The wise man must remember that while he is a descendant of the past, he is a parent of the future.
– Herbert Spencer
I learned cursive writing in second grade at Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Parochial School. Not only were we required to practice the intricacies of the Palmer Method of penmanship, we were required to use a Schaffer blue-ink fountain pen–the kind with a refillable tube of ink in the reservoir. As I sought to achieve perfect scrolls, loops, and swishes, I developed a perpetual ink stain on my ring finger because I have an unorthodox method of holding a pen. I had to hide this from Sister Ernestine or she would rewrap my hand around the pen until I started writing to her satisfaction—even though I felt like a contortionist doing it her (the correct) way.
If I misspelled a word in the last sentence of my homework, rather than cross out the word, which we were allowed to do, I would rewrite the entire paper. This drove my mother to distraction as it took forever to complete my assignments to my exacting standards. The tyranny of my perfectionism was well-honed by second grade.
By high school, I had perfected perfection to such a degree, that it turned into procrastination and eventually, capitulation. Mr. Nuñez, my freshman art teacher (oh, yeah: I did take art, not typing) reviewed the progress of our assignments to advise on how to strengthen the work. After I had accrued several missing assignments, he asked to see me after school.
“Linda, what is going on? This is the third project you haven’t turned in. I know you are doing the assignments. I’ve seen them. Where is your work?”
“They haven’t been up to my standards.”
He glared at me for a moment, and then speaking in pointed bursts. “Linda, I am the teacher and you are the student. It is up to me to decide the quality of your work. You are an ‘A’ student, but you’re receiving ‘Fs.’” He showed me the grade sheet. “Please turn in your project.”
“I can’t. I threw it away.”
He stared at me as if he was an archaeologist trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Then, restraining his exasperation, he said, “Please turn in your work from now on.”
Throughout my four years, I only completed one term paper—and that was one I wrote for someone else. For the paper, she received the only “A” in her class, in a course I had never taken with a teacher I did not know. My own writing assignments were a little less exemplary. In my junior advanced English class, a “stream-of-consciousness” creative writing assignment was returned to me with the following grade: “A/F.” I approached Mrs. Haynes (whom I had already deemed “pedantic”—one of our spelling words), and asked her to explain the contradictory grade.
“You got an “A” for the content and an “F” for grammar,” she explained as if she was Mr. Spock.
“What does this mean?” I asked pointing at the red circles around some sentences. “Are there misspelled words, improper punctuation?”
“You have incomplete sentences,” she explained.
“Yes, but I know they are incomplete. They were intentional. The assignment was ‘stream-of-consciousness.’ Do you think in complete sentences, Mrs. Haynes?” I challenged. I remember invoking Holden Caulfield.
She looked a bit flummoxed, would not look me in the eye, and told me that the grade was going to stand.
I was cast in plays. My art was chosen for the program cover of the senior play when I was still a junior (this elicited much controversy). My psychology teacher felt I had such empathy that she wanted me to work with her in a summer program with emotionally handicapped kids (my mother said no).
As my home life became more tumultuous, my high school career further devolved. Although there were momentary flashes of brilliance and success, I was mostly a basket of insecurity and a paragon of failure. With each passing year, I fell into a deeper abyss.
By the middle of my senior year, it was all too much. I was failing most of my classes either through excessive absences, or simply not turning in my homework. I had terrific teachers offering passing grades on a silver platter if I would do even the bare minimum. Collectively, they saw this pleasant, intelligent, articulate, talented girl. They couldn’t fathom the kamikaze mission of my scholastic endeavors.
I never told any of them the truth about my home life—about my mother’s descent into a bottle, about the father I seldom saw, about defending my virtue from boyfriends (including my mother’s), about my baby sister whom I loved and protected and how raising her and keeping her safe mattered more to me than schoolwork and grades.
I missed the first five weeks of second semester. Finally, a friend’s mother who had known me since I was four, knocked some sense into me. My mother had not really tried. I decided to go back to school the following Monday and try to salvage my final semester and graduate with my class. The permanent expulsion letter arrived that Saturday. I called the school and did everything but offer them my firstborn child. I was not reinstated.
In some way or another, I have been measuring myself against my shortcomings ever since. There is a constant dance between the girl with so much promise, and the scared girl just hanging on by her fingertips. Perfectionism is a vicious dominatrix and I have too often been a willing submissive.
When Kate was in elementary school, the PTA moms were putting together a quilt for our much beloved outgoing president. At the time, I was working as an art specialist so I was elected to create the center square—a pictorial of the school. I was told I could draw the school, that I didn’t have to actually quilt anything. But I had been collecting quilting supplies and books for several years, so I thought this was my chance to finally put it all to good use.
I cannot tell you how many quilt stores I visited over the ensuing weeks to purchase fabrics, or have experts advise me on that lone hand-quilted square. One day, while waiting for yet another piece of fabric to be cut, the shopper across the cutting table was musing with the salesgirl about how learning to quilt had helped her overcome her perfectionism. I laughed from recognition—although I wasn’t sure I was quite as transcendent as she was.
“Are you a perfectionist?” she asked, recognizing a fellow traveler.
I thought about it for a moment. “I’m a recovering perfectionist,” I said finally, wondering if there might be a 12-step program for this particular affliction.
My perfectionism tends to mostly wreak havoc with my creative endeavors. Presently, my house looks like a cyclone hit, there is laundry to be done, barely any food in the house. I often use the excuse of tending to domestic matters as a way to avoid creativity. I had an epiphany this week: it is my mother telling me I can’t go to Inner City because I have to clean my room. Enough.
For the past month, the online writing course I’ve been taking has let loose the writer within. I have written nearly as many posts this month as I have in the previous years. I got busy with work and missed a bunch of assignments. In the past, my inner perfectionist might have quit or suggested I had failed and given up, but I kept writing. I’ve taken risks and faced painful truths. I have allowed myself to be swept into the rush of creative flow and I have dared to intentionally write fragmented sentences. I am writing away the past so I can right the future.
There is a blank canvas that has been loitering for the past five years on my 13-year old virgin easel. I have even used it as a giant blockade, giving myself a false sense of security by blocking the front door. My friend Richard suggested I paint a picture of a bulldog if I really wanted to deter bad guys with it. In the past few weeks that canvas has gone from mocking to beckoning me. I have been watching videos of artists painting to fuel the visual fires within—to finally give myself permission to be the artist I have dreamed of being since I was small. I started gathering my paints and brushes and then told myself that I really needed to reorganize first—to create a more “perfect” space. As soon as I recognized the old refrain I told that nasty little critic to go sit in the corner and stop talking. Enough.
Something happened yesterday when I mind-mapped those early years, pinpointing the starting point of when my “true” self derailed. I am ready to pull that young child into my arms and sing nothing but songs of hope and joy.
I can’t know if my novel or children’s book will ever be published. I can’t predict if my play will be produced. I don’t know if anyone will want my paintings hanging over their sofa. All I know is this: it is my job to birth these babies and tend to them as lovingly as I did Kate.
I accept that I am perfectly imperfect and life (and my house) is messy. I am grateful for the lessons of the past, but even more grateful for the future, pregnant with possibility. Like all new mothers, I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I do know that it is filled with wild words, has paint splashed all over it and will be bravely sent into the world with love.
Writing 101 | Day 20: The Future…