Back when I was a sophomore in high school, I carried on top of my schoolbooks a small spiral-bound notebook decorated with a bulbous cartoon frog, drawn by my artistically challenged hand. “Bullfrogs ‘n Butterflies!” I scrawled on the cover in bubble letters, next to a lily pad. A trail of airborne hyphens indicated the flight path of a fly: ostensibly the frog’s lunch. “Both been borned again!”
I don’t remember other teenagers walking around with such a dorky item. But at the time I was more religious even than most adults I knew. While other kids listened to Michael Jackson’s Thriller or sang, “We’re not gonna take it anymore!” with Twisted Sister, I collected Amy Grant and Keith Green albums, shutting myself in my room to commiserate along with the Christian rock band Petra that people of faith are “Not of This World.”
Not long ago, I found this notebook in a box of memorabilia in the basement. The notebook contained pages and pages of loopy, adolescent handwriting: indecipherable sermon notes and youth group scribblings, fill-in-the-blank answers to questions from long-forgotten Bible studies, and the lyrics to bad songs I was writing at the time. Sandwiched between all these, ad infinitum, were endless self-improvement lists, each a variation on the same theme:
PLAN TO BECOME A BETTER PERSON
- Read my Bible every day!!!!!
- Do my Quiet Time in the morning!!! Give God my best energy!!!!!!
- Exercise more.
- Do whatever it takes to feel God’s presence!!!
- Do one nice thing for someone every day. CHANGE THE WORLD!!!!
What strikes me, as an adult and as a mother, is not just what’s on the list, but what’s not. The teenage me didn’t seriously consider that the path to self-improvement lay in being more respectful to my parents, in contributing to the family work load, in doing the dishes the first time my mom asked, instead of waiting until the sixth or eighth or tenth, until she yelled at me in a frenzy, looking as if I’d caused her some sort of aneurysm. I focused not on the achievable things I could contribute to my family or to school, but on large-scale, often unreachable dreams.
As I read the list today, I roll my eyes and think, How sad. I wish I could go back and put an arm around the younger me, wish I could tell her: “Sweetie, seriously? For the love of god . . . lighten up.”
The ironic thing, of course, is that I have a similar list today. But instead of a laundry list in a spiral notebook, it exists as scattered notes in my Franklin planner. If I were to pull the items all together, to name the collection for what it really is, it would look something like this:
PLAN TO BECOME A BETTER PERSON
- Get organized!!! (laundry, grocery shopping, dishes, meal prep, house cleaning, etc.)
- Exercise for 40 minutes every day!!!!!!! (except maybe one day off a week)
- Spend quality time with each of the kids every day.
- Carve out time for me: write, rest, BE!!!
- Be more patient, less crabby with the kids.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any one of these goals, and (knock wood) I hope to make gains in all these areas. The error lies not in the effort, but in the implicit belief that I’ll be better, that my kids will be better, that my family will be better only if I accomplish these things. Which is another way of saying, we’re (I’m) not okay the way we are (I am).
There’s the reek of desperation to numbers one through four, and number five smells faintly of regret and shame. Miraculously, attempts to corral God via acts of piety dropped off the list somewhere between the eleventh grade and the births of my first two children. (Though I confess I still haven’t shaken that old, nagging feeling that God will bless me more fully once I finally get my shit together.)
Still — and despite my hopes for the next twelve months — I’m resolving not to make a list of New Year’s resolutions this time around. Truth is, no matter how much weight I might have lost or money I might have earned in the last calendar year, I will always remember it as the year my daughter handed out a full month’s grocery money in $100 bills to her first grade class; the year one of my sons, dressed as a cow, spent his entire preschool Montessori Christmas pageant with his hands down his pants; and the other clicked his heels in the air outside his classroom one afternoon exclaiming, “Mama, look what I can do with my nipples!” (The word he was looking for was “ankles.”) For me, it will always be the year I sideswiped another mom’s car on the street outside the preschool, making me late to pick up my husband after surgery; it will forever remain the year Eugenia (true to the classic song) lost her two front teeth before Christmas, Macky broke out in impetigo from head to toe, and Will solidified his nightly ritual of slipping into Mama and Papa’s bed, sleeping in the curve of my arms with a dreamy, smug smile on his face.
Despite my never-ending plans to become a better person (my newest brainstorm: “40 by 40,” a questionably unrealistic plot to drop nearly a quarter of my body weight by my fortieth birthday), this is who I am. This is who we are. My family’s lives aren’t always pretty. They’re far from perfect. They’re messy and unpredictable and glorious. How could I possibly improve on that?