A Softer Look in the Mirror

A Softer Look in the Mirror

I’ve never thought of myself as a “perfectionist.” I’ve scoffed and outright denied any suggestion that I could possibly be anything of the sort; whether about my work, my physical space, the way I tuck in my shirt. It’s a term I’d perhaps offer as a more palpable substitute for a person I might also think of as controlling, stubborn or uncompromising. 

All very different things from the approach to life and living that I thought I was cultivating for myself as a 20-something, emerging into a world that can move at an unforgiving pace, rife with all sorts of chaos and distractions –– online and off. In an honest self-reflection, I think I would actually, genuinely describe my outlook on life and work, or at least my ideal outlook, as one that is flexible, breathable… one that extends courtesy, respects boundaries and makes quick peace with the sometimes difficult and frequently unpredictable turns that life takes. 

Like many others, I really thought I leaned into this during the pandemic, too. When things took a hard pivot last March, at the start of the pandemic, many an email, syllabus, memo and PSA seemed to stress the unprecedented nature of the world around us at that moment, allowing for extended deadlines and lifted workloads. Giving grace, cutting slack. And sure, this wasn’t the case for everyone and everything –– for one thing, millions of essential workers continued to clock in every single day, and plenty of others working from home simply didn’t slow down. But we remember these things as some of the cruelest, most unjust aspects of life in the pandemic –– the bitter truth about who and what our systems are willing to sacrifice to keep moving. 

And life did keep moving. In June, I took over as Editor-in-Chief of 14 East –– just days after the George Floyd Uprisings ignited a summer of global protesting –– and I knew that the year ahead would be unlike anything I could have anticipated just six months earlier. I knew there would be challenges, constraints, obstacles and all of the microcosms of difficulties that any of those things can bring.

I immediately felt a need to lean into a more malleable, more forgiving, more ‘I-know-the-world-is-ending-it’s-okay-to-turn-your-draft-in-late’ tone for our staff and my peers. It was really important to me –– and I hope everyone could tell –– that 14 East could still be a place where we hold a space for one another despite the lack of a physical one. I felt so strongly that the magazine still needed to be a place for people to grow, explore, make mistakes and learn at a pace that made sense for everyone at an individual level, taking into consideration all of the personal, familial, economic and otherwise societal burdens we were all carrying this year. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, and I tried to project a message that it never had to be. 

It’s all good, no worries, don’t sweat it, take your time, take it easy. I really meant all of those things when I said them to people. 

And yet, I still felt a constant sense of disappointment. More than that –– a real sense of hurt, frustration, and anger –– not at those around me –– but that things just weren’t going how I wanted them to, and it was somehow all my fault. I felt like I could never get enough emails sent, enough notes organized, enough progress made on projects or spreadsheets or check-ins. 

It extended beyond 14 East, too –– I felt dissatisfied with the way I interacted with family, friends, frustrated at my sudden inability to give more like I always have. There were so many weeks of mental self-flagellation, this feeling of full-bodied stickiness as I continued to be caught somewhere in between the world as it existed throughout the pandemic and the world I wanted to be living in –– one where things clicked and glided on a perfectly smooth track of my own making. 

But I’m not a perfectionist, I’d tell myself, unable to understand what exactly it was about this in-between that bothered me so deeply and how I might better accept the truth that was right in front of me –– the undiluted difficulty of life in the pandemic. 

A few weeks ago, I began reading Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a sort of beginner’s guide to meditation for those of us who, like myself, might call themselves meditation-hesitant. I’ve heard so much from friends about meditation as a tool for feeling more present and gaining a sense of mindfulness, but for months (maybe years?) I’ve resisted incorporating it into my day-to-day. Maybe I resisted it for the same reason I hate taking Advil or admitting that I’m hangry –– something about not wanting to admit that I need help. Maybe I was never ready to embrace that sort of thing –– I think I’m still working towards that. 

There is, however, a particular passage in this book that I’m still thinking about now and I’ve thought about every day since I first read it. It was a beautiful day earlier in May when I first came across it –– I had just finished crying in Grant Park after being crushed by a job rejection email that I read on the bus, trying and failing to convince myself that this was not a part of the grand narrative of things that could have been but haven’t, things that might never be. The passage reads:

“There is something vitally important to be learned from the practice of letting go. Letting go means just what it says. It’s an invitation to cease clinging to anything –– whether it be an idea, a thing, an event, a particular time, or view, or desire. It is a conscious decision to release with full acceptance into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding… to give up coercing, resisting or struggling in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome, which comes from allowing things to be as they are…”

Kabat-Zinn likens the sensation of letting go to “letting your palm open to unhand something you’ve been holding on to.” 

I’ve thought about that feeling a lot –– the way we physically embody our attachments to our desires, our idealized versions of the past and anxieties about the future. The way that, for months, I sat at my computer, muscles tensed, brow furrowed, hours passing by before I once again became aware that I was, in fact, still breathing. 

And I would be lying if, speaking to you all now, I tried to say that at times I don’t still catch myself falling into the same patterns today. I’ve graduated, I work outside of my home for the most part, and thanks to the vaccines, I’m able to safely spend more time with friends, doing the things that make me feel more whole, more a part of a life that is vibrant and pulses with the community around me. And I’m so, so grateful for that. It feels like good change. 

I still spend a lot of time at my computer. This moment in the world, in Chicago, is still difficult in so many ways. There are still so many things that I do wish were different, and things that I think we’ll all be grieving for years to come. Things we haven’t even realized yet because we’ve all been so busy getting from one day to the next, our periphery limited to the walls of our homes. 

But what I’m continuing to realize is that even after the pandemic, whatever that means, there will be times of intense collective stress. There will still be times of individual crisis  –– the kind of personal catastrophes we’ve all experienced that make the world feel like it’s collapsing inward around you. And the reality is, we will still probably have responsibilities and ties to life outside of ourselves –– be that work, school, relationships, errands, that project you said you’d help your friend with –– that slip out of our tight grasp of control when our energy is demanded inward. 

It will always be disappointing. It will probably always make us sad. But what I hope to carry with me as we move into whatever comes next is a regular practice of releasing guilt –– exchanging the constant, agonizing pining for how I think things ought to be for a more grounded acceptance of how things are. I want to sit down with the present moment and feel nourished by the nuance before us –– rather than wander, becoming drained and lost in the feverish pursuit of what could be.

I still don’t really meditate. I’m still figuring a lot out. But where I once looked in my bedroom mirror, face tensed, eyes searching for something and finding only sharp critique, to-do’s and not enoughs, I now soften. I exhale. I let my reflection wash back over me, a reminder that I am in the present moment and that is all I have to be. 

Header image by Yusra Shah