My basil plant is slowly wilting, dying outside.
I looked at it this morning, last night, yesterday morning. I’ve been careful to water but not overwater. I planted it in another pot with organic potting soil and sat it in the full sun. But the leaves continue to droop.
Beside the basil, there are two pots of lettuce sprouts grown from seed and one pot of spinach that has just started to sprout. They’re growing so thick that they will probably need to be thinned into other pots soon. But I can’t think about them.
I can only think about the basil. I stare back at it, a small failure. I wish I hadn’t planted it at all.
About a year ago, I told my best friend Bonnie that I wanted to write again. I hadn’t done it in years, at least not the kind of writing that I wanted to do.
“So why don’t you do it?” she asked.
If anything, I am honest. “I’m afraid it won’t be any good.” I paused. “You know. It’s worse to do something badly than not to do it at all.”
I remember her brow, furrowed in confusion. Bonnie builds tables and desks, sews coats and pants for herself, designs quilted appliquéd pieces and sews them together. They are things of such beauty that you can hardly see the imperfections. Just the grain of solid pine in the Mission-style desk. The way the coat fits her body. The bright batik fabrics sewed together into the shapes of trees.
“Um,” she says in her honest way. “That’s not true.”
Over the past months, I’ve realized that she is right. The past months have been an unlearning of so many of the ways that I think and act and live. My mantra has always been: “If you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all.” And so, over the past ten years, I had gradually decreased the amount of the things that I did. I was afraid of my fingers stumbling over piano keys, so I stopped playing. I was afraid of misshapen sentences, so I stopped writing. I was afraid of the awkward sounds of my Chinese, so I stopped speaking. I was afraid of killing yet another plant that I grew, so I put away my ideas about gardening.
But something has shifted in me, ever so slightly. I am tired of being afraid. Tired of being afraid to talk to people because I might give the wrong impression. Of being afraid to write because what came out would be less perfect than the idea in my mind. Of being afraid to sing because my voice is not classically beautiful.
Tired of being afraid of gardening because I might kill the basil plant.
My friend wrote me an email a little over a year ago, when I was first realizing how deep my perfectionism went. How deep my fear went. I was afraid not just of imperfection but of total failure. They felt like the same thing. I was going to write terrible papers. I was going to get C’s on my exams. I was going to let everyone down.
“Maybe,” Bonnie wrote, “you need to give yourself permission to fail.”
“Permission to fail. Let that be a mantra to us both. The sky will not fall. Our GPAs will probably not even drop significantly. People will still love us. We will still have or not have jobs. The pyramids will not fall. The emails will not cease. Bacon will still be delicious. Permission to fail. Jesus’ death and resurrection will still mysteriously merit our salvation. You will still make darn good dumpling sauce, and I will still make a mean bookshelf. We will still go camping in Utah. Lemurs will still jump from branch to branch. The only thing that will crumble a little bit will be our unhealthy ego-pride-kingdom. And after it crumbles, God will build his kingdom in its place. Permission to fail. Bacon. Permission to fail. Lemurs. Permission to fail. Dumplings.
“Maybe if I keep giving you permission to fail, and you keep giving me permission to fail, one day we will both believe each other.”
There is so much truth in her words. And so much joy. Joy in bacon and lemurs and dumpling sauce and camping under the stars. Joy that has nothing to do with the perfectly worded sentence or someone’s words or praise.
I have started writing for joy again. Or maybe it’s this: I’ve started writing for joy for the first time. Small, not a novel, not a story, just a couple of blog entries typed in an evening. Because like Bonnie revels in a piece of wood or a well-made garment, I revel in the turn of a sentence. Because life is richer when pondered and mulled over and shared. Because the things I love don’t need to be sacrificed to perfection.
And every once in a while, something I write is a thing of such beauty, I can hardly see the imperfections.
I go outside and look at the basil plant. Its leaves are still wilting. I will keep tending it, but it may die. Permission to fail. I look at the terracotta pots planted with lettuce seeds. The sprouts crowd together in the pots. They will need to be transplanted soon, but for now I just enjoy the sight. The basil plant dying, this pot full of seedlings full of life.
Brimming with something new.
Have you ever given yourself permission to fail?