I sometimes feel like a juggler who is barely keeping up, but is constantly having bowling pins thrown at him. Or perhaps they’re chainsaws.
I wrote about that sense of overwhelm (yes, that’s a verb that needed to be nouned) in a recent post, Failure to Adult. Yesterday I had yet another minor freakout about some stressful things going on–I won’t bore you with them, because they’re mundane. But I realized that I was in dire need of some perspective: my basic needs are being met, my family is healthy, I have gratifying work and a loving family.
Perspective comes in all kinds of ways… like this sign:
In case you’re having trouble reading it, it’s a sign alerting people with nut allergies to the fact that chestnuts would be displayed in open bins. This sign went up in early December–the “holiday season” in question–and was still on display as of May 20 at 11:30 a.m. when I snapped this picture like some weird grocery-store stalker. Unless chestnuts are the hot new Memorial Day item, this sign is five months out of date.
Barbara Brown Taylor likes to ask groups she speaks to, “What’s saving your life right now?” What’s saving my life right now is that dang sign–or at least, what the sign represents. This is the grocery-store equivalent of having your Christmas decorations up until spring. Or it’s like the friend of mine who dropped off her kids at school today and saw other kids piling up supplies for an upcoming event on a table and realizing she’d completely forgotten.
I’ve decided that pretty much 100% of people feel this way–and apparently, some local businesses too.
I find it oddly comforting that, whether consciously or unconsciously, the various store personnel who pass this sign every day have determined there are more important things to worry about than getting the sign down. It’s not hurting business. It’s not in the way. And hey, come November they’ll be ahead of the game.
I was “bequeathed” a few of my father’s writings, which are precious artifacts to me. Some were written for publication; others are more personal. One of the more personal ones dealt with a simple home improvement project that went wrong. In addition to feeling frustrated, my dad began hearing his own father’s voice in his head, berating him for not knowing how to do something so simple. The louder the voice got, the more my dad tried to hammer away at the problem, making it worse and worse, literally knocking holes in the wall in his shame. No matter how he tried, he could not silence the voice: You should know how to do this. What kind of man are you?
The people involved are all deceased, which is one reason I feel I can share those bare-bones details. The other reason is this: Don’t most of us struggle with shame scripts from time to time? Brené Brown wouldn’t be a bestselling author if we didn’t.
Even if your parent didn’t speak this language, you have probably picked up some of the basic messages of shame. Brené articulates them as: Not good enough. Who do you think you are?
Robert and I have been slowly making headway on some long pending home projects. (Long pending.) Sunday morning I went on a long run and when I got back I decided to take advantage of my already-sweaty status and tackle the garage. Over the next several hours I sorted a bunch of items for donation, boxed up little-kid toys for the attic, and collected all the outdoor toys into a single place in the garage. As I left for Goodwill with the back of the van piled high with stuff, I proudly announced to Robert that we were probably one weekend away from being able to park our van in the garage for the first time in James’s life.
It was an amazing feeling.
Late in the afternoon Robert and I set about putting the boxes of Christmas decorations back in the attic. (Yes, mid-April… and that’s not even our record. June 25 is the magic day on which the next Christmas is closer than the previous one, so why bother putting the boxes away?)
As I started to hand up boxes of ornaments and ceramic figurines, I heard him say “Umm… hold up a second. Yeah, stand back.”
Then down through the hole came a shower of debris: empty box after empty box, large styrofoam pieces–old storage for computer monitors, desktops and other household appliances we don’t even own anymore.
I began to hyperventilate, and it wasn’t from the dust.
Here I had spent the entire day getting the garage in order, and we were trashing it out again! This wasn’t a rational response, of course. I knew intellectually that one trip to the recycling center would do it–and that’s exactly what happened. And it’s great to have more space in the attic.
But with each cascade of boxes came this voice in my head: You call yourself a competent adult? Look at this stuff you haven’t dealt with… for years! You will never conquer the chaos and clutter in your life. There will always be more–more than you can ever handle.
I realized that keeping up with the Joneses can take many forms. Some people are lured by the Joneses’ shiny new toys, or the Jones children’s impeccable manners and shelf full of trophies.
My trigger is competence. I often feel like there’s this body of knowledge about adulthood that I somehow missed. Our dishwasher recently started leaking and it turns out we needed to clean the seal from time to time. Where in the heck were we supposed to pick up this information?
As the Internet leaves its infancy and adolescence, we’re seeing more and more studies on the effect of social media on happiness. I’ve read a lot of it and it’s a mixed bag–there are net positives and net negatives. But I do know that Facebook and other sites have given us insidious new ways of comparing every one else’s outsides to our insides, which is never a formula for a wholehearted life. Our real-life messiness will always lose out to everyone else’s carefully curated personas. Blessed be those who will post the graphic like the one above. Blessed be the pockets of radical honesty where a super capable person I know can say, “It’s April 18 and my taxes are a mess. I have done nothing. Help.”
