Maturity comes hard

I am working with two competing thoughts: how the search for “The Best” holds one back from the true depth and breadth of life and how “less, but better” rings true.

The search for The Best means that you don’t recognize the meaning of context and diversity. The Best means there is only one possible solution, instead of a myriad of delightful solutions. There is a right way, and many wrong ways; there is one good thing, and the rest are all inferior. In essence, you are talking about a mindset that leads to constant dissatisfaction that comes from falling short or settling for less than. It is also a mindset that discourages creativity and breeds comparison and imitation. It says the that you just have to pick from the best.

Endemic to this is pride. That you chose, built, bought, found or embody The Best. Along with this is judgement – on anyone who did not chose, build, buy, find or embody The Best. This also means competition. Maybe someone else did better than you in achieving The Best. There is also guilt, when, invariably, The Best is out of your reach. And there is also the inexplicable sadness you can’t quite pin down that The Best is not really a reflection of you, but of hand-me-downs you found washed up on the beach and thought were beautiful, but maybe in a strange, alien way that didn’t quite suit you.

The fear of missing out, the grasping, the imitating, the dissatisfaction . . . it tends to bury you under a pile of More and Stuff. Less, but better, the chant of Greg McKeown, is an updated version of Occam’s Razor, or: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. (That is, More things should not be used than are necessary.)

The trick is, what is necessary or essential? If you truly are ‘obsessed’ with your latest weight loss product, I suppose, to you, it is essential. In order to define what is essential to you, you must first define yourself. When I was a child, I thought this sort of statement was the epitome of stupid. You are you. Duh. What is there to discover? You’ve never been anyone besides you. Did you think maybe perhaps you used to be a different being and half of yourself got lost in the detritus? Well, live at least a quarter of a century, and suddenly that mocking rhetorical question seems quite pertinent and not at all rhetorical.

Surely, it would be essential to strive for the best — saith the chronic (and exhausted) overachiever. Tangle with a few serious health upsets, and suddenly “Survive first, deal with the aftermath later,” seems more reasonable. Somewhere between those two extremes is the quiet pondering that, since the world is irreparably bent toward a certain degree of suffering, is there a way to enjoy pleasantly as large a portion of life as one reasonably might?

Less, but better – to my understanding and current thought process – says that the context and complex situation matter. There isn’t Best, unilaterally. There is most appropriate given the circumstances. Younger me says that is a cheap cop-out from pursing Best, but older me says “the circumstances” are so complex as to require a set of encyclopedias, a few bi-lingual dictionaries, someone with an engineering degree, and a medical professional. It is by no means a cheap cop-out; it’s recognizing that all situations are unique, and therefore complex, and therefore need their own precise solutions — most definitely not someone else’s hand me down solutions. And “less” because basically, life is somewhat of a battlefield and the more complex moving pieces involved, the more opportunities for things to fall apart.

If you are, literally, employed as a house maker, by all means, spray your bed sheets with lavender infused vodka while ironing them, fold them crisply, and store them in cotton muslin bags in your neat and organized and lint free linen cabinets. That reeks of Best, and to some small part of me, sounds incredibly satisfying. In real life, just getting my sheets washed and dried in an approximation of a hygienic amount of time is trouble enough. I don’t have servants – the cook, the gardener, the housekeeper, the butler, the maid. Nope. Just me.

So how do we chose essential? By what makes us most happy? I shy away – this reeks of hedonism. Also, it’s very complicated. What makes me happy today may cause my tomorrow to be miserable. Do what you want to do really offers no guidance. I say this because it can be hard separate it out in the mind from the following suggestion: listening to what tugs at you inside.

That sounds like “happy” but it’s not “happy.” It’s recognizing that our aesthetics flow, in truth, from our values, and our values from our morals, and our morals from our understanding of God and the universe. Somebody else’s happy is not my happy, because it didn’t flow from my aesthetics –> values –> morals –> faith. Faith, as any carrier of it will tell you, does not mean being spared from suffering, because if you weren’t suffering, you wouldn’t need faith.

To attempt to illustrate: I feel immediate relief to be out in nature, and worn down the longer I am away from it. I value the natural world, I believe the less refined things are better than the human-processed artifacts, and at the base of it all, I believe in the God who created the world and find every houseplant I have a testimony to the Maker, it’s own act of worship. Lots of people like plants, and the natural world, but tracing out the whole path will give you a much better picture of how someone will interact with, display, or prioritize such things.

If you believe hospitality to be a priority, it will change the way you structure your house, your life and your days. If you believe your house to be your refuge and castle and domain, it will change the way you structure your house, your life and your days. One who believes the former and lives in the latter will be constantly uneasy, and vice versa.

