Meditating on Perfection

“[Mindfulness training] it seemed, wasn’t just a way to get better; it was a way to keep from getting worse.” So says the New Yorker blog in An Antidote for Mindlessness, a quick little read on the benefits of meditation—a theme that’s been popping up all around me lately, from my Facebook wall to my therapist’s office.

Three weeks ago, I finally acted on my “that’s a good idea!” intentions and bought a book called Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. I’m really digging it. It’s not as foo-foo as you might expect. (Not that there’s anything wrong with foo-foo…) At $10.11 on amazon, it’s an easy investment in your own wellbeing, if you have also flirted with the idea of feeling more mentally stable but have never taken the plunge.

(Evidence that it’s not a quick-fix miracle: these have been three of the rougher mental-health weeks I’ve in a while. Evidence that it still might be a miracle, just the same: I stuck with it anyway.)

It’s deceptively simple, this meditation business. But, seriously, I can clear my head, gain more focus, feel more content and at peace in-the-now, all from just sitting still a few minutes a day? Cool! Sure! Bring it on! 

Thing is, I think it is that simple, but it’s not that easy. Or else we’d all be doing it by now, right?

via @jaredchapman / instagram

via @jaredchapman / instagram

A lovely lesson I’m learning already is that meditation is about showing up to the present moment, and paying attention to what’s there, without judgment.  (A quick sidebar about “attention.” I read somewhere recently that the word attention comes from the Latin attendere, meaning “to reach toward.” Isn’t that interesting? End sidebar.) When your sole objective is to observe your breath and thoughts, there’s no right or wrong answer, which is music to this exhausted perfectionist’s mind-ears.

(The thing about me and perfectionism is… I question whether I really am one. Because, I think, if I truly were a perfectionist, wouldn’t I be better at more of the things I attempt? …This is an actual belief / cry-for-help of mine.)

I read this listicle online a few weeks ago (thanks to @mara_dawn tweeting it), and it was like these people read my diary: 14 Signs Your Perfectionism Has Gotten Out Of Control.

Meditation is teaching me to let go of that. My first few attempts, I noticed myself trying too hard to breathe. (That sounds bonkers, right?!) But I was! Something about thinking about breathing, and I noticed myself “trying” to breathe. Breathing is one of those do-or-do-not situations, and that’s why it works so well as a centering-point in meditation. It’s something we all do. Every day. Every second.

I may always be a perfectionist. I may always be a little too hard on myself. But I may also have found a way to get better, and to keep from getting worse.

One breath at a time.

TIME is on my side

A few weeks ago, I was out for an evening of adventuring on Commercial Street with Jeff & Michelle Houghton and their baby, Elias, who is painfully cute and delightful. At dinner, Elias was discovering the thrills of drinking water from a grownup non-sippy glass (cue the heart-melting baby giggles), and Michelle asked me, “doesn’t this make you want to have one of these?!”

Boom. The room goes dark. A spotlight shines on me from above. Strangers at other tables put down their forks and turn their heads, awaiting my answer. Which is: …No.

The moment is not nearly so dramatic, of course, but it can feel that way. I get the same faint pit-in-my-stomach anxiety as when somebody asks me why I’m vegetarian—while they nibble on a burger. In both cases, I know what my answer is, but I’m careful not to offend. This one’s particularly tricky, because people in general are more invested in their babies than their beef. But…

I don’t want to have kids.

Let’s allow that statement to just hang there for a second. Does it make you feel uncomfortable, maybe? Do you want to shake your head and tell me with a smug smile that I’ll eventually change my mind? Once I find “the right guy” or the ol’ clock starts to tick or I finally grow up or whatever seismic shift is required to reverse a lifelong underlying feeling that tells me I do not want them.

I don’t need any help questioning this, by the way. Most everyone around me is having babies or wanting to have them. Even my own biology is betraying me lately: I get squishy around toddlers and feel emotional at baby showers. And I know my mind doesn’t make me feel this way; it’s my baby-making mechanisms, and they are kicking into high gear, now that 30 has arrived.

g9510.20_Childfree.Cover

So this week I was thrilled to discover that TIME magazine’s cover story a couple of weeks ago was “The Childfree Life.” (I even bought the one-month digital subscription so I could read the whole thing. For $2.99, it’s not a bad investment, if you’re curious.) It seemed to present the idea without negative connotation, which is a refreshing change of pace.

