Archive | perfection

For the Love of the Ocean

In my imagination, the ocean is a shadowy mosaic of colors and movement. Sharks dart around dark corners, hunting prey with single-minded ferocity. A red octopus slithers along the bottom, its tentacles sweeping the sand, its mind quiet, unwaveringly open to vibrations and sounds. Silvery fish hung motionless, perhaps swimming casually against a light stream. Dolphins frolic, and seal lions dive deep. The seaweed harbors secrets, and the coral swarms with life, while giant eels peer unhurriedly at the dark depths below the last touch of light. Deep in those canyons, blind sea creatures loiter near the bottomless-bottom of the ocean, while far above blue whales lumber light-weightedly from Mexico to Alaska, gulping at krill, spewing out salty water, confident in their huge, magnificent size.

The ocean is the last great mystery on earth, a mystery which covers 70% of our world. To this day, we have explored less than 5% of it. “A troubling nautical reality,” the National Geographic calls it in an article from 2005, referring to an accident in which a submarine crashed into an unknown underwater mountain. Several submariners were wounded in this accident and one killed. Even safety aside, we humans are fascinated by the ocean, by the yet-unknown but easily imagined uses we could make of it, the wealth of both money and progress we could gain. From mining, drilling, fishing, and shipping, to building floating solar farms, offshore wind turbines, and possibly floating cities, our collective human imagination is ready to expand into the ocean, uncover its secrets, and stop this wasteful and ignorant underutilization of its resources.

At Sunset Beach, I look out toward the uninterrupted horizon and imagine the pods of dolphins which I cannot see. The ocean seems simultaneously empty and full, incomprehensibly vast, compelling and dull all at once. I have no interest in taking a cruise or leaving on a year-long yacht voyage to the West Indies. My weak eyes prevent me from taking up diving, but the truth is that this hobby was never a yearning or a desire I had to have. I peek, that is all, into this tiny, limited corner of the ocean and enjoy far more the sight of sanderlings running in and out of the reach of waves, the rare snowy plover pecking in the wet sand, the gulls staring at me, unmoving, through one eye. I love watching pelicans nonchalantly skim the tips of waves as they glide in a line, like ocean liners with wings. And I laugh whenever I get a glimpse of a cormorant drying its wings. I am a land woman. I like feeling the ground beneath my feet. I like the stability of a non-earthquake-moving earth, the grounding of it, the safety. The ocean feels to me dangerous and foreign, uncontrollable and unexpected, predatory and forever wild. I am content to let is stay unexplored and unmapped.

The United States has over 95 thousand miles of shoreline. The number continually changes and shifts with the tides, with erosion, with landslides, hurricanes — the forces of human development and nature combined. As a nation, we exercise control over the water of the ocean that are by our coast, to the distance of 12 nautical miles from the shore. The first three miles are under state control, the rest under federal. But we also exercise economic control over more than that, up to 200 nautical miles from our shore, what is called the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “coastal nations have sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage marine resources and assert jurisdiction over: i. the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures; ii. marine scientific research; and iii. the protection and preservation of the marine environment.” There are rules defining every aspect of the exploration, exploitation, conservation and management of the marine environment, but as always happens with human language, those are subject to interpretation, or, we could almost say, the rules themselves are subject to being explored, exploited, and managed, depending on the wishes and desires of whoever is in control.

It has been a few weeks now since I committed to writing an article on off-shore drilling off the California Coast for the Loma Prieta eNewsletter, and I’ve been progressing at the rate of an old and decrepit sea-slug. I’ve interviewed two people, discovering the depth and breath-taking breadth of this subject. I read articles and took notes. And yet the writing itself fumbles, grinds to a stop. Guilt bubbles in me for neglecting this assignment, for postponing writing about this important and time-sensitive issue. I yearn to write, and yet I can’t. I sit, and the words do not come. And then, like lava boiling deep in an ocean trench and hitting the coldness of water that has never seen the sun, fear and pain rush into me. Fear and pain for our ocean and the creatures who live in it and over the development already done and already contemplated. Fear and pain for the impact our actions on land, even far from the coastline, have on the corals, the water, and the aquatic magnificent life. And I realize I have counted on the ocean remaining apart, untouched. Ever mysterious and wild. I imagined, like the incorrect image of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand, the the ocean can stay safe from the long-reaching human hand.

