Perfectionism

On Rest by Cara Stolen

IMG_1551.jpg

From the window in my home office, I have a perfect view of the pasture closest to our house, where we feed our cows in the early spring. Every day, after I put the kids down for their afternoon nap, I stand at it for awhile. I’ve watched the snow melt and the sagebrush bud; observed the cows’ bellies widen and their udders expand as we draw closer to their due dates—signs of spring and new life.

Today, I lean against the warm glass and gently massage my lower back. I look for new calves and signs of labor in each expectant cow. In theory, that’s why I stand here every day: to make sure there isn’t a cow stalled in labor needing help to give birth. But more than that, I like watching the calm, quiet actions of our mama cows.

Our oldest cow, 1095, gave birth to her eighth calf last week. From this vantage point, I noticed her pacing circles around the pasture and knew it was time. An hour later, she licked her white-faced calf clean and then stood to feed him his first meal. I couldn’t help but grin, delighted by the miracle of life yet again.

I stretch to the side, then turn to face my desk. A stack of bills, an open day planner, two coffee cups, and a full email inbox await me. But as I start to sit, the washer chimes. I tiptoe down the hall and throw the clean clothes on our (still unmade) bed. On my way back to the laundry room, I catch sight of the kitchen, where dishes are piled in the sink and lunch remnants cover the island. I dash into the kitchen to clean up, telling myself it will only take a minute. With the dishwasher loaded and counters wiped, I head back toward the office, forgetting entirely about the clean clothes in the washer.

Glancing out the window on my way to my desk, I see 1095 and her calf making their way up the hill to the water trough. She nudges him gently with her nose, then steadies him when he stumbles on his still-new legs.

Observing other moms and babies makes me feel included. Part of. Because motherhood was created by God, and I’m filling a role he designed.

Ignoring the mountain of paperwork, I watch 1095 and her calf rejoin the rest of the herd. As her calf lays down, she touches noses with another, still expectant cow and swishes her tail at another cow’s calf, sending him back to his mom. Then she lowers to her knees and lays down beside her calf.

I pull myself away from the window and sit at my desk. Yawning, I take a sip of this morning’s (yesterday’s?) cold coffee, and read through my email. I respond to a few, delete others, and turn to tackle the paperwork on my left. I sort through it, tossing receipts and making notes in my planner of due dates and deadlines, but find nothing urgent. I should go fold that laundry, and make the bed. Maybe I’ll even have time to clean the bathrooms before the kids wake up.

Spinning around in my chair, I look out the window one last time. The whole herd is laying down now, all the new and expectant moms basking in the long-awaited warmth of spring after a longer-than-normal winter.

1095 tenderly licks her calf’s ear. I remember those early newborn days with both of my kids, but I’m struck by how little my mothering resembled hers. While she is completely present with her baby, I behaved much the way I do now and filled every moment with laundry and cleaning and work.

Trailing my fingers along the desk’s edge on my way out, I catch sight of the corner of my Bible, peeking out from under a power bill. It’s been a while since I’ve opened it—putting it off for a night I’m not so tired or during naptime after my chores are done. But that never happens, and every day my kids wake up from their naps to a clean house, clean clothes, and a tired, worn-out mom.

Why is it so hard for me to rest and let myself relax? If God created both 1095 and me for motherhood, why does her mothering look so easy and relaxed while mine looks so frenzied and exhausting? Did it take her eight babies to reach this point? Or does she just instinctively know something I struggle to accept: that God created us to work and rest?

The laundry can wait, I decide. I grab my Bible and tiptoe to the living room. Pulling a fleece throw from beneath the entertainment center, I sink into the corner of the couch and open its cover.

Thirty minutes later, I hear my son’s door open. His feet pitter-patter down the hall toward me, waking his sister, but I can’t help but smile. He rounds the couch with a “Hi, Mom!” and clambers into my lap. To my surprise, I’m not mad that he woke up my daughter. And for the first time in I-can’t-remember-how-long I’m ready, and delighted, for them to be awake; rejuvenated and refreshed by God’s word.  


