On Being (Less Than) Perfect

I am flocking an artificial Christmas tree. The tree, in keeping with its own holiday tradition established some ten years ago, won’t cooperate with me. I’ve strewn the branches according to length in a semi-circle on the gravel. I’ve slathered an enviro-friendly floury paste on the branches, and still, I see green where I should be seeing white. I’m a big glutinous mess and the wild turkeys in the field below are looking on with amusement.

What’s up with this friggin’ tree, I mutter. And why do I care so much? I wonder. I shift tactics and find an old can of flocking. I shake the can and hear the disappointing tink-tink-tink, that signals nothing but empty.

As I toss the can into the bin, I remember something my painting teacher told me. I’m a beginner painter. The worst in the class. We all know it. The others are kind and delicately tiptoe around my lack of talent. I told Julie, the instructor, on the first day that I didn’t know anything—not even how to hold a brush. She watched my halting attempts. “You’re right. You don’t know anything. But I like that. “
“You do?” I asked.

“I do,” her smile never faltered. “It means you haven’t picked up bad habits. It means you might be teachable!”

During the next class, while the others painted Van Gogh-like starry nights and Chagall-inspired angels in flight, I struggled to paint a tree. Trees, I told Julie, don’t like me. We have issues, I said.

“That’s OK,” Julie said, beaming. She watched me draw a stick, then v-shaped chevrons from top to bottom.

“Branches,” I said, scowling at the woman next to me whose painting would probably win a blue ribbon at fair somewhere.

“Mmmmmmm,” Julie murmured.

“What’s up with this friggin’ tree?!” My voice quavered on the edge of a full-scale melt-down.
“This tree seems important to you. Why do you care about it so much?” Julie asked.

“I just want it to be perfect,” I pointed to the picture of a perfect tree in the painting handbook. It shimmered. It glowed green and yellow. The leaves looked like little birds about to explode into flight. For a two-dimensional tree, it bristled with movement and life. It looked nothing like my tree.
“That’s your problem,” she said. Again with that smile. “There’s no such thing as perfect. So, here’s what I want you to do. Repeat after me: nothing’s precious here.

I repeated.

“Say it again,” Julie commanded.

I did.

“Now, take your brush and slather all over this canvass your favorite colors and shapes. Forget about trees.”

And so I did. Deep purples and teal greens and blues that shivered into violet. None of made any sense. I realized, it wasn’t supposed to. And I was deliriously happy.
Julie looked at the canvass. “Do you see what happened?” she asked.

“Not really,” I admitted. “But I like it,” I said.

“You stopped trying to force something that didn’t want to happen. You stopped trying to be perfect. Now think about that,” she said and vanished to other side of the room where someone else was in full-scale melt-down mode.

Stop trying to be perfect. I am clinging to this wise bit of advice. Julie wasn’t telling me to stop trying, merely to stop trying to be perfect. And in the spaces of that advice, some corollary wisdom: Keep working, but accept the imperfection along the way. Keep striving toward a goal, but recognize that failure could be a necessary part of the journey.

I look at the branches of my artificial tree. Why does this tree and making it perfectly, evenly white matter to me? Could it be that I have convinced myself that festooning the house full of “perfect” Christmas décor would make a perfect Christmas? Perfect for whom? I have to ask myself. I wedge the branches into their color-coded holes and dance the tree up the steps. I am a lot of things, but not a quitter. I will conquer the tree, I mutter. But I can’t help noticing, as we squeeze into the house, a cascade of fake white fluttering to floor. I mutter nothing’s precious here. Nothing’s perfect and it’s not supposed to be.

A Pilgrim in Progress

Medjugorye, the town where I’m headed, appears as a small dot on the map of eastern Bosnia-Herzogovina. I struggle to pronounce the name. Medju in Croatian and Serbian means between. Gorye means mountains. To get there I travel by train from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, through the Neretva Valley. The dark river cuts through the jagged limestone mountains, like wire through cheese, hewing a

Expectations and the New Year

Each December I look forward to Christmas, to the bustle and noise and lights and cheer. I love watching exasperated parents shopping with their young children. The kids are wide eyed with wonder; the parents are dead on their feet. I send empathetic smiles their way. I could tell them that soon, very soon, the entire holiday “experience” will change.