None of us, I think, is so neat and clean as to have a tidy tree diagram of how our faith flows into our morals, into our values, into our aesthetics. More often or not, I think we are on a bit of a hide-and-seek: when we see something that seems right, we don’t really know why, we just find it Right. So the paying attention part of paying attention to what tugs at you is to better understand what the essential part of that is — the part that really matters. “That appeals to me,” is a feeling; “That appeals to me, because—” is an understanding.

“The Best,” unfortunately, does not ring of understanding. It is itself more of an emotion. “Less, but better,” the phrase I am currently finding a bit of an anchor in the storm while I scramble for my bearings, demands that I understand. What, precisely, am I attempting to achieve? Not generically; not hopefully; not vaguely; not eventually.

think I want to sew all of my own clothes out of linen, preferably dyed myself with dye stuff I’ve gathered personally. But, upon assembling my spec list, I find this:

  • Comfortable
  • least amount of time possible spent on laundry
  • durable so I am not constantly shopping
  • professional-ish, or I can’t wear them to work and that defeats the purpose
  • Able to accommodate the fact that my weight is not currently stable
  • Accommodate my body shape
  • Colors that I find pleasing
  • Preferably natural fibers, but willing to compromise on this if I can get items #1 and #2 met

Basically, that does sum up my specs needed, and in rough order of my current urgency. That spec list in no way lines up at all with what I thought I could define as “Best” – an idyllic sense of what I want the world to be like, not an honest assessment of what life is currently looking like or how to get where I want to be. The argument to move toward what I want my idea of clothes to be like is oblivious to the fact that I can’t have it all. If right now I want to have time to sing, garden, visit, sleep, paint, and be alive — and I can do some of those things if I don’t have a time intensive laundry routine or spend it shopping, again, then the value of idealized clothing plummets. The actual need is something that I can not think at all about, not a thing that requires intensive investment from me to accomplish. What I need is a basic work uniform that requires as little thought, time investment or discomfort as possible. Also, next, get rid of all other work clothes that do not meet that requirement, or at the very least, set them very deeply aside for such a time as the requirement changes. And do you know what a relief that would be? If there were only a week’s worth of clothes hanging in the closest?

Less, but better, means stop trying to be an all encompassing best. Don’t tell me what The Best breakfast is: write me up a spec list of what breakfast needs to be right now, and then we trouble-shoot to figure out how to come up with solutions for that. And then cut out all the other extraneous stuff that you are throwing energy away trying to do.

The shift from one to the other is more troubling and taxing on my subconscious than I would have thought, so while my conscious mind is ready to move forward, I suppose my subconscious needs this meandering path to pick apart and talk myself into it. Logic is by far not all that the world runs on.

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You and your soul

Do you think I’m a good judge of character?

I do.

I don’t know really how we can know such things about ourselves. But especially since I’ve gotten into a career where I see so very many different kinds of people, from all different walks of life, I feel like I can get a pretty good measure of a person by a first impression. Not a complete dossier, of course. But I’ve had the hair on the back of my neck rise up in wordless warning, with no tangible reason for it. I’ve pried recalcitrant people out of their shells. And I’ve been perfectly at ease around people that society would have you to believe ought to be scorned.

But you really do have to trust me as a judge of character, at least to a certain point. Because sometimes there are just random things that happen to me, where if you trust my sense of character, are just are just a really good story. And if you don’t, the whole story goes from novel-worthy to really kind of skeevy and a little unsettling.

So I went for a walk. I didn’t even really want to, but when I have too many emotions, I need to walk. Preferably over lots of hills. It’s sort of like getting mad and hitting things, except without the violence. And of course there’s no hills here, but still I’m charging down the sidewalk, storming around the park. And some random dude is like, “Hi!”

Seriously? He looks like a college aged guy, out walking himself.

“Do you like to talk while you walk or think to yourself?”

Well, I inform him apologetically, I like to think to myself. Walking is how I sort through the day and get my emotions out.

It turns out it wasn’t really a question, because he tags along anyhow. So earnest about being encouraging and trying to ask me what’s on my mind and cheer me on through it. And if I am a terrible judge of character, then he is just rude and annoying and won’t get a hint. But in my judge of character, he is just pretty crazy, and I kind of just want to laugh at him. He is strange in his own way, but not ill-intentioned.

