Good, Not Perfect

Two years ago today, something little short of miraculous happened.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

I witnessed the launch of my first published novel.

It wasn’t the first book I’d ever written. I started my first novel when I was fifteen and labored over it lovingly all through high school and part of college. Then one day, I knew I’d outgrown it. It was crushing to realize that it wasn’t my magnum opus, and that it wasn’t going to be published. I lovingly, sadly filed it away in the proverbial drawer. And I started work on a new book. That one ended up in the drawer too. And the next one.

And then came the book that would become The Illuminator’s Gift. Five years of writing and rewriting–by the shores of an English lake, in the middle of the night, in bed with whooping cough, in fingerless gloves on bitterly cold mornings. A book whose first draft was 100,000 words long. A book that went through at least three titles and about thirty secondary characters, half of whom never made it into the final. A book whose story I didn’t know until I finished it. In some ways, it came to me like a gift.

As I was getting close to finishing, I held long debates with myself over whether this was The Book That Ought To Be Published. I studied literature and writing in college, and I knew enough to see that this was not a perfect book. Should it end up in the drawer with all the other defunct novels? Should I wait to publish until I wrote Something Perfect?

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Well, I decided to go for it. Because I knew that this book had come to me like a gift, and a gift is meant for sharing. I also had the sneaking suspicion that if I chickened out on this book and hid it away out of a sense of fear and rampant perfectionism, I might never work up the nerve to publish anything. After all, when am I really going to write Something Perfect? When is anybody? (Okay, Tolkien excepted.)

And there’s a time to let go of Something Perfect and go forward with Something Good.

This was it.

Not that I don’t still sometimes wonder why on earth I decided to share this imperfect book with the world. (Especially the first time someone found a typo in the book.)

But when it comes down to it, I’m awfully glad I did.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Because it started me on a path of saying yes to projects that are Good-Not-Perfect. Stuff like taking a solo roadtrip to a monastery (and nervously checking my tire pressure approximately 954 times). Like signing up to take graduate-level seminary classes. Like speaking in front of 200 fourth-graders. Like writing, editing, and publishing a second book within a year of the first (and writing a third, due out next year).

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” And as one Good-Not-Perfect project–writing, relationships, teaching–leads to another, this paradigm is shaping my life. With practice, I’m becoming better able to accept what is good in life, even if it’s not perfect. And for this life I am most deeply grateful.

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Photo credit: Jim Hillmann

What are some of the good-not-perfect things in your life?

Zucchini Cake

I don’t know what’s up with the baking analogies. I don’t even like to bake. But I have this thought that people are like cake.

So, this is a hard admission: as you may have deduced by now, I’m a people-pleaser. I’ve always wanted to be a chocolate cake.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and nosheep

Since childhood, I’ve tried to be the “good kid”–pleasing parents, Sunday school teachers, kids I wanted to be friends with, kids I didn’t want to be friends with, college professors, people at church, random strangers at Starbucks. My code of conduct went something like, “Fly under the radar, don’t irritate people, do what you’re told, appease.” Because people only want chocolate cakes, right? Chocolate cake people make the best friends, students, children, right?

Chocolate cake people: plural noun. Punctual, humble, not only faithful in but excited about prayer, churchgoing, service activities. Don’t talk too much, don’t talk too much about themselves, modest, demure, good grades, walk the straight and narrow. Also hospitable, good conversationalists, and don’t go outside looking frumpy. Ever.

So if people only want chocolate cakes, I have to be one, right? To get approval (and what else could be worth getting?) I’ve aimed for perfection, or as close to it as possible. Other people’s displeasure was my fault, my failure.

Here’s the trouble. I’m not a chocolate cake. I think I might not even count as cake. I get this frequent, sneaking suspicion that I’m made of something else entirely–something green and lumpy that won’t stick together and certainly won’t fluff in the oven. Something like…zucchini.

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Zucchini person: singular noun. Lags just a few minutes late for every activity. Talks too much about self and sometimes snorts at own jokes. Sometimes doesn’t feel like praying. Wakes up without makeup and sometimes on the wrong side of the bed. Worries about job, friends, future.

Well, zucchini is obviously an unacceptable basis for the making of cakes, especially when all cakes are supposed to be chocolate. So my solution has been to slap some nice, thick frosting on top and smear it around. See? Picture-perfect cake.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and coachen

Then there’s the broiler.

A little summer heat is one thing; if your inch-thick coat of frosting starts to melt, you just patch the thin spots. You can still hide what’s underneath. But sitting under a 500-degree hot wire for long enough is more than any coat of frosting can bear. A hot wire like eleven months of caregiving, for instance.

Hard times have a way of stripping away your layers of fakeness. Insincerity soon melts under the flame. And what’s left for people to see is…zucchini. Embarrassing, un-chocolate, imperfect, vulnerable.

This is the point, in my imagination, where people scream and go, “Ew, gross! Someone get that unacceptable vegetable out of here!”

But, to my dumbfounded astonishment, that’s not what I’ve seen happen. The more I can’t hide my true substance, the more I show people that my cake is far from chocolate, the more I’m let in on a secret.

Other people’s cakes aren’t, either.

Vulnerability is like an amoeba. It multiplies itself. Numerous times in the last few months, I’ve had the shocking experience of hearing people–even people I regard as the gold standard of chocolate cake–reveal their failings, their doubts, their awkwardnesses, their fears. Almost no one sails through life in complete confidence (and those who do are ignoring some things). No one marches into battle without sweaty palms. No one looks in the mirror every morning, smiles a toothpaste-commercial smile, and whispers, “go get ’em, chocolate.”

Vulnerability also brings people together. I used to think, not very long ago, that I really had to be perfect for people to like me. What absolutely stuns me is the slow discovery that perfection intimidates–and honesty is true beauty. People don’t like you less when you show them your hurt, your awkwardness, your doubt. Honesty levels the playing field. It expresses trust, need, connection. The ugly green truth is what allows deep, real connection to bloom.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and kyra

So, here’s my confession. I’m not made of chocolate. Sometimes, with all my zucchini-greenness going on, I think I make a miserable excuse for cake at all. You don’t have to like it. But that’s what I’m made of. And now that that’s out in the open, I’m glad I no longer have to spend my life patching the frosting.

Ever felt like a zucchini cake in a chocolate-cake world? What have you discovered about revealing that to other people?