I remember being young and feeling the magic shifting from pure excitement to expectation. Then there were the years when I was downright calculating. Santa was for the little kids, those suckers who’d believe anything and be happy with anything if it were in a big enough box and wrapped brightly enough. I was beyond that, smarter than that. Certainly, I was smarter than my parents who needed all kinds of prompting and manipulation—how else would they know what I needed in order to be happy?

I’m glad those days are over. I’m glad I had the chance to watch my own kids experience Christmas wonder and magic. And yes, they quickly figured out where gifts came from, and at a much earlier age than I did. Now the holiday season is less about what’s under the tree and more about who all is sitting around it. What a relief. I could tell those exhausted parents this, too. The magic will always be there, but the focus will move from the what to the who. Oh, how liberating, to be released from the burden of expectations, both those that I harbored and the expectations I imagined others had of me.

Now that the New Year is mere hours away, I’m mindful of the tradition of making goals and resolutions. This too is another kind of expectation-riven activity. At least, for me it has been. Traditionally I’ve made a series of ridiculous, nearly-impossible goals to meet and then when I failed miserably to meet them (sometime around mid-March), I’d spend the rest of the year feeling crummy.

So, what’s on my list for this year? Nothing. My resolutions? To make no unachievable goals or resolutions. Instead my plan is to remember the good memories and moments of the previous year. In particular, I want to cherish the people who were and are an important part of my life. I want to think about how I can convey to them how much they mean to me. I want to think about what it means to cherish life and to live more fully in the moment. Just typing these words puts a smile on my face. I feel returned to my five-year-old self who couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to see what the day might bring. And already, I’m feeling better about the New Year!

Failing Better

In an article written for aspiring writers, a famous novelist suggested that if these writers wanted to succeed at writing, they should first spend their time failing better. What an odd thing to say to writers who look to such novelists for encouragement, for formulas on how better to succeed. What an odd thing to say in a culture that frown at the word failure. But the novelist explained that failure in the pursuit of a novel is likely, even imminent.

As I read those words, I found myself nodding in agreement. Why yes, failure is likely and in fact, I have three failed novels languishing in a file cabinet. I try very hard not to think about them or the months and years I poured into creating them, disastrous as they are. “Don’t beat yourself up,” the writer admonished. Failure, as it turns out, is a healthy part of the writing process. Without it, writers wouldn’t push themselves to solve nearly insoluble problems (like how to salvage or whether to salvage those three novel drafts languishing in the file cabinet). Failure teaches us things quick success never can. Without the struggle, the story drafts won’t improve. Without the struggle, we won’t learn new techniques, or more importantly, perhaps, how to hone old techniques and make them better. Failure forces us to revisit what we think we know. The famous American inventor Thomas Edison is famous for having said “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.” What he learned through that process is that genius and success are just as much a result of determination and hard work as of “luck” or good fortune. I have his quote taped to the side of my computer. And so, when I’m in the midst of what feels like colossal failure, I remind myself that the failure is instructive, necessary even. I remind myself to look for the lesson, however small, and then to keep charging forward.


Courage is a Decision

“I never wanted to write a book. I was asked several times, but I never wanted to.” As I heard these words, my pen hesitated over my note pad. This was not what I had expected to hear, after all, Ralph had asked me to come visit him and help him write a book. But as I would soon learn over the course of the next several hours, Ralph was an exceedingly humble person. He didn’t want to “toot his own horn,” even though, I urged him to toot away. After all, Ralph is something of a celebrity in Bible smuggling circles and elsewhere.

