The State of My Union
I’m sorry for the radio silence, you guys. Really I am. Mary B had a good reason for being gone, what with travels and family obligations and academic projects. (We hope to have her back soon!) But mine has been much less tangible. I’ve been down in the dumps for a while now, the past couple of weeks at least. And it wasn’t until today, when PhDork at The Pursuit of Harpyness did her post on perfection, that I realized what’s been driving me down, and why it’s kept me so silent.
In the post – which I encourage you to read in full, as it is all kinds of awesome – Dork talks about tackling a big academic writing project in the upcoming summer months. In preparation for the task ahead, she reminds herself about the dangers of perfectionism. And, in doing so, she reminds me that perfectionism is the demon that dogs so much of my life – and that it’s a demon that can be overthrown.
Specifically, Dork finds her inspiration in Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. Lamott declares that perfectionism “is the voice of the Oppressor” that will “keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” And because her book is directed mainly at writers, she goes on to say that that Oppressor is “the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft” or any draft, really – any creation. But for me, right now, the problem isn’t my writing. It’s my everything else. It’s my life. It’s the way I think about that life, and what others tell me I ought to think about it. It’s the way I allow myself to be drug down so easily, the way I lose faith in myself based upon nothing but a tiny voice, a tiny fear that what I’m doing isn’t Exactly the Right Thing. As Dork puts it,
The pressure to be the perfect mother, student, professional, partner, example of womanity, is enough to make one insane. A lot of that pressure originates from the outside, but (in my case at least) a lot of it is something that I’ve digested and ultimately decided upon: this is how it’s done. This is only how it is done.
I fall very easily into the trap of believing that there is only one way to do things. And, inevitably, I never do things that way. I am the sort of person who puts together an IKEA bookshelf via five different versions of trial and error, rather than laying out the pieces and actually thinking before I put in a screw. I don’t watch where I’m going, ever. I make all kinds of big plans and don’t quite manage to follow through. And I have managed to convince myself that all of this is wrong, that all of the decisions I’ve made and the things that I’ve done are inherently incorrect somehow, as though they are invalid simply because they didn’t have exactly the effect that I’d planned. Or because they had no tangible effect at all. Or because someone looked at me and said, “Why are you doing that that way? That isn’t how I’d do it.” And, to me, how someone else would do it automatically always seems like the RIGHT way. I have held myself for far too long to other people’s standards.
Ever since my graduation from college, my life has taken a series of fairly unexpected turns. When I left my college and my hometown I was headed to graduate school, planning on a Ph.D. in literature. Once I got there, I discovered that a Ph.D. in literature didn’t really fit my life’s desires. It didn’t allow me to focus on my creative writing. It forced me into too narrow a specialization. It also brought out the worst in me as a person. I was incredibly competitive and cutthroat, more than I’d ever dreamed I would be. In short, it brought out every ounce of my perfectionism and kept me tense at all times. The work I was producing wasn’t worth the pain, wasn’t worth disliking the person I’d become.
And so I left with my M.A. and headed to Los Angeles. I gave up academia – the place I’d always imagined I belonged – and hoped that instead I’d belong in the city, as a writer.
And for a while, I did. I’ve always been a big-buildings and cement sort of girl. I love the land, but the constant opportunity for connection inside a city has always held me in thrall. Los Angeles had what I loved in spades. I found a neighborhood that fit comfortably around me, a roommate I loved desperately. I was brimful with passion almost constantly – moving, thinking, feeling, dreaming, writing.
And then the rapist came.
I’ve told this story before. And before that as well. It doesn’t especially bare repeating here, except to say that it happened. And that it nearly broke me. I lost my ability to move through the city so freely, to walk alone at night, to sit outside and watch the lights come up and the sun go down over East L.A. One day, when I was suddenly too afraid to board the bus to get to my job, I realized that the city I loved had become a horror show. I could barely even move. I refused to talk to anyone.
