Perils of Perfectionism

When people ask me if I’ve been writing lately, I mumble something about not having time because of the demands of a job, children and home. That’s a much easier answer than the truth, which is that I suffer from the debilitating, paralyzing disease of perfectionism. Perfectionism is not so much the desire to be perfect as it is the fear of failure. What if I write something controversial, or make a grammatical mistake and I’m an English teacher? Even “worser” than worse, what if I write something so utterly uninteresting that people say, “who cares”? It’s unfortunate because I write such interesting, wonderful blogs in my head and I come up with really amazing story lines that never see the light of day.

Perfectionism is such a sad, mentally incapacitating disease because it can prevent us from achieving things that we’re entirely capable of achieving. The cure? Take chances. No-one is perfect and everyone makes a grammatical mistake once in awhile. So what if something is controversial? What’s the worse that can happen?

This year, I’m fighting perfectionism. The alternative is to sit at the computer, fingers frozen on the keyboards, eyes staring at the blank page, until I finally shut the computer, shove it under the bed, and succumb to a Netflix addiction followed by sleep. That way I bury the unhappiness that comes from a creative person who is not being creative because of fear of failure.

Not There Yet

I teared up when I heard the news that reggae has been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, recognized for “its contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance,
love and humanity.” I teared up because, let’s face it, Jamaica is a tiny island, a dot in the ocean, and an icon who changed the world with his music and lyrics came out of that tiny island. My
aunt worked with Bob Marley who popularized reggae music and sent it forth into the world. I remember my mom telling me about the day my aunt introduced him to her and my

“He was so shy. He looked down, couldn’t look me in the eye.”

Maybe it was because he was intimidated by my uptown family. Maybe he didn’t know what they thought of him. My generation recognized his greatness, but for sure my grandmother’s
generation had a different view. He was radical and different. He promoted equality and black pride.

Years ago, in the early 1990’s, I went to Australia and met some older Jamaicans who had migrated in the early 1970’s. They asked me about Jamaica. They had never been back.

“Is that horrible man’s music still popular?” they asked.

“Which horrible man?” I asked clueless.

“Bob Marley.”

I was shocked. “Yes, he’s extremely popular. More than ever.”

I kept quiet while they voiced strong opinions: Jamaica had changed for the worse. People were primitive to embrace this awful music. Dreadlocks and rastafarianism had become a style. People
were embracing what they thought to be backwards and barbaric. It was too Africanized for them. At the time, my young mind thought they were old-fashioned, out of the loop, far removed
from the Jamaica they’d left. I vowed never to be the same. Now, with age and a lot more understanding, those people and the rest of us Jamaicans, are products of a colonial legacy: the
legacy that white is better and that anything black can’t be good whether it be language, skin colour or music. We’ve come a long way. We’ve embraced so much but we still have a long way
to go. It is evident in the amount of people bleaching their skin (It’s not only Jamaicans. Indians and other cultures bleach too).

Actual conversations that blow my mind:

My relative to one of her workmen: “Why do you bleach your skin?”

Workman: “Life is easier for a light skinned man.”

It’s evident in the disparaging comments made to people.

Jamaican-Indian mother-in-law to daughter-in-law after a holiday in Brazil: “What did you do to
your skin?! You look like a n_____.”

Finally, it’s evident in the amount of people who think that it’s an accomplishment that their
offspring or offspring’s offspring have light hair, light skin and light eyes, as if that’s important –
as if that’s a great achievement akin to working hard and gaining financial independence. Oh
please. It’s sickening.

So why did I tear up? I’m proud of the accomplishments of my little island home, and although
we’ve come a long way, we still have so much further to go.

Don’t Ever Ask This

It was Saturday. I’d run out of my medication. The doctor’s office was closed. I called the pharmacist who said, “I can’t help you. Why didn’t you refill it on Friday?” Her question raised my hackles up. “I was busy and at work all day. How can you help me now?”
After pondering why I was so irritated, I decided that I will never be that person who asks myself or anyone else, ‘Why didn’t you…?’ It has to be the most pointless, asinine question. The question is rooted in an unchangeable past and is the source of much unhappiness, at least for me. It is a question that keeps one stuck in regret and blame, and unable to move forward to problem solve quickly and effectively. Why didn’t I file the tax papers away so I could find them easily at tax time? Why didn’t you do your homework? Why did you leave your essay until the last minute? Pointless! The thing is already done. Not to mention that after this accusatory question is asked, what follows is a comment, usually in our minds, ‘What a dummy I am!’ (or, ‘what a dummy you are!’) I could hear the pharmacist’s unspoken words: Why are you so disorganized? I wouldn’t
have made such a mistake, the perfect person that I am!
Every time we ask this question of someone, we’re demoralizing them, basically saying they weren’t intelligent enough to make a better decision. We’re human and we make mistakes. Upon  reflection, I’ve decided to curb myself of the habit of uttering this futile and unproductive question, of myself and anyone else. I’m sure it may slip out on occasion. I may even think it, but I hope in time that I’ll completely eliminate it from my vocabulary and focus on problem-solving. After all, what happened in the past is already done. Why make myself or anyone else feel badly about something we can’t change?