So I tell him about missing home, about being far from anyone who knows me. And he admits he feels the same way, even though he grew up here. He asks me how many siblings I have, and then he asks me how many have died. And the whole conversation is this strange mix of serious and surreal. He insists on walking on the the side closer to the road, so he’d be hit first. He complains his friends have become cops and he can’t talk to them anymore. He confesses several of his siblings have died and his uncle committed suicide. He chivalrously steps between me and annoying barking dog. He tries to slow me down from walking too fast, talking too fast–he’s the one with the energy drink. He complains that people are suspicious of everyone now, even people walking you home.

And I just want to laugh. It’s broad daylight on a busy street. We’re almost to my residence. There is nothing he can take from me. If I am any judge of character, dude has had a rough, sad life and is tired of people pretending they can’t see each other. Tired of people not even trying to be kind. Maybe–maybe–he would like tears from me and the chance to comfort me like a hero. But I already know he won’t get that, and I think he can tell that’s not who I am. But still he will walk me home, so I won’t get run over by a car. And we continue our random and bizarre conversation, about chickens and goats, and brothers who have too much money and won’t talk to you anymore and would you just slow down and chill out.

And then I say, I’m sorry to end our conversation, but this is the house I’m staying at. So he gives me a casual hug good-bye, and I hug him back. Because this is all so silly. And we both know it. And so he stops and turns,–no, wait–and puts the crowning finish on it all by kissing my hand goodbye. And I would really laugh at him, if he didn’t already know he was being silly, but he already knows. So we wave good-bye as random friends, and I go into the house and he keeps walking off toward the college.

We are still sad. But we can still smile.

There is no reason for it, for any of it. For the heartache of this world and it’s loneliness and it’s brokenness. For the walking and talking with strangers. For walking on the left. But we don’t have to hurt each other, either. We can still be polite. We can still be kind. And sometimes the kindest thing we can do is not pull back. To not be offended by the broken offerings of kindness, to not refuse that a person could have any worth to offer you anything.

You see me walking with a burden, and I–I see you walking with a burden. And we are both already broken enough, and don’t need any more breaking. So kiss my hand; I’ll not pull away. Go in peace, you and your soul.

Appropriate to what?

I had an academic interview  today.

I got as dressed up as I can, which is not much, and showed up.

All the other girls were so much more classy and sharp and professional in their appearance as I was.

Yet, to the best of my knowledge and observation, I was more confident, more enthusiastic, more able to present myself and my thoughts, and more passionate and committed to the field we were trying to study.

Always, always, always, this sticks in my craw and makes me think. Okay, so I wasn’t wearing some super-crisp jacket and quintessential pearls. So, sue me. Does it really matter?

People keep telling me over and over again that it really does. That first impressions are so important. That it reflects your professionalism.

Yes, I was neat. Yes, I was put together. No, I did not have a high-sheen polish. I was me, okay? Not a thin veneer plied on over who-knows-what. I was just me. I told them about the good and about the bad. I asked questions. I wore sensible, comfortable shoes, and I had cold hands.

I stand on this awkward place between two views: On one hand, I consider how one dresses to be almost an art form, or a communication form. You can tell people a lot by what you wear. On the other hand, I’m really mad that anyone would care more what my shoes looked like than how I looked them in the eye and answered their question.

Perhaps I’m not really so divided, after all. Perhaps what I do hold to first impressions, and I just want my first impressions to be truthful, not over done. The dozen of us were a wash of black and grey, except me. I wore green. Most girls wore tasteful, professional jewelery. I think my necklace probably was, but I know I was the only one who made hers the day before, because it amused her and it went with her outfit.

I want to be valued for who I am, and part of who I am is how I dress. I don’t want to leave you thinking, “My, what a sharp suit.” I want to leave you thinking, “My, she was engaging and passionate, and had some really good thoughts.” If all you remember is my clothes, than I’ve done a poor job dressing. What? you say. Doesn’t that mean you’ve dressed very well? No, because the point of clothes is to showcase the wearer. If the wearer is simply showcasing the clothes, than the cloths have failed–or rather, betrayed you. They stole the show and left you behind.

Did I dress appropriately? I suppose important experts could argue over it. But is that a relevant question? Did I do well at presenting myself to those that were interviewing me? I believe I did. Me, myself and I. You rather wish you were there to see it, don’t you? You’ve seen enough suits and pearls, and you know what they look like. . .

Jane Eyre and the Truth

So I was talking to a friend the other day (and I realize I have a bad habit of starting random sentences with the word ‘so’, as though the topic needs justification) . . . (and now I’ve derailed my thought.)

(Let me try again.)