During the cold war, Ralph quietly oversaw underground operations in which food, medicine, even printed religious materials, were gathered and distributed in countries locked behind the Iron Curtain. And while Ralph would never take credit for impacting the hearts and minds high ranking Communist officials, his courage and commitment to help others very likely contributed to the miraculous turn of events that brought down the wall separating East and West in Germany. Ralph has arguably crammed four, maybe five lives into his ninety-three years and as I sat across from him, our tuna fish sandwiches before us, I thought, I am in the presence of a hybrid mix between a quiet saint and a spit fire Indiana Jones. And like some of the saints of old and the fictitious Indiana Jones, Ralph is a man of courage. That is to say he has struck a balance between wisdom and action. He isn’t complacent. Unwilling to sit on his hands and hope for the best, Ralph has made it a habit to start each day in prayer, study of God’s Word, and in doing something for others. Like so many of us, he doesn’t know for certain what the day will bring. But he greets each one with gratitude and a sense of purpose.

As I left Ralph’s modest apartment and headed back home I thought what courageous man he is. Being a half-Jew and persecuted by the Nazis, Ralph had witnessed first-hand what hatred looked like. During the hunger years in occupied Netherlands, he stood in a church service and watched people drop of starvation all around him. “I had a choice,” Ralph said. “I could let hatred burn inside of me—and for a while it did—or I could love. I chose to love.” And what a difference in this world that courageous decision has made.

Motivation is when Dreams Roll Up their Sleeves

Hanging on the wall next to my dad’s treadmill is a little sign that reads: Motivation is when dreams roll up their sleeves. I love this sign. When I’m on that treadmill and really wishing I could stop, I look at that sign and for some crazy reason, it keeps me going.

Lately I’ve been thinking about motivation. I’ve been wondering why do some people succeed in achieving their dreams when others don’t? I work at a university and I am daily surrounded by intelligent and interesting students, all of whom have big dreams. They want to continue studying in graduate schools, make movies in Hollywood or publish stories in The New Yorker. One young woman told me that she knew her life story was so amazing, so original that it would make an incredible movie. She had already imagined herself on a worldwide lecture/speaking tour. That’s how amazing her story was and how sure she was that the rest of the world would want to hear it. “I just need to write everything down and shape it into a book or something,” she said to me. “That’s a good first step,” I said. “Just out of curiosity, how far along are you on that writing and shaping stuff?” I asked. “Oh. I haven’t started yet. But I will. And once I finish,” she assured me, “I can start making international speaking engagements.” Seven years have passed since we had the conversation. The world has not seen or heard her story.

Another student visited me in my office one day. I had seen some of his creative work and knew that he had more talent than most at his age. He sat down in the chair opposite of mine and said, “I want to be a world class writer. Do you think I will be someday?” I looked at him and said, “I don’t know. How hard are you willing to work?” He seemed surprised by the question. “Well. I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he stammered. “I mean I guess I thought it all was a matter of talent and luck and maybe connections with the right people.”

“Well you’re right about talent and connections. To be world class you’ll need talent and having connections is handy. Luck can’t be counted on so I don’t know what to say about that. But I will tell you that all the talent in the world won’t get you very far if you aren’t willing to work really hard.” He left my office and I’ve not heard from him since.

And I’m left puzzling over that question: why didn’t the big dream materialize for these two highly talented, artistic and creative people? And the answer is, as so many answers are, ridiculously simple, but not easy. Big Dream achievers are willing to put the time, energy, effort, passion, and patience into seeing a project through from start to finish. This is not easy. Pop psychologist Malcom Gladwell made his reputation suggesting that anyone could be a world class whatever (athlete, businessperson, artist, etc.) if he or she were willing to put in 10,000 hours into building the skills necessary to achieve the desired outcome. Recent studies have suggested it takes quite a few more hours than that and that possibly some people simply can’t master certain skills no matter how hard they try. But the point Gladwell makes it well taken. At least by me. If I want to achieve some of the goals I have on my very long goal list, then I had better be willing to roll up my sleeves and do some serious work. And no, my talking about it with my friends or griping that I haven’t reached my goal does not count as “working toward the goal.” The answer, I know, is simple but not easy. Time to roll up those sleeves and get to work!