Missing Her

My second daughter has left for university. Because of a misunderstanding with dates, I was in Jamaica when she moved in to her dorm. My husband and best friend moved her in. I came home from the airport and felt my heart sink when I didn’t see the light in her room. I couldn’t go into her room because I couldn’t bear the pain in my heart. I went to bed sad and woke up sad, close to tears. I couldn’t understand my reaction because this daughter is the one who drives me mad. In dark hours of frustration and anger, I’ve told her horrible things like, “I can’t wait for you to leave home,”  “You’re living in my house. If you don’t like it, leave.”  “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the University of Ottawa, or even the University of British Colombia?” Our fights are turbulent because she is what Canadians would describe as sassy. Jamaicans might say facety (meaning rude and disrespectful. Origin: feisty – full of spirit). It comes across as disrespectful when I am the recipient of it but when she displays this trait to other people, I watch in amazement and awe when she gets what she wants.

When she was sixteen we went across the border to New York. Upon returning, we handed the Canadian border officer our passports. Her passport was Norwegian.

“Where do you live?” he asked her. I started to get nervous.

“Canada,” she said.

“Well I see nothing here to indicate you live in Canada. Your citizenship card is not valid. We don’t use that anymore.”

Panic started to set in for me and my girlfriend. Her anxious face reflected mine.

“Her Canadian passport is coming in the mail,” I said hoping my voice didn’t shake.

My daughter did not panic. She looked at the officer with that expression of indignation and self righteousness and said, “Well, Canada is the only country I know and I’ve lived here since I was two. I have all my report cards to prove it. ” She said it with such sass and finality that the officer looked at her and said, “okay, but there’s still nothing to show you live here.” She looked at him and gave him the one shoulder shrug, the shrug that teenagers use when they don’t give a crap about what you’re saying. He handed us our passports and let us back into Canada. I let out a sigh of relief as we drove into Canada. She however, merely said, “What was he going to do? Deport me to Norway, a country where I’ve never lived, can’t speak the language and separate me from my family. Whatever!”

In Jamaica, we went to Sugar and Spice for patties. She wanted a chicken meal. The picture showed chicken with french fries. They gave her a box with chicken and rice and peas. The server was slow and rude.

Daughter: I don’t want rice and peas.

Server: (shrugging) You ordered the chicken meal. It comes with rice and peas.

Daughter: Well, I don’t want it. The picture you have has french fries. There’s no picture with rice and peas.

Me: Just eat the rice and peas. (Not wanting to make waves. We’d already been waiting a long time.

Daughter: No. I don’t want it. You shouldn’t have a picture of french fries then.

Server: I have to call my supervisor. (This took about five minutes).

Daughter: Fine because I don’t want rice and peas. I want what’s in the picture.

Server: It’s more money with french fries.

Me: (rolling my eyes and muttering under my breath.) Why do you have to make everything so difficult?

Daughter: I ordered what was in the picture. That’s what I want.

I paid the extra and my daughter got her french fries. She left the building with her head held high, her shoulders back and her face set in a determination to take on the world.

As I write this, I can barely continue. Why do I feel so heartbroken? After all, she’s only an hour away. As tears fall down my face, and I don’t feel like getting out of bed to start the day, I think it’s because my family feels like it’s shrinking. Or maybe it’s because life as I knew it has changed so suddenly and abruptly that I’m lost. Maybe it’s because all these years of childbearing, childrearing and wanting freedom, now that I’m getting it, I realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Being surrounded by family is what I really want. Having my house filled with my children and their friends is what I really want. Or maybe I miss her. Yes, I think perhaps it’s all of the above but mostly I just miss her.

Giving Up Peanut M&M’s For Good

I had this bad habit of enjoying peanut M&M’s far too much. “The person who invented chocolate and peanuts is a genius,” I’d say to myself while chomping down on this delicious combination while watching a movie. Peanut M&M’s and movies on Netflix or in the cinema are a perfect match. Incidentally, my father shares this same weakness. Peanut M&M’s are the reason I love Halloween so much. My kids just know that when they walk through the door on October 31st and empty out the pillow case of candy, the peanut M&M’s go to me.