I talk to many friends and colleagues recently who struggle with some version of impostor syndrome: If people found out how screwed up I was, I’d be fired/ridiculed/judged. A woman and pastor colleague who serves a large church told me several years ago, “I feel like I’m always fifteen minutes away from complete embarrassment.”
Not good enough. Who do you think you are?
As I continue to reflect on Sunday’s experience of cascading boxes, I’m trying to confront those messages in my head as the shame-poisoned lie that they are. Yeah, life is chaotic, and I’ll never have it figured out. But I’m trying to practice radical kindness toward myself in the process.
Last week at The Well, one of my colleagues quoted that beautiful line from Ram Dass: We’re all just walking each other home.That’s what I’ve been trying to hear over the din of not good enough.
These conversations need to leave the quiet moments behind closed doors. I hate that our culture doesn’t reward this kind of truth telling. But you know what? We are culture. We have the power to move toward greater authenticity with one another. I hope we will.
So I wrote a thing the other day that provoked some strong reactions.
I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years and have managed to fly under the radar for much of that time. For many years, I joked that my blog was down the dirt road and past the rusted-out gas station, and I liked it that way. I had a small group of readers, consisting of folks I knew and strangers who were amiable and thoughtful even when they disagreed. It was a great place to try out new ideas. Blogging is ideal for putting stuff out there even when the toothpick doesn’t come out clean.
I know people who’ve been trolled mercilessly, even threatened, on the Internet; and I know it can be harder for women, who often deal with rape threats and other violent or misogynistic comments. We’re learning more about the psychology of trolls—these folks are more likely to exhibit behaviors correlating with the so-called Dark Tetrad of personality: sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
I’ve had a pretty great experience online. I still say that, even after spending a good part of the last few days wading through emails and comments that have come in as a result of the TIME.com article and this blog post. It’s been an interesting sociological study and occasion for self-reflection. What does vigorous engagement look like? How do we disagree online and in real life? How do we influence and persuade one another? How do we show graciousness when our “side” has prevailed?
Some of this week’s emails got quickly deleted, e.g. those that mainly consisted of quoting the Apostle Paul. Trust me, I’m familiar with his work.
Similarly, messages employing all caps, excessive exclamation points, etc. I don’t allow people I know to yell at me; do you really think I’m going to let you?
Other responses contained factual inaccuracies about the decision that was made or had a legitimate gripe about what happened. My rule of thumb has always been that those folks deserve one response, so if I have time, I’ll respond in good faith. Then it’s their move. If they show a genuine effort to engage, I may continue. If they escalate the nastiness, I’m through. Life’s too short.
But then there were a few messages that got to me. And upon reflection, it’s not the trolls that do it. They are so over the top as to be instantly disregarded.
It’s the people who wrote out of their own authentic experience… especially those who were honest in naming their pain.
One person began a note by saying, “I cried when that marriage decision was made too, but for the exact opposite reason that you did.”
Hey. I feel the way I do, and the person’s email doesn’t change that. But how can you not be moved by that?
I keep thinking about James Baldwin’s words: I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
This person refused to be a knee-jerk hater, instead responding from a deeper place. The emailer shared an experience of pain, and with a complete stranger, no less. I honor that. It has stuck with me.
Many people are pained by what happened. I don’t understand it. I honestly believe that this is a faithful decision biblically, theologically and pastorally. I further believe that gay marriage won’t be a cultural cataclysm, just as interracial marriage wasn’t. But I appreciate the pain the General Assembly’s decision is bringing to people. And part of our action at GA was for the church to put a process in place of engaging with people who are pained.
How do we do that? The church has been arguing about LGBT issues for decades. There’s really nothing much left to say. Let’s stop trying to convince each other we’re right. So what’s next? Authenticity is next. Vulnerability is next. Sharing our broken places with one another is next.
The whole thing has been surreal and fun and wonderful. (Read more here.) I’m humbled by everyone who’s shared the links with friends on Facebook and elsewhere. And I’m grateful for emails and messages from people I don’t even know—including a rabbi who shared some of his own Shabbat resources. Lovely.
I’ve watched the segment once. If I could watch just the parts with my kids, I’d watch it again. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong. The PBS folks did an excellent job. I just can’t bear watching myself on video. (Me and Daniel Radcliffe.)
But even with a single viewing, one moment from the segment stuck out. Robert and Iaughed and exchanged a knowing look when we saw it:
Do you see what caught our eye?
It’s the lamp. It’s missing a lampshade. You may not have noticed, but for us, it is The Iconic Image of the whole piece. That lamp tells you everything you need to know about Sabbath.
I broke the lampshade in a fit of cleaning. I was sweeping and the whole thing fell over and shattered… requiring me to sweep a second time, by the way, because it’s a cruel cruel world!