Joanna Macy, environmentalist, activist, Buddhist scholar and teacher, says we must walk the razor-blade edge between hope and despair, that we must act to protect our world without needing hope and without heeding despair. Bringing gratitude in to strengthen us, she opens the door for the pain to come, allowing us, as a result, to see our place in the world and our duty to it with new eyes, inspiring us to the fourth step: action for the world. Having jumped directly into unexpected and unexplored pain, I am frozen from action. Sadness flows and ebbs in me like the tides. Fear rolls me over and around, crashing into me like a tsunami. Knowing the ocean is in danger, has been in danger since long before I was born, liquidates the stable ground beneath my feet, and my mind, as yet not well-trained, needs to be wrenched away and forced…

…to remember and be grateful for:

Hilton Head, sandy beach, standing in early dusk and watching a pod of dolphins in the water. “They are teaching a baby dolphin to hunt,” Dar speculates.

On a boat back from the Channel Islands, seeing a Blue Whale rising up from the ocean and diving in again. A single sighting. A miracle. My breath taken away.

Plovers in Florida. Looking formal and elegant in their white-tan-and-black-feathered suits.

Manatee tails creating a square of depressed water in a channel off the Melbourne, Florida Coast. The joy.

Otters blinking in the sun, lying on their backs in one of the twists and turns of Elkhorn Slough. Bobbing in the kayak, staring at them staring at us.

Myself and the kids, floating up and down gentle waves in the Mediterrenean Sea off the coast of Tel Aviv, little fish nibbling at our bare feet.

The sea lion following us through the surf as we trudge from Alamere Falls back to Wildcat Campground on a warm day in June.

Rainbows twinkling in the horse-galloping tops of waves crushing on Bodega Bay rocks.

The forests of kelp undulating beneath the kayak, my son capturing a red crab on his paddle.

Los Osos on an early morning, pelicans flying by.

The feeling of sand rushing off into the ocean from under my feet, the coldness of wave-water around my ankles.

Every sunset, every sunrise ever viewed.

Relaxing on a beach in Hawaii in Waipi’o Valley with my cousin, hoping to see some whales.

Open-mouthed, momentarily torn between the California zebra and the feeding humpbacked whales just below Hurst Castle. The whales win hands-down. It’s a much better show.

And as I write, my heart eases. Not yet able to handle the pain, but calmer, I take a deep breath. There is much to be loved, much to be appreciated, and yes, still much to be saved.

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NaNo Update

Today is day 8 of NaNoWriMo, and so far, so good, I’ve been able to write 17,245 words. That’s an average of over 2,000 words a day! I am making an effort to write first thing in the morning, when I’m at my best and when I am less likely to be interrupted. Usually that means I am sitting here at my computer between 6-8am.

I’ve been writing and only writing, not reading over what I previously wrote, and I think this method is working well for me. If I start reading back at what I wrote before, my inner critic becomes engaged, and all of a sudden it is not about being creative but about excellence and perfection or, worse, embarrassment and shame. I find that I really work much better if the critic is off to the side, minding his own business. Every once in a while he rears up his head and comments on my progress, and I politely ask him to back off. I don’t need him right now. I want to allow the words, unhindered, to flow.

I hope that when I am done with the first draft (as I feel fairly confident I am going to do) I can engage the services of my inner critic not as a critic but as a “feedbacker.” I think there’s a lot he can help me with, as long as he remembers that his job is to support and build and not to crush and shame. My cousin told me a good quote in Russian for this (and I’m using her translation): The first pancake always comes out in a ball. Similarly, I expect that this first draft is not going to be the end of the process. There’s going to be a second, and a third, and maybe a number twenty-third draft as well. There’s going to be revision. But the only way I can move from a ball to a beautiful pancake ready-to-be-served is with encouragement and love. It’s impossible to cook a nicely-shaped, yummy pancake — or a magical novel — with censure and hurt.

