Perfect Conundrum

March 10, 2012

Dear Patronopolis,

A new dad told me once that parenting is inherently full of guilt, because there’s always more that can be done, always a better way to do what you are doing. No limits. No times or places — or very few of them anyway — where you can step back and say, “Well, that’s done, and hey, I think I did a pretty good job."

He’s a great dad. An over-achiever dad. An over-achiever in general. Maybe a perfectionist, sometimes? So parenting is perhaps the perfect conundrum for him. At its deepest level, almost impossible to measure. Forever incomplete.

I’m thinking of him because I woke up around 4 a.m. feeling stressed about everything I didn’t get done this week. It’s such a boring story, really; I’ll spare you the details. The core of it is that I have a hard time feeling like I’ve completed something, and completed it well. I can always see more I could have done, better choices I could have made.

There are external factors for these feelings. Being an artist, like being a parent, is a highly mysterious job. Know-how and elbow grease mixed with emotion and intuition. By definition a creative process, with a huge array of choices at every turn. One part common sense and one part wandering around in the dark, listening for voices, looking for clues. Mostly impossible to make a check list and say, “that’s done."

And my other jobs have this amorphous quality, too. When I’m not being an artist I’m a hybrid between a small business owner and an executive director of a non-profit. And I’m a teacher. There’s always more that could be done in jobs like these. Always better ways to do them.

So, I’ve created a situation for myself where I not only have one hard-to-measure, hard-to-limit job, but three. What’s the deal here? What’s going on?

The key words in that paragraph are that I’ve created this situation for myself; I’ve chosen this path. I’ve designed my own perfect conundrum. All of these jobs are my own invention. Clearly, I’m supposed to confront something here. Learn something. Some things.

The truth is, this stuff I struggle with is not “out there." It’s in me. I’ve had this stressed-out feeling, this concern about whether I’m doing enough, and doing it well enough, since I was about, say, six. I’ve taken it with me into everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been. Classrooms and board rooms, piano lessons and performances. I think I could do the most concrete, quantifiable job in the world, and I would still feel this way. If not about my job, than about something else.

In fact, I’ve probably chosen a job — or three of them — precisely because it makes me feel this way sometimes. Anxious. Overwhelmed. Unable to rest. Trapped in a bottomless pit of Stuff to Do, and Stuff to Do Better. Not because I like feeling this way, but because if I’m ever not going to feel this way, I have to wrestle with these demons. It’s like one part of me is shouting something, and the other part of me is standing on the other side of a canyon, straining to hear.

What did you say? What are you trying to tell me?

I guess if waking me up in the middle of the night with teeth grinding and stomach in knots is the only way this part of me has to communicate, then I’ll just have to put up with it, and keep trying to listen, keep trying to hear.

What was that you said?

What?

I really want to learn.