A few weekends ago I took part in a course (Neurolinguistic Programming) and one of the challenges was to change an undesirable behaviour. I chose giving up peanut M&M’s. The instructor asked me if I was sure I wanted to give them up since once I’d done the exercise, I probably wouldn’t ever want to eat them again. I was sceptical but I said yes. After all, I know what they taste like. They aren’t anything new or exciting. Binging on peanut M&M’s is simply a bad habit and an unhealthy sugar addiction.

As I sat in the comfy recliner chair and relaxed, I was asked to think of food I didn’t like. I imagined runny egg yolk. Peanut M & M’s covered in egg yolk didn’t work. Then I thought, “vomit.” That should work. But it didn’t. I could still imagine eating peanut M&M’s covered in vomit. I was asked to think of the worse thing I could eat. Cockroaches, I thought. Not the small kind found in infested apartments in North America. No. I’m talking the big ones that fly in from outside. Big tropical cockroaches that when squashed, a nasty yellow oozing mess comes out of them. That did the trick. In this course, eating peanut M&M’s was linked in my mind to eating huge cockroaches.

The test came that night. There was the bag of peanut M&M’s on the dresser. My husband and I settled in bed for a late night movie. He reached for the bag and offered it to me. I declined, completely repulsed. He crunched away with the bag between us. “That’s wicked,” I said. He moved the bag to the other side of himself and continued to munch on them. “Perhaps I could pop one in my mouth,” I thought. I looked at the bag. It was easy to reach for one, but I could not, simply would not put the M & M in my mouth. It was no longer a peanut M&M. It was a big crunchy cockroach.

That’s what the mind is capable of, more powerful than we can ever imagine. What obstacles do you want to overcome?

Set Fulfilling Goals for 2017

I have a New Year’s tradition where I write my goals for the new year on a paper plate. The hope is that I won’t discard the plate; I’ll keep looking at my goals and making progress toward whatever it is I desire. Sometimes, I achieve my goals and sometimes I forget what I’ve written on the plate. Usually the plate ends up in the garbage. None of it feels entirely fulfilling. As a matter of fact, most of the time when we achieve a goal, we simply set a higher goal to reach and it feels like life is a series of challenges, a marathon that never ends. It can feel exhausting.

This year, I have a different type of goal. As I look back at 2016, what stands out to me is the passing of many celebrities, the passing of my beloved maternal grandmother and the tragic passing of my thirty-one year old cousin Jonathan. It’s become more important to me to set goals that are truly fulfilling. We don’t know when our time will be up. There is nothing wrong with trying to reach the ideal weight, the ideal money in our bank accounts, the accumulation of real estate, the publishing of books or whatever our hearts desire but these material things are fleeting. Once the goal is accomplished, that initial euphoria goes and there comes a sort of emptiness, at least for me.

My grandmother and cousin lived lives where they pursued their passions and each in their own way made a difference in the lives of many. As I write, I can hear my husband saying, “don’t be so hard on yourself. You make a difference in our lives and the lives of your students.” But I feel there is more that I can do. I’m talking about stretching myself and being of value to others even when it’s not easy or convenient. I’m talking about making a difference in someone else’s life without always focusing on myself.

On December 29th a wise family member said to me while we sat at the dinner table enjoying Christmas pudding, that our life is a gift and there’s no store, no mall that can buy time or the breath. Our purpose is to benefit others and that is the ultimate goal to set: how can we be of purpose and value to others? She said life is like a coin. You either spend it wisely, lose it or you waste it. I’ve come to feel that the pursuit of my own goals is wasting it. I feel that the path to fulfillment is to spend my coin wisely by being of value to others, even if it’s only one person. Hopefully I’ll be of value to many people. Maybe it will be through writing. Maybe God has different plans for me. I didn’t write my goals on a plate this year. Instead I’m trying with every interaction to be more thoughtful and more helpful to others.

Many Excuses

I met a woman the other day. Let’s call her Dana. “What do you want to do most?” she asked. “To focus on my writing,” I said.

“So what’s stopping you?”

“Life,” I answered. “My job, my kids, housework, you know, life.”

She looked me straight in the eye. “All excuses.”

I was taken aback. “No seriously, there’s no time. I’m so busy. By the time the day is over and I get into bed, I’m tired.”

“You’re not really serious about writing,” she said.

“I AM serious.”

“No, you’re not. If you were, you’d do it. YOU make the time. Do you by any chance, find yourself making excuses in your life for other things?”

