It took two years to clean out my mother’s house. Stacks and stacks of boxes – closets and attics full. See, Mom was bad with paper and mementoes, but especially pictures. Out of focus, duplicates, the backs of people’s heads, those weird double frames you used to get at the end of a roll of film. Mom kept it all.
She guarded them like exhibits in a cold case file. They were her proof that she loved people, and they loved her. She had to have every scrap of evidence that the love existed, because she couldn’t feel it. So sad.
Then I found Mom’s collection of my wedding photos, and I just froze. That tatty old book pierced me in a way that I’ve been wrestling with ever since.
The whole family turned out for the wedding — folks Mom hadn’t seen in years. The photographer set up a panorama of all the nieces, nephews, cousins, steps and grands and great-grands and everybody. I knew how much it meant to Mom, so I ordered glossy prints of everything and started creating the ultimate wedding album, just for her.
I found just the right book, just the right corner-mounts. I dithered and experimented and planned the captions. I wanted it to be perfect.
Perfect is a tall order.
The more I fussed over that album, the harder it seemed to get right. The ideal album hovered in my mind – so vivid it could happen tomorrow, but always much too difficult to do today. Meanwhile, the real album sat in a cabinet, half-done.
Mom struggled with perfect, too. When she was young, she spent unbelievable time and energy on the perfect clothes and the perfect body, but perfect is hard to maintain in the long run. After her babies came, she focused on perfect hair and perfect nails and perfect manners.
Over time, she got tired. The gap between ideal and real got bigger and bigger. She’d work so hard on a holiday meal that she spent a week in the hospital afterwards, but the food she made for herself was from cans and boxes, served on paper plates. Her clothes, her furniture, her notepaper and soap — everything was a cheap placeholder, because finding the perfect thing had become too hard. When people gave her nice things, she put them away — too good to use on herself. The piles of boxes grew, full of the love she couldn’t feel.
Three years after my husband and I married, we had a baby on the way. I meant to do Mom’s album after the baby was born. I’d be off work, so I’d have plenty of time, right? (Yes, I can hear you laughing all the way over here.)
Later I meant to do the pictures after the baby was potty trained, because I’d have clean hands for a change. (No, I don’t want to see the coffee come out your nose. Really, put the drink down before you choke.)
I meant to do them after the second baby was born, because my mother-in-law would be in town to help. I’d be able to sit down and relax. (She did help. And I did relax – and sleep, and sleep, and sleep.)
And then Mom died. I’d been married six years, and had two babies, and Mom never received my gift of love, because it never got perfect enough to give her.
There in that last box was her chintzy old album with the peel-and-stick pages. She’d printed every single proof off the wedding photographer’s website with her fuzzy inkjet printer and arranged her favorites -– watermark and all — in this cheap, repurposed plastic album. I realized the true meaning of all the other crap she held onto. It was a placeholder for the perfect love that never showed up.
I’m just like Mom. Perfect is exhausting, so I don’t try. I hold back the love and joy and caring I could be giving to myself and to others, because it might not be just right. So we all end up making do and holding onto crap, because it’s better than nothing.
Giving love, sharing your gift is an emotional risk, a huge one.
We know all our flaws, and we can see the gap between our perfect intention and our messy reality, so we edit our lives. We curate our timelines and filter our images. We even select a custom portfolio of imperfections to reveal, because they make us accessible, even charming. It goes further — we start to edit ourselves for our own consumption, creating a story about who we are that makes us feel better. We curate our feelings, our thoughts, our relationships, our past, our dreams. But sometimes it’s exactly the gap — the falling short, the not knowing, that is the greatest gift we can give.
When I performed in Taming of the Shrew (a thousand years ago), there was a line that always eluded me:
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break.
I knew what it meant literally, but I never connected with the words. I didn’t want to gloss over them or impose some kind of fakey, forced intonation. It really gnawed at me that there was this hole in my work. I loved the play, and I wanted it to be just right.
But opening night comes by the calendar, not when you feel ready. And it’s Shakespeare, for crying out loud. You can’t cut words just because they’re tricky. So when that line came, I planted my feet, held my head up and spoke clear, because sometimes that’s all you’ve got.
One night, a complete stranger found me backstage after the show. She was crying. She said, “That thing you said about being angry, and feeling like it’s going to kill you to keep it inside –”
“Oh?” I said, confused.
