Sometimes as I am reading a book, there will be a passage I read that really speaks truth to me beyond the pages of the book. It can be in a novel, a children’s picture book, a memoir, or another work of nonfiction. It may or may not be integral to the theme and purpose of the book. Then again it might not. There is a passage in Pat Conroy’s Beach Music where he describes eating a tomato sandwich made with those ripe, beautiful tomatoes you go out into your yard to pick, the ones that will leave juice running down your chin. In the grand scheme of the book, this passage is not terribly significant. But it made me stop, reread, remember, and smile. It took me back to the tomatoes my grandfather planted in our yard when I was a child and how I would steal the salt shaker and go outside to pick myself a snack.
From time to time in this blog, I plan to share such passages with you. They may be like the one above which evoke a feeling or a memory. They may be more like the one I’m sharing today that made me recognize a truth and really stop to think about how it plays out in my life and experience.
I love reading about people’s lives and often pick up biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. I frequently select a book about someone who altered the course of history – Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu. Some of my very favorite memoirs have been written by people I have never heard of who had an unusual story to share. (I’ll include a short list of some of these at the end.) While I really enjoy memoirs and biographies, I don’t tend to gravitate to popular entertainment celebrities unless there is something compelling outside of their fame. Recently I read The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines. There is something about this couple that is very real and charismatic. I enjoyed reading the story of their time together from when they met up through the time when they stumbled into landing a television show. Toward the end of the book, I read the following passages and felt like Joanna Gaines had written something so true that I needed to save the passage. She said:
“So what if my house wasn’t perfect?
“It was perfect just the way it was.
“I realized that my determination to make things perfect meant I was chasing an empty obsession all day long. Nothing was ever going to be perfect the way I had envisioned it in the past. Did I want to keep spending my energy on that effort, or did I want to step out of that obsession and to enjoy my kids, maybe allowing myself to get messy right along with them in the process?
“I chose the latter – and that made all the difference.
“This revelation was so much more than a lightbulb turning on in my head. I felt as if a hundred pounds got lifted off my shoulders that afternoon. I remember sitting there on that sofa going, ‘Holy cow. I can breathe.’
“It all came down to a mind shift in which I asked myself, ‘What am I going for in life? Was it to achieve somebody else’s idea of what a perfect home should look like? Or was it to live fully in the perfection of the home and family I have?’” p. 144-145
“It’s funny that these revelatory moments of mine happened on couches in two different houses, and I wonder why that is. But I don’t have to wonder about the results of those moments.
“Shortly after I sat on the couch at the Castle Heights house and really noticed for the first time that I wasn’t happy, even though I’d worked so hard to make everything look perfect, I had a conversation with a friend of mine. I was exhausted all of the time, and I said to this friend: ‘I feel like I’m just surviving at this point. I’m not thriving.’
“Once I was in the Carriage Square house and embracing the laughter and messiness of my kids and not cleaning all day long, I realized that it was up to me to flip that switch from surviving to thriving. It was just a mental shift, a readjustment in my way of thinking – like seeing my kids’ fingerprints as kind of cute instead of a miserable mess.
Then I got to thinking about the bigger picture: If I’m going to sit around and say I am ‘just surviving’ every day, well, guess what? When a big wave comes along suddenly, I won’t be surviving – I’ll be drowning!
“I mean, that’s life. Life is never predictable. Life is never really manageable. If your mind-set is always, ‘I’m just surviving,’ it seems to me that would wind up being your mind-set for the rest of your life. You’d just get stuck in it.
“So I finally flipped the switch in my mind. I said, ‘I have to choose to thrive, even in the pain. Even when it’s tough.’ And it was tough.” p. 147-148
Now those of you who know me need to stop laughing at this point thinking that I am claiming to have ever worried about perfection in my home! I enjoy having a nice, cozy home. I love when people tell me that they feel comfortable here, that they can kick off their shoes and put their feet up. They can open the fridge and get something to eat or drink. I like being surrounded by things that give me pleasure (hence all the books and photographs). However, cleaning and keeping it completely picked up and spotless are not really high on my list of priorities. I usually say that I try to keep it somewhere this side of the health department showing up.