Other than discovering that NaNoWriMo does in fact motivate me to write, I’ve also noticed something else. I have more self discipline than I used to. I think all this meditation and qigong and Reiki practice is really paying off. I am better able to concentrate and to sit down for something that I know deep down inside to be very important to me. I am also, somehow, better able to let go. I put down the words, and whether or not the critic mumbles something from his place of semi-exile, I let my written words flow. There will be a time to review them later.

Having written one novel before, even if I did decide, after who-knows-what-number version, to leave it, I feel both awed and overwhelmed by the thought of what comes after the first draft. I know the task that is ahead of me, and I know what it feels like to have put so much effort into something meaningful to me only to discover that it is just not going to bear fruit anytime soon. I try to let these thoughts go too. Right now there are only two things I am doing, and they are allowing the story to tell itself and myself to feel the fun of it without thinking too much ahead.

Tomorrow I am going to a meditation daylong at Spirit Rock about releasing the inner critic. Very apropos, I think. I hope it will help with the writing as well. I have dreamed about writing a novel for so long, I’ve written and hoped, cried, shut down, avoided writing for months and months, and then found myself trying again and again. A part of me wants so, so much for it to happen finally, but I’ve decided to let go of expectations and hopes, and even of dreams. I have decided to let whatever happen, happen, and to stop interfering.

Many years ago when I was a student at Stanford, one of my professors said to me that in order to write a doctorate you need to have a fire burning in you. For me, the fire has always been in writing a novel. Sometimes it was on low heat. Sometimes on high. But it was always there, burning away, sending desire after desire into the sky. So we will see, won’t we, what will come of this new endeavor, this new concept for my novel. I will keep you updated as I continue following the NaNo path. For now, all is well. I hope all’s well also in your life.

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Passing the Two/Three/Four Fingers Test

“How many fingers am I holding up?” Asked the optometrist. She was standing about seven feet away, holding up her hand. All I could see was a lot of skin-colored fuzz.

“Three?” I guessed.

She took a large step forward. “How about now?”

“Two?”

Another step. “And now?”

The fingers looked slightly less hazy, and I hazarded an educated guess. “Four, I think. Did I get any of them right?”

She shook her head. “Only the last one.”

The truth hit me like a tornado, and I was blown away by the realization of my near sightedness. My body is flawed. My eyes are defective. I cannot see well, and I will never see well without corrective lenses. I am not, nor will I ever be, wholly perfect.

I got my first pair of glasses when I was ten years old. I remember the narrow corridor at the entrance to the eye doctor’s office in Ra’anana, the town in which I lived as a child. A man came out with his new glasses. He had a prescription of eleven, he said, and I stared, stupefied, at his thick lenses. “Please, God,” I prayed in my heart, “let me never have his thick lenses.”

I have been near sighted for most84xxxx Sigal a of my life, and yet it seems, ironically, that today I first realized just how near sighted I am. Till today, and despite boasting my own prescription of over eleven, I pegged my near sightedness an esthetic problem. Up to age eighteen, with an over-large pair of spectacles perched on my nose, I was the ugly duckling. I became more of a swan at eighteen after I was fitted with contact lenses. Today, however, struck with the lightning realization that my eyes are flawed, I understood for the first time that my poor vision is not just about beauty, but a body blot.

How often do you pause during the day to appreciate the perfect working of your body? The impeccable way it releases waste, the unassuming way in which it draws breath, the smooth movement of limbs, the effortlessness of a smile, the perfect support given you by your spine? I appreciate my body, and yet I rarely pause to notice how wonderfully it works until sickness or pain strikes. Then I appreciate my body, my immune system, the flawless mechanics every organ and part of the body has.

I got scared this afternoon, face to face with the imperfections of my body, face to face with its finiteness. Slowly but surely it is degenerating until one day it will cease working, and no matter how much I believe in reincarnations or the eternity of the spirit, no matter how weak or limited my body is, I am still attached.

