“Perfection is for canned goods; the stuff that gets gooey and furry and rank is where the real nourishment lies.” – Critter, on being okay when you suddenly can’t.
Panic. My heart is galloping across the back of my tongue. When I inhale, the oxygen barely makes it past my bronchi before turning tail and retreating back through my teeth.
I am sitting at a table in my gym’s cafeteria. I keep huffing those non-committal efforts to survive while the room spins.
I put my elbows on the table and grip my skull with both hands.
Slow down, I whisper. Please slow down. I need to think.
I close my eyes and force myself to maintain the suction in my throat just a second longer. I do… and feel something midway down my chest begin to expand like a sticky balloon. Warm relief floods in as the air finds its way deeper into my lungs.
I’m still dizzy, and that’s disappointing, but it will have to do. I’ve got an assload of things to do today.
Finish the goddamn BOOK! A voice growls inside me. It is a swirl of terror, heartache and rage. I had promised myself the final chapter yesterday, and a glorious breather today. But it didn’t happen. I am crushed.
For the past ten days, I’ve been riding a surge of productivity. I paddled through almost a chapter each day. The steady movement soothed my worries. I assured myself it would all come together in time. I felt alternatingly cautiously hopeful, and hyperactively blissed.
The energy peaked over the weekend, and I dove so deep into writing that I got the bends when I surfaced for meals. I looked at my kids while they spoke to me and, “Mmmm-hmmed” whenever they paused, but I had no idea what they’d said. My husband raised his eyebrow at me but didn’t say anything.
“This isn’t forever,” I told him as I carried my laptop up to bed. “I’ll come back soon. I promise.”
When I made that vow, I was picturing the giddy relief of a herculean task completed. I saw myself pressing send to email the manuscript out to my beta readers, punching the air and jumping on the bed like a rioting gorilla. I thought a long-neglected rest would come with victory.
But instead, it came with shame.
Yesterday, my toddler broke out in the kind of inconsolable crankiness that usually precedes a minor plague. I braced myself for a few exhausting days and sleepless nights (whispering,”It’s okay, it’s not forever…”) and quelled the first gust of terror.
But then, I started coughing. And my head started pounding. And my muscles turned to lead and my brain filled with cotton. And then I thought, Oh. Fucking. No.
I refilled my tea and stared harder at my laptop.
Come on; I moaned to that unmanifested chapter. Hurry! But it didn’t. It didn’t come at all.
I wrote around in circles for a couple of hours, and when the alarm rang to mark the end of my little one’s naptime, I whimpered out loud.
Don’t crap out now!!! I thought. The end is in sight!
My heart thudded in my chest, and my breath echoed like a steam-engine straining to pull away from the station. I pushed down the panic and carried on, setting up the baby and her sister for TV and a snack. Then I swayed into the kitchen to start dinner.
But I couldn’t even do that. The aperture of my tunnel-vision had narrowed to a pinprick. My brain was frozen.
I lay my cheek on the table and moaned quietly to myself.
What the fuck am I going to do? I whined. I need to get that chapter done. I need to start revising! I just need to push out one, last, motherfucking chapter… why won’t’ that son of a bitch come!
I stood up and grabbed the table as the room wavered in front of me. I paused for some coughing.
NO! I shouted inside my head. For the love of god, don’t get sick! Have to keep writing. Write, goddamn you, write!
But my brain and body ignored me. They just kept on getting stiffer and heavier.
I got supper on the table and made myself spoon a portion down my gullet.
For strength, I told myself. Can’t get weak now.
But by the end of the meal, I was jello.
“Hellooo… you in there?” I heard my husband say.
I focused my eyes and saw him across the table, looking at me with a half-smile.
“You’ve been staring at me with your mouth open,” he said.
I squinted to keep his face from rippling.
“Oh,” I said.
“You going up to write?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Just to bed,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. And I nodded my head but didn’t get up.
My husband stood, grabbed his plate, and brought it around to the dishwasher behind me. Then he turned and leaned toward my ear.
“Go to bed,” he whispered.
I nodded, kissed his cheek, and zombie-walked upstairs.
The next thing I knew, it was morning. My alarm hadn’t gone off yet, but my brain had popped alert and decided it was time for me to rise and pulse dully.
I grabbed the dresser as I stood, expecting the space around me to give a nauseating lurch. But it didn’t. I tried a test swallow and felt no soreness. No cough. No headache. Not even the thinnest sniffle.
I realized the baby hadn’t been up in the night, either.
Holy fuck, I thought. Maybe we’re okay?
I wandered downstairs and made it through my morning routine. A little workout, a shower, up with the kids, then breakfast and school time.
Everything tumbled along like clothes in the dryer, all generally moving in the right direction.
Can I catch up today? I dared to wonder.
But by the time I had dropped the kids at school and daycare, I had persuaded myself to spend the morning berating myself instead.
I’m a ridiculous stresscake, and I’m burning out within sight of the finish line. Like a giant fucking loser. I hissed to myself.
I sat down at my cafeteria “office”, arranged my tea, snack, and laptop in a fortress wall around me, and dove headfirst into the bottomless pool of panic where this story first found me.
I’m not going to finish, I moan into my hands.
“That’s ridiculous,” comes a whisper from just behind my ear. “You’re almost there.”
I raise my head and turn golf-ball eyes of alarm toward my imaginary raccoon.
“This is not the apocalypse,” Critter states. “Breathe.”
I think about opening my chest to let in more air but am overcome by the sensation of stiffness pulling tight across my sternum.
“I can’t,” I whisper, and my eyes bulge further.
“If you peel those things any wider, they’ll fall right out of your face,” she chides. “Slow down, human! Just breathe.”
I close my eyes and try. In and out. Just in and out. How hard can this be?
But the harder I try, the louder the voice in my chest screams, It’s nooooooot woooooorking! I CAN’T I CAN’T ICAN’TICANT’ICAAAAAAAAAAANT!
“Look at me,” I moan. “I can’t even breathe right. Goddamnit, I’m useless. I’m worthless. I’m fucked.”
Critter’s smile fades, and her brow scrunches toward her nose. She climbs onto the table and puts her face right in front of mine. Then she starts breathing in time with my fight-or-flight pants.
Our eyes lock, and I start breathing harder – we both push hard on each exhale like we are pumping up a mattress. Huff-huff-huffing despair out our noses until the hiss of it fills the whole world.
I can feel my belly flexing like a fist on each puff. It feels warmer and warmer, and the sensation becomes more focused and defined. Soon, all I can feel are my abs and diaphragm… they are straining, fatiguing, and then spent.
I sit up and pull away from Critter’s tractor-beam gaze, sucking in a great swoosh of air. It goes all the way in; I feel it hit bottom, and all the muscles in my abdomen finally wake up.
In and out. I am tired, and the distraction of fatigue lets the oxygen sneak into the space where it belongs.
“You were gripping so hard, you couldn’t move,” Critter says. “You need to let go.”
I take a deep breath.
“Let go of what?” I ask.
“Control,” she answers. “That picture in your head of perfection.”
I breathe in and out.
“What picture?” I ask.
“That one of you writing the perfect book and performing the perfect launch,” Critter replies. “Let me save you the suspense; it’s not going to happen.”
My mouth drops open; I’m sure this is the cruellest thing I’ve ever heard… all of my helpless/hopeless/worthless nightmares come true. But somehow, it’s not. I thought my stomach would drop, but it didn’t. It just got grounded.
Critter’s hard truth is actually the most comforting assurance I could imagine. The pressure that has been mounting behind my brainstem dissolves.
My first crack at writing a book isn’t going to be perfect. And that’s okay.
Even though I have spent a small fortune on courses, graphics, and editing. And even though I’ve sacrificed time with my kids, husband, and friends… and would die of embarrassment if anyone popped in to see the state of my house.
And in spite of the fact that I drove myself batshit with anxiety over this project. None of that matters.
I am going to finish the book. It will contain every ounce of effort-related bodily fluids that I can squeeze from my flesh. That is all I can ask of myself.
It is a weird comfort to admit that I will NOT achieve the earth-shattering, cover of People magazine, astonishingly photogenic triumph that the slickest self-publishing coaches want me to ache for.
Equally, it is not going to be the critically acclaimed, smothered in award-badges, “Another Famous Canadian” validation that the intellectual crowd wants me to struggle for, either.
It’s just going to be mine. That’s all I need – to put MY book out there. It is my very best effort to provide comfort, hope, and satisfaction to the readers who will kindly give me their time. But it isn’t the work of a seasoned pro. It’s my awkward first time… the clumsy virgin of self-publishing attempts.
It’s my awkward first time… the clumsy virgin of self-publishing attempts.
And if it is okay for this book to be imperfect, that means it is okay for me lay down my whip and let myself breathe right now.
This thought floats through my mind, and it brings a vision: it’s me, later on tonight… I am walking away from my laptop and stepping into a bath. The air is heavy with eucalyptus steam, and fog has hidden the mirror. I couldn’t fret over my reflection right now if I tried.
As I sit here in front of my sleeping laptop, I can feel the warmth and quiet of this fantasy beading on my skin. All I want to do is get into that hot water and let myself be an okay almost-author. I want to feel my paralysing desperation to be good enough soak out of my heat-reddened pores.
The more I think about it, the more that taking that bath feels like a powerful thing to do.
“It is,” assures Critter. “It asserts your authority over your inner critic. You need to remember that you can muzzle it any time.”
I nod. It’s weird to forget that I am the chairman of my own mental committee, but I do.
“They say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” Critter adds, “but raccoons will eat anything. If you want us to work for you, just remember to feed us.”
My mouth twists in a wry smile.
“That’s kind of perfect,” I say. “Thanks.”
Critter grins at me.
“Any time,” she says. “Being right is what I do.”
I pick up my self-confident rodent and hug her to my chest. She snuggles her head under my chin, then looks up at me.
“Do you want some more tough love?” she asks. “I’d be happy to tell you the truth about your hair and your housekeeping.”
I chuckle and roll my eyes.
“Nah, I think I’m good, Critter,” I say. “But I’ll keep you posted.”
The next time you feel powerless in the face of your exhaustion, I hope your inner creature comes to pant lovingly in your face, until you remember how fine it is to just breathe and be as imperfect as you are.
“Perfection is for canned goods,” Critter adds. “The stuff that gets gooey and furry and rank is where the real nourishment lies.”
If you say so, Trashmuncher.