The Power of an Encouraging Word

Not far from where we live are several large fields that often act as resting and roosting grounds for a multitude of Canadian Geese. I love watching them. One minute they are loitering noisily in the grass and the next minute two or three hundred of them will, without warning, take to the air, beating their wings in a rapid flurry. For half a minute or so the sky turns from light grey to a murky charcoal grey as the birds churn the air and establish a flight pattern. Sometimes they form a wobbling letter S in the sky or sometimes a W. But more often than not, they fly in a V formation. I had always thought the reason why had to do with aerodynamics, wind factor, or drag. I had assumed that the bird at the point was acting as a windbreak for the rest of the birds.

Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine who is a passionate birder. He told me that the reason why geese typically prefer to fly in a tight V formation had nothing to do with aerodynamics. It had everything to do with group dynamics. The birds at the edges of the V formation can’t see the bird at the point. They can only see the bird that is in front them. But if they maintain the V shaped formation, they can hear he bird at the point. And this is why they fly that way: they need to hear each other to know when to change direction or to adjust their speed. This is the reason why they honk so much. The honking gives them valuable information about where everyone is in the formation and where the whole group is going. “And,” my friend said with a big smile, “honking is how geese encourage each other. They honk when they sense a bird in the group is getting tired and it’s time to slow down. They honk if a bird has started to stray. They honk to tell each other to keep going.”

I’ve been thinking a bit about this honking business. It seems to me that people are very much like geese. We need to know where we are going and if we’re headed in the right direction. We need to hear from trusted friends if we’re straying. And when we get tired, we need to be encouraged.

I’ve been lucky to have some encouragers in my life. I’ll never forget the time when some thirty five years ago, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, said to me one day, “Gina, you’ve got an interesting imagination. I’m excited to see how you’ll use that some day.” This came in response to an essay we were supposed to write about what we’d done over summer break. It was supposed to be a factual account. I hadn’t done much of anything, so I just made up a bunch of stuff: I completed a solo climb of Mt. Everest (without an oxygen tank), had been hired on a stunt crew for Star Wars but quit to start fifth grade, and had struck up a friendship with Chuck Norris who told me I had hands and feet of steel. Yes, I had lied shamelessly in that essay. But instead of pointing out the obvious, Mrs. Williams saw an opportunity to encourage a clearly delusional eleven year old. That act of kindness made an indelible imprint on me. From that day forward, because someone told me I had an imagination, I believed it. I began writing short stories that no one (thank God) will ever see. But I kept at it because someone told me I could. Now, thirty years later, I write full time and I use my imagination and I love every minute I spend writing.

How is any of this relevant to anyone else? Why should anybody care about how geese fly or a fifth grade teacher’s comment to a student? The answer is because encouragement empowers people. A well-timed, authentic, positive word can radically alter someone’s opinion and/or beliefs about him or herself. I remember just a few months ago going to a gym to meet with a personal trainer named Joe. I was very nervous about this. I didn’t want Joe to see how unfit I really was. Silly, I know, because the whole point of meeting with a trainer is so that they can honestly assess strengths and weaknesses and develop a plan to address those. Anyway, one of the assessment pieces was to do as many pull-ups as possible. I gripped the bar and I pulled with my arms as hard as I possibly could. My body barely moved. I dangled there like a sad piñata. Joe looked at me and said, “Nice hanging position. Good grip on the bar. This is a good start. In a few months you’ll be doing pull-ups like nobody’s business. ” He could have said “Wow. That’s the saddest attempt at a pull-up I’ve seen in over ten years, “ or “Gee. You really ARE out of shape.” Instead, he took what was clearly a disappointing moment for me and chose to find something positive in it.

This is the power of encouragement. It transforms what could be a negative event, experience or feeling into something useful and positive. Because of that trainer’s insistence of finding something positive to build on, I have kept going back to his gym where I’ve noticed others following the example he’s set. I’m hearing people complement one another on their effort level and cheer and shout when someone gets a PR. This kind of encouragement is contagious. When I hear a positive word it makes me want to give one to someone else, as well. So on those days when it seems like nothing is going my way, I try to make it a point to say something encouraging to someone else. It’s me honking and struggling to keep up at the end of V. And it never fails: that person will smile and offer a positive word to me. And then all this struggling and flapping in the wind feels like it makes a little more sense. I’m flapping alongside others and they have their struggles, too. We are all wayfarers and sojourners on a long journey. We need each other to remember where we’re going and why. We need to remember we’re not journeying all alone.

