Breaking Up with “Doing My Best”

Aim High!
Give it 110%!
You can do anything!
Reach for the stars!

But I ask you this: what’s wrong with aiming no higher than personal satisfaction? Or giving it a percentage that mathematically exists? Or recognizing that yes, you might be able to do anything, but do you really want to? Or seeing that reaching for the stars is a bit overkill?

I’m taking you in this direction for a reason, so just bear with me for the next few paragraphs.

This past week, thanks to the creativity of my Supermom and my own get-up-and-go-ness, I have embarked on a little project for the neighborhood kiddos whom I enjoy so much (read the previous post for more details).

Since they adore hanging out at my house, either coloring, reading, or playing games, I figured why not turn my home into a little playhouse of sorts? Well, to do this would be great, but I have no books (the ones they read last time belong to a school), a short order of art supplies, and limited games (aside from the ones made out of throwaway items).

Soooo, the idea is that we will sit together and design and decorate bookmarks. These will all be very unique, particularly considering the children range from ages 4-15. After they make a zillion gajillion bookmarks, we will have them laminated and tasseled, and then when my sister comes in October to visit, she will take them back to the States and give them to my mom who will then sell them for whatever people are willing to give. All of the proceeds would then come back to setup the playhouse, where kids can come and do activities that they normally don’t get to do in their own homes.

So that’s the plan. We had our first and second bookmark making sessions this week and they were both a success.

Success? Did she just say success? Martha Stuart would be rolling over in her grave if she heard that and if she had one. To start, the first day I didn’t provide appropriate cardstock or art supplies to make the bookmarks, so we just used regular typing paper and markers. I didn’t really show them any special way to make the bookmarks look professional and artistic; I just gave them a few ground rules and said “Go For It.” The second day I did obtain cardstock, but the crayons were too thick and the markers too few.

Nevertheless, between ten and twelve children joyfully made 58 bookmarks this week, and they can’t wait to come back and do it again. And I had fun, too! See the pictures attached.

(If you want to place an order, please leave a comment on my blog saying, “I want, I want!” And I will figure out a way to send some to you; but you won’t receive them till November!)

But after they left my house, I kept hearing the fiendish little voice from the Ghost of Julie Past haranguing in my head,

You could have done better. You didn’t try very hard to find the right cardstock or coloring materials. You’re kind of doing a half-ass job of this. Everyone’s going to tell you this could be really big, but you don’t really want it to get that big. That sounds like a lot of work. What’s wrong with you? Why are you so unambitious? Why don’t you want to make it better and more professional and more successful? You know you can do better and not be so half-hearted about it. Don’t you care about the kids? Don’t you want the most for them?

And during this episode of psychotic self-beratement, I stopped dead in my mental tracks and thought, “Julie! Shush!” I know, I know…not a deep thought. But the subsequent thoughts kind of were. I started questioning why I felt so bad about doing something good in the first place. It shouldn’t be that way. I should feel proud of what I’m doing, not guilty for not doing enough.

AHA! That was it! …not doing enough. Not good enough. Not working hard enough. ENOUGH! Western culture is constantly pushing the idea that one can always improve, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also told that not only can we improve, but that we should improve. That we should not settle. We can always work harder, be happier, be wealthier, be thinner, be stronger, do better, and all those other irritating “-er” words.

Why can’t we just be who we are? By believing we should always seek to “do better,” many of us assume therefore that we must not be good enough as we are.

I am finding a lot about myself here, particularly in terms of balance. I’m not a person who enjoys or functions well on stress and high expectations (particularly the self-inflicted sort). I gather many people aren’t. Ironically, that’s how I’ve spent much of my life. And I’ve made the mistake too many times of quitting or not even starting something because I didn’t think I’d be good enough at it, or because I knew I wouldn’t be willing to put in the effort – the 110% it would take – to be exceptional. You can see how this kind of logic actually works against a person.

