“…And a Happy New Year”

The “And a Happy New Year” tune reverberates in my mind almost like an ear worm.   “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”  Time passes quickly. During the month of January, it always seems like New Year’s Eve and Day were just yesterday when in fact they were a few weeks ago.  I remember sitting on the couch staring at the television bleary-eyed from watching nearly nine hours of college football.  Exuberant but clearly exhausted, I willed myself to stay awake until the perennial ball (or peach in Atlanta) drop.  I’m never certain why I engage in this ritual.  I’m either hypnotized or a victim of too many years of conditioning so I feel compelled to toast even with a non-alcoholic beverage and kiss someone at midnight.

Yet the ebullience of starting a new year, the excitement emerging from the awareness that I can erase the board and begin again slowly dissipates.  Typically, as I return to work or my daily routine, and later in January or as the February doldrums approach I notice that the thrill is gone.  I ask myself how I can make the merriment and excitement of my New Year’s celebration continue after the holidays; after recovering from staying up so late and eating too much artichoke dip, mini-quiches or from large holiday spreads filled with turkey, lobster mac and cheese, or lemon layered cake?  I want to keep the exhilaration of the new year yet I cannot make being happy a New Year’s resolution although I have tried to in the past.  Since I love making lists, I decided to create one to kickstart a year in which I maintain the peace and joy.  I want to share a few items that involve a little letting go and a little adding to.

1)  Letting go of my time urgency perfectionism would certainly alleviate nearly all of the anxiety that builds each time I run out of the house for an appointment or as a project deadline approaches.  Releasing the tendency to watch the clock would lessen my impatience with stop lights, slower drivers, and anyone who appears to obstruct my frantic path.  Likewise relinquishing my proclivity toward self-judgment might rid me of some of the shame I pile onto my heart anytime I make a mistake.  Mistakes are gifts serving as guideposts to where I want to be.  Now I understand that real perfection is more about wholeness–embracing shrubs with their dead leaves, cherishing well worn dishes, and ignoring a spot or two on the rugs.  The shift truly involves a change in my perceptions,  a re-focusing of my attention.

2)  The next thing to pop in my mind was the question, “What made me happy as a child?”  I loved to lay on the couch and read a good book with a green apple in hand.  In my childhood home the brown fabric couch in the living room sat between two mahogany brown end tables each with a standard gold lamp crowned with an off white lamp shade.  The couch with its worn out cushions wasn’t particularly comfortable but it sufficed.  Now I recline on a lovely forest green chaise lounge that sits next to a large cathedral window allowing the sun to shine on my face.  Great fiction and non-fiction allows me to escape into other worlds and munching on a green apple during pounding rain, singing winds or lightly falling snow affords me an opportunity to exhale and just be.

I also remember the adage, “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.”  I don’t want to discount the health benefits of eating apples.  I am certain there are many.  However, I wonder if the sheer joy of doing something that made my heart sing kept the dis-ease at bay.  I suspect the obvious connections between joy and harmony, wholeness and health remain exiled to a back corner of my mind.  But a good book and a green apple are still my antidote to illness and I plan to make reading a welcomed habit throughout the year.

3)  I also love to sit outside in the wind no matter what season.  For me, nature is calming to my spirit; restorative, and offers a gentle serenity.  Warm summer breezes, or a crisp, frosty but not biting cold wind is what I yearn for.  Next time I notice the branches swaying, I’m grabbing a coat and heading out the door.

4)  Warren and I paused from the holiday rush and watched the PIXAR movie—Inside Out.  I was awed by the advancement of technology with the combination of animation and almost real life characters.  A fabulous movie in its storyline and presentation I felt a surge of energy afterwards.  Stopping to watch a movie is what Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan describe in The Artist Way as an artist’s date.  Watching this imaginative movie filled the well that had been depleted by Christmas shopping, meal preparation and far too much entertaining.  I think each of us needs to fill up more often—we wouldn’t think to drive a car without refilling the gas tank.  Even plants and trees pause their growth to re-energize during the winter.  I must make time to restore myself regularly instead of pushing, pushing, pushing.

5)  I plan to allow the creative spirit of mine to flow like a river–sewing new fashions, crochet-edge stitching fleece blankets for family and friends who are struggling or are ill.  I’ve even decided to hire a sewing consultant who can assist with those pesky sewing problems that permit unfinished sewing projects to clutter up my closet.  Clearly I need balance to what I perceive to be the drudgery of washing dirty dishes and clothes, picking of the house, and paying bills.

So what are you going to make your year a happy one that continues until next December?  Perhaps as you pause, listen deeply and more often to your heart, it will whisper to you what it desires and guide you to how you might maintain the peace and joy until 2017 and beyond.

