Practice Makes (not) Perfect

In worship on Epiphany, the day the church remembers the star that led the magi to Jesus, we passed out pieces of paper that had been cut into nice star shapes. On each star was printed a word. I invited the congregation members to take a star and consider how God might be speaking to them this year through the word printed on their star.

Well, I picked out a star too. And then I almost threw it back in the basket. Because I didn’t like the word.
PRACTICE

But I figured that if I asked them to trust that God might be speaking to them through their words, I should trust God might speak to me as well. So I kept my star. I taped it up in my office, where I would see it.

And this year I have listened for how God might speak to me through that word.

There are many meanings to the word “practice”. The first one that comes to mind for me involves my cello. Because my childhood cello teacher would always ask me, after hearing me stumble through a lesson, “Marci, did you practice this week?”

As you might guess, if she had to ask the question, it was pretty clear the answer was “no”. Or “not much”.  I wasn’t very disciplined as a kid. I was easily distracted by important things like the Brady Bunch, or the kids playing in the neighborhood. One could say I had a tough time prioritizing.

But could I practice my cello better as an adult? I am still not sure if my teacher from long ago would fully applaud my effort, but I have done better. And I have discovered that by making time for my cello, I haven’t lost the time I need for other things. Which suggests that even in my busy life, I have more time than I suspect.

I have even started taking lessons again, because sometimes “practice” needs “accountability”.  And I continue to subject the congregation I serve to hearing me play my cello in worship because I do believe our gifts are better when shared and because they give me more incentive to practice. (I don’t want to be a horrible cellist in front of people I love!)

I was talking with a friend about how I was going to play my cello in worship not long ago, and she said, “that is so cool. I just don’t have time to do that”.

And I totally get that. Life is busy. She has a more than full time job.

But at the same time, I wanted to reply to her, “of course you have time to do that.”

Because the other truism from my cello teacher, when I would tell her I didn’t have time to practice any particular week, was “Marci, how many hours do you have in a day?”

24?”, I would reply uncertainly, understanding that this wasn’t going to end well for me.

What a coincidence!”, she would exclaim. “I have 24 hours in my day too. And I found time to practice.

(Why yes, she was very wise. To my 15 year old self, my cello teacher appeared to just be a nice, middle aged woman who played in the symphony. But I now suspect she was really some sort of Zen master/ninja sensei.)

Granted, we can’t all control all 24 hours of the day. We have jobs that need to be done so we can pay bills. And I recognize some people have to work more than one job because the economy stinks. I recognize that there are demands on our time that can leave us feeling helpless and out of control.

But then we have the rest of our time. What are we going to practice with whatever hours remain ours to schedule?

Are we going to watch TV?

Or waste time on Facebook (my particular time waster of choice) or Twitter?

Or go for a walk?

Or take a belly dancing class?

Or pray and study Divine things?

Or take up the musical instrument we have always wanted to learn?

Or read a book to our children?

Or give the gift of our attention and presence to the people we love the most?

How are we going to spend the time we have? What do you practice with the time you have?

One other thing I am learning in this year of practicing is that my happiness can’t reside in a mythical future point where perfection resides. “Once I have practiced enough, THEN I will play my cello in public”, for instance.  We have to find joy in the practice itself, even as we acknowledge it can be tedious and painful.  So, rather than pinning our happiness and joy on that moment in the unseen future when we have exercised enough and lost “enough” weight, or when we have practiced enough to be professionals, or when we have written enough to be Hemmingway, we have to take joy in and share in the gift of what the practice has brought us this very day.

By no means have I mastered this, but when people ask me to play my cello for them, I now will. Because if I wait until I sound like Yo Yo Ma before I share the gifts of my practice, people will be waiting a very long time.

I am trying to let go of the demon of perfection.

As one of my favorite authors and theologians, Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

I trust that this year of practice is helping me in my quest to let go of perfection. Lord, may it be so.

So, what are you going to do with the gift of the 24 hours you’ve been given today. Be present. Practice. It’s not perfect, but it’s all good.

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11 thoughts on “Practice Makes (not) Perfect

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  4. First off, I applaud your continuation of music lessons as an adult, and I would heartily encourage any adult who think playing a musical instrument is cool to find the time to take lessons, or play if you already know how. It’s worth the time and effort!

    Second, you have seemed to reflect only on the verb. What about the noun, which is about the practice of something? I could spend a whole year on that one, too!

    Perhaps this year I’ll find my own star word. Meditating and praying on such a word seems like a worthwhile practice to me.

    Blessings in 2013!

    • Yes, at first I thought the word would end up being about spiritual practice, and that was a part of it. It was interesting how multi-faceted that simple word turned out to be.

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