My perfect dinner date
Later Wednesday night ..
Katie is sitting across from me at the table, having coerced me to stay out for dinner after her visit to my office. It didn’t take much (coercion that is), but the coercion is part of the game. We both pretend that staying out for (fill in the appropriately timed meal) is not a foregone conclusion. We propose it to Daddy and ask if he’d mind if we stay out ‘just a little while longer.’ He pretends that he didn’t already plan around us being gone. It’s what we do.
She is telling me about school. About the other kids. About the mercurial nature of fifth-grade girls and how much it drives her crazy.
Her face gets serious. “Mama,” she asks, “can I tell you something?”
“Of course, kiddo,” I say. “What’s up?”
She pushes the food around on her plate as she speaks. “It’s just that .. well .. ” She pauses.
I assure her that whatever it is, there will be no judgement.
“It’s just that I feel like everyone else is just so PERFECT.” The word comes out like an angry hiss. Something’s brewing. “It just feels like everything is so easy for everyone else. Like all the girls are just so .. I don’t know, so much more comfortable in their own skin than me.”
Yes, my girl said ‘comfortable in their own skin.’
I let out a heavy sigh. “Oh, baby. There are so many parts to this. But let’s start with feeling like everyone else is perfect – or that their lives are perfect, OK?”
She nods her assent.
“Katie, everyone struggles with something. Everyone. Some kids have trouble with reading. Some kids struggle to keep up athletically. Some kids have trouble fitting it with the crowd. Some kids are having trouble at home that you don’t see. But EVERYONE struggles with something.”
I tell her the Buddhist parable of the mustard seed – the one that my dear friend Judith shared with me so long ago now. The story of the woman who has lost her son – who believes that she is completely alone in her grief. The story in which the Buddha commands her to collect a bowl of mustard seeds – each seed, he tells her must come from a house that does not know loss. And so she goes from house to house in her village, asking for seeds. And the villagers feel for her and offer them readily. But when she asks if perhaps a son or a daughter, a father or a mother had died in their family, each and every one answers, Yes, we have lost a beloved.
And she discovers that there is no house – not a single one – that does not know loss.
Katie is rapt.
“Baby, you’ve got to remember that what people choose to show on the outside doesn’t mean they aren’t dealing with something entirely different than what you see.”
I tell her that it was a lesson that I learned early. That I might even have been younger than she is now. “”I’ll never forget it,” I tell her. “It’s weird how all these years later, it’s still with me, but it was a powerful moment, realizing just how skewed our perceptions of one another can be from the outside.”
“We had a friend of the family,” I say, “a guy in his early twenties at the time who was a waiter at a local restaurant that we went into periodically. I’ll never forget the day that he told me that he hoped someday to have a family as PERFECT as mine. That my parents had the PERFECT marriage. That everyone said so.”
I tell her that the word PERFECT came at me like a weapon. That I couldn’t imagine that he was serious. MY family? The one that was about to be split down the middle because staying together in a house that resembled a war zone was no longer feasible? That one?
But through his lens, I explain, he saw – or thought he saw – or wanted to see – the PERFECT family.
Katie takes it all in – every drop.
We talk more about perfection – about how boring it would actually be if realized. We continue to talk for a while and then she says, “I just feel like if I were really myself, like ya know, all the time, I’d be really nerdy and unpopular.”
She’s confused when I laugh. “Oh, honey,” I say, explaining, “I’m pretty sure that if MOST people were really themselves all the time they’d all be nerdy and unpopular.”
“Not Danielle,” she says.
“Oh, Katie,” I say, “especially Danielle.”
She lets out a world-weary sigh.
“It’s just so frustrating,” she says. “Why can’t EVERYONE just be who they are all the time?” She stops talking and plays with her straw for a moment, then continues thoughtfully. “Ya know, Mama, if everyone was willing to REALLY be who they are, there wouldn’t BE a such thing as nerdy or unpopular. And a lot more people would have real friends, cause they’d be showing each other who they actually are instead of who they want everybody to think they are.”
I sit back in my chair and try to take it all in. I am in awe of my kid.
“My dear,” I say, “that couldn’t be more true. Sadly, a lot of people are really invested in the image that they project. But if one by one, we start shedding the layers, maybe being yourself can become the cool thing to do.”
She giggles. Her attention is drawn to a table nearby, where two young women are apparently enjoying their sake a little more than their food. One of them has been LOUDLY regaling the other with the story of a date she’d recently had with a guy she’d met online. Katie has not hidden her annoyance.
“I DON’T KNOW,” the woman is all but yelling. “I’M JUST NOT IMPRESSED SO FAR, YA KNOW?”
Katie rolls her eyes, then whispers, “Mama, come here.”
We’re at a tiny table together, not two feet apart. “Um .. I am ‘here’, baby.”
She rolls her eyes again, then motions for me to lean in closer, so I do.
“I have an idea,” she whispers.
I tell her I’m all ears.
“How about if we start talking just as loud as them?”
I laugh, then sit back. She motions me in again.
“No, seriously, Mama. That would be kinda hilarious. Let’s do it. We’ll tell the story about the lady and the mustard seeds as loud as we can.”
I can’t stop grinning. “Baby,” I say, “I’m going to say something to you that my dad said to me when I was a kid, because nothing is more true right this very second.”
She interrupts. “Does this mean we can’t do the loud thing?”
I laugh. “Yes, it does. But I’ll admit, it would be utterly hilarious.”
She sticks out her bottom lip in a perfect pout. We both crack up.
I take her hand. “Baby girl, if eleven years ago someone had asked me to design the perfect kid, I could not have come close to creating you. Thankfully, it was out of my hands. Because God knew what to do far better than I ever could. YOU, my dear, with all of your glorious imperfections, are PERFECT.”
She looks down at the table, then back up at me. “Wow,” she says. “Really?”
“BUT HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT WE WERE GOING TO GO OUT FOR DINNER? HE DIDN’T TELL ME, SO IT’S NOT MY FAULT THAT I ATE BEFORE WE LEFT, RIGHT? I MEAN, RIGHT?”
Katie leans in one last time.
“C’mon,” she says. “You know you want to.”
Nope, I could not have designed her better.