Untitled (1959) by Helen Lundeberg
I was driving a visiting friend to the airport when she announced, “I’m going to miss my flight.” I told her she was wrong, she had almost two hours. She said no, she had changed her departure time inside her head and told me the wrong time by accident. She had only a few minutes to get to the airport, get through security, and make it to her gate.
“Ugh, I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m such an idiot,” she said.
“I do things like this all the time,” I said. Then I shut up. I didn’t want to be too irritatingly cheerful. I wanted to adjust her expectations because there was no way she was making her flight. But I didn’t want to impose my strategies on her at a moment when she probably wanted to punch her fist through the windshield.
So my friend sat on her phone, listening to airline hold music, and I sat there thinking about how often humans screw things up over the course of their adult lives. I thought about the countless things I’ve botched over the past decade: the dumb things I’ve said, the bad decisions I’ve made, the foolish emails I’ve sent, the short-sighted paths I’ve taken. In that moment, all of those blunders looked not just forgivable but inevitable. Suddenly it seemed obvious to me that all lives are just a series of absurdly poor choices, punctuated only occasionally by pragmatism or wisdom.
When my friend got out of the car, I said, “Remember, you’re having an adventure!” She just grabbed her bag and slammed the car door.
“What a stupid thing to say,” I thought as I drove off.
Later she texted to tell me that she’d ducked under ropes and asked to cut in line, two things she’d never done before that she hated hated hated to do. At the front of the line she said to the security agent, “I thought my flight was at 1:45!”
“I’ve done that,” the agent said, and let her through.
It's strange how we blame ourselves for everything. Even though we all lose the thread and break things and change our minds and foul everything up, most of us take it all so personally. We treat mistakes like avoidable anomalies, but mistakes are the main event, the meat of life. Our lives are just a long series of screw ups.
Last year, I reached a peak state of I AM MESSING EVERYTHING UP. And then I just decided that it didn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter, it couldn’t matter. As long as I kept showing up and doing my best, as long as I kept forgiving myself for being a human — see also: a fuck up, irredeemable and lost — I would at least resist taking my self-blame and turning it into punitive words or dismissive actions. It was time to give up on getting everything right once and for all. I’d never pulled it off before, why would I start now?
The real challenge of being alive isn’t making sure you never mess up, making sure you get everything right, making sure that everything looks and feels and sounds perfect – or else you’re a loser, or else you’re an idiot, or else you’re doomed to fail and be miserable. The real challenge of being alive is to savor the moment and give your love freely in spite of the clown show unfolding around you.
It’s hard to learn this. It’s also hard to teach kids this, because their educations are so focused on obedience and perfection and competitive supremacy, and their social media diets are a scroll of fifteen clever seconds or five flawless photos or twenty eloquent words. They grow up believing that life is about rendering yourself shiny and triumphant, smooth and funny and bulletproof.
But that’s not how real life feels at all, and blaming ourselves for that fact is like blaming ourselves for reality itself. Because real life is dominated by fumbling words and awkwardness, smudged windows and missed deadlines. Every day, you’re asked to tolerate your endless mistakes and stubborn inadequacies on the fly in order to let the world in, and love it for exactly what it is: a beautiful mess.
I threw a birthday party for my husband on Saturday, so all week my head was filled with the many, many ways I’d manage to fuck it all up flatter than hammered shit. The food for the party was a big question mark, I just couldn’t decide. The gravel driveway was a sea of weeds worse than Chernobyl. The house was filthy but I couldn’t make my husband clean up for his own party. I didn’t have presents or a cake, my friend was showing up just as I needed to run fifty errands, my husband’s brother was flying into town to surprise him out of the blue, people were texting to say they couldn’t make it. The whole party was starting to look like that special kind of catastrophe that is maybe my signature move, my curse, the embodiment of my uniquely stupid personality.
But there we all were in my kitchen at midnight, eating colorful chunks of the birthday cake my visiting friend made, which crumbled into a heap when I tried to slice it. The room was too bright, the floor was covered in grit from the yard, there were dirty plates everywhere, and my husband was saying, “This was a good party. This was a really good party.”
Real life is just mistakes and filth and chaos. It’s a really good party. Don’t miss it.
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Reminds me of some friends’ wedding reception - for some reason the wedding cake didn’t make to the reception, so the bride asked one of her bride’s maids to run to the store and see if she could get a cake. The bride’s maid improvised, she brought back a grocery bag of Twinkies! I’ve been to lots of wedding receptions, but that’s the only one that remember the “wedding cake.”
“The whole party was starting to look like that special kind of catastrophe that is maybe my signature move, my curse, the embodiment of my uniquely stupid personality.”