As I write this to you, I remind myself of Thick Nhat Hanh’s words which Tara Brach relates in her book True Refuge: I am going to die, you are going to die, and we have only these few moments together. I remind myself to live and love now, and I feel grateful for my eyes (and the optometrist) which the universe has kindly granted me to remind me of my flaws so that I can see just how lucky I am.

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The Blessing of Love

The first time I remember listening to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and really hearing the words was when I watched the movie Love Actually. Perhaps the movie had something to do with it, or the song, or books I have read, but for many years now I have been a one-solution woman. For every situation, from raising chickens to potty training the dogs to the academic progress of my kids my solution has always been love.

I believe in the power of love. With my dog Percy, I watched as he softened, calmed, settled into our home. I experience the same effect with my children, family and friends. Love works, but not always dramatically. Sometimes, I thought, love is not enough.

Love was not enough when I realized that instead of respect I receive complaints, anger, and frustration from my children. I know they express negative emotion at home because they know they are loved. I, however, end up feeling under-appreciated. I needed help, and I found it with Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

Mogel divided her book into nine blessings: acceptance, someone to look up to, skinned knee, gratitude, work, food, self control, time, and faith. She supports each blessing with teachings from the bible, showing how the three principles of Jewish living, moderation, celebration and sanctification, help in parenting.

While reading, I identified some of my parenting mistakes and potential ways to correct them — in moderation, of course. In the Blessing of Acceptance and the Blessing of Self Control, I learned about accepting my child’s temperament and reframing their most annoying trait as their strength. Mogel gives the same warning about perfection that I hear from friends and other experts: stop pressuring myself, forget perfection, enjoy ordinary moments.

In the Blessing of Having Someone to Look Up To and the Blessing of Work, I found how important it is that I be the head of the house and that I assign the kids chores. I had a hard time assigning chores to the kids because they move from house to house and because I felt that policing them into doing the chores was harder than doing the chores myself. It did not occur to me that for my children chores are a blessing indeed, a way to feel more grounded and settled at home when they return from their father’s house. Mogel emphasizes making little changes, not sitting the kids down and announcing that things are going to change from now on. I’ve been implementing changes slowly, encouraging the children to help me with cooking, setting the table, feeding the dogs, and looking after themselves (which Mogel says is a mitzvah — a good deed).

In the Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Mogel reminded me to stop overprotecting the kids, let them make mistakes and learn from them. I am one of those parents who will rush to retrieve a forgotten lunch, book or backpack. Mogel says: let them discover the consequence of their actions so that they learn.

Mogel points out in the Blessing of Time and the Blessing of Longing the importance of finding time to connect with the kids and appreciating little moments. Hand in Hand Parenting calls it special time. Gratitude, Mogel says, must be cultivated. It is so easy to slip from expressing appreciation to thinking about what I don’t yet have or what I fear. In the Blessing of Faith, Mogel talks about the first time she saw a double rainbow with her daughter. The two held hands and recited the Shehecheyanu, the prayer for special moments. I loved how in one instant, Mogel and her daughter experienced three blessings: gratitude, being in the moment, and a connection to God.

Wendy Mogel’s book added many tools to my parenting toolkit, and what I love most about it is that none of them ended up being heavy. By emphasizing moderation, Mogel makes each and every one of her recommendation accessible to all of us. By advocating celebrating our children, ourselves, ordinary moments, and the holidays, she opens up a world of enjoyment in parenting. In the overarching umbrella of sanctification, she tells us not to forget the preciousness of it.

The Beauty of Making Mistakes

A few years ago, before I realized I was writing for children, I signed up for two writing classes at once. One class was at the art center near my house and was called “Writing and Illustrating a Picture Book,” and the other at Stanford, “Writing for Children.” I always loved writing, and I had children — I felt it would be a perfect match.

I learned two new facts about myself in those classes. The first, that I love to make art and maybe could do something about it. The second, that I am writing for children, but not necessarily a picture book. Turned out that my fairy tale about the princess kidnapped in New York City by a wizard in a flying car who saves herself and marries a chimney sweep is really a novel. I lost the chimney sweep and the saves herself by screaming the wizard into oblivion, and now, a few years and lots of sweating (and some writing) later, I have a novel.