I thought about exercising and how once, I used to be an aerobics instructor. Now I put off exercising constantly, always finding something else to do. My excuses are endless: Someone is coming over. I have to do laundry. I have to make dinner. It’s too cold to go outside. I don’t feel like it today. I didn’t want to answer. “Maybe,” I answered slowly.

“You’re a procrastinator and you’re not serious. Once you get serious and if it’s really important to you, you’ll make the time to write.”

The truth hurts. Sometimes it’s not even delivered in a gentle way but if we can get past the manner of delivery and acknowledge the truth, that WE hold ourselves back, we can learn a lot. I’ve been thinking about what Dana said. For years I’ve blamed my circumstances for not achieving what I want, but the truth is, if I want to get fit and complete another adult book, it takes focus, dedication and tenacity. These things will never get done if I don’t make the time to do them. One may have talent and luck, even people willing to help, but it’s up to each individual to put in time and effort. As simple as this sounds, it’s easier to make excuses. People who say to me, “Oh dear, I feel so bad for you. You need more time to do what you love,” aren’t helping me. I love those people by the way, because they enable me and they become part of my “pity party.”

The people who really help are the ones who say, “stop making excuses and get on with it. Stop thinking about doing it and do it.”

I don’t like those people as much (at first) but they are the ones from whom I learn the most.

I guess it’s easier to stay in our comfort zone but it’s worth it to stop the excuses. There are people in wheelchairs who’ve done marathons. We grow by stepping out of our comfort zone. “Do one thing a day that scares you.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

Take caution though, when trying to help someone else. Not everyone is ready to hear the truth. And don’t give people unsolicited advice. They’ll only be resentful. I wanted the truth from Dana and she was a serious but gentle soul.

That Flipping Phone

My friend, let’s call him Graham, came home early expecting to see his son. His son, 10 years old, had started walking home recently so Graham had given him a phone. Three o’clock went by, then four. There was no sign of his son who was supposed to have been home by 3:30. Graham called his son. The phone rang without an answer. Graham called over and over again, hoping for a different outcome. Five o’clock. Graham panicked and called his wife. They walked the neighbourhood searching. When they returned home, they looked grimly at each other knowing that the moment had come to call the police. It was every parent’s worst nightmare. As he picked up the phone to dial, he looked out the window and saw a familiar head bobbing up and down. He ran to the door. It was his son.

“Where were you?” he shouted. “I’ve been trying to call you for hours. Why didn’t you answer your phone?”

Turns out Graham’s son was with his friends. He’d turned off his phone so he wouldn’t have to answer it in front of the guys. It wasn’t an iPhone or a fancy Smart phone. It was  an older flip phone model and he was ashamed of it. Before you shake your head and say, “kids today,” this behaviour is not limited to kids only. I know adults who won’t go to the beach because their bodies are not perfect, or this woman I know who is reluctant to go anywhere with her friends because they are slimmer than she. There are people who won’t invite anyone to their houses because their houses are not big enough or for some other reason, they’re ashamed of where they live. Many of us at some time or another may have been plagued with this sense of not living up to some ideal standard, whether it’s our income, our weight, our possessions or lack thereof, being unattached, or whatever it is that makes you feel less than.  When the old inferiority complex rears its ugly head, there are ways to feel good about yourself and embrace the world.

First, find many quiet moments and focus on you. What is it that you want to do, learn, accomplish in this lifetime? Do it. Whether it’s art, dancing, learning a language or  a new skill, go for it. It’s an accomplishment and it will make you feel great.

Second, try hypnosis. I’ve read every single self help book on the shelves (almost) and nothing has helped as much as this. Hypnosis bypasses your conscious mind where all our negative habits and ways of thinking prevent us from achieving lasting change. Hypnosis has made me finally go to the gym and focus on my writing. Nothing else worked for me.

Third, be yourself and learn to love who you are. You are unique. How do you learn to be you? You find yourself in those quiet moments, through self-reflection, journaling, meditation and prayer.

Fourth, surround yourself with people who love and accept you. Shed the others.

Finally, realize getting to know you and love you is a  lifelong journey. Keep telling yourself, if someone doesn’t like me because of my weight, income, house, marital status, etc., they aren’t worth knowing anyway. You being confident and living your dreams will enable the children around you to do the same.