I was talking to a friend the other day on the topic of love, and was suddenly inspired to explain myself from Jane Eyre. I was telling her she would need to be like Jane, who loved without letting those whom she loved define what her love should be. To truly care about someone is not to be molded by their “If you really loved me, you’d. . .” To love someone is not to give them what they want over regard for what is right. To love someone is not to agree to be conformed to their preconceived images of who you should be. To love someone is to hold to yourself–what you believe is right and what you believe is true. Because otherwise, you aren’t truly giving them your love; you’re giving them a lie, something you don’t really believe in, something that isn’t really you and isn’t really from you. The only way to really love is in truth.

Jane Eyre, as the unrealistic portraiture of piety, nonetheless illustrated the grievous struggle of loving someone, and yet not pleasing them. Of caring profoundly and deeply for them, and yet not doing as was asked–pressured–guilted–bullied– of her to do. It hurt. And when we read it, we hurt, because we know what it’s like to have to make that choice. And when Jane stands firm, we feel such a wash of relief–because, in our hearts of hearts, we know that those kinds of lies can’t lead to happiness. As much as it is a torment, especially in the moment of sudden vulnerability, to say “no” to those we really do care about. . .we really do know how that story ends. And we really don’t want that for Jane. Or for ourselves, even though we’re scared to death that we don’t have the guts to be so resolute. . .or maybe even because we’ve already been there, and failed, and regretted it, and don’t want to see that replayed in ourselves or anyone else.

***

What makes writing worthwhile? Is it “being realistic”? Does it only count if it’s non-fiction, and really-true? Is it only okay if it’s fiction if it’s Inspirational (in your best announcer’s voice)? Does it have to be something you agree with? Is it supposed to be shocking and controversial, in order to be worth anything?

I write. . .sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction. Sometimes bluntly, sometimes more obliquely. I want to write well. What does this mean?

In my experience, it means writing the truth.

What does that mean?

My sister paints, and although her talent is already high, you can see her skill improving. The realism she is able to achieve keeps growing. Yet we both sit around and complain about these art instructional books, these books made not by artists but by technicians. Technically, their realism is awesome, but their pictures are dead. There’s no life to them and  no reason to look at them. They’re void of the truth that echos within us all.

My sister–she seems to understand mood. I don’t mean she’s moody (that’s me), I mean that her paintings–even the ones that frustrate her because she got the perspective wrong here and the shape was off over there–compel you from the inside because they grasp ‘the way it makes you feel.’ When you see her skaters on the frozen pond, let’s face it–the painting is too small, the figures indistinct. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot to actually look at.

But it tells the truth.

When you look at it, you know, you remember, you recognize inside of you what it is like on those winter afternoons rapidly fading to evening. You know the feeling of cold air inside of your nose. You know the camaraderie of playing outside with others. You know how exhausting it is to fight the snow and the layers of clothing, but how exhilarating to  actually be outside and alive, and moving.

I don’t know how she does it. With the colors, I guess. (Well, obviously; she’s painting, all she has is color.) With the lighting. I don’t know. It’s this intangible thing that makes everyone say, “Wow!” even while she says “It didn’t come out the way I wanted it too.” And as she explains the flaws she thinks she sees–well, she’s right. She’s not technically perfect. It’s not exactly realistic.  But she captured a piece of the truth, and shares it with you, the viewer. Our ears prick up, because we can hear it resonating within the part of us that can’t be measured.

When I have found good writing, I find the same thing. You don’t look for perfect realism. You don’t insist it can’t be made-up out of someone’s head. What you look for is the truth, the thing that says–“I don’t know how you did this. With words, I guess. Obviously; that was all that you were using. But somehow, you captured something that I thought only I knew. And if we’re finding the same thing, independent of each other, it’s a piece of the truth.”

When I write, I want to write like Jane Eyre was written. No–not a Gothic, Victorian love story. Not a society-challenging critique. Nothing so brave and daring as all of that. Although–actually, maybe more brave and daring than all that. Because, essentially, in order to tell the truth, you have to stop hiding yourself. You can’t proclaim something that will send shivers down the spines of those that hear it and still stay safe inside of your own little shell, where you keep cloistered away who you really are.

You have to have a lot of courage to stand up and firmly say, “This is who I am.” But until then, you really don’t have anything of value to offer. Scraps and facades and pretensions and trying to figure out what people want and how to give it to them. . .it’s bad writing. It’s bad living.

Jane Eyre has helped me explain part of the truth. If any of my writing is ever to be so valuable, I have to learn not to hide. I have to learn to not chicken out and pull back. I have to not listen to the St. John’s and the Mr. Rochesters that would tell me what they want, what I should do. I have to insist on who I am, and not flinch away. It’s the only way that anyone will ever read anything I’ve written–fact or fiction, stark or flowery–and say, “Oh, . . .I don’t know how you did that.”