Kate Baer: Tolerating Imperfection - Kate Bowler

Kate Baer: Tolerating Imperfection

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podcast banner Kate Baer: Tolerating Imperfection

Kate Baer: Tolerating Imperfection

Poet Kate Baer found herself inundated with the demands of motherhood, and little time to write. Nothing was easy and then, at a breaking point, it felt impossible. If she wanted a creative life, she was going to have to redefine “perfection” (perfect mom! perfect woman!) and learn to tolerate a lot more imperfection instead.  On this episode of Kate & Kate, they discuss:
  • How friendships give permission to speak honestly (and why your friendships are actually important)
  • Why not every experience (motherhood, marriage) is “fulfilling”
  • How they each went off-script to find meaning
  • Kate Baer’s great love for Panera Bread
CW: postpartum depression

Guest

Kate Baer

Kate Baer is the 2x New York Times bestselling author of What Kind Of Woman and I Hope This Finds You Well. Her work has also been published in The New Yorker, Literary Hub, Huffington Post and The New York Times.

Transcript

Kate Bowler:                      We live in a culture that celebrates positivity: speak positively, good vibes only, don’t manifest that kind of energy. So what about when things aren’t going as swimmingly as we might have hoped? Might we speak honestly? Could we tell the truth, even if it’s negative? This is Everything Happens and I’m Kate Bowler. There are some people who act like human truth serum when they say the true thing, it makes everyone else follow suit. My kid is having issues at school and I’m worried he’s falling behind. Same, same same. My aging mom lives alone and I don’t want to take away her independence, I don’t know what to do. Same, same, same. Oh, your marriage is struggling? Same. I’m worried, I’ve missed it the opportunity, or the relationship, or the chance to apologize. Same. Sometimes people help you echo back the truth with a clear and resounding same. Today I’m talking with the human bottle of truth serum herself: Kate Baer Kate Bear is an author and poet. Her first book What Kind of Woman was a number one New York Times instant bestseller and she has a new book of erasure poetry called I Hope This Finds You Well. Kate, I’m so glad to be speaking with you.

Kate Baer:                    I am so excited we were joking beforehand the show could be called Kate and Kate and I love it.

Kate Bowler:               I picture like a Lizzie McGuire-style like we both have like shirts with lapels sewn in and that’s our vibe.

Kate Baer:            Yeah, and we love it and we love our vibe and we don’t care how that might look.

Kate Bowler:       And it ends in a duet?

Kate Baer:           Yeah, exactly.

Kate Bowler:      Your poetry confronts really hard, but often unspoken truths. The loneliness of parenting, what it feels like to live inside our actual bodies, the difficulties of long term marriage, the things that women especially may not say aloud. And it made me think, there’s like a way that we’re taught about how we’re supposed to act in the world. I wondered, what messages do you remember hearing as a kid or as a young person that taught you that conformity was better than the awkwardness of truth?

Kate Baer:            I think a lot of it came from growing up in religion and growing up in a religious school, although I think also being someone who’s living in the Northeast, we just love to plow through our emotions and not really and not really deal with them. Growing up, I read a lot of Amish romance novels, which really kind of skimmed over some really real things that happen in relationships. And also like Lurlene McDaniels, I don’t know if you remember back Christian lit for girls, it was a really narrow category.

Kate Bowler:          Absolutely.

Kate Baer:               You either had cancer or an unplanned pregnancy or your like brother was maybe on drugs. Anyway, there were like a few plot line of books that I read, and I loved them because I love to read. And then my high school English teacher gave me Margaret Atwood, and I was reading that book and I was like, Oh, this book is really talking about some things that are happening in the world, and it’s not anything like this Amish romance novel. And that really changed things for me. It was like, Oh, this is the kind of writing I want to do. This is the kind of book I want to read. And so that was that was a big turning point for me.

Kate Bowler:      I wonder, too, because we both have so many Mennonites in our background, if just conformity comes naturally to our kind.

Kate Baer:          Yeah. I mean, I’m like the kind of mennonite I’m not an ethnic Mennonite, but I-

Kate Bowler:       Oh my gosh, thank you for saying that! Me too. Don’t worry.