It wasn’t Joanna Gaines’ obsession with keeping the house perfect that spoke to me. It was her revelation that chasing an “empty obsession” and trying to obtain the unobtainable that resonated. I have done that for much of my life. In my case it wasn’t the keeping up of appearances through a perfect house. Instead it was the keeping up of the appearance that I had it all together in my life. That I was strong. That I was independent. That I could handle things. That I was self-assured.
I grew up in a home where appearances meant a lot. What would the neighbors think? That doesn’t look good. You have a role to fulfill and you need to follow the rules. I remember calling my sister the first time I heard Miranda Lambert’s song “Mama’s Broken Heart.” I knew she’d get it. And she did. There were lines in that song that screamed out to me:
“…I can hear her now sayin’ she ain’t gonna have it
Don’t matter how you feel, it only matters how you look
Go and fix your makeup, girl, it’s just a break up
Run and hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady
‘Cause I raised you better, gotta keep it together
Even when you fall apart…
My mama came from a softer generation
Where you get a grip and bite your lip just to save a little face
Powder your nose, paint your toes
Line your lips and keep ‘em closed
Cross your legs, dot your eyes
And never let ‘em see you cry”
Mom and Dad both put a lot of stock in what others think and what judgment would be passed if they didn’t fit the role that they had been assigned or took on in their lives. Is this car sending the right image? Does the house look picture ready? Is every hair in place, the makeup applied beautifully, and the full ensemble perfectly coordinated? When someone comes to the house, will they walk away and speak well of how it looked and how clean it was and how perfectly they were entertained? They taught me to worry over public opinion and keeping up with the Joneses. It may have been the lesson I learned most fully in my life, and therefore, it became the hardest to shake when I wanted to abandon it.
In school I never participated in class. I was sure that my idea would be wrong or, even worse, laughable. Time after time I listened as one of the bright kids would speak and the teacher would gush over an idea that I had but didn’t share. I joined in conversations and never disagreed, never spoke my opinion. I echoed. I don’t know that I saw it back then, but I’m pretty sure now that most people had no idea who I was. I was never in the office so they principal didn’t know me. I was average and quiet in class so the teachers didn’t know me. And I was too busy trying to figure out who I wanted to seem to be that there were times I didn’t know me.
I became the pleaser. A role I held for many, many, many years. (And truth be told, it is something I struggle with still.) My people pleasing wasn’t limited to pleasing my parents. I wanted to be accepted and tried to behave the way I thought would allow me to fit in. I “liked” the same things everyone else did. I “believed” what others said was right. I took that attitude into my marriage and served myself up as the doormat, basically. I did what I could to fit in. The problem was that it never worked!
I didn’t fit in. And I wasn’t happy either. Now and then I would capture a glimpse of who I was and what I really liked but turned a blind eye to it. Fear of not being accepted, of being judged and found wanting, made me jump away from any risk. I once auditioned for the acting troupe of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire and was accepted. It was the first time in many years that I had stepped out of what had become my comfort zone. And then what did I hear? I was asked, “What do you think you’re doing? You’re a single mother. You can’t be abandoning your child like this.” (I feel compelled to defend myself and tell you that the time commitment was one night a week rehearsing until we opened and only weekends after that. Also, being a teacher meant that I had the whole week with him.) At the first criticism, I turned tail and ran back to the safety of what was expected. It still disappoints me that I shortchanged myself of that opportunity by trying to win approval from someone with expectations that I usually fell short of.
I came to a point where I realized that most of the things that I had wanted and the things I had loved when I was young were not a part of my life. I was a full-grown woman and still didn’t know who I was. I joked that I went from being Pete’s daughter, to Jerry’s wife, to Travis’s mother. I’d conclude with, “someday I’ll find out who Lynne is.”
