A Run In My Stocking

Confessions of A Recovering Perfectionist

In Praise of the Meandering Mind

I love paradox. Though I’m not sure I can say why. It’s as if the universe is winking at us, gently teasing us for thinking we’ve figured something out. Like a playful reminder that certainty is overrated, and real wisdom comes from questioning. This is what I love about writing for pleasure. It’s an opportunity to let my mind meander with no pressure to perform. I am excited to open my journal each morning, wondering what will fill the blank pages. I practice wide open thinking and thought-riffing with no external expectation. It is a chance to notice, play with, and actually change my mind. Unlike the constraints of conversation, where I feel a need to be interesting or at least make sense, this freeform writing creates an opportunity to eliminate even internal judgements and go with the flow. Don’t get me wrong, I love to chat. But when I am alone with my pen and free from having to follow any particular thoughts, new thinking is free to arise.

I always admired those professors and philosophers in old movies, sitting by the fireplace in their private libraries with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, ensconced in their wingback leather armchairs, perhaps a pipe in hand, possibly a brandy on a side table, a dog curled up at their feet, thinking. These men (because apparently women didn’t think before the 1970s) were able to work out problems by themselves, in their minds. This, for me, is miraculous. I don’t think I’ve ever worked out a problem in my mind in my life. I might start the practice, but then...oh, I can’t forget to do laundry today...I’d better prepare for that meeting...I think I’ll make the chicken tonight...why did my husband say that...now where was I? If I’ve resolved problems at all, I’ve done it through conversation, action, impetus, or even atrophy. But never have I simply thought something through to an elegant, satisfying, and complete conclusion.

Real solitary thinking takes an extraordinary amount of mental discipline. To focus on a problem and contemplate several alternate linear paths, mentally walking them each to the end to assess their viability, eliminating unworkable options as you go, and all the while being open to non-linear solutions while keeping the initial problem firmly in place. Maybe this is what great chess players do. Though I suspect they, too, do some planning on paper, get coaching, memorize moves - some preparation that involves more than staring at the board. Even strategists must write things down or discuss among themselves. Maybe the solitary thinker and problem-solver is a myth. I suspect that I’m like most people in this regard. We get creative flashes in the shower, on a walk, while cleaning the house, driving the car. Rather than controlling our minds to find answers, we let go. And then the answers come of their own accord. 

It seems to me that the only place I’ve ever known anyone do the kind of strict solo thinking I’m examining here, is in the movies. It is the stuff of stories. There is a clear protagonist, a problem to overcome, and a resolution by the hero. Life, I have found, rarely works this way. Every battle is won with countless and often nameless soldiers. Every movement takes at least a village. Every course correction, a team. But stories are powerful. Our culture and societies are built on them, then handed down through generations. The advertising and marketing industries were created to bring narrative to products and services. To build a brand - a story about the product with which consumers can identify in order to have them purchase said product with the hope of filling a hole in their personal narrative. But that’s not paradoxical, that’s just ironic. 

Of course, stories are an important part of being human. They are structures for making sense of things, communicating values, and passing along life lessons. But when I think of the professor in his wingback, finding clarity and definitive answers, I feel positively lacking. Unfocused, undisciplined, and scatterbrained. And practicing this form of contemplation only leads to frustration and more evidence of my lack. This is the lesson I continue to learn: There will always be evidence that a particular way of thinking or doing things or acting or believing is the right way. Because everything works for someone. That doesn’t, however, mean it works for everyone. Which also means it won’t necessarily work for me. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but sometimes only the meandering path gets you there. It also makes for a much better story.

The 3 Faces of Christmas Eve

I just finished reading A Christmas Carol. I never thought I’d read the book, having lost track of how many times I’ve seen the movie - multiple versions of the movie, actually - and feeling no need to read a story I can already quote. But I’m on a bit of a Dickensian streak right now and it is a seasonal story and, well, I needed something short to be sure I’d complete my Goodreads challenge of 24 books this year. (I’m actually now at 25, but I didn’t want to chance it. Some perfectionism dies hard.)

I know it sounds crazy, but I just discovered Dickens this year as I focused my leisure reading on catching up on classics. Somehow, he slipped through my reading repertoire for all these decades. It could be because several of his books have been made into movies, and I don’t tend to read and watch the same stories. There are just so many good ones and so little time to partake of them all. Suffice it to say, I’m making up for it now as I begin my 4th Dickens of the year. (A Tale of Two Cities.) Once I get into the rhythm of a writer, especially when that writer hails from a different century, I find it easier to keep going. But back to our story. Our Christmas story.

I grew up celebrating a kind of secular Christmas. Like most humans, we thrive on tradition and feelings of goodwill and the combo platter of food, family, and festivities. And, like most people gathering for their seasonal celebrations, we also serve up a smorgasbord of stress, anxiety, and family tensions. (Christmas happens to be the framework of our particular feast, but neither experience is exclusive to this holiday - lest I leave anyone feeling left out.) So it seems that this festive season has multiple personalities. Like Scrooge, who had 3 diverse Christmases in one night, I have 3 possible holidays about to happen. Also like Scrooge, my Christmases relate to the past, the present, and the future. I’ll call them The 3 Faces of Christmas Eve.

  • The first face is Christmas Eve White. This is the Christmas I imagine as bright and shiny and filled with the milk of human kindness. I cook and bake and clean and wrap and listen to Christmas music and have a general sense of happy anticipation. It is the Christmas of an imagined and idyllic future. This is often fraught with disappointment.
  • The second face is Christmas Eve Black. This is the Christmas that I worry about. Being annoyed and intolerant, wishing it was over, and wondering why I ended up in this particular family. It is the Christmas of remembered conflict and strife from the past. This is often doomed with dread.
  • The third face of Christmas Eve (if you recall the movie) is just Jane. Which kind of fits. The dictionary defines Jane as “a girl or woman.” So just the basics with no embellishment. No past, no future, no good or bad. Just what’s so right now. 

It’s Christmastime, and I love my family and I have chosen to host and feed them and adorn them with gifts. I think that this year, I will practice being just Jane. You can be Jane or John along with me, if you’d like. And if we focus not on a fantasy of what Christmas should be, or a nightmare of what Christmas could be, maybe things will end up just jake. My wish for the holidays is to authentically say, it may not have been the best of times, but it wasn’t the worst of times. There were no hard times, and while I am not left with great expectations, I am happy and satisfied with a holiday well spent. Merry Christmas, one and all.