Freshly Mopped Floors and Eve in the Garden by Cara Stolen

IMG_8893.jpg

I mopped my floors this morning. Royce went to work with Levi, so it was just Maggie and me, and I seized the opportunity to catch up on housework. I alternated vacuuming with mopping, hoping it would be easier to keep Maggie out of one room at a time rather than half the house at once. But every time I redirected her off of the freshly mopped floor, she looked at me and whined “why?” and found a way to make tiny footprints somewhere else behind my back.

It was irritating. I mopped, and re-mopped, and grew increasingly frustrated with her. “Maggie, no!” I yelled.

“Whyyyy?” she whined, backing away from me in fear, onto the section of floor I’d just re-mopped for the second time.

Her “why” followed me from room to room and got me thinking about my own behavior when faced with the temptation of something “off limits” or wrong. About how, like Maggie, my desire for something increases when I’m told no: whether I’m telling myself no, or hearing it from someone else.

I’ve been reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to the kids every morning for about a month now (in the bathroom, but that’s a story for another day). When we read the story of the fall, Royce asked, “Why would Eve do that, mom?”

I sat on the floor facing him, Maggie balanced on my outstretched legs, and thought about how I didn’t have a very good answer to his question. About how, when I read Genesis, I wonder the same thing. And, if I’m honest, I judge Eve a little bit.

Come on Girlfriend, are you kidding me? Why would you do that?

When we started reading the Bible together, I promised myself I would be as honest as I could with my answers to Royce’s questions. But this one stumped me a bit. So I looked in his eyes and answered with a question of my own: “Well … why do you choose to do things after I ask you not to sometimes?”

He blinked and shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s ok, bud. I do things I shouldn’t, too. Things I know are wrong. And I don’t know why I do them, either.”

And I do. All the freaking time.

Just the other day, before a playdate at my house, I reminded myself to be a good listener, not make judgy comments, and not to gossip. Three hours later, as the cars left my driveway, I replayed the conversations I’d had with the other moms that morning. And wouldn’t you know it, I’d done every single one of those things. I’d interrupted someone more than once and only half-listened as I planned out what I’d say next. I’d made judgy comments about another mom. I’d even initiated a gossip-filled conversation, forgetting my internal dialogue earlier that very same morning.

Come on Girlfriend, are you kidding me? Why would you do that?

Me and Eve, man. We’re not so different after all.

Why can’t I stop doing things I shouldn’t? Why can’t I stop doing things I know are wrong? While I have learned to stay off freshly mopped floors, in so many ways I’m still just like my 21-month-old daughter: whining “why?” when I’m told no and doing the wrong thing anyway.

Why in the world would God still love someone like me? Someone who messes up over, and over, and OVER again, seemingly incapable of learning my lesson?

My word for 2019 is “grace.” I have to admit when the word came to me toward the end of 2018, I didn’t really know what it meant. I thought it was a Christian word for forgiveness. I thought God was telling me (not subtly, mind you, the word started jumping out at me everywhere) to forgive a friend who had wounded me deeply earlier in the year.

But as I’ve read books and articles about grace, listened to podcasts about grace, and watched sermons about grace, I’ve realized that it’s about so much more than forgiveness. I’ve also realized that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to fully grasp the definition of grace and the enormity of what it means in my life.

Before the kids woke up this morning, before I mopped my floors, I watched a sermon on grace while I sipped my morning coffee. Knowing I’d dedicated 2019 to this subject, a sweet friend had sent me the link a few weeks ago, but I’d forgotten about it. But this morning, I sat down at my desk to write, and remembered.

