Dear Lily June,
There’s a line in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that’s always stuck with me. In the novel, a pitiably shallow character, Daisy, is talking to her cousin, the narrator Nick, about her child. And she says to him about her daughter,
“I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with Daisy. In a country where ignorance is bliss and sex is money, perhaps the best thing for a girl to be is a “beautiful little fool,” at least if she wants to feel accepted, earn money, and have success, albeit for all the most superficial reasons.
But I wonder, given the course of my life as a not-particularly-attractive-though-not-hideous female scholar-type, what I might say in Daisy’s stead. And it would be something like this: I hope you’re a slacker, Lily. That’s the best thing a human can be in this world, an unmotivated, peaceful slacker.
Why would I, as your mother, say such a thing? Why wouldn’t I want to spur you to the American Dream: the formula that Hard Work + Drive = Success? Well, in part because I’ve lived out an American Nightmare of my own, and I know that success isn’t just hard-won at the hands of motivation and practice.
Sometimes it relies on, what some would call God-given and others the luck of, talent. Sometimes it relies on how well you’re able to network, making connections with the right people at the right time. Sometimes it depends on how many people’s backs you’re willing to use as stairs to the top.
Lily, I drove myself crazy with hard work, thinking my perspiration would result in inspiration, aspiration, and eventually admiration. But here I am, an everyday secretary, happy to be defined not by what I do anymore, but how I feel.
I achieved small measures of success on my rise to the top and then descent back to the bottom. I graduated from college with a (very measly) academic scholarship and a near 4.0 GPA. And that’s while working two jobs and commuting hours by bus to go to school at all. I was my department’s graduation speaker and went onto grad school puffed full of my own potential.
I got a 4.0 in grad school, and as a poet, achieved some (very meager) success: I was published in a dozen or so journals. I was anthologized in the Best New Poets collection. I won an Academy of American Poets prize.
And I earned my way into a teaching position where I was overworked, underpaid and miserable most of the time. Some people do a better job than I did at compartmentalizing their lives: keeping a work-life balance and devoting more time to their own writing than they do to their students’. This was not me.
Perfectionist that I was, I would pour over each pupil’s paper for a half an hour apiece, where most other professors devoted five minutes. When you have a hundred students, a half an hour per paper means fifty hours of grading each week. And that’s not including teaching. And that’s not counting office hours. Or the fact that I received a hundred new drafts every other week of a fifteen week semester.
I would get mired and bogged down in each comma splice and missing apostrophe. I would write long letters to my students about how to improve their skills that they wouldn’t even read. I would hold extra office hours and the hands of students going through personal crises I couldn’t imagine. I would answer emails into 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, helping my little brood of learners, hours before an exam, comprehend texts I knew they hadn’t even bothered to read. Some of them couldn’t even be troubled to buy the books.
And I got burnt out quickly, unable to shut off the mechanism in my mind that kept repeating that I must be perfect. I must be perfect. I must be perfect. I cannot fail. I wish now that I’d taken a page out of my students’ “books:” caring a little less, doing a lot less, slacking a lot more.
A mental illness isn’t defined simply by a distorted way of thinking or a warped set of perceptions (which I have in spades). If that were the case, then every quirky character in the country would be diagnosed with a disorder. No, these things take on the category of illness when they begin to impact your ability to live a reasonably comfortable life.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with motivation or hard work or striving to do your best. But when those mentalities and actions reach perfectionist proportions, crippling your ability to get through the day, you’ve gone from climbing the mountain to being crushed under it.
I want to say this started with my endless to-do lists, and the ways in which I couldn’t stop myself from scheduling every second of my day so that I never took a minute to just be, rather than do.
But I know in looking back far enough, I can see my illness manifesting in early adolescence. I had this weird habit, my mother reminded me, to the way I’d put clean clothes away. Namely, I’d separate all items in my closet into categories (sweaters, blouses, pants, skirts, dresses), and then I’d alphabetize them by brand name. Surely this was just the ritual of a quirky kid, right?
But it gets weirder, and continues to this day, and this is the part I’m scared to admit because I know it will raise a few eyebrows (hopefully yours included). To choose my outfit for the day, I would engage in a bizarre ritual of using elementary children’s counting-rhymes. One goes like this:
Ocka bocka soda clocka, ocka bocka boo. In comes Uncle Sam, out goes Y-O-U.
I was so scared to make the wrong decision, to end up wearing the same portion of my relatively small wardrobe twice in a week, for instance, or choosing something that would reveal how uncool I was to my peers, that I stopped making decisions at all. I became like the character of Harvey Dent from Batman, who uses the flip of a coin to let all his life’s choices fall to fate. Or chance.
For some reason, doing this made me feel beyond reproach. I couldn’t make a wrong decision if I wasn’t making any decisions at all. It wouldn’t be my fault if things went awry: It would be the rhyme’s.
