The irony finally hit me: I was batting away perfectionism as I was drafting this post in my head. If you can't even write about being good enough without perfectionism besieging you, you might have a problem with perfectionism.
I wanted to give you enough of the backstory to help you understand why I was struggling, without completely exposing the depths of the crazy. I had thought that surely I must have told you the story of the last time I freaked out about retreat music, but I think I only alluded to it in this long-ago post. I'll tell you later, I said in 2005, but I never did.
In the spring of 1995 I was asked to coordinate music for a retreat. It made me nervous, but I agreed. I didn't love the idea of playing guitar for Mass, but I felt comfortable leading the singing and I felt enthusiastic about choosing music to help people pray. And then on the weekend I lost my voice. I couldn't lead the unfamiliar song I had chosen so carefully, so the priest said, "We need something familiar and upbeat, and we need it quickly." This mild correction sparked a Krakatoan eruption of snot-festooned self-loathing. I was a mess, y'all. The priest said, "Jamie, of all the people I have ever known, no one else has ever been as hard on herself as you are."
The part I am embarrassed to tell you is that it took me years to acknowledge that this was an expression of concern and not a compliment. Because, see, if you're harder on yourself than anyone else is, you will never be surprised by other people's criticism. If you're harder on yourself than anyone else is, nobody will ever pop the happy soap-bubble idea you send out into the world. (You pop it yourself to save them the trouble.)
If you're harder on yourself than anyone else is, you can spend a lot of years with perfectionism crushing you like a Warner Brothers anvil.
So it may sound odd for me to say that my experience on the retreat weekend, in which I was able to talk myself down from the racing heart/sweaty hands/looming panic moment, was a vast improvement. But...it was a vast improvement.
OKAY FEELING TOTALLY NAKED AND VULNERABLE HERE. MOVING ON.
On the retreat weekend I was thinking about Jesus, washing the disciples' feet. The very idea makes me uncomfortable, as if I should have pre-washed them first so he wouldn't have to deal with any stink or stubble or sweat. But the image that popped into my head was sweet baby Stella, laughing in her little tub. And with that image, a certainty: God loves to make us clean. When Stella was a baby I never once said to myself, "Oh, I can't believe you have still more neck cheese for me to deal with. Can't you STOP with the neck cheese already?" Because she was my fifth baby it was easier to enjoy those baby baths: to be grateful for her chubby baby creases, to look forward to scooping up an armful of wriggly baby in a clean warm towel afterward. I loved teaching her that she didn't have to be afraid of the water, because I was there with her.
"You're not a baby," said an accusing voice in my head. "It wouldn't be cute or sweet if you still had to bathe the big kids." In my mind's eye another image followed instantly: Ryoko Uemura, her eyes full of tenderness, bathing the daughter who could not bathe herself.
It is the nature of sin that we cannot wash our own selves clean.
One more thing happened on the retreat that I want to remember: I got a letter, chosen at random from a pool of more than 80 letters on wide-ranging topics. It was written as if it came from God. Does that make you roll your eyes? It might have made me roll my eyes on a different day. But here is what my letter said: Dearest daughter, you don't have to worry so much. I desire to heal you and set you free. You don't have to be so afraid of getting it wrong.
Which, seriously. Cue the Twilight Zone music.
Instead of humming Twilight Zone music at the letter, though, it is probably better for me to take it to heart-- to live a life in which I am less afraid of breaking things inadvertently. There's a line I love in Psalm 119: I will walk freely in an open space, because I cherish your precepts. It encapsulates three of the things I want to remember from the retreat weekend: first, that God invites us to walk in freedom in union with him. Walking freely = no more helpless wriggling under imaginary anvils! Second, that his precepts are to be cherished-- not feared, but loved as tools for freedom and forward progress. Third is the idea of open space: here I am in a world full of possibilities. Holy boldness in a good-enough life, or apprehensive perfectionism?
Let's go for holy boldness.