Kate Baer:           I can’t play the Mennonite game. None of my ancestors are mennonite, so but I was in Mennonite culture from the time I was born all the way through college. So yeah, basically Mennonite. Yeah. And I do think that has something to do with that.

Kate Bowler:         Yet a lot of people in our community here at the Everything Happens project really know what it’s like when tragedy strikes. But often there’s kind of less language for the ordinary pains of life, when life just sort of run out of steam. And your poem Girls Night Out in your first collection of poetry reads, if you don’t mind me ruining your poem by saying it my terrible voice, ‘in restaurants, we argue over who will pay even though the real question is who will confess their children are dull or their marriage has holes at the knees?’ Come on, I mean, it’s so good. Like, sometimes life just stalls, doesn’t it?

Kate Baer:         Yeah. And I know for me sometimes in these conversations with women where we’re just talking around an issue over and over again and we don’t quite want to say it like, I’m not happy at home and my marriage isn’t doing very well or this thing at work is really scary. We’re just talking around it. And then when you finally get to it and sometimes it takes more than just one girls’ night out, it takes a lot of work and work on a relationship. But then when you finally start to have those real conversations, it’s just life changing.

Kate Bowler:         I am also very invested in these lies that we so often prefer, you know, and that’s why I’m always so interested in like, not just lies, like lies I love, like, oh, I can, I can master my life, I can empty my inbox, I can solve the problem of pain, and it’s led me to perfect a lot of half truths, especially in polite conversation. And you work very hard to try to love the truth more. I wondered what kinds of habits or friendships give that kind of permission to us, like permission to speak honestly about the messiness and the grief and the disappointment and the loneliness.

Kate Baer:       I think just my personality does not thrive in a small talk situation, and the byproduct of that is noticing that when I, sometimes my brain is like, if you just say something, they’ll say something real. If I, if I share something that’s difficult or scary, it’s going to give permission for everybody else to do that. A good example of this is after I had my first, I really was just feeling really free to tell everyone about anal fissures. I was just, I shared this with everyone. I didn’t really want to, it’s really gross. But as soon as I started talking about that or my horrible tearing, all of a sudden all these other women it’s almost like they, like, metaphorically threw down their baby and was like, Yes, it does still hurt! And yes, this is terrible! And yes, this isn’t just like my my life does not constitute just this baby in this onesie with what month they are on Instagram, it’s actually I can’t go to the bathroom normally. You know, and I think that it’s not just fissures, it’s so much more than that. When you start to share those kind of really real things, it helps everybody else. Not that I’m just like a pioneer in all my friendships that I’m creating these all these great relationships, but that in circles of women, I find that if if you go first, everybody else will follow.

Kate Bowler:            Oh that’s good. Yeah, it’s almost like we get used to the sound of being honest. Like, oh, I’m not doing terribly well or, yeah, I don’t know if this part will ever get better. I think every sentence that begins or ends with not to be depressing should immediately be the thing worth saying.

Kate Baer:              I think underneath everybody wants to have a real conversation. Because that is that’s what leads to connection, that’s what leads to all the good stuff. Yeah, yeah.

Kate Bowler:         Yes. Do you usually feel like I’ll kind of die in the shallow end of small talk like, nah, I will never be okay.

Kate Baer:           That’s because you’re free. I think I am just like, Oh, I can’t hear it. I don’t want to hear about your kitchen backsplash. Like, I’m covering my ears. I’ll do anything not to hear about it.

Kate Bowler:         Yeah, but Kate they’ve really gone a long way in peel and stick. I just saw a recent…

Kate Bowler:        It is kind of wild how much like the a category that you talk about a lot because you live, it is is motherhood. It does lend itself to either this all encompassing identity or a series of much more convenient truths where you have to put on Instagram. I mean, you have four beautiful kids and already I mean, that reads, so well, Kate, you for beautiful kids. Period. Life accomplished. Done. Nailed it.