At times the people-pleasing takes the shape of trying very hard to be what everyone wants and wondering if I have done something to anger people. I wonder about what others are doing and thinking and where I fit in. Depression speaks to me most in these moments. It whispers in my ear, “Of course they’re all doing things and you aren’t included. They don’t want you around.” It screams, “You’re the fifth wheel.”
Over the years I had fleeting looks at the truth that Joanna found. Each time caused my resolve to grow and expand. At times it has even flourished. I read Anna Quindlen’s short, powerful book Being Perfect. I remember discussing some of the concepts in it with my mother, telling her about the idea that excellence and perfection are not the same. She saw no difference and told me that they were the same, you are perfect or no good. That opened a window for me into what I had been trying for and where the pressure I was putting on myself originated. I have gone back to reread this book multiple times along with another of her books, A Short Guide to a Happy Life.
Over time I learned to stand up for myself and try to be authentic. Sometimes I have over-compensated and more often than not, I still have trouble because I want to fit in. I’m fearless when I’m writing, but have a difficult time face to face with explaining myself, defending an idea, expressing my feelings, and especially standing up to someone being critical. I lose my words and ideas. I babble. I stammer. It is uncomfortable. The more what I have to say matters, the more I love or care for the other person, the less likely I will be able to say what is in my heart with any eloquence or effectiveness. I’m braver with strangers, but what they think will only matter in the moment. The exception to this rule is when I’m treated as if I am stupid or I am accused of being or saying something that I abhor. Then the anger rears up and I can speak…just when I probably should breathe and think, but I can speak!
As I age, I am more and more able to let go of what others think. I’m not there yet, but I’ve traveled further and further down the path to being authentic. Joanna talks about flipping a switch. I’ve done that, but it sometimes flips back. In the last year I have actively sought out help with this. I’ve had some very good advice. I’ve had my perspective challenged. I have read some books and articles and watched some wonderful video on TED Talks (TED.com) that have challenged me and made me question myself when the depression speaks or I start worrying about whether I’m pleasing someone else.
So when I read Joanna’s words, they rang true to what I’ve been feeling and learning. She spoke my heart. In subsequent readings I put my situation into her words. What I was reading became, “It all came down to a mind shift in which I asked myself, ‘What am I going for in life? Was it to achieve somebody else’s idea of what a perfect [person] should look like? Or was it to live fully in the perfection of the [woman God created me to be]?’…Life is never predictable. Life is never really manageable. If your mind-set is always, “I’m just surviving,” it seems to me that would wind up being your mind-set for the rest of your life. You’d just get stuck in it. So I finally flipped the switch in my mind. I said, “I have to choose to thrive…”
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS BLOG POST OR THAT HAVE HELPED ME ALONG THIS PATH:
A dozen of the MEMOIRS that I have chosen in the past that you might never find on your own…
- Albom, Mitch – Tuesdays with More (okay, this was a best seller, but it isn’t in the news any more)
- Bryson, Bill – The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
- Deedy, Carmen Agra – 14 Cows for America
- Gaines, Chip & Joanna – The Magnolia Story
- Hall, Ron and Denver Moore – The Same Kind of Different as Me
- McBride, James – The Color of Water – A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
- Ozma, Alice – The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared
- Pollack, John – Cork Boat: A True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built
- Ralston, Jeannie – The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected
- Tada, Joni Eareckson – Joni: An Unforgettable Story
- Woodson, Jacqueline – Brown Girl Dreaming
- Walls, Jeannette – The Glass Castle
click on the book cover below for more information:
TEN BOOKS TO HELP YOU MOVE FROM STRIVING TO THRIVING
- Andrews, Andy – The Traveler’s Gift: Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success
- Andrews, Andy – The Noticer
- Blanchard, Ken – The Generosity Factor: Discover the Joy of Giving Your Time, Talent, and Treasure
- Brown, Brené – The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
- Harris, Dan – 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works
- Manning, Brennan – The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out
- Ortberg, John – Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them
- Quindlen, Anna – Being Perfect
- Quindlen, Anna – A Short Guide to a Happy Life
- Robinson, Ken – The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
click on the book cover below for more information: