I used to think I had to be perfect. Of course, I fell short of perfection on a regular basis so I frequently felt like a failure.
The only way to prevent failure is to hide. If we don’t put ourselves out there, we can’t fail.
To prevent myself from failing, I hid in a fantasy world. As a young child, I longed to be a ballerina. I loved to dance, but more than that, I wanted to escape into the fantasy world of the ballet. I wanted to live inside a fairytale, and in my mind, I did. I invented worlds I could escape to, perfect worlds that seemed more real to me than life. Meanwhile, I ate, and ate, and ate. Not ideal, if you want to be a ballerina. My reality never matched my inner world.
I created this pattern, this external and internal disparity, throughout my life. I brought it into my marriage, convincing myself that my marriage was perfect, while in reality it was a mess. Instead of leaving, I found escape in writing. I lost myself other times: ancientEgypt, ancientGreece, ancientRome—worlds as far away from my reality as possible. In my writing, I disappeared for hours, days, years. I got a job working at an airline so I could travel and do research. I got an agent. I felt sure I would be published.
Then my world fell apart. After nineteen years of marriage, my husband wanted a divorce. I fought it. Divorce didn’t fit my idea of perfection, my fairytale. I viewed this loss as a disaster, but in truth it was an opening, a hole leading me to greater understanding and compassion for myself and others.
I was broke, trying to live on what I made at the airline. I was lonely. I had no time to write. Worst of all, I had to admit my life wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t perfect. Forced to accept myself with all my imperfections, I discovered that the more I could accept myself, the more I could accept others. Even my ex-husband. To this day, we remain friends.
Because I no longer had time to sit down and write for hours, the kind of time it takes to write a novel, I wrote short stories. I wrote about my experience, about my struggles as a woman of fifty going through divorce and entering the dating world. Initially, I wrote the stories for myself as therapy. Then I began to share the stories with my writing group. They encouraged me to submit the stories to magazines, and several were published. I read a couple of stories at our local library and people laughed. Then my good friend, Blake Crouch, convinced me to publish the stories on Kindle. A frightening prospect. What if my stories weren’t good enough? What if they weren’t perfect?
At first I resisted. I’d had two literary agents, and a longtime dream of being traditionally published. Self-publishing didn’t fit my idea of perfection. But, in reality, I no longer had an agent, and I hadn’t worked on a novel for several years. What did I have to lose? Nothing. So I published Dating My Vibrator (and other true fiction).
My world changed, not because I was finally published, but because I changed. I finally found the confidence to pursue my dream despite my imperfections. I found the courage to stop hiding and put myself out into the world. This freed me.
I rewrote my novel, Vestal Virgin—suspense in ancient Rome. Originally, my characters were a bit flat. Why? Because they were too perfect! I hadn’t looked at the manuscript for two years, and a lot had changed for me in that time. I rewrote the book with a cold eye: cutting, digging deeper. My characters became multifaceted, real people with flaws.
I became busier and busier, caught in a whirlwind, trying to hold down a full-time job, write, promote my books and have a life. Trying, once again, to be perfect.
And then the universe stepped in.
I had an accident at work. While moving a jet stair (which weighed over 1,000 pounds) away from the aircraft, my right foot got crushed. I fell, screaming, onto the tarmac while passengers onboard the plane watched. A coworker rushed me to the hospital for the first of three emergency surgeries. I suffered intense pain due to nerve damage, broken and dislocated toes and, ultimately, amputation of a toe. As I write this, I’m still recovering.
I spent five weeks at a nursing home, a good place for me (even though most of the patients were over eighty years old), because it would have been close to impossible for me to take care of myself at home. While there, I had a chance to meet a lot of the patients and residents. All of us had obvious holes.
I learned a lot from the other patients. And I was forced to face my own mortality. Aging offers us the gift of acceptance. In order to age gracefully, we must the release the idea of perfection. We learn there are some things we can change, and some things we must accept. And, when we accept what is, we may find the good in even the most difficult situations. We learn to accept the holes in ourselves and others. We even welcome imperfection.
Since the accident, I’ve been thinking about holes a lot. I’ve been thinking about being whole, in relation to loss. How can loss make a person whole? I’ve learned that loss can make a person strong, more self-reliant. Loss can make us more compassionate to ourselves and others.
Where I had a toe, there’s now a hole, and that hole reminds me that I’m not perfect. But, despite my imperfection, I am whole. I am me. It would be ridiculous to think that I am any less of a person, because I’m missing a toe, because I have a hole. Just as it’s ridiculous for any of us to think we must be perfect.
Physical wounds can’t be hidden as easily as emotional and psychological wounds. And that’s a gift. Physical wounds make us confront our mortality, our humanity. Physical wounds can’t be denied. They are tangible and force us to accept ourselves, with all our imperfections.
It’s impossible to get through life without being wounded. Some wounds are obvious. Others are internal, even spiritual: the loss of the ability to trust, to connect deeply, to hold a friend and know that you are loved.
We run away from wounds. Try not to look at them. We think they’re signs of weakness, but our wounds—the holes in us—provide a doorway, a soft spot in our armor. We walk around armored, protecting ourselves with platitudes and false smiles, never touching our own vulnerabilities, afraid to share our tender rawness with another or even with ourselves.
If we can touch the tender spots, allow ourselves to feel fear, sorrow, loss, we become closer to wholeness. The more we accept our holes, the more compassion we can have for others. When we feel compassion we are able to connect. We are able to expose our soft underbelly to another human being and share the salt of our tears, the sweetness of our joy. That’s what I want to write about, that’s what I want to share, because salt makes all the difference between a bland, protected life, and a true life: pulsing, bloody, messy, passionate and truly whole.
Flaws, or holes, are what make a character seem real—in life and in fiction. Perfection is impermanent, an illusion. A person who seems too perfect is repulsive. We don’t trust him. We know that person can’t be real. Holes speak of truth. Holes allow us to connect, to ourselves and to each other. Our holes make us human, make us beautiful. Holes allow the light to shine through.
If someone had asked me last spring, “Would you give up a toe in order to learn, in order to have time to write your next novel?” I might have said, “Yes.”
Funny, how life works.