Perfection Paralysis

It’s almost Shavuos, but this week I have been thinking back to Lag b’Omer and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar hiding for 12 years from the Romans in a cave. Where were we, digitally speaking, 12 years ago? We were already standing in the cave (l’havdil) that is the online world, and we’ve only gone in more deeply since. 

In 2008, I was one of 100 million people who had created a Facebook account since its launch in 2004. (The site now boasts 2.26 billion active users each month.) We were two years away from the highly curated world of the Instagram timeline. Bloggers were solidly established, with WordPress already taking the lead. Most of us weren’t carrying smartphones; sales for 2008 were around 139 million (contrast that to 1.5 billion units sold in 2019). 

As we learn, when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son emerged from the cave, their gaze was so pure from their years spent learning Torah and seeing nothing but holiness, that their eyes burned everything they looked at. A bas kol (heavenly voice) thundered, “Did you go out to destroy my world?” Of course, the two were able to return to the cave, where, after some time, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s gaze was transfigured such that it could heal anything burned by Rabbi Elazar’s gaze.

And for us? What has come of turning our eyes to this digital cave for increasing hours? Again, l’havdil, our gaze has also become a burning one, but most of the damage falls on us and those closest to us. Faced with the manufactured perfection of many social media accounts, we burn with self-doubt and self-criticism: Why isn’t my Shabbos table as pretty as Esti’s? Why don’t my kids look so put-together for yomim tovim like Ruchama’s? When we can see something “better” in literally a second, how can it be that we won’t come to see the things we have and do as not good enough?

I was struggling with this over the past week as I was thinking about blogging about low-waste gardening tips. Would what I’ve done look attractive enough? Should I use pictures of my techniques but implemented more picture-perfectly? A lot of zero-waste blogs and books feature perfectly matched shelves of mason jars and nonplastic containers, which set an expectation of perfection for the rest of us. To be honest, those items are expensive, and most people are throwing out jars and containers every day they could use instead of buying new ones. (You might look back at this old blog post about repurposing mishloach manot containers or this one about reusing jars and more for inspiration.) 

On my back porch, I have a container garden where I grow tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and herbs during the summer. It’s made up of pots I got second-hand and repurposed five-gallon containers. (If you are interested in container gardening, check out McGee & Stuckey’s Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Edible Flowers, which you can still buy online from third-party Amazon sellers. Of course, there are plenty of more recent container-gardening books to choose from.)

I just got my herbs planted this past Sunday. With rain threatening, I needed to quickly make markers to show what I had planned in each pot. It took just a few minutes to cut oblong shapes from plastic milk containers I had in my recycling bin and write the plant name with a sharpie. As I was making them, I thought about creating a stencil so they would be uniform and look cute for this blog. With raindrops now hitting, I decided against it. I spent a while thinking about whether I could use someone else’s pretty picture (subject to copyright, of course) of upcycled plant markers, but that would just add to the issue of unreasonable expectations I wanted to address when I started this blog. Full disclosure: I took 22 shots of these pieces of plastic that I am using to stick in the dirt to get one I felt comfortable posting. Talk about a gaze that destroys…

Like a lot of people, I have felt the need to more actively search out things that help me be b’ simcha since the coronavirus situation started. I decided it would really help me to look out the window and see some plants. My house doesn’t get great light, and the places where it does are from windows that are along staircases. So, indoor plants were out. I realized if I moved the gardening table my husband made me out of leftover wood we had from another home project to one specific spot, I could see it out the kitchen window. 

Over a few weeks, I put together a low-waste garden. I repurposed containers my morning shake powder comes in, a few clear plastic jars (from instant coffee and peanut butter), and those polybags that come inside boxes of food, like for cereal and bake mixes. In truth, I try not to buy things that are packaged like this, so I put the word out to a few friends, who were kind enough to save some for me. After I rinsed the bags out and cut drain holes near the bottom with scissors, I was ready to put in a layer of rocks and fill them with potting soil before planting seeds, cuttings, and food scraps like carrot tops. (You can’t grow new carrots this way, but the greens are pretty and delicious, and there are food scraps you can plant and grow new, such as lettuce, green onions, and celery.) 

I am not sure if the effect is lovely enough for a front yard or porch, but it’s perfect for my backyard, and it makes me happy every time I am at the kitchen sink. Instead of beating myself up for not planning better or not putting in this little container garden because it wasn’t perfect, I just put a reminder in my bullet journal to start saving just the right plastic containers over the winter so I can be ready for next spring. 

I know I’m not the only one who struggles with thinking the only two options in life are perfection and failure. I was talking to a friend who had stopped using disposable plates and napkins. She was thinking about giving up and going back to disposables because she had a lot going on with a chag coming up with a simcha and it was just too much. It’s such an easy trap to fall into! But sometimes you just need to say, “This week I need to do this thing that isn’t low waste.” Or, you need to reset your own expectations for the future. If it’s too much to use disposables for Shabbos, could you use a mix of reusable and disposable, say paper for fish and dessert but real plates for mains and soup? If you can’t give up paper plates during the week, could you stop using them just for lunch? Or use real plates for adults and paper for kids? Making a difference doesn’t mean doing everything perfectly all the time, it means doing what you can do at a level you can sustain over time.

When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai emerged from his cave the second time, he found that his gaze didn’t destroy. Rather, it healed. Let us work on making our own gaze a healing one, and may the Healer of All send us all a complete healing, speedily and in our days.

(With thanks to Shimona, Rivki, and Jessica for containers; Chaya Rochel for a celery stalk; and Beth and Shoshana for cutting and insights.)

Amy

And wait! There’s a giveaway. Comment here to be entered to win the quite lovely set of garden markers that I couldn’t find on Sunday. Follow me on Instagram @amynewsmith for another chance to win, and tag a friend who you think would like the blog on Insta for a third chance to win.

Congrats to Rivki Silver and Rivky Weiss, who won my SoapSleeve giveaway, which I also did for some crazy reason right before a chag!

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