Kate Baer:       Yeah. Yeah. Oh my goodness. But there’s so much more behind that sentence. I did not mean to have four beautiful children. I really should have had two beautiful children, decided to just go for it with the third, scheduled a vasectomy and then accidentally had a fourth child, which put me into a depression. There’s so much more behind four children. You know, I spent my whole fourth pregnancy depressed. I could hardly get out of bed. It was, it was such a devastating time, that doesn’t go well on paper. It also does not translate on Instagram because, you know, pregnancy and babies are half of Instagram. So to say, I actually don’t want this at all, doesn’t look great. Yeah. So yeah, there’s a lot behind that period, for sure. Yeah.

Kate Bowler:           Oh, wow. I’m just thinking of so many myths of motherhood that that undoes right away. Like, I think like the first thing we feel like we’re supposed to say is I’m grateful and, gosh, I can think of like a million things.

Kate Baer:            It’s so hard to because when I got pregnant, I had two friends experience pregnancy loss, and there’s just so many things that can exist alongside of each other. And it was such an interesting juxtaposition to be grieving with these mothers and also grieving for myself who didn’t want to be pregnant, which is just such a big life lesson. That you could feel two feelings at the same time, that two things can be true at the same time.

Kate Bowler:          And by virtue of the fact that you are a poet and an author sounds like finding ways to not entirely be eclipsed by the category of motherhood. I imagine it had to be a discipline like you had to take a bulldozer to part of your life to do that at all. I have an only, I have a Zach, and already that would take up 100 percent of available time.

Kate Baer:            Yeah, yeah. I had to almost completely changed my life to write like I do now. But I’m a late bloomer. You know, sometimes people will say, Oh, you’re an old soul, whatever. I’m a new soul. I know nothing. I’m like the biggest idiot, so I have to learn everything the hard way. And certainly in motherhood, I’ve had to learn that it took four whole children for me to say, Wait a second, I can’t do this full time. I don’t even want to do this full time. Yeah. So for me, I had to bulldoze so much, so much of what I thought I wanted. But really, it was just what everybody else wanted, which is such a difficult thing, because it feels like you’re disappointing people. But in retrospect, I was, I was disappointing myself so much that I was doing just a bad job at being alive, and so it was necessary and also deeply poetic to have this fourth child, which was so, he was so kind of traumatic to have end up being the biggest change of my life, which ended up in some really beautiful things. Also, he’s wonderful. But ended up changing my life in such a way that worked out really well.

Kate Bowler:          Why was the fourth a fulcrum in that way?

Kate Baer:              Well, I think things like, I can’t breastfeed this baby for more than six months. I need almost full-time childcare. I need to always get my groceries delivered and to outsource this and this and this and work harder on side hustles to pay for childcare. So I write so that I can maybe get published some day. And without that push, if I hadn’t been pushed over the cliff. Yeah. If I couldn’t have found this big ocean, this this beautiful ocean of being able to work and to be a mother, I don’t know if that would have happened.

Kate Bowler:          Yeah, when there’s like a little bit left in the tank, there’s still like a story we tell where where you’re like I can muscle through. I could still probably keep.

Kate Baer:            Yeah, yeah, maybe I could do both. I’ll write during naptime, you know, all those kind of things. Yeah, that wasn’t, yeah, that wasn’t actually working.

Kate Bowler:        Oh mythical naptime. Oh, that quote on quote reset button.

Kate Baer:         Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Flip on the baby sleep. What if you want to also do other things?

Kate Bowler:         Yes. What if there was a part of you that had identity and differentiation? And then another time where I just wanted to watch Netflix?

Kate Bowler:         Would you mind reading me your beautiful poem titled Moon Song? It hits on so many of these themes. Just loved it.

Kate Baer:         Yeah, it’s called Moon Song, which is page 10. You are not an evergreen unchanged by the pitiless snow. You are not a photo, a brand, a character written for sex or house or show. You do not have to choose one or the other: a dream or a dreamer, or the bird or the birder. You may be a woman of commotion and quiet. Magic and brain. You can be a mother and a poet. A wife and a lover. You can dance on the graves you dug on Tuesday, pulling out the bones of yourself you began to miss. You can be the Sun and the Moon. The dance a victory song.

Kate Bowler:         Is that one of the poems you wrote during that season?