But my novel is far from perfect. Before sending it to agents, I always reread it, and I always find lots to fix. It is never finished, never enough, never perfect. But the book holds the (probably false) promise of potential perfection. If I tinker with it enough, if I identify every little mistake, surely I could make it flawless? But in paintings? There are mistakes which drive me crazy and can never be repaired. Like the too wide left wing of the dragon from the fairytale battle painting which I painted in high school, or the bicycle in the riding down the hill painting whose frame is a W instead of a triangle and really looks weird.

But, I wonder, does art need to be perfect? Brooke Scudder, a magnificent artist (whose art always seems to me to border on perfection) and the teacher of the “Picture Book” class mentioned above, thought otherwise. “Sigal,” she said to me, “the mistakes you make in your painting will often turn out to be the most unique and beautiful parts of it.” Wait, what? That makes it sound like mistakes are a good thing! That can’t be right. Right? And yet I believe her. I believe it is the mistakes in a story or a painting (or in life) that charm me, allow me to fall in love with the humanity of the creator and the creation.

This morning I read a quote by Alfred Sisley: “Every picture shows a spot with which the artist has fallen in love.” And I instantly knew what he meant. The spot that Alfred Sisley is talking about is the mistake, the place where the pen slipped, where inaccuracies occurred, where a drop fell as the brush withdrew and another red flower had to be drawn. And this spot, where the imperfections, the fallibility of the artist shine through, is what allows me to feel empathy, to recognize myself and fall in love. To feel the art through and through.

Insightful Morning in the Rain

I had an AHA! moment this morning, a shift in perspective that I would like to keep and apply in my life. It dawned on me that my weaknesses are my greatest strengths. Amazing, right?

I was talking to my mom on the phone, as I often do on my way back from dropping off the kids. And as usual we began to discuss the children’s schoolwork. Sighing over the long hours they spend doing homework, my mother commented that I never had to study. “You did everything chik-chak,” she said. Chik-chak is an expression in Hebrew for quickly, but it could also mean carelessly. “I didn’t want to tell you then,” my mother said, “but I admired how you learned so fast.”

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy tells Mr Bingley: “The power of doing any thing with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.” Rather than appreciate my quickness, I had always taken Mr. Darcy’s reproof to heart. Quickness was bad. Secretly I was proud of how quick I was, yet I felt ashamed of what I perceived as careless and wholly underserved results. I should only do well if I work hard, right?

I longed to become meticulous and studious but did not wish to put in either the time or the effort that was, to be truthful, barely required in order to get much better than good-enough results. See the dilemma? Why work hard if I could get 100% on my history exam without studying? This was the beginning of my flakiness. Never having had to work hard, I never learned how to work at all.

And yet — can flakiness become an asset? a talent? a tool for moving ahead in the world? “The family tree project you created in seventh grade is more beautiful than your sister’s,” my mother said this morning.

A morning of revelations! My project, more beautiful than that of my meticulous and studious sister’s? See, I remember this project exceedingly well. I started it, I believe, the day before it was due. And I still remember it as a very loud project from how much my mom yelled at me while I was working on it. I remember the crooked titles I made for the photos. Blah.

So is it my mother’s memory that is remiss, or was I overly critical of myself? Is it possible to do well and quick at the same time? Can I finally be openly proud about how fast I am?

And more important, if I can view my greatest weakness, my flakiness (translated to speed), as a strength, can I also switch my point of view on what I perceive as the children’s weaknesses, and begin to see those as assets, strengthening and praising them as talents? If I could do that, I’d finally reach my mothering ideal. Perfection. Or maybe just an acceptance of who we are as we are.

Flakiness and Writing

A few years ago I took an interpersonal communication class at Stanford Continuing Education. Our class had a very simple format. We could talk about anything that had to do with the group itself — no politics or weather. The group I was with ended up asking a lot about people’s first impressions: what did you think about me?” I stayed in the sidelines, feeling vulnerable, but that did not save me from one piece of feedback that had been branded in my memory forever. One of the women in the class told me: “You appear flaky.”

