Three weeks ago, on a farm in the middle of rural Pennsylvania, I had the honor of attending Beth Kephart's first Juncture memoir writing workshop. You know how much I love a good writing retreat, and this one was good. Better than good. In fact, I'd say it was dang amazing.
I plan to write more about my experiences on the farm, what I learned, and Beth's incredibly passionate tutelage, but first this. Because Beth challenged us to write raw and real, not pretty and perfect. And because, before I traveled, I had wondered.
* * *
The first evening—Sunday. Families around the country sat down to share a meal. We sat down too, to share the delicious and abundant food prepared for us by Sally, the farm’s owner. Like a family, we passed bowls and pitchers and platters. We said hello again and again. We filled each others’ glasses with sweet tea or water. We chatted and laughed. But the clank of silverware against china made my teeth hurt. I hoped I didn’t look as nervous as I felt.
After dinner, I made my way down the gravel path around the duck pond and toward the building in which we would work. The sky was turning dusty pink and muted coral, late summer colors of heat and humidity. I admired the field of cut hay, grove of stalky bamboo, and gaggle of geese. Even the peacocks, whose crack of dawn screams have been known to sound more there’s mayhem afoot than rise and shine. The air smelled like earth and sky. It smelled the way I imagine air is supposed to smell, the way it smelled before us. It smelled, in a word, safe.
Beauty surrounded me, and I could feel the land imploring me to let go, yet all I could wonder was, Has it been enough?
Notebooks and computers in hand, our group settled into the circular hodge-podge of chairs and couches. This evening we would read aloud the words we'd submitted to Beth as part of the application process. Three hundred well considered words on a meal. We commenced, and I listened. I marveled over words that sounded so right, so perfect, so much better than mine would sound. Soon it was my turn.
I raised my paper and began. “The vegetables are diced,” I said, and my chest tightened. Uh oh. “The meat is browned,” I continued, and saw my paper trembling in my hand. That’s when I knew the answer to my question was no—a big, fat no.
My healing work—four years worth of work, of study and practice and change, of acceptance and surrender—was not enough. Four years of progress to resist my perfectionistic tendencies, and still I was not enough. My words were not enough. Just like that, I no longer belonged in this community of writers. Or in my own skin. I was unworthy. I write and tell our story to help others heal, so they know they are not alone, and to acknowledge that the path of self-compassion is paved first and foremost with kindness to self. And here I was, a fraud.
The devil Comparison grabbed my brain’s steering wheel and veered onto a collision course intent on obliterating my authenticity and creative passion. Suddenly, I wanted what Comparison wants. I wanted to stand out, to be superior. I wanted to be special. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to decimate the non-existant competition. I wanted everything that is contrary to the work I've done to love myself and my life. My rational mind tried, as words caught in my throat, to grab back the wheel and correct course, to no avail. I read on to the last line of my piece, “Soon I will know,” but I already knew. Once again, I had failed.
So I did what I always do—I retreated. I sat quietly and listened to the rest of the pieces. I said little. At the end of the evening, I watched others say their good-nights and see you tomorrows. I walked to my cabin, changed into my pajamas, and washed my face. I laid down and stared at the ceiling. Here I am again, I thought. I couldn't let four years worth of life-changing work be for naught. Then I thought, So what are you going to do about it?
* * *