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Three writing exercises using the phrase "But that was enough."

Updated on July 18, 2016

The phrase "But that was enough" appeals to me for numerous reasons: It can be approached in a hopeful or cynical way; it speaks of sufficiency, an idea which fascinates me because, among other things, it tends to be a relative phenomenon; it's a deceptively simple phrase which is relatively easy to include in pieces.

Unsurprisingly, I've decided to do three writing exercises using this phrase. As always, I established parameters before I began. For the fictional piece, I had to use the phrase at least once. I also couldn't use it more than five times. In the first poem I wanted to include this phrase in every other line, whereas in the second poem I wanted to start and end the poem with this phrase.


Here's the untitled fictional piece:

Death, with a nearness she couldn’t stomach, awaited Patricia Collins. Two days earlier, after meeting with Dr. Erickson—who, by the way, always smelled as if he’d arrived at the office after frying two pounds of bacon—she wondered how to best put her affairs in order. He suggested she do so, although in a kindly, “This is what most people with Stage 4 Colon cancer do” manner. His kindness, much like the off-putting smell of bacon affixed to his hair, clothes, and skin, seemed infinite.

I’m only sixty, she thought. How has it come to this? Forever a nervous creature, she started to list the areas of life when she had failed: career, parenthood, marriage, faith, and beyond. If she allowed herself the luxury of scrutiny, she could recall times when she had neglected to listen to her ex-husband or taken the time to read books to Theo and Jessica, her two children.


There was, miraculously, another way to see things: with the eyes of sufficiency. Has she behaved perfectly? Of course not. However, when push came to shove, maybe she hadn’t done so poorly. It may even benefit herself and those who, as she once heard a pastor say, are burdened with the task of loving her, if she could repeat the phrase “But that was enough” during her remaining days. Maybe, just maybe, she hadn’t been such a walking disaster. Sitting alone in her living room on a well-worn dark red love seat, she willed herself to remember uplifting instances: Laughing as Theo danced blissfully to her old James Taylor records; taking both children for road trips to see their grandparents in Michigan; quieting herself, when her mother was dying of cancer, so she could pray with a clear mind; and, finally, the golden early days with Patrick, her now ex-husband, a man who was ultimately more complicated and broken and big-hearted than she could have ever guessed.

A classic James Taylor song

What a life it’s been, she mused as a single tear slithered down her tanned, freckled face. While not fully at peace with God or ready to bid her human life goodbye, she felt satisfied knowing that, when it had been most necessary, she’d lived wholeheartedly. No matter the steep accumulation of her errors—of course, who lives so perfectly they can honestly claim to be without such a pile of regretful behavior?—she had experienced moments of victory.

Unwilling to linger with these thoughts, she walked over to her desk. On it, among other things, was a page on which she’d written these words: “What I must get in order before I am no longer among the living.” Sitting down with a pen in hand, she paused before writing, “Tell Theo and Jessica how much I love them.” Naturally she also had to write a will and call her family and do more practical tasks; however, for the moment she wanted to remember those precious children—now fully-formed adults with their own complicated lives—who had endlessly enhance her existence. No matter how much, because there simply wasn’t time, she’d be forced leave unsaid between herself and them, she wanted them to know this much. These words, which they had heard before time and time again, may be enough to bolster them in the difficult days ahead.


Here's the first poem:

Awash With Excuses

The vastness of Della’s laziness was legendary. But

that was enough, she would claim when her teachers

complained about a poorly completed assignment. She

felt no guilt for her mediocrity. When boyfriends

claimed she wasn’t supportive, she’s mutter, “But

that was enough for the last man who supposedly

loved me.” Soon these disillusioned men would leave her,

and, with her charm and beauty, she’d soon find another.

Once she grew bored with this relationship—boredom,

along with sloth, were her two key failings—she would

think, “But that was enough” and let them slip away. It

was too easy to live this way. With no awareness of

excellence or perseverance, she could eternally shrug and

say—whether to herself or others, “But that was enough.”

Laziness and apathy coexist more often than not...


Here's the second poem:

Approximate Contentment

But that was enough. This is what Sheila told herself

over and over again. What has come of her life—

the mistakes, the confusion, the glorious successes

and the melancholy of failure—wasn’t nearly

the train wreck she once believed. Instead she could

view it through the liberating lens of sufficiency. All

previous lack, especially regarding what she had

never become or attained, melted away. Instead

of berating herself, she could once

again offer herself this deceptively simple

and wonderful truth: But that was enough.

A charming video about learning to be content


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