So with this bookmark project I realized I had three choices:

1. Quit and not do it at all because I know good-and-well that I don’t have the energy or desire to turn this into a entrepreneurial escapade resulting in a fully equipped play center with a multimedia library, a laser tag venue, an art studio, and an inflatable castle.
2. Continue the project the way I’m doing it, with a few improvements here and there, as I feel comfortable doing, balancing my own desires and drives, yet all the while feeling guilty and ashamed for not “reaching for the stars” and only giving my 65%.
3. Continue the project the way I’m doing it, with a few improvements here and there, as I feel comfortable doing, balancing my own desires and drives, and all the while feeling good that the kids can come over and be excited and proud of their work, and even make a little money from it, despite me only giving my 65%.

“But,” you ask, “wouldn’t the kids be more proud and more excited if they had better materials and a more prepared teacher, willing to go the extra mile to make these bookmarks look like they came out of Barnes and Noble?” Probably. “But, Julie!” you exclaim, “It would be so easy to turn this thing into something really successful if you just dedicated more of yourself to it!” Probably. But that would be at the expense of me and my time/energy expenditure allotment. I just want everyone to have fun with this and see where it goes. It’s just that simple. No stress, just good times.

I know that in order to be at peace with myself, I need to live in balance, both literally and mentally. If I don’t, I’ll just end up quitting or crying or both. Not pretty. I’m not saying never try to improve or never work hard. Not at all. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t put out great effort. I’m just saying that it helps to know what your priorities are and to not beat yourself up for having to prioritize in the first place. I can’t (no do I want to) give everything my all, and I’m finally learning that feeling guilty about that is highly counterproductive.

Sometimes reaching for the stars burns you. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you actually doesn’t make you stronger, it might really end up killing you. And sometimes you freeze and end up doing nothing because you’ve been told you can do anything. So I’m peacefully pleased to be starting this humble little bookmark venture, seeing where it goes, and enjoying each moment of it with the kids. And that’s good enough for me.

Quitters Sometimes Never Prosper

I’m approaching August 13th, my six-month mark, and as many of my friends and family know, that was the day I was going to allow myself to pack up my bags and a few Nigerian souvenirs and go home. During those first three months, when a general underlying misery got the better of me, I told myself that I couldn’t leave before six months were up. I knew I had to give this experience time, and I also felt that it would be very irresponsible and unfair to CUSO-VSO and VSO to leave so prematurely. I had to at least stick it out for 25% of my commitment.

And I’m really glad I did. Like REALLY glad. This is not to say I don’t ever miss home or that I don’t have those moments where I wish I were at the 23 month mark instead of the six. Disappointingly (to myself), I’m not one of those volunteers who integrates into her new environment so much that she disappears into the background like Waldo from those 1990s Where’s Waldo books. No, unfortunately, up to this point I’ve been the volunteer that still feels and lives like an outsider looking in. A happy and lovable outsider with a growing number of Nigerian friendships, but an outsider nonetheless. I guess I’m less like Waldo and more like Clifford the Big Red Dog.

I’ve been finding that when I get in downer moods here, I get a strong urge to throw in the towel and call it quits. But when everything is hunky dory peachy keen, I absolutely love this place and never want to leave. (I call this the Pendulum Syndrome). In Oregon I didn’t have the luxury of “quitting” and going home when things got rough, because I was already there! There was no home to go back to. But if I dig a bit deeper, I can discover quite a bit of hidden irony: I did indeed quit my life in Oregon, which is perhaps one reason why I’m in Nigeria. But that’s waaaaay to deep to get into here. Let’s just agree that moods are moods, and they happen everywhere you go, whatever the circumstances. It’s just that they feel far more intense when you’re Clifford instead of Waldo.

But despite the ups and downs, life here is pretty darn amazing. So the rest of this post is just going to dish out a few of the reasons and stories that explain why staying here, despite any personal hardship, is worth it. The cake is most certainly worth the candle.

1. A Kindred Spirit.

I have made a friend here that I never would have expected and who is changing my life at every corner. I just thank my lucky * stars * that we met. He’s helping me gain so many new perspectives on life, myself, living in Nigeria, and everything in between. And on top of that, he’s just loads of fun and a breath of fresh air. Merci, D!

