Last week I picked up a book called ‘Present Over Perfect’ from my local library and read it in the space of one weekend. I can’t remember the last time I did this – but something about this particular book resonated with me deeply, and brought to the surface a lot of things I have been thinking about for a while. It wasn’t that my life was exactly the life of the author – Shauna Niequist is a successful writer who, after years of working, travelling and exhaustion, triggered a deliberate turnaround to a more simple way of life. Neither was it the deeply religious element to the book (although raised Catholic I’m not a particularly religious person. I’m not entirely sure what I am but that’s a story for another day). What drew me in to each new chapter of the book was the underlying message that so many of us are in need of – that we’re so busy trying to prove ourselves, please others and appear endlessly productive that we’re in danger of leaving precious little for the people who matter most. We’re in danger of missing out on our own lives while we try to be valuable, to be useful, to do the things that other people expect. We’re in danger of missing the small moments while we’re too busy filling up our days with stuff.
As a life-long perfectionist, people-pleaser and yes-girl, I’ve been trying to work on being more ‘present’ than the person I was when I was younger. Before having children I focused on the future – safe in the knowledge that life would be perfect once we got our house renovated, paid off our student loans or earned enough money to take a holiday a couple of times a year. I said yes to everything people asked of me, quietly resenting that saying yes means you’re the person people (understandably) go to if they’re looking for a yes answer. I didn’t get any better at saying no to things, but my children came along and made me focus on the here and now. Old habits die hard though and still I couldn’t help myself – ok, I’ll play, but let me finish tidying the table, put on the next washing load and get through my mental checklist before I relax, right? The thing with getting through the checklist means that by the time the checklist is completed everyone has moved on to something else. I’m trying harder to live in the moment, even the messy ones, wherever I can these days. This is my life, it’s messy, it’s breadcrumbs on the lino. When you come to visit I’ll try hard not to sweep them up before we can begin.
And then there’s the saying yes thing – as Niequist points out in the book, if you’ve always been a yes person, people don’t often like it when you start off saying no. But the thing is people who say yes all the time get exhausted, and sometimes saying no for a while is actually a road back to saying yes. Not all the time, like you once did, but when and if you’re able. As Mother Teresa said, ‘if you want to change the world go home and love your family.’ For now I know that’s where all my ‘yes’s’ need to be.
And as for the endless cycle of ‘productivity’ – in the book, Niequist admits she bowed to it like a diety. How many times, especially as women, do we tell others how busy, how frantic our lives are, wearing our productivity like a badge? How did it become necessary to show everyone how many balls we can throw up and juggle, how did running around to the point of exhaustion become something to be revered? And that tendency to look at other lives and think them ‘cushy’, that they are so much easier, that they couldn’t possibly be as hard as ours. Saying more about our feelings towards our own lives – for who’s to say a quieter way of living isn’t every bit valuable as yours?
But what does all this mean in practical terms? Well for me, it’s meant slowing down a bit. Not letting other people dictate the pace I choose. Trying to gracefully step away from the idol of ‘busy’. Decluttering, owning fewer things. Not always rearranging the cushions. Not allowing other peoples’ priorities to become mine. Going to fewer after school clubs. Yoga. Reading more at the weekend. Being a mum, a wife, a daughter – no longer being too busy to be a friend. Saying ‘I can’t do that anymore’. Saying, ‘I did that last time, maybe someone else can take a turn’. Capturing moments, but making sure I’m in the moments before they leave me. Focusing on the four people around the table – giving my best energies to the ones I love.
Reading ‘Present Over Perfect’ gave me notice that I’m not the only person who feels this way, and that perfectionism, people-pleasing and my inner yes-girl can all be overcome. I hope I manage it with the grace and wisdom that Shauna demonstrates in this memoir.
Freer, less precise, a more intentional way of living. And in the words of John Steinbeck, ‘now that you don’t have to be perfect you can be good’.