Kate Baer:         Yeah. It’s actually, one of the first poems I wrote when I went back to work full-time. Yeah.

Kate Bowler:         You were digging out a new self. Yeah. Feels like part of this permission that you’re giving us is that, you know, that it is OK to be more than one thing. It’s so complicated based on our, I guess, like the stories were told, but also the story we’re telling ourselves. I’ve really felt this when I, when I was really sick, I thought right away that the only right thing to do then would be to then devote all the rest of my time with spending time with my family and being a good mom. And like, what do you do with your Mary Oliver one wild and precious life? And I thought, like a good mom would not want to sit down and write a hilariously specific historical book about women and evangelicalism. I guess one of the things I had assumed was that totalizing love, like the love I feel for my kid, takes up all the space. And I have just not found that to be true at all. Like, I have this totalizing love in which I love the smell of his hair and I love the triangle indent of the bottom of his pinky toe and I, and yet at the same time, I have these other loves that are like jockeying to to take up space, and that’s part of what makes me just feel so alive in all of them. I guess I kind of thought it was like different math or like, I 100 percent love my kid, and therefore it’s like, like subtraction then. And therefore, I can only 20 percent love work or, you know, 30 percent want to ever be in nature, for example.

Kate Baer:         Yeah. Well, humans are really bad at math because for so many reasons, like in marriage, you know, I think the same thing happens where you think marriage equals this whole love that will satisfy you and all these different ways. And when really, for me, at least, it’s like marriage satisfies a bunch of things, but it is so far from satisfying all my relationship needs. I mean, my relationship with women are just as important as my marriage. I don’t think I’d be able to be married without them because otherwise I’d be looking at this guy like, why aren’t you listening? Why don’t you care about this? Why don’t you want to know what it was like to take the kids to the pumpkin patch in very explicit detail? You can only do so much, and I think I don’t know, we’re just we’re really bad at figuring out and realizing there are so many parts to a whole person.

Kate Bowler:         Right! And so much of that weight falls on women and caregivers, and especially in the pandemic, it has lent itself to like a stripping down of people’s lives down to these terrible, you know, bare essentials, and I was so thrilled and confused that you’re in the best way that your work then came out of this time of like stripping down where your first book is born in the middle of the pandemic, but then it becomes this shared language, this clarion call for people who are also looking for permission to find their anger and sadness and unfulfilledness and also love. So it made me really want to ask, like, let’s let’s talk about your love for Panera Bread. Let’s, let’s, let’s dig in there for a moment.

Kate Baer:         Let’s talk about Panera. I love talking about Panera. It is the funniest thing I talk about because to be honest, I can’t even swallow a bite of Panera Food. I can’t even, I like plug my nose when I’m in there now I pack a peanut butter jelly and eat it because I can’t. I could never eat another bite of it, but I’m so grateful it exists. We moved six months ago, but the 10 years before that, I never I didn’t have an office and I lived in a 12,000 square foot house with six people. You know, as the kids, I kept having children and I had nowhere to write, I had nowhere to write. And when I started to work and make that time for myself, I needed somewhere to go. And Panera was one minute away, had free Wi-Fi. Never kicked me out. Lots of caffeine. And that’s where I wrote my book, and I am so thankful I was able to do that. It’s like I could write a love letter. Thank you so much Panera bread. I’m so grateful for you to give me this office.

Kate Bowler:         The pressure to be an idealized Instagram social media self its own modern affliction.

Kate Baer:         We can have a whole episode of Kate and Kate on this topic,.

Kate Bowler:         I think we should.

Kate Baer:         We could talk to each other holding up a square, like we could put our face in it. That’s, I think, what we would do in that episode.

Kate Bowler:         That’s exactly right, yes.

Kate Baer:         Put a filter over top. And then it would make our face look really great and then we would take it off. That would be really powerful at the end.

Kate Bowler:         Spectacular skin, just naturally enhanced eyelashes.

Kate Baer:         I think we should do that, that sounds great.

Kate Bowler:         Your gentle suggestion that we should accept a higher tolerance for imperfection is very, very countercultural, my friend. So I’ve written a lot about the the history of women in a spiritual marketplace and the the temptation always is. And I find this so interesting in religious history where things ought to have its own sort of inherent purity to it, but instead like everybody else, it takes a thing meant for honesty like, say, the 2000s and blogging, and then it suddenly sort of like moves it a quarter turn where it then becomes a kind of, you know, perfection porn like, watch this woman multitask and conquer all things like it idealizes or like shellacs something that was meant to show you more detail. You know, you and I both really want to say honest things on social media, but it is it is not a medium inherently designed for that impulse, is it?

Kate Baer:         Yeah. No, it’s not. Like we see this Instagram version of people and then feel like, Oh, if I lived like that, I’d feel a lot better. If my house was this organized, and this beautiful, and my kids were dressed in linen all the time, I think maybe I would feel fulfilled, just like she seems to be fulfilled when really, obviously none of that’s true. And even the most self-aware people, it’s just so hard to detach from that and to pull all those bits apart, I think, for sure. It’s not like I’m over here, like, well, I don’t do that anymore, so I don’t feel that way. That’s not true. It all happened to me all the time. And I think the first action step there is: why are you feeling this way? It has nothing to do with her, there’s nothing to do with the people who are posting it. That’s their own choice, and just twisting it.

Kate Bowler:         We just sort of fall into a tar pit of self-loathing, though.

Kate Baer:         Oh yeah. Yeah, and especially writers or any artist. You know, you see success of others on Instagram or whatever social media, but what you’re not seeing is all the rejections they had first. And it’s so difficult to consume that without forgetting the fact that they had to go through so much before they got on that bestseller list. Well, they got rejected 15 times, 20 times, 10 years of rejections, 10 years of getting it wrong and not finding their voice and not figuring it out. And that’s what we’re missing. That’s what we’re missing online.

Kate Bowler:         Yeah, right, yeah. Yes. All the things not said, all of things not posted, all the things not like eclipsed by the ring light. Yeah.

Kate Bowler:         I don’t know nearly enough about art history. Remember those like in late, in late antiquity, they started perfecting high relief sculpture, right, like the ones that really stand out against the buildings and then all the things in the shadows. Just reminded me of your, when I read your erasure poetry like things, poems that are born out of what is said and unsaid in letters and messages you’ve received. The email you received for a product that combats facial sagging, which is just a truly horrifying term. And just as an example, in response, you create this erasure poem from the original email that reads “How the dead must cringe at our resistance to look as if we’ve lived.” I just I love the emphasis on learning to love our actual bodies, learning to live in the life we have with more dignity than all of the, than the, than the sheer force of capitalism often allows.

Kate Baer:         Yeah, there’s so much that we consume on a regular basis, but we don’t even realize that we’re not enough and that if we change something in our life, we will feel much better about it. I think you call it being your meat suit. If we just do this one thing our meat suit will look a lot better and then we’ll feel better. And then we’ll live this more fulfilled life which we all know isn’t true. And yet we still feel like, OK maybe if I put this cream on.

Kate Bowler:         We normally get, like, really lovely and thoughtful reviews for the podcast because we, you know, we talk about the fragility and finitude in the fact that we’re not always living our best life now, which I think we’re just talking about, like I don’t know, reality or something. Recently, one reviewer just wrote, What a downer and then just had like a like a sad, sad downward thumb. And it just brought me, I was like, You know what? Thank you. Thank you for this honor of just making me realize I have said something socially unacceptable, which I guess at this point should probably feel like maybe I’m headed in the right direction.

Kate Baer:         You should put that on a T-shirt. That’s pretty funny.

Kate Bowler:         What a downer. Thumbs down. 

Kate Baer:         Yeah, I mean, that’s life.

Kate Bowler:         Oh yeah, I guess that’s not the reality you were, you were hoping for.

Kate Baer:         Walk on by Buddy.

Kate Bowler:         Yeah, yeah, because it really does violate the construction of the of the artificial life. Yeah, that reminds me of actually of the gosh what was it called it was a beautiful, it’s something about Halloween?

Kate Baer:         Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’m writing a book, book three right now, and one of them is one of the pieces called Adult Halloween so I posted that the other day.