It didn’t seem to matter to me that it took longer to dress this way each day. Soon I was using the rhymes for everything: choosing what to eat, choosing where to go with my friends (when I didn’t just force them to decide with my too-cool-to-weigh-in blasé attitude), choosing what books to read or films to watch or music to listen to. Eventually, I carried the ritual into adulthood, making twenty page to-do lists that I would use to decide my itinerary for the day. Every day.
And here’s the really embarrassing part: I still use the rhyme technique, and I’m thirty. I know that it’s ludicrous and sounds insane. But when I go to choose which parts of the apartment I’ll clean, it’s how I pick my tasks from the list. Sometimes, I still use it to decide what to wear. It’s mortifying to admit; I know I’m not a child anymore. I know it makes the task take twice as long (if not longer) to complete. So why can’t I put away this childish thing?
Cognitive dissonance has split my brain in two: The part of me that sees, as in the definition of OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder) that I am enacting “perfectionism that interferes with task completion (e.g., [I am] unable to complete a project because [my] own overly strict standards are not met).” There are “rules” for everything I do as an adult. Just a few include
- The dishwasher must be loaded with glasses to the right, mugs to the left, to match how they go in the cabinets.
- If I start a book, I have to finish it (even if I’m not enjoying it any longer).
- When I wash your bottles, I have to lay out all the pieces (the caps, the nipples, etc.) in the “correct” order.
- I can’t send emails until I’ve considered the “perfect thing to say.” (If you haven’t heard from me, outside world, there’s why.)
- I’m also stingy with compliments, not because I don’t love my family, but because I have to word my praise in such a way that it will shake the receiver to his/her core and know my love is deeper than the Pacific, wider than aurora borealis spreading across an Alaskan sky.
The adult in me knows how nuts I seem. I’ve grown from marriage: I try as hard as I can not to impose these ridiculous rules on my husband or anyone else. But I can’t seem to stop dictating how and when I take every breath, step, action.
The child in me, though, the one that witnessed my father hurt my mother when the legal emails she wrote for him weren’t proofread perfectly or when my sister and I and my mother hadn’t scoured the floor tiles to a spotless shine, is still afraid of failure to an alarming degree.
If I can’t succeed, I don’t even try. The manuscript of poetry I wrote in grad school is my albatross: So fearful am I by the crippling prospect of rejection that I’d rather let it sit collecting dust than watch it get turned down a staggering amount times (as happens to everyone, the best of the best included), or worse, see it go into print with all of its glaring imperfections.
And so I realize how flawed it is to project this fear onto you, encouraging you to do nothing when you could really be Someone doing Something in this world. I do hope you’ll do better than me in allowing yourself to slack and simply be, but it’s not true, as I lied at the start, that I want you to only be a slacker. Instead, I hope that you’ll learn, not from Fitzgerald’s Daisy, but from Samuel Beckett who writes that you should
“Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”
I like that my starting advice to you is a failure. It means I’ve let myself say something I know is wrong, something I won’t rub out with an eraser. I’ve admitted the most mortifying part of my illness to the world–and more importantly, to you, little Lily–because I want you to accept that we’re all flawed in our own ways. Everyone, at times, is a hideous genius. Everyone, at times, is a beautiful fool.
Please, child, do as I say and not as I do. Accept this reality for yourself, about you. You won’t be perfect. But you will be fine. You will do fine. You are just fine. And I’ll love you every part of you, every minute, without any rhyme or list.
- “Straitjacket-rear” by Marc NL at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Straitjacket-rear.jpg#/media/File:Straitjacket-rear.jpg
- “Herman Melville 1860” by Unknown – http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/235_pom.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herman_Melville_1860.jpg#/media/File:Herman_Melville_1860.jpg
- “Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900” by C.F. Lummis (Original copyright holder, presumably photographer)Restoration by Adam Cuerden – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c06490. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charlotte_Perkins_Gilman_c._1900.jpg#/media/File:Charlotte_Perkins_Gilman_c._1900.jpg
- “UncleSamListensIn” by Jeff Schuler – https://secure.flickr.com/photos/jeffschuler/2585181312/in/set-72157604249628154. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UncleSamListensIn.jpg#/media/File:UncleSamListensIn.jpg
- “Tiger dentition Sultan(T72) Ranthambhore India 12.10.2014” by Dibyendu Ash – This image of tiger dentition has been captured during the tiger safari at Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, India on 12.10.2014. This is an image of the subadult tiger “Sultan” or “T72”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tiger_dentition_Sultan(T72)_Ranthambhore_India_12.10.2014.jpg#/media/File:Tiger_dentition_Sultan(T72)_Ranthambhore_India_12.10.2014.jpg
- “Ancient mariner statue” by User:Arpingstone – Originally uploaded to English Wikipedia as en:Image:Ancient.mariner.statue.2.arp.500pix.jpg by en:User:Arpingstone. (del) (cur) 23:57, 4 August 2004 . . Arpingstone (Talk) . . 500×668 (114,463 bytes) (Statue at Watchet). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ancient_mariner_statue.jpg#/media/File:Ancient_mariner_statue.jpg