Thoughts on Writing, Children and the Importance of Noise

Ours are of the noisy variety. Even now as I type these words the TV in one room blares and an Air-Soft gun battle rages in the backyard. No one is watching that TV, by the way. It’s just bright noise reminding us all that ours is not a quiet household. Nor is it particularly tidy. In the bathtub a flotilla of headless Barbies has jambed the drain and this is a source of endless and loud delight to at least half a dozen neighborhood kids anytime one of them barrels down the hallway to use the bathroom. The noise I have accepted. Our kids can’t breath without doing it loudly. It’s just their way. One night after they’d been tucked into bed at their end of the house, my husband and I lay in our bed at the other end of the house. Through closed doors we could hear them whispering. Even their whispers are loud and we could distincly hear what they were saying.

„When you and me grow up, we’ll be roommates,” one of the boys rasped. „We’ll get four really big dogs.”
„Yeah,” said his younger brother, „and a set of drums.”
Beside me my husband groaned, „Oh, dear Lord, please . . no.”

But I’m not sure that I would want to change the noise, the bustling, the general chaos. Somehow it seems to work for us: the suitcase races through the hallway, early morning serenades to the theme song of Sponge Bob Square Pants. It’s who and how the children are right now and I’ve learned how to work with and expect the noise. In fact I volunteer now more than ever at their school simply so that I can hear what third, fourth and fifth graders have to say. And I’m never disappointed.
A few months ago it was my turn to drive a full carload of fifth grade boys back to their school after a long field trip and I noticed that three of the boys had started up a game called Raining Hammers and Falling Fists. It’s a physical game that involves two boys pummelling another boy until that boy calls time out, or better yet, begs for mercy. I turned to one of the fifth graders sitting behind me and asked: „When do boys get mean?”

A grin slowly spread across his face: „The fourth grade!” As if, duh, Mrs Ochsner, it’s written the school manual.
The substance of his reply didn’t surprise me as much as his absolute willlingness to entertain my quesion. I sensed, too, that he was surprised to learn that an adult could forget a certain „truth” of adolescence that had been hard-earned and seemingly branded into his understanding.
Still, I’m grateful anytime the boys will take me into their confidence, no matter how brief the encounter or seemingly insignificant the information It is a glimipse into a world I have, for the most part forgotten. Its as if they’ve handed me a kaleidoscope and with a few corrective words, a few clicks of the ring, the colored pieces tumble and collide into a vivd clarity. Then I see the world of adults as they might, as I seemed to have remembered it as a child: utterly foreign and futile, repetitive and incomprehenisble, pompouse and strange. From this realm of stinging clarity with their intuitive ability to apprehend a thing for what it is at its essential core minus the rhetoric of power or manipulation, children possess an uncanny wisdom.

For starters, the kids have shown me that they understand intuitively that people are more important than projects. The other day my son, who is thirteen and has skated cleanly into the realm of utter Cooldom was sitting next to me as we drove home from school. It was raining and the windshield wipers shushed and squeaked. I asked him about his day.
He turned to me and said. “Mom, I told my English teacher that you were a writer and she wanted to know if you were very famous or not. Are you?
“She wanted to know if you’re famous like Stephen King or J.K. Rawlings.”
“I’m sorry, Sugar, I’m not.”
“Has anybody heard of you?”
“Probably not.”
The car grew quiet and as the wipers hummed and swished and I could see that he was thinking, really thinking. He knit his eyebrows together and pushed his jaw out. “Well, that’s OK. I fly pretty low under the radar, too.”
I really wanted to throw an arm around his neck and give him a sideways hug, but as there was a car full of cute girls in the lane next to us, I knew better. And I marveled at his wisdom which, I am ashamed to admit, I had not allowed in him. He understood that the measure of our worth is not in what we produce or how the rest of the world receives it. It’s not about earning the gold stars.