Recovering Perfectionist

I mentioned in my first blog I would post some thoughts each week.  That was 12 weeks ago. I could list innumerable reasons why I haven’t posted anything else.  They range from illness (mine and others) to deaths of friends.  Then there were the typical distractions of compulsive cleaning of the house, rushing to see movies before the Academy Awards and some movies since then, tax prep, being sucked into other people’s drama, other writing projects and a list of untold obligations.  It occurred to me recently that there was one yet unnamed obstacle, perfectionism, haunting and begging me to tell the truth. I have no new post because none were perfect enough.

The phenomenon of perfectionism or should I refer to it as a syndrome is increasingly pervasive these days.  Actually I believe it’s always been present but I am noticing it and more people are admitting to it.  Within the last few weeks I’ve attended groups where inevitably the individuals gathered would disclose their battles with perfectionism.  The sad conclusion is that perfectionism keeps many people (including me) from accomplishing dreams, from experiencing self-acceptance, from truly living.  Moreover, attempting to maintain such high standards for everything is simply exhausting.  I suggested to one friend, as he mentioned a sign he passed on the way home, “Perfection is not required” that now he could join those of us who think of ourselves as “Recovering Perfectionists.”   I define a recovering perfectionist as someone who can at least acknowledge that he or she is a perfectionist, a person who has broken through the shackles of denial that often accompanies perfectionism.

I think of recovering perfectionists like I do recovering alcoholics.  It is a malaise that is always with us and admitting that we are perfectionists is the first step to recovery.  Similarly, I must work with healing my perfectionism every day, and in every moment.  Although I publicly confess my perfectionism, letting go of the compulsion to straighten pictures, clear clutter, organize my husband’s study as well as my own, and revise everything I write at least 25 times remain.  I realize if I spend my precious time succumbing to my perfectionist tendencies, I’ll never post to this blog, finish a book or engage in other activities that make my heart sing.

It’s unclear when and where my perfectionism began.  In fact, I didn’t know I was a perfectionist until my sister pointed it out to me several years ago.  After that I started observing how important it is for me to have things “just right.”  It could be a table setting, or how the books are arranged on the book shelf (by height of course).  Maybe it was how my hair looked or how a particular dish I was cooking turned out.  Of course the measurement of perfection is based on my extraordinarily high standards.  I don’t even like the previous sentence I composed even though I’ve revised it at least five times.

Then I noticed that I applied this high standard to other people and events as well.  If I attended a church event maybe a wedding my eyes focus on the one thing that isn’t perfect.  Maybe the plants outside a building haven’t been trimmed or the shrubs needed shaping.  I wonder now how long my world has been decorated with the mis-takes of life.  How can I have a happy heart if I am judging everybody and everything?

I remember once my spiritual director told me to look out of her office window.  We peered at some dead branches on a nearby tree.  She remarked that according to our perfect perception (she is a recovering perfectionist as well) that branch needed to be removed.  Yet dying tree limbs and browning shrubs are natural.  I couldn’t see the beauty of a breathtaking spring with crimson red azaleas and dazzling pink and white dogwood blossoms, or the brilliant yellow of a ginkgo tree in fall for zeroing in on the dangling branches and trampled leaves.  Where did I learn that the natural environment needed manicuring?  The noted, xxx Brian McLaren once said, “What you focus on determines what you miss.”  I realized that I was missing so much love and beauty everywhere even at weddings because I was drawn to what was missing; what wasn’t going well.

The other issue that perfectionists (recovering or not) contend with is a strong internal critic.  Oh my how I beat myself up for even a minor infraction.  If I am a minute late to an appointment I internally pummel myself with a verbal barrage for staying in the bed 1 or 2 minutes too long or not leaving the house when I should.  It is difficult for me to tolerate my own mess let alone anyone else’s.  Whoever my internal critic is, I know she needs more attention and perhaps some care and compassion.

I used to blame my father for my perfectionism.  He modeled it well and demanded it from each of his children.  But he is no longer around and I must take responsibility for my being.  Like most bad habits or conditions, I know it will take practice (and a lot of prayer) to let go of my perfectionistic proclivities.  And like those in alcohol anonymous, I will need to make a list of people I should make amends to.  God knows how many people (especially former students) have been subjected to my perfectionistic standards.  Of course my perfectionist students followed my advice and produced superior work.  However, as one outstanding young woman revealed to me one day, “Professor, I am fine with a B or B+.  I don’t need to earn an “A” in very class.  I want to live a life that is not so stressed out.”

Now that is an attitude worth emulating.  And as I read more blogs perfection is neither the goal nor the purpose for writing for most bloggers.  Instead of producing perfect writing I would rather provoke conversation about how to have a peaceful heart.  Thus, in the coming weeks and months I hope to make “good enough” just fine.  I look forward to more posts and greater peace for my heart.