Kate Bowler:         Oh, would you mind reading that? I loved it.

Kate Baer:         This is called Adult Halloween. To live a life so carefully that you never wake to failure, never break your own heart, never see a wall that wasn’t painted white, never stand up to an unforgiving mirror, never step out on the wet grass with your unrelenting courage. The greatest horror is surely this.

Kate Bowler:         I told you, it’s so lovely, so lovely. Because it does take such courage to live like this, to live out in the open, to risk our own imperfection. And Kate, you give us so much permission to do just that. Thank you for the liberation I experience when I see your beautiful truth.

Kate Baer:         Thank you for reading it. I think it’s to myself just as much as for anyone else.

Kate Bowler:         Or it could be for our upcoming sitcom, Kate and Kate.

Kate Baer:          Kate and Kate, Thursdays on NBC.

Kate Bowler:         Kate, thanks so much for doing this with me. What a joy.

Kate Baer:         It was a joy. Thank you so much for having me.

Kate Bowler:         May we all get used to that sound of being honest, the way Kate’s poetry calls us to. So here’s a blessing for telling the truth, no matter how bitter or how sweet. Blessed are you, resisting the urge to reframe. You who are sick and tired of silver linings. Blessed are you, speaking honestly about what is right in front of you. This is hard. Things might not get better. This has gone really horribly. There may not be a different way. You who risk honesty, especially when the world around us craves a bright side. Blessed are we in our gratitude and our pain, our pleasures and our limitations. Blessed are we, the truth tellers whose candor finds a chorus that echoes back: same. May we feel ourselves answered by this language of love, changed where we can and confirmed where we can’t. But loved, loved, loved all the same.

Kate Bowler:         Don’t miss an episode, be sure to subscribe to Everything Happens wherever you listen to podcasts. Oh, and leave a review while you’re there. I would love to hear from you. We always read those reviews and love, love, love hearing your stories. They are really special to us. So come find me online at KateCBowler or at KateBowler.com. And if you want. Join us for Lent. Beginning on Wednesday, March 2nd, we’re inviting you to read along with us as we have a Good Enough Lent. Learn more and download a free discussion guide at KateBowler.com/Lent. That’s KateBowler.com/lent. Here’s the part where I get to thank everyone who makes our work at the Everything Happens initiative possible. Lilly Endowment. The Duke Endowment. Duke University. Duke Divinity School. And Faith in Leadership an online learning resource. Thank you so much for your generous support and my team. Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman, Gwen Hegginbotham, Keith Weston, JJ Dickinson, Karen and Gerry Bowler, my parents, and Jeb and Sami. Your gifts make this work shine. And I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens.

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3 thoughts on “Kate Baer: Tolerating Imperfection

  1. I just listened to the two Kate’s in my car and loved you both. How refreshing to listen to your love of our wild and imperfect life and embracing the honesty of highs and lows complete with anal fissures and Amish romance novels. Thank you for being you and sharing your wonderful sense of humor and strength. Please keep on truckin’ with your blessings of hope and acceptance. 🧡🖤🧡

  2. As I listened to this conversation between Kate and Kate(Thursdays on NBC!) the scaffolding beneath my truth of being a grown-up was strengthened. I was born in 1944, in the South, so grew up learning that I should be nice. I should be lady-like. In our family that meant there were no safe places not to be ‘nice’ or ‘lady-like’, so speaking my truth as a child and a teen and even as a young adult with children often meant being wrong and nearly always being confused. While I wish I could have had your self-awareness when I was your age, I am now loving being what is true for me. Being such a grown up hasn’t brought me the perfect relationship I once expected, but it has perfected the love and respect I have for me.

  3. Thank you!!! I am commenting on your references to Mennonite background. I would like to know more, but that is for a different platform. I am an “ethnic” Mennonite and I had to rewind to hear your use of that term in your podcast. I agree that the issue of conformity has been an issue in my own life. However the references will blow past listeners who do not know the context and I fear they will stereotype, etc. which gives me a cringe feeling. I won’t elaborate more, but you probably know the feeling.

    Keep up the spirit and contributions. Much appreciated.

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