bad was epic, but Better Call Saul is pretty great as well. Unlike most people I was totally satisfied with the totality of Game of Thrones including the ending. In fact my recent trip to London with its study of the reigns of kings tells me that the violence and madness portrayed in the series was maybe a bit tame compared to real life. I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery or crime series, but I love to laugh as well and while it’s difficult to beat Seinfeld, there have been many contenders over the years. The glory days of Saturday Night Live with John Belushi and others was magnificent, but that venerable program has lost its magic over time.

I’ve traveled to many places both in the United States and abroad and there are some that I enjoyed so much that I have returned multiple times and never grown weary of seeing them. I’d go back to New York City any time, but it’s not a place that I would ever want to live. Chicago, on the other hand is a city that I not only like to visit, but I would be willing to set down roots there if I had to move for some reason. I love San Francisco and San Diego, but despise Los Angeles. Boston is a wonderful place that I never tire of seeing and also one where I would be willing to live. I visit New Orleans again and again. A piece of my heart lives there, but I would be afraid to settle down in that region because of the continual threat of hurricanes. I suppose that I truly feel the happiest in Colorado with so many cities and towns that I adore. If I were able to go there many times each year I would do so. I fell madly in love with London on my recent trip there, but I’m a die hard American, a Yank who loves my English speaking cousins but can’t imagine living outside of the USA.

It’s quite interesting to speak of favorites. I enjoy hearing what other people like and dislike. It demonstrates aspects of living that we share as well as those that make us unique. The world is filled with so much variety which makes it possible for there to be something for everyone, particularly in this day and age. So much has changed from the times when I was young and most people lived in a narrowly defined area with few opportunities for seeing the rest of the world. Back then books were the best source for expanding horizons and libraries were the places where we found the volumes that most intrigued us. Television was in its infancy featuring only three or four stations with rather predictable programing. Movies were often a treat that not everyone could afford, and travel was mostly by car.

I am thankful each and every day for the magnificent advances that allow me to be ever more part of the world. I have so much from which to choose that life is never a dull moment. I seriously thank the good Lord for my blessings at the beginning and end of each day. I have seen more of the world that almost all of my ancestors put together. I have more education than they even dreamed of having. Movies and television programs and books are literally at my fingertips. It’s difficult to even consider complaining when I think upon the advances in quality of life that I enjoy compared to either of my grandmothers. Neither of them were able to read or write and their daily activities were labor intensive. They rarely ventured too far beyond the confines of their homes and I’m not sure if they ever went to a movie theater. While they seemed happy enough, it boggles my mind to think of all that they were never able to experience that has so enriched my own life.

I chastise myself when I grow sad or dissatisfied with my lot in life. I have read so many books, seen so many movies and traveled to so many places that I cannot choose a favorite. The only thing that I should be doing more of is counting my good fortune and expressing my gratitude for a most extraordinary life.