2. The Neighborhood Children.

LOVE them. Seriously. It all started with a little 11-year old who I invited over once a week to “tutor.” His mom thought we were being all academic and responsible, but really we just ended up playing games like hangman and making puzzles and coloring (which, by the way, is just what the doctor ordered for both of us). He started opening up to me about all sorts of things – some sad and some shocking – and I know that just me being me is changing this little guy’s life. The other day as he was leaving my house, he turned around and said, “I will never forget you, Julie.” Like WOW.

Because of my visits with this little guy, word on the street is that Julie’s house is fun. So now I find myself in a situation like yesterday, with one young girl absolutely absorbed in a storybook on my couch, another little boy drawing, five other kids “bowling” on my veranda with a balled up reusable shopping bag (Thanks Mom!) and fifteen plastic bottles, and me and another boy keeping score. Every now and then they would break into dance when my iTunes started playing something groovy like electronic raver music or Kathryn Claire’s KinderQueen. It was just too awesome for words. The best part was when I turned around to see one tiny three-year old girl giggling behind the visor of my full-face motorcycle helmet, her neck swaying to keep her heavy head in place. I don’t know how she didn’t tip right over with the weight of it!

And just a few days before that, I had four children of various ages, reading silently for over an hour on the couches in my sitting room. When they were done with one book, they went quietly over to the box of storybooks I have (that are actually for a school but I haven’t delivered them yet) and would choose another one. In the midst of this, I was trying to read Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but it’s near impossible to read about existential despair when you’ve got four adorable children sitting around you with their heads buried in books because there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.

3. Animals.

Oh, the joys of fauna here in Naija. The other night as I was walking across my yard with my neighbor friend, I felt a sharp bite on the top of my foot. I lifted my leg to brush whatever it was off and noticed that it was just an ant. But oh, no! Don’t be fooled! There is no such thing as “just an ant” when it’s the biting kind! I gulped, looked down around the steps to my front door, and saw exactly what I knew I’d see but hoped I wouldn’t. Soldier ants. Thousands of them. And the little terrors were marching not in lines but in blobby masses right toward my front door and into my veranda. At this point I already felt at least three more pinches, from my feet all the way to my chest. They can get under your clothes and up your body in seconds! If you’ve ever heard stories about ants in the millions killing sleeping infants and small children, these be the ones. Thank God I’m a 5’10” adult. And if you haven’t heard the stories, Google it. (Sister, I know what you’re thinking…don’t you DARE back out of coming to visit! Read on!)

Anyway, long story short, my neighbor ordered me to take off my clothes immediately and hang them up on the washing line. She then got some insecticide from my kitchen and doused the area where the ants were invading. In minutes, they were dead. My security guard refused to go home when I told him to, even though he spends the night in the open-air garage of my house. That night I slept with my door shut tight and the insecticide bottle by my door, ready for action. The next morning, I was pleased to see my brave guard alive and well, yet not so pleased to find him laughing jovially at me and my previous night’s display of trepidation. I guess this wasn’t his first time with soldier ants. Eventually some guys came over and sprayed chemicals on my lawn and cut it down with handheld tools called grass cutters.

Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Soldier Ants Bite. (See, Sister? It’s all okay now! See you in a couple months!)

And on a lighter and less lethal note, the other day when I was going on a run I came across about twenty Fulani cattle and their herder (quite an adorable young man, might I add). I didn’t want to scare them, so I very considerately slowed down to walk past them. As I was greeting the herder with a wide smile and wave, I ever so gracefully stumbled over a rock and yelped. ALL the cattle (and about five goats) started bolting in every direction imaginable. The herder looked quite bemused but not without a slight trace of annoyance. He went along to regroup his herd, and right when he had them all back together, I skidded a bit on a rocky little dip in the road, and the poor beasts started running away again, this time back in the direction from which they came! Oh boy…the cute herder man was not amused this time! He rounded them all up again, and – with intense concentration – I managed to get past them without a stumble.

So hello and goodbye August 13th; you’re just another day on the calendar now.