“That was my mother. She was always so angry. So, so angry. She couldn’t let go of things in the past. I got impatient. I told her to just stop being so negative. I never understood how she felt to have all that inside. Thank you.” She hugged me.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter whether I had a perfect performance. What mattered was that this woman heard it. My freefall through not knowing made a space for her to heal.
There’s an even bigger emotional risk, and that’s telling your truth to someone else.
What if they laugh? What if they despise you? What if they dismiss you as foolish/deluded/selfish/simple-minded/arrogant/all talk/daydreaming/petty? (Those are all the insults I hear in my head. Did I miss one of yours?)
What if they decide that you’re probably a lot of work and not worth the bother? Or God forbid, what if they find you boring?
So I’m going to tell you a story about the biggest freefall in my life, the one I still return to like a mandala garden, walking around and around to get close to the center. I may never reach it in this life, but it’s a beautiful walk.
I was an apostate. I rejected the faith I was brought up in because my newly-jaded twenty-something eyes saw that the Christian church was full of misogyny, and hypocrisy, and political machinations. I saw religious tradition as a power play by the few to oppress the minds of generations. I wanted to be free to see the world as it really is, to see people as complex, to question and find truth for myself.
But I still loved the stories, because they were beautiful. And I still loved some of my old books, because they were imaginative and uplifting. So one morning I was reading The Screwtape Letters as I brushed my teeth, and I came across this passage:
The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true… this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.
It cut me to the quick. My rejection of Christianity was supposed to be about searching for truth. But in all my questioning, all my criticism, I never even considered whether or not it was true.
After all, as I well knew, the Church teaches that the Resurrection is not a metaphor, but a historical fact. All the jargon about “bearing one’s cross” and “witnessing” is rooted in people’s claims to have seen a man die and come back to life. Not a theory or a principle, but a flesh-and-blood person, right here on the same planet I inhabit, breathing the same air.
Separate from my opinions of this institution, or those people, or some other bit of theology, what if it’s just true? What if a human being — as real in the world as my hand holding that toothbrush — somehow reversed the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Ridiculous. Impossible. But what if he did?
I hesitate to call something so homely and precarious a mystical experience, but at that moment I became aware of a Presence. Someone was there in the room with me, and He’d been waiting a long time for me to notice. Thank God I’d had enough preparation to know Who it was. It was unnerving enough, even though He’s universally held to be a Very Nice Person. I’ve heard from people who had no clue. That would have been terrifying.
At that moment, I knew I had two options. I could acknowledge that this Person was real, and alive, and quite immediately with me. I could accept the love He was so patiently trying to give me and spend the rest of my life trying to cope with it.
Or I could pretend that I was just having an emotion, or a wish, and that it wasn’t real and didn’t mean anything. And then I’d spend the rest of my life a liar.
So, as they say in altar calls, I prayed my Sinner’s Prayer: “Okay. You win.”
Some of my evangelical friends are uncomfortable with that story, because it’s messy and confusing and doesn’t check the right theological boxes. Some of my friends who aren’t big on Jesus are uncomfortable with it because — well, there’s all that Jesus in it, and it sounds suspiciously like a neurological incident instead of a philosophical insight. Some of my mainline-church friends are uncomfortable with it for pretty much the same reasons.
But it’s my truth. This discomfort, this moment where I think, “Great. Now I have to work the rest of our friendship to prove I’m worth the trouble” — this is my risk.
You see, I’ve come to understand that the antidote to perfectionism is grace. Sharing grace with yourself means aggressively, repeatedly, teaching yourself that the One who knows everything about you loves you completely. He already decided you were worth the trouble – unbelievable trouble. And you tell yourself this again and again until it changes the way you walk.
Sharing grace with other people means hearing their truth and seeing their mess, and treating them like they’re worth the trouble. Everyone’s life is a rough draft, so be tender with it. We’re all making it up as we go along.
Sharing grace means giving the love you have now. Right now, today, because it isn’t perfect and it won’t ever be, but it’s real. Not a placeholder. The real thing.
Quit rearranging those carefully filtered images, and freefall into somebody’s heart.
Plant your feet, hold your head up, and speak clear. Share your truth. Share your grace.
I’d love to know: What is your imperfect gift? Share your messy lovely self with me. Leave a comment, and invite others to join us: