Are You Okay with Not Being Perfect?

I’m not. Okay with it.

The cliche phrase is “your own worst critic,” and I certainly am. But I rationalize by saying I have high standards for myself, that I know what I’m capable of, and if I don’t live up to my standards, I’ll feel as though I’ve wasted parts of my life.

One of the things that exploring yoga and other spiritual traditions has taught me is that we’re supposed to love ourselves unconditionally, regardless of what we do or say–or do not do, or do not say. We have to love ourselves the way we love our children. That means loving ourselves even when we’re not perfect, or even close, or even ten million miles away.

For me, this practice of self love is very hard, and there are many levels. If I accomplish something, I can love myself. If I get through a hard time and see myself rise above on the other side, I can love myself. If I make all the “right” choices, I can love myself. But what if I don’t succeed? What if I’m naive or irrational and make mistakes? Can I love myself when I have a big mess to clean up that’s my own making?

It doesn’t help that the critic in me wants everything to be just right on the outside too, which has become harder after divorce and financial stress. I’m a single working mother now, but I beat myself up over having an apartment instead of a house. I want to have healthy meals on the table for dinner. I want to be 5-7 pounds thinner. religiously wake up at 5 every day to do yoga in the morning, mediate for a half hour at night. I want to write for at least an hour a day, have a “0” next to the number of emails in my inbox. I want to make sure my kids have their homework done, and done well, and be involved in their school, and have all the laundry clean and folded and put away. I want to have all my finances in order. Oh, and I want to reach enlightenment.

It’s a tall order, impossible. I’m not a robot. But with all these desires, sometimes it seems it would be easier if I were.

The thing I have to find instead of perfection is balance. Realizing that peace comes with good enough. But getting to that place isn’t easy, and good enough changes depending on the day.

That’s something I’m working on these days. Loving myself in the midst of chaos, even when I take a wrong turn, when I fear I may not meet any of the goals I’ve set for myself. Loving myself the way a divine mother loves her child–without expectation, without fear; unconditionally. Simply because I was born. Simply because I’m here.

 

Image: 6 Beach and Pier

The Strength You Didn’t Know You Had

There are some times in life you need to fall back on reserves you didn’t know you had, times you have to remind yourself what you’re made of.

For me, giving birth to my daughter was one of those times. I gave birth to three children, and each birth was vastly different. The first birth taught me sacrifice–I had a C-section with my son, because I was too scared to try other methods when the doctor said he wasn’t moving into position. My third child, my youngest, was a much easier delivery; once I had an epidural and my body relaxed, she moved naturally and I only pushed for ten minutes before she emerged. But my second delivery, the birth of my wild red-haired daughter, was more of a struggle. Because I’d had a C-section the first time around, I had to fight for the birth I wanted by leaving the obstetrics practice I was attending and choosing to sign on with a midwife. In order to prevent another C-section, I decided not to take any medication that might lessen the pain.  And even with Pitocin (synthetic hormones that intensified my contractions) I gave birth naturally after three hours of pushing and 15 hours of labor. When it was all done, I welcomed one of the most giant newborns I’d ever seen.

It made sense then, why her birth took so long. I didn’t understand during the labor. It felt like an endless struggle; no matter what I did, I couldn’t find release. But when I saw how big she was and how small I was, hindsight helped me understand. Just like in life–sometimes we don’t understand why we’re going through something until it’s over and we finally have clarity.

But what I remember often was the moment I realized I was in this thing–at least at the most intense parts of labor–alone. There was some part of myself I needed to get in touch with during that labor, a part that showed me no matter how many people were there to help and shepherd me on my way, it was up to me to get myself through. There was no going back–only forward. And I could either prolong the intensity or shorten it, depending on how willing I was to dive in. So I dove–into the deepest, darkest part of myself, the place where there were no-holds-barred, and I committed to getting that baby out. And when it was done, I was relieved and proud and elated. The work was mine alone. I had done it. Meanwhile, everyone in the room got to experience the joy.

This is what it means to find the strength that comes from within, the strength you didn’t know you had. It’s there, often as only a whisper, and then it becomes a voice that calls, a shout perhaps that says you can do it–you always could.

 

Image: “Muscles” by Lerkoz

The Marriage Chronicles

When I was married, I told my then-husband I wanted to write an anonymous blog called The Marriage Chronicles. It seemed like so many struggles married couples face happen silently, behind closed doors. You wouldn’t know two people who loved each other could feel so disconnected or suffer so much inside their pretty houses. Behind closed doors,  couples fought and questioned or lived separate lives. But on the outside, we all saw cheering on the soccer fields and cute pictures of kids on Facebook and Instagram.

Watching HBO’s Big Little Lies has reminded me again what marriage is like–what it offers and what it does not. Almost all of the couples in the show have what we think of as ideal lives–wealth, beauty, security. But Reese Witherspoon’s character Madeline is tortured with personal vendettas against community members and resentment toward her ex-husband, even as she has a current husband who tries to offer her everything she desires. Nicole Kidman’s character has passion in her marriage, but it comes at a significant and dangerous cost. (I highly recommend the show.)

When I envisioned my anonymous blog, “The Marriage Chronicles,” I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of what it was like to come home every day and struggle to have a meaningful conversation and nurture a relationship while trying to make dinner, do homework, give baths, keep a house clean. Relationships are a lot of soul work. Two people have to “get” each other, have to know how to push certain kinds of buttons and when not to push others. They have to accept another’s flaws and learn what they can live with and what they can’t. And the hard part about this is that those two people are growing on their individual journeys, too, journeys which don’t always line up.

I don’t think that getting a divorce necessarily means two people failed at marriage. I think it could be a result of marriage failing them. The model we’ve set for ourselves has a very high standard, and it needs help. Having a community or extended family can add the support a couple needs to have time for themselves. I think if we want true happiness and contentment in our lives, we need time and space for ourselves on an individual level, and not everybody has the luxury of getting that.

I still think marriage is a beautiful concept, a hopeful one. The idea that two people can commit to loving each other despite all that life throws at them, and still get through it, still find a way to grow and change and give of themselves while nurturing their individual needs–that’s a tall order.

Any advice I’d give from the other side?

Always do the individual, personal work. Working on yourself, following your own goals, having your own ambitions, knowledge, and experience–that’s something that can’t be lost, no matter what happens in your relationship months or years down the road.

Oh, and if at all possible, find a way to make and keep hold of your own money. Money in a lot of ways is power, unfortunately. Having it gives you some semblance of security in an unsecure world.

 

Image by ohsohappytogether via Flickr Creative Commons.

Kill Your Darlings (And Other Tales)

Because we’re so bombarded by information these days, it’s probably safe to say we’re reading—or consuming, rather—more words than ever. Whether it’s status updates from social media, blogs, or news sites, we tend to click our way through the day, raising an eyebrow or sharing something we find interesting. But when it comes to creative writing, there’s a big difference between consumption, information, and art.

In my own writing journey, I’ve learned a lot, but as an editor, I’ve been fortunate to be part of other people’s journeys as well. Here’s the short list of what I’ve learned about writing as an art form.

  1. Lose the Agenda

When you sit down to write, you often have an idea in mind, some moment or character or situation you’d like to capture. If you’re writing about yourself—say in an essay or blog—you may have something you want to tell other people, a lesson you’ve learned, or something you’ve noticed that you want to share. But the most important thing you can do is lose your agenda and see where the piece takes you. We may have a conscious goal as we sit down to write, but we also need to let the unconscious in. Most times, the deeper layer is the one that’s more interesting and honest.

  1. Seek Another Point of View

Because it’s so easy to get your words to a virtual audience, particularly through free formats like blogging, we may see editing as an unnecessary hassle. Who needs it when you can write exactly what you want, and quickly? But an editor has an important role, not least of which is that she or he helps the writer gain a bigger perspective on the work. Writers spend a lot of time in their heads, and they’re not always aware of how something will sound to an audience. A good editor, on the other hand, can give much-needed insight on how to better connect with that audience. Good writing is not about the ego of the writer, but about getting out of the way so the beauty can come through.

  1. Don’t Assume Every Word You Write Is Precious

Don’t be afraid to scrap sentences, paragraphs, entire pages—heck, an entire book!—when it’s not working. It’s not time wasted. Often, you have to do a lot of bad writing to get to the rich soil of goodness underneath. (A good reason to have the sentence, “Patience is a virtue,” taped on your office wall.)

  1. “Kill Your Darlings.”

When I first heard the famous phrase “Kill your darlings” in relation to writing, I didn’t get it. That’s probably because I had a lot of darlings. Now I’ve started to realize that if a sentence or line really stands out, if I really think I’m clever for writing it, that means it probably has to go. Basically, every word or sentence is like a piece of clay molding into a sculpture. If one knobby part is sticking out, it’s taking away from the whole.

  1. Use Your Finger Muscles. 

When we write on the computer, it’s easy to think of our words being set in stone. We already see them looking like a finalized document. Instead, try writing some drafts or ideas by hand, just to see where they go. You might find yourself being more creative, not to mention free. Journals are much easier to carry than laptops.

  1. Trust Your Vision and Don’t Look for Glory.

Think of a movie that really touched you but doesn’t make any “best of” lists. Or an out-of-print book that you found in a used bookstore, and you can’t figure out why it’s no longer available on shelves. Or a painting by a local artist that you think is just as good, if not better, than the stuff hanging on the walls at some of the biggest museums in the world.

The point is this—so many great and famous writers were not famous in their time. Emily Dickinson hid her poems; Thoreau published “Civil Disobedience” in a small and almost forgotten literary journal. No one thought The Great Gatsby was the greatest American novel of all time until long after Fitzgerald’s death. The key is to write what you’re led to write, not what you think others will like, not what you think will get the most page views, and not what you assume will “sell.” You may never know why a particular piece wants to be born, but if it does, honor that muse in you.

Just don’t assume that the piece you’re most proud of will earn you fame and glory in this lifetime. You only have to take a peek at literary history to see that often, just the opposite occurs.

 

Image by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

What It Takes

It’s hard to not write what you know, to not write what you’re living. Many of us divorced parents live in our own little worlds, separately from the families and married couples that surround us. Instead of cooking dinner on our kid-free nights, we eat peanut butter straight from the jar and hobble together some nuts or hummus and crackers. We find a group of friends we can talk to on our roughest days, those who are in the same situation and can understand it.

The thing I’m learning is that life is hard for everybody, no matter how you spin the dice. When I was married with kids, it was hard because there was another person to contend with, because I had career ambitions I felt were getting thwarted by my kids’ needs, and I felt powerless at times to make any change. I was overwhelmed by the openness of time, all that I should be doing. Now I’m tired by the closed-ness of time, how little there is in the bookends around the work day. I look back and think how good I had it if I could just accept it, but I suffered the daily strings and arrows just like anybody. And I try now to think of how good I have it in a lot of ways, to remember there are challenges in either situation.

No one has it easy in this life. No one gets out unscathed, even if it seems that way. We all deal with our challenges in the best way possible. The difference, it seems, is not so much in our challenges as how we choose to deal with them. I think in the past, my stress caused me to lash out, or I distracted myself by finding something small to complain about. Now–after yoga training, years of meditating, an attempt at a spiritual life through various forms, I still have challenges, but I have no illusions about what’s going on within me as I face them. I am more awake. That doesn’t make it easier, but I also know there’s no other way forward on my path.

It’s funny the advice that suits me best these days, the words that help me: cliche phrases that still maintain their age-old wisdom.

“Get up, put one foot in front of the other.”

“It is what it is.”

There’s no changing the present moment, and it will inevitably pass. There is only being inside it, breathing through it. It’s a lot like giving birth. One contraction at a time, and something new is born.

 

Image by Lucas via Flickr Creative Commons.

Starting Again

IMG_5144

Almost two years ago, I made a decision that seems short-sighted now. I closed down the online literary journal I had started with my ex-husband, The First Day. It was a decision I had to make during the dregs of divorce, when I had to figure out what to let go of and what to hold on to. I couldn’t keep up the website, and fellow editors who wanted to keep it ran into trouble because it was still listed under my ex-husband’s and my name. So I decided it had to go completely. Just like a year before, I closed down my personal blog that showcased my journey through motherhood and suburban family life, a blog I had updated and found joy in for six years.

It pains me to think of it now–all those written stories that have been lost. But each time, I did what I felt at the time I needed to do. It’s hard to move on in your new life when your feet are still half-way in the door of the old. Besides, I told myself, one day I’d start again. One day I’d find a new creative outlet. I’d get it all back.

I think that day has come.

Welcome to my new site, Janallewellyn.net. It’s my little home on the internet, with links to past articles I’ve published, contact info, and a new, updated blog that captures what it’s like, among other things, to be a divorced single mom, spiritual seeker, and communications professional.

I’ve always believed that creativity is a flame that never dies. Instead of a line with an end point, it’s a circle that regenerates. It’s a superhero characteristic that keeps getting up each time it falls, resolving to try again with an open heart. That’s what it feels like to be me these days. So much comes down to putting one foot in front of the other, accepting and embracing what life has to offer with each new breath.

I hope you enjoy as I share the journey.

 

Image taken at Bell Rock, Sedona, Arizona