Flaky? I didn’t even know what that meant. According to the Urban Dictionary a flaky person is “Unreliable. A procrastinator. A careless or lazy person. Dishonest and doesn’t keep to their word.” Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not perfect, but unreliable? dishonest? lazy? I took that woman’s words really hard. Where she said “appear” I put “are,” and I found confirmation for my flakiness with every appointment I failed to arrive to on time and every promise I failed to keep. She was right. I was flaky! I felt horrified and appalled.

And proving myself otherwise is impossible, because no matter how often I finish tasks, am on time (or even early), or am careful making plans, there is always the one appointment I can’t keep, the book I don’t finish, the party I have to cancel, or the friend I am forced to disappoint. I struggle with flakiness. I told you before, I strive for perfection (being the first to admit I’m not perfect is just a foil). I’m tough on myself for not continuing or finishing projects. I want to be responsible, reliable, thorough.

I get anxious when I don’t write every day. The writing routine is my refuge, what gives me confidence that there’s hope for me yet. But since returning from Israel the writing has been slow, and my progression into panic fast. Fortunately, it seems I’m not the only one who has a hard time getting back to a writing routine. Yesterday I read Nathan Bransford’s blog on how to get back to writing after a long break. Bransford says: “Breaks = kryptonite achilles heel termite ridden ankle breaking weakening things.” He recommends not heading straight to the novel, starting small, picking up momentum until the writing again flows.

I hope he’s right. My achilles heel is lack of faith that my flow can return. But I think it’s time to let go of this particular belief and accept one more facet of my humanness. Sometimes the writing flows and sometimes it wanes. My creativity can become inspired during vacation or disappear in the chaos of being far from home. And as usual, I see my first lesson to learn from all this is to let go of perfection and judgment, of comparison and expectations. My new goal is to let the magic of writing lead the way. That’s my worthy, optimistic, wonderful goal for today.

A Solo In Comparison

My niece played with the Terman Band at Gunn High School tonight. She is eleven years old and started playing the saxophone this year. The concert began with the sixth graders, continued with the higher Terman grades and ended with Gunn’s upper-grades band.

I thought: I wish Uri had come. In the front, several kids played the clarinet, one of the two instruments he plays. Off to one side, two girls played the bass clarinet, the instrument he wished to study (his hands are still too small to reach the bottom notes). There were trumpets and trombones, a percussionist, flutists and even a few tuba players.

I thought: I wish Uri would want to join the Hausner band. I wish for him the experience of feeling his notes merging in with the music, melting in to create one harmony. Sitting in the audience this evening, I felt moved by the power this group of musicians generated as each freely gave his or her part for the whole.

I personally am not a good group player. As a singer, I have never been able to let my voice join in with other people’s. I feel off tune when I sing with anyone else. I feel that I cannot merge in, that everybody can hear me. I like to say that I’m a soloist at heart, but I think underneath is a double fear: the fear of not fitting in and the fear that if I tried to sing with other people, I would discover I was not as good as I thought.

Not trying allows me to stay with the dream of being best without having to prove myself either right or wrong. I refrain from putting myself in a position that might bring me into comparison with others, not just because I know it is bad to compare, but because I’m afraid I would still do it and come out missing. It’s a cycle I don’t quite know how to avoid. After all, even a soloist needs to work with an orchestra.

Perhaps it is not necessary to be as afraid of comparison as I am, as long as the knowledge that “I am who I am and that’s okay” balances out the wish to achieve perfection. Perhaps comparison is the path to improvement. If I do not see someone better than me, how would I get better? If no one is more creative, why be creative?

I think maybe it is a balanced comparison which ultimately inspires us. I may be found lacking if by chance you decide to size me up next to Ursula K. LeGuin or Orson Scott Card, but if of all the writers in the world, those two are the ones similar enough to be used as my measuring stick, I think I’ll be feeling just fine.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109