The thing is—and here’s the vital piece; here’s what I need to explain about Sabbath—I broke it a good four, five months ago. Seriously, that lamp’s been a bare bulb since… well, since 2012. Turns out it’s stupidly complicated to replace. IKEA doesn’t stock the shade separately. So we’re stuck either replacing the entire lamp (which is wasteful) or hunting around for a lampshade that’s the right size, attaches in the same way as the old one, etc. Which involves time we don’t have. OK, I’ll be precise: we do have time to do that, we’ve just done other things instead.
And I can be all philosophical about that. We choose to carve out some time each weekend to rest and play, which means we are not on top of the home projects. But I’ll be honest. I don’t like that bare bulb. Its glaring light reveals everything that’s unfinished and chaotic about this period of our lives. Life with kids is one long bare-bulbed existence. The stain in the carpet that won’t come out. The perennial jumble of stuff on top of the dresser. The wet beach towels slung over the doorway that don’t ever get put away because after all, swim practice is gonna come around again. And that’s the way life is.
The problem is, we don’t show the bare bulb to each other. We’re embarrassed by the bare bulb. I am. But the bare bulb is real. Maybe the bare bulb is the truest thing about ourselves.
I recently watched a promotional video for a book that’s coming out, written by a wildly popular mommy blogger. Let me say that I will probably buy this book. I like her stuff. The author is wise. And her message is: Let’s get real with each other. And she delivers this message while sitting on an impeccable white couch.
A white couch.
What lunacy is this! I can’t even wear a white shirt without inviting pen marks, chocolate milk and blueberry smears. But white furniture? That is varsity, baby. That is ninja motherhood.
As she talks about how hard parenting is—and it is, and I have no reason to doubt it’s hard for her too—we see some B-roll of her stocking a dresser drawer with a stack of diapers. And I think about the seven years we had kids in diapers and how the diapers never, ever made it into a dresser drawer. They went straight from bag to butt.
I wish her all the best. This isn’t a me v. her thing. This is about packaging. This is about getting caught in that thing we all get caught in sooner or later, between what we allow other people to see and what is authentically us.
So let my bare-bulbed lamp be my truth in advertising, my Good Housekeeping seal. If I ever give the appearance of having it all together, just remember the light bulb. And if I ever resort to superficial half-truths about this wildly complicated world we live in, remind me of the light bulb.
Because yes, Sabbath is a practice that can save our lives. It can help us savor time, to see it as a gift, and not as a thing to be julienned into manageable pieces.
But Sabbath will also wreck your life, because Sabbath is an act of love, and love wrecks your life. Things will go undone—things you care about. Stuff might even break, and be hard or impossible to replace. If you’re lucky, it won’t happen on national television. But if it does, maybe Sabbath will give you the space to laugh and exchange a knowing look with someone who gets it.
My friend Mary Allison is hosting a “reality project” at her blog, in which people are invited to share pictures of the chaos in their homes as a way of truth-telling. She writes, “These scenes represent the new normal of modern motherhood where everything does not have its place.” There are some great photos there and I agree that humor is the best medicine when it comes to these crazy unrealistic expectations many of us have placed on ourselves.
I love the idea behind the reality project, but I have to come at it from a different perspective. The fact is, clutter negatively impacts my sanity. It’s not to say that my house is free of clutter—it is SO not. Nor does everything in my house have a place. But I cannot let things go more than a couple of days before I begin to unravel mentally. That’s when the White Tornado sweeps through the house. (My husband bestowed that nickname on me.)
So I’ve gotta let it all hang out in other ways.
But lest anyone dub me Ms. Hospital Corners, here is my contribution to the reality project. For those of you who say, “I don’t know how you find the time to do everything you do,” well… here comes some truth:
1. We have no mirror in our bathroom, thanks to a stalled remodel project from well more than a year ago. Also, one of the lights is burned out, and will remain so until they all go and I suddenly realize “Hey. It’s dark in here.”
2. Our Christmas decorations never got put away two Christmases ago. Instead they sat in our garage for all of 2010. Which made setup much easier last Christmas, so there’s that.
3. Our “magazine basket” has three-year-old reading material in it.
4. I’ve kept Netflix DVDs for the better part of a year.
5. On multiple occasions.
6. I use our minivan for temporary storage when I just can’t handle putting stuff away. Current items include a bag of hand-me-downs, a couple of winter jackets, and a broken princess tiara that I would like to Toy Rapture but will get in trouble for if I do.
7. One of our kitchen drawers fell apart, so we’ve got a big bowl of cooking utensils sitting in the corner of our blue room.
8. I haven’t balanced my checkbook in years. Years. Thank God for balance inquiry via ATM and online.
9. All of the booty that we buy from CostCo (paper goods, snacks) is stacked in a mountainous blob along one wall in our basement, such that there is a 2-foot-wide path to the washing machine…
10. …Which has some pillows and blankets in front of it that I haven’t washed for a year or two.
Wow, I came up with these 10 without even thinking hard. I could go on, but you get the idea.
It’s your turn. Tell a little truth today.
And anyone commenting that they have it all together, or recoiling in self-righteous horror, will be pelted by the alphabet magnets on my fridge that go with a LeapFrog game that disappeared five years ago.