In it, Pastor Todd King defines grace as “unconditional love, forgiveness, and mercy played out.” He reads from Matthew 18:21-35—The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant—in which a king forgives the (impossibly large) debt of one of his servants. The servant, in turn, refuses to forgive the debt owed to him by a fellow servant, angering the king with his refusal to extend the mercy he himself received. In the end, he is jailed and tortured for his debts. At the end of the parable, Pastor King poses this question: Who is the servant in the parable?  

“I am.” I whispered, leaning forward in my seat. I am the servant. We all are the servant. We are the ones who can never repay the debt Jesus paid for us. We are the ones forgiven an impossible debt. And yet, I take the forgiveness, grace, and love I’m given and withhold it from others, just like the stupid servant. I refuse to forgive a supposed friend for her hurtful, judging words—refuse to offer her grace and love—forgetting the grace I’ve received for the same. exact. sins.

I am the servant. I am undeserving, unworthy, of God’s love. Deserving instead to be “handed over to the jailers to be tortured until [I] can pay everything that [is] owed” (Matthew 18:34, CSB).

But (but!) He loves me anyway. He doesn’t watch me gossip and judge and shout “Come on, Girlfriend, are you kidding me? Why would you do that?” the way I do when I watch someone stumble.

He loves me even though I can’t repay the debt I owe. He loves me even though I do and say things that I shouldn’t. He even loves me when I whine “why?” and make metaphorical footprints across His freshly mopped floors. And He loved Eve, too. Even after the fall, even as He punished her, He never withheld his love. I mean, what? Why?

Maybe it’s easy for you to grasp God’s unconditional love, but I struggle to wrap my head around it. I’m a perfectionist, and a hard worker, and I like to-do lists and performance reviews and accomplishment. I feel in the depths of my soul that love is earned, and that I have to be perfect to be worthy of it. So when I hear that none of those things matter when it comes to my salvation, when I hear that there is nothing I can do to make God stop loving me, I get a little panicky. And a lot doubtful.

What do you mean my behavior doesn’t earn my salvation? Are you sure?

Because the part about being the servant that isn’t hard for me to grasp? My unworthiness. I spend every day of my life hyper-aware of the ways in which I fall short. Of the ways my mistakes look like Eve’s. Of my tendency to judge and criticise others to make myself feel better about my imperfections. But the part where my debt is forgiven? The part where I’m loved in spite of my quick judgments and shortcomings? That part puts a big lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

God doesn’t shout at me when I make footprints across his freshly mopped floors, and He doesn’t mop furiously behind me to achieve the perfection He envisioned for this world. Instead, He looks at my footprints, gently guides me onto dry floor, and forgives me before my feet are even dry from my misstep. He reminds me that the dry floor is where I belong, and loves my unworthy heart despite of my imperfections.

Pastor Todd King wisely asks: “If we didn’t earn our salvation, how are we going to un-earn it?”

And the amazing thing is: we can’t.

I am imperfect. I am unworthy. But I am loved, just like Eve. And that, I think, is grace.




2018 by Cara Stolen

IMG_6840.jpg

I’ve never been much for New Years Eve. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I even stayed up until midnight to celebrate. But I LOVE New Years Day. I like to get up early and watch the sunrise, I love to set goals, and I am convinced that a new day planner has the ability to change your life.

On January 1, 2018, I woke up in our new house for the second time. Half the house still had subfloor exposed, and our kitchen was missing countertops and a sink (among other things). The night before, I celebrated the new year from my rocking chair. As fireworks sounded in the distance, I attempted to nurse Maggie before giving up entirely. That night I put all 90 mL of breast milk through her feeding tube at 12 am, 3 am, and 6 am, as she refused to nurse entirely. So as I made coffee that morning in our laundry room, I felt defeated, and disappointed, and mind-numbingly exhausted.

That day I didn’t set any goals. I didn’t reflect on the past year. I definitely didn’t look at our budget. I just tried to survive another day.