A common thread among those who are childless-by-choice seems to be either admitting you are selfish (“I couldn’t have kids; I’m just too self-centered!”) or being accused of selfishness by others. But what if it’s not that simple?

My college medical ethics class was the first time I was confronted with asking why someone would have kids. Even then I didn’t think I wanted them, but I also hadn’t felt that this was a legitimate choice I could make. Or at least I never thought you could ask “why?” about it. People had kids because people had kids; that’s why.

I remember feeling shocked to learn that people have kids for some very selfish reasons. It’s not always about making a family or taking the next natural step in adult life. It’s sometimes about ensuring you’ll have someone to take care of you in old age. Or trying to make up for your past mistakes by raising a kid and “getting it right this time.” Or having a kid so they can live out the dreams that you never could. Or having a kid so you fit in with everyone else around you.

Reducing the decision not to have kids to “selfishness” is as unfair as reducing the desire to have kids to any of those not-great reasons above.

What if, any time someone you know told you they’re having a baby, you responded by—instead of giving the usual congratulations—asking “why?” It seems silly, right? But to me, it makes more sense to ask someone why they DO want to have kids than why they don’t…

There’s not one particular reason why I don’t want to. I just don’t. And I think it’s actually an act of selflessness to go against the cultural grain, take the risk of being all alone in my 80s, and decide that “well, you’re just supposed to” is not a good enough reason for me to create another human being.

But then again maybe it’s not selfless at all, but it’s still a choice I get to make.

I recognize that there’s still a chance, albeit slim, that someday I will change my mind. That’s the great thing about minds, you get to change them if you want. (There’s a joke to be made about diapers; I can’t quite get there.) In the meantime, I get to keep being Aunt Sarah to the nieces and nephews in my life, both biological and honorary.

And if my mind never changes, I can still live a full and fulfilled life. I’ve heard new mothers talk about how they never knew what they were missing. And I believe them when they say they’ve never felt love like that before. But there are all sorts of ways to feel love in this life. My question is: If I never know, am I really missing it?

Frank Sintra Has a Cold

First of all, purely coincidental, Monday was Frank Sinatra’s birthday, a fact I encountered over Old Man Drinks at the Mudlounge (a Manhattan for me, an Old Fashioned for my companion).

That’s kind of perfect.

See, I acquired a stack of vintage magazines this semester, and they are prized possessions. I remembered tonight that a few of them are Christmassy. (The December 1961 Esquire is so very Mad Men, it’s dumb. You guys. I just want to have a party and invite you all over to look at the ads. SO good.)

I flipped through the whole stack looking for holiday issues, and saw that the April 1966 Esquire has Frank Sinatra on the front. “Oh, that’s cool,” I shrugged to myself, as I flipped to page 50 to discover:

“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese

At that, I took in my breath in a sharp, cartoonish gasp: “I have an original copy of one of the most famous pieces of creative nonfiction ever written IN MY HOUSE!”

And I had no idea.

My former boss once told me, during one of his advice-giving chats about the good old days, that he’d interviewed Gay Talese about writing interviews (a bit like saying you talked to Lady Ga Ga about meat dresses—going to the source). I didn’t realize how impressive that was at the time, which is sometimes the best way to learn.

As the story goes, Talese was assigned a profile of Sinatra—who refused to give an interview. Not one. But the writer was determined to get his story, and he spent three months building the piece by talking to every other person in Sinatra’s world. Ultimately he wrote one of the best celebrity profiles ever…without ever interviewing the celebrity himself. It’s the kind of writing we’re used to reading now in good magazine journalism, but Gay Talese kind of did it first.

Because he refused to give up on the task at hand. And he knew that sometimes the best way to draw an accurate picture of a thing is to draw its negative space.

(And it’s in my house. This makes me so very happy.)

You can read the whole article on esquire.com, though there’s nothing like the oversized pages of a real, live 45+ year-old magazine…