The Art of Listening

Ever since my grandmother passed away, I’ve not blogged nor done any creative writing. She played such a big part in my life and as I go about life again, I find myself thinking, “what would Grandma Mavis have done in this situation?” Grandma had this way of making each grandchild feel like the favourite. When we talked to her, she really listened, never said I’m too busy, not now, or can we speed up the story because I have other things to do? She didn’t even look like she was thinking these things. I thought about this on the way home from work the other day when I picked up my children from school. My son was telling me about his day. I tried to mimic my grandmother’s behaviour while he told me a long, drawn out story of a fort, who was involved, who destroyed the fort, who he no longer likes and I could go on as he went on. It was the story that never ended. I was also thinking of what to cook for dinner, if I needed to do laundry, my job, my writing, and I could go on. It took every ounce of energy and focus to really listen, to listen well and empathize with my son. The more I listened, the more I realized it wasn’t a story about a fort at all. It was a story of hurt feelings and disappointment. Only then could I respond appropriately.

Active listening is an art. Too many people are jumping in to speak before we even finish what we’re saying. I’m making it my personal practice to improve, to not make any judgments about the other person, even if I think I know them like the back of my hand. Other tips include focusing on what the other person is saying but also their body language and tone of voice. Be patient if it takes a long time for them to spit it out. Clarify what they’ve said and then respond. The research says it’s an important skill. Never mind the research, it makes the other person feel great in your company. They’ll wonder why they like you so much. I know I might not get it right every time, but last night, I was listening to my daughter. I looked deeply into her eyes. I said nothing. All the things I still had to do was pushed out of my mind for that time. The world fell away. She was the only person that mattered right then. She had all my focus and I saw how much that mattered. The things that bothered her, her worries all came pouring out. It was one of those rich moments where I was present, not thinking of past nor future. It was deeply gratifying for us both. This is what life is truly about, I thought, loving, giving and listening. My grandmother was loved by many. She knew how to love, give and listen.

Letter to My Father’s Ex Girlfriend

Dear G,

There we were, one summer afternoon in the countryside near the ocean having lunch, you, me, my boyfriend (ex) and my dad. I’d just returned from travelling the world, a two year backpacking trip that left my parents wondering if I’d ever settle down. Settling down was the last thing on my mind. Then you asked me that unsettling question that changed our relationship forever: “What do you plan on doing with your life?”

I now realize my father must have been worried about me and confided in you. That question triggered all the emotions of disappointment at returning home, the reality that my mom and dad were no longer together, and my anxiety that perhaps I really was wasting my life. I blew up at you. I don’t remember exactly what I said, just that there was this shocked silence after I spewed venom. Dad and my ex looked down at their plates. No-one spoke for a really long time. Lunch was ruined. I think you got up and left, or maybe it was me. I can’t remember.

I’m sorry G, for blowing up at you. It’s not my usual behaviour and I remember all the times in my life when I’ve behaved uncharacteristically and I can count them on one hand. But I’ve never forgotten your words. I thought I knew everything like all young people think they know everything. I didn’t have a plan and one has to have a plan. I only wish I’d known it sooner. I wish G, that someone had taught me to set goals from an early age, that even travelling in freedom requires planning and goal setting. If I’d set proper goals, perhaps I wouldn’t have returned home prematurely, broke and dissatisfied. Goal setting would have given me the clarity and vision that maybe a proper job wasn’t the way to go for me. Well thought out goals would have pushed me and stretched me until I grew enough to achieve exactly what it is I was meant to achieve in this life.

Now that I’m older, I realize I only have a certain amount of time on this earth. Without clear and well defined goals, it’s hard to know what one really wants and how to get it. I set a lot of goals, weekly, monthly, yearly and every five years. Sometimes my goals work out and sometimes they don’t but at least I have a plan.

G, when you asked me, “what do you plan on doing with your life?”, I wish I’d had a better answer, even if I’d said something trite like, “living it.” You probably could’ve taught me a lot in those tumultuous years of my early adulthood. Anyway G, your words were not wasted. I hope I’ve helped young people, including my own children, make better decisions. I tell them that it may seem like they have a lot of time, but it flies, it really flies. They have to decide what they really want, no matter how outrageous or how different it looks from someone else’s life. I tell them to make a plan, put it on paper, tack it on the wall, look at it every day, and take small steps till they get there. I tell them, G, to never give up but most importantly, I tell them if they’re wrong, it takes a bigger and better person to simply say, “I’m sorry.” So now, over twenty years later, I’m saying I’m sorry. You were just trying to help.

Of course, in the way of life, it isn’t so ironic that I’ve done all this with my own children, told them to set goals, that they need to plan for success, asked them what they plan to do in the future but I’ve heard, at least once, “Leave me alone Mom. I just want to enjoy my life. I want the freedom to do what I want to do.”

It must be an age thing.