I called my family and asked them to bring me home, to the place in the South where I grew up – to a place that, by all rights, I hated. The idea was that I would move there and gather up the pieces, get my life back together and then head on my merry way. But once again, that isn’t how things turned out. Because I’m not a planner. I’m a jumper. And when I met a boy I thought I loved, and when that boy asked me to move away with him, I followed my heart without questioning the end result. And without questioning whether or not that heart was so broken that it couldn’t make decisions, couldn’t see itself clearly for all the tampering it had undergone.
The boy I chose was the wrong one. If you’ve ever read Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (and actually remembered it), then you’ve pretty much got the idea. He was the sort who would tell me the sky was orange just to make me feel insane. He was the sort who threw chairs when he was angry. He was the sort who – although I’ve never admitted this to anyone – hit me when he thought he could get away with it. He was the sort who looked at everything I did and asked me why I did it that way. He questioned me so much that I began to think he was questioning my very existence – asking why I bothered to breathe at all. It took me two years, but this past October I finally left him. I ran away in the middle of the night, my scant few belongings in my car, and drove again back home, to the house I grew up in.
That’s where I live now. And I hate it. I am 29 years old, and I live with my parents. I work a low-wage job in retail. I cannot afford to move out. And although I have a plan, an idea about where I’m heading next, that idea is going to take some time to realize. And until then I will be a grown woman living with her parents. I will be a grown woman who has to say to anyone she meets, “Oh, you’re a doctor? Well, I’m a sales associate who lives with her mom and dad. Nice to meet you.”
But you know what? The voice that tells me I’ve failed? That voice is the one Lamott talks about. It’s the voice of the Oppressor telling me I’m not good enough – that I was never good enough. It’s the voice that tries to convince us all that we’re damaged goods just because we don’t quite fit in. Because what Patriarchy wants, more than anything, is for you to believe that you need to fit in. It lays out very particular rewards on the table and asks you to reach for them, then tells you that you’ll never win anything unless you play by the weird, constricting rules. Don’t be too slutty. But don’t hold out sex. Find a man. Get married. Have the “right” kind of job and the “right” kind of family – the kind that no one really has. Give everything you have of yourself and never ask for anything in return. Be beautiful, but only in the right kind of way. Don’t be so emotional. Don’t be so weak. Don’t, don’t don’t don’t don’t.
The life I own right now is not what anyone tells me I should have. Even some of my best friends tell me that I’m wasting my life, that I’m too smart or too educated or too whatever-else to be living in my parents’ house, working a retail job. But I realized something, recently. The life I have? It doesn’t especially matter. What DOES matter is the person inside of that life. And I’ve managed to keep her whole. I’ve managed to pull her through everything that’s happened to me, and she’s pretty damn strong. She knows what she wants. She’s bright and funny and smart and engaging. She loves people, loves to talk, loves to tell stories. She’s effusive and she never. stops. moving. And she’s honest about the things that really matter. She’s honest about whom she loves. When she thinks someone’s fantastic she tells them so, without worrying that she’s opening herself up to be hurt. No one has ever been able to stop me from being those things. And there are people who have tried their best, over and over again.
So when Dork modifies Lamott’s mantra slightly, in order to apply it to the everyday portions of life outside of writing, she is speaking to my very heart:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a freely chosen life.
This life that I have? At first it might appear that it hasn’t been freely chosen. Lots of the things I do now are the result of outside forces, of someone acting on me – someone harming me or trying to keep me trapped inside narrow boundaries. But I’ve fought hard for what really matters. I’ve fought hard to preserve myself, warts and all. I DO live a freely chosen life. I live my life refusing to give up the things about myself that really matter to me. And if that means sometimes doing things imperfectly, doing them in a way that seems uncouth or wrong or backward or just plain weird – I’m okay with that. Because I’ll still be myself on the other side. And I think that self is someone damn well worth preserving, at any cost.
So thanks, PhDork! Thanks for reminding me – and all of us – that perfectionism is just another word for patriarch. I’m thinking that this little pep talk may keep the Dick Cheneys in my head quiet for a while…
I’m back, ladies (and other readers who do not identify as ladies). I’m hoping not to disappear again.