But later, at the end of January, I decided that February 1 would be my own personal New Years Day. And after some journaling, and lots of prayer, I felt God pulling me away from the elaborate goals and plans that I usually make for myself. Instead, I felt Him put a simple theme on my heart for the year: self discovery. After years of trying to better myself for others, I felt called to dig deeper into who He made me to be. So, in 2018 I set out to discover who I really was. These are a few of the things I found along the way:

  • After years of declaring myself “uncreative,” I discovered that I am, in fact, the opposite. This year I took several writing workshops, a photography class, started this (mostly neglected) blog, and had an essay published on Coffee+Crumbs.

  • I am a One on the Enneagram. I spent most of the year trying to discern my number, and thought for months that I was a Three. But after reading a few books and listening to too many podcasts to count, I finally figured out that I am in fact a Perfectionist. This has, without a doubt, been the most life changing revelation of all this year.

  • I love coffee, but caffeine is not my friend. I’ve been (mostly) caffeine-free for about 6 months and have never felt better. My skin is clearer, my sleep is more restful, my energy levels are more consistent, and my anxiety is reduced. Bonus? I can drink coffee all day long when its decaf!

  • I am a better mother when I take anti-anxiety medication. This year I spent about half the year on meds, and half the year off, and I can say with utmost clarity that I am a better version of myself while taking them.

  • I put a lot (too much) of my self-worth in my productivity and image. I focus an embarrassing amount of energy thinking about possessions, and appearances, and analyzing the appearance and productivity of others.

  • While I can create a killer spreadsheet budget, I am not all the great with money. I live in the present moment, and delaying gratification is difficult for me.

  • I am much more of an introvert than I previously thought, and I require a surprising amount of alone time to recharge.

  • It’s easier for me to be vulnerable with people I don’t know very well than those that know me best of all.

  • My mind is filled with non-stop chatter, that is (mostly) negative and self-focused. I am ruthlessly hard on myself, and it’s exhausting.

  • At my worst, I can be critical and judgmental of others. And after a year of self-reflection I have to say that this is, hands-down, my very worst quality.

So, there you have it: 365 days of reflection boiled down to 10 bullet points. And while 2018 turned out to be a pretty great year, I’m ready for the fresh start of 2019.

Happy New Year, friends.

Why I Write by Cara Stolen

IMG_3572.jpg

Occasionally, words come easily; flowing through me and onto the page effortlessly. But more often, writing feels like wrestling. I’m not a wrestler, so one might argue that I have no business in a wrestling match. I don’t know the rules. I don’t know the strategy. Despite that, I feel a consistent, gentle nudge to show up anyway. A quiet invitation to dig in to the turmoil of life to try to find hope and meaning.

Sometimes, the struggle produces something I am proud of. But often, it simply serves as practice, building my strength and stamina, conditioning me to be a strong and competent steward of words, and preparing me for the rare moments where the words seem to write themselves.

I had that experience recently. I, an inexperienced and untrained ‘writer,’ sat down and wrote 1631 beautiful, difficult words, that filled me with a deep sense of clarity, peace, pride, and accomplishment. It’s the peace and clarity that keep me coming back for more, compelling me to keep fighting for words even when I lose more than I win. But the accomplishment component appeals to the achiever in me, and I walk a thin line between writing for the right reasons and writing for the wrong reasons.

For me, writing is both deeply personal and connective. I feel called to use my words to help others feel seen, heard, and understood. But I struggle with the difference between ‘sharing’ and ‘connecting.’ When I shared my essay, it fell flat. And I am ashamed to admit that a lack of ‘likes’ affected how I felt about words that I was previously so proud of. Words that provided me with a deeper understanding of myself suddenly seemed unimportant. But this is because sharing appeals to my ego, while connecting nourishes my soul.

Maybe, with dedication and practice, this line will become clearer and better defined. Or maybe it won’t. Only time, and many, many more words will tell. My hope is that taking this hard, honest look into the face of my ego helps me to always remember the desire for peace and clarity that kept calling me back to my desk. Mostly, I hope that it helps me to become a better steward of words. Both the hard fought and the given.