Some nights Mike and I read in bed or lay on the couches and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine until we buckle over in laughter that spills into the commercial break.
Some nights Molly is up a lot for mysterious reasons and we spend the evening making trips back and forth to her room, bringing water, bringing our tired, exasperated selves and whispering, “It’s okay. You’re fine. Shhhhh.”
Some nights we’re out too late and bring a sleeping baby into the house slung over one shoulder, nudging the door open with one foot and closing the garage door behind us. It rumbles shut with finality, a closing shutter on the end of the day.
But other nights we stand in the kitchen with the plastic white dish rack on the counter between us. It’s stacked high with now-clean dishes that we both hate to wash. It’s always topped with a frying pan, like a star on a Christmas tree. The frying pan isn’t so bright anymore. It’s browning around the rim and near the handle. I blame the scrambled eggs. Every time I clean it I think, “those damned scrambled eggs.”
And on the nights we linger in the freshly cleaned kitchen, when the house is unusually quiet and we are unusually restless, we accidentally have the big conversations, the ones where we talk about the future and let our uncertainty show. We say the what-ifs and what-thens out loud, the same ones we have been carrying around like bricks in a backpack. “What if you get out of the Marine Corps?” “What if I write a book and it is truly awful?” “What if you stay in the military?” “What if they cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine!?”
We speak the unanswerable questions, and I’m not sure if that makes the backpack lighter or if it just redistributes the weight. Either way, it makes us feel better somehow.
Last night while standing at the counter I asked Mike if he thinks there will ever come a day when I will stop feeling like a beginner, if there will come a day when I look at something I’ve written or a parenting decision I’ve made or a whole day of calorie consumption and think, “Yep. Totally nailed it.”
That doesn’t seem to happen right now. I sometimes feel a vague sense of satisfaction, but never really a conclusive summit of achievement. You know how people talk about ‘making it’? I wonder if that really happens. I wonder if we even notice when it does.
Then I asked Mike if he still feels like a beginner at his job, the one he’s been doing for seven years. He said yes, that he feels like a beginner, too. He said he doesn’t consider himself very good at it yet though he very much wants to be.
This was crazy to me because I know that Mike is a very hard worker. He parts his hair crisply on one side, which implies that he is very thorough and meticulous and has little tolerance for cowlicks.
He tries. Every day he tries. How is it possible he could be confused as a beginner? I felt a little offended that Mike would even suggest this.
But later, as my elbows got sore from leaning on the counter, I told Mike about this article I finished for a large-ish website. I told him that I thought it was terrible and that I suspected any skill I had in writing was evaporating through my fingers and out my ears. I told him that stringing two sentences together was my Everest, which meant that I was climbing Everest CONSTANTLY, which also meant I was exhausted from mental exertion and needed a snack and probably a massage immediately. Then I read aloud to him the article in its entirety and he laughed and said it was good, because he always, always declares it good. But he didn’t say “it was good” in a soft, gentle, nurturing way. No, he said it with exasperation, with a little offense, like he was tired of me misunderstanding myself.
And then with a pause he said, “Maybe this is how marriage is supposed to work. You convince me that I am good at being a Marine and I convince you that you are good at writing.”
Yes. “That is good,” I said.
I recently read this quote by Ira Glass (of NPR’s This American Life podcast):
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work… It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Creative work doesn’t have to mean writing or photography or music. Problem solving is creative work. Managing people is creative work. Raising children or planning meals or events or cultivating a bedside manner— it is all creative work. Each of us has this gap between where we are and where we want to be. And I suspect that gap will exist our whole lives since ‘room for improvement’ isn’t an expiring notion, and because growth exists only in the gaping spaces between where we’ve been and where we’re going.
We are like seeds planted and waiting for growth, trees willing ourselves to produce fruit in season. We are infants progressing from milk to solid food, masterpieces pre-made yet still in-the-making. We are sinners saved by grace, people riddled with imperfection yet relentlessly mended by grace. And for better or for worse, our most meaningful work usually comes from our most fragile, imperfect selves. So by necessity we bat through web after web of insecurity on the way to doing meaningful work that is painstakingly, eventually, and surprisingly good.
God created good things from day one, but it’s slow work to be transformed into his likeness.
It takes awhile. It’s normal to take awhile.
Mike did the dishes last night. He is very good at doing the dishes and he knows that I feel loved when he does them because it demonstrates that my time is valuable. The faucet goes off and on, the pan clangs in the sink, and when it’s all done we lean from opposite sides of the counter and convince each other to spend our voices, to use our talents today and again tomorrow.
This is what a good spouse— or a good friend—does. He nudges you out of your beginner-dom by convincing you that you belong exactly one step ahead. Eventually you take that step, not because you totally believe you are entitled to it, but because someone reminded you that it’s worth the risk, that your muscles were meant for using, even if using them feels like thrusting your weight against a wall.
So here is what I’ve decided: when you’re not sure if it’s good enough, you keep going. You go to work tomorrow. You stare at a blank screen until the words come. You make those damned scrambled eggs, because it’s morning and that’s what you do and there is stability in habit, stability that lulls you into thinking that progress isn’t so hard, that it isn’t so large, and that it’s surprisingly high in protein. It’s just an egg in a pan, a dish in the sink, another try, another hour, another day, that somehow becomes a frying pan atop the drying rack, a collection of tasks done, a tower of stackable progress you didn’t even know you were making.