Present over Perfect Bookclub: what’s on top?

Present over Perfect bookclub

I have discovered a wonderful technique for dealing with the overwhelm of daily life. And that is asking the question ‘What’s on top?’

What is the first thing that comes to mind that is annoying you, or you just can’t shake that you need to do?

When I do that thing, and then the next thing on top, and the next eventually I get to a place of peace. I get an amazing sense of relief when those things that have been niggling at my brain have been taken care of.

Somedays it is something as mundane as sorting the washing. Other days it might be relationship repair, like writing a letter of apology to my daughter. On another it may be calling a friend or writing that blog post that is due.

But when it comes to conversations with those closest to me, often I gloss over what’s on top. Instead in response to ‘How was your day?’ I reply with my stock of common phrases: ‘It was ok; good; or the kids did this that and the other thing’.

Mr and I are making a practice in our family of asking, ‘What’s on top?’ Sometimes rephrased as, ‘What is one thing I could pray for, for you today?’

Because isn’t it true that when we come to prayer we also have a stock of common phrases, rote words that we trot out daily.

In Present over Perfect, Shauna Niequist (an avid foodie) likens prayer to a bottle of salad dressing.

Salad dressing is one of the easiest things to make. The standard mix in our house is good olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a dash of seeded mustard. Shake it together and you’re good to go.

But as you let it sit in the cupboard it separates. The vinegar sits on top and the oil at the bottom. Shauna says:

… when you begin to pray, pour out the vinegar first – the acid, whatever’s troubling you, whatever hurt you, whatever is harsh and jangling your nerves or spirit. Your pour that out first … Then what you find underneath is the oil, glistening and thick: We’re going to be fine. God is real and good and present and working.

The thing is, what is on top often isn’t pretty. It is often the morning argument with your husband that has been niggling at you all day. Or the worries you have about the study you are undertaking. Or that annoying situation at work that just can’t seem to get resolved.

I often fall into the trap of wanting these interactions with my closest family to be lovely. To not be grumbling or complaining in these precious conversation times.

So in these conversations or prayers, I have a tendency to gloss over the hard and choose something prettier to share. And like Shauna I ignore the hurt and the fear and ‘pray dutiful, happy prayers’.

But that’s not real. That’s not allowing myself to be seen, that doesn’t create deeper relationships.

This is why I love the Psalms so much,  they often start from a place of pain, a place of questions, a place of despair.

They start with what’s on top, whether it is pretty or not.

How long Lord?

Why Lord do you stand far off?

These Psalms pour out the vinegar first, the psalmist pours out to God what is on top. And as the vinegar gets poured out then the oil is revealed. The affirmation that God is real and good and present and working.

But I trust in your unfailing love

You hear O Lord the desire of the afflicted, you encourage them and you listen to their cry.

Like us the psalmist is sometimes in a mess of his own making. Sometimes he is in a mess of someone else’s making and sometimes he is totally bewildered as to how his circumstances came to pass. But he is honest and vulnerable, he shares what’s on top, he pours out the vinegar and makes way for the oil.

So our discussion question for today is what’s on top? It may not be pretty, it may be mundane, but pouring out that first helps us get to the oil underneath. Comment below and let’s start the discussion.

As Shauna says:

You have to pour out the acid before you can get to the richness, and you can’t get there unless you’re willing to truly be seen, vinegar and all.

Join us in this Present over Perfect journey,



17 thoughts on “Present over Perfect Bookclub: what’s on top?

  1. Oh gosh I love that question. What’s on top. I was only thinking today I want to find a better way to start conversations with my husband that aren’t always focused on our kids.

    What’s on top.

    Brilliant thought Jodie thanks heaps.

    What’s on top for me right now;

    The thought of whether I really can get everything done this year that I want to. That overwhelmed beginning of school feels. Chasing. Slow. Unpacking and pouring the vinegar off the top.

    1. Chasing Slow. My copy of that book just arrived today. I am looking forward to opening it with a cup of tea xx

  2. Great thoughts, Jodie and so honest. Getting to what’s really important means we cut to the chase and don’t waste energy. Get rid of the vinegar and soak in the oil. A great way to live. xx

    1. It’s not easy is it Elaine. But I’ve decided that living present over perfect means we have to actually look at the vinegar. That is what allows us to get to the oil. xx

  3. I’m a little surprised at how much I have been waiting for this next post to come. Monday is the start of the week for most of you, but where I am right now the week begins on Sunday, so I’ve been working hard for 2 whole days and looking forward to this.

    I’ve not read the entire book yet but so far this part, Part 2; Tunnels, is one of the parts that resonates most with me right now. When I read, “I’ve always had what I call a crazy brain – a mind that runs and spins, that remembers obscure details and whirs in the middle of the night. My mind is quick and clicking, which…explains why Q & A is my favorite part of every event but also runs ahead of me quite often, catastrophizing, over-analyzing, spinning out…”, I thought…Oh, yeah…maybe this book does have something for me. When I read further the words, “a thread of inner violence inside me” I knew I needed to read more and think more because this resonated strongly with an unexplained, unvoiced, creeping feeling I had inside toward myself which I was not really able to fully acknowledge let alone articulate.

    The thing about your question Jodie, “What’s on top?” is that for the vinegar to settle on the top of the oil, the bottle needs to be still for a while. I often feel, to take on the salad dressing analogy, that I am constantly shaking…so far, I apparently continue to produce the goods, well blended salad dressing, or in my case I meet my deadlines, I deliver what I need to very well, nothing falls apart. However when I try and answer the question honestly, “What’s on top?” so many things spin through my head that it is honestly quite difficult to say.

    I think I write to much! But I am taking this book club idea quite seriously.

    1. I love that you are taking this book club really seriously. I think Amanda and Elaine won’t mind when I say each time we have done this, the book we study has profoundly changed us.

      I like the way you have extended that salad dressing image, and I agree that it probably needs to sit and settle first for you to be able to discern what’s on top.

      Which in a sense brings us back to Elaine’s initial question at the start of the book club:
      What will it take for you to cross over to another way of living?

      Maybe it is sitting still and allowing the dressing to separate enough to figure out what’s on top?

  4. I’m reading a daily devotional by Timothy Keller it’s from the Psalms n is very encouraging

  5. Argh that question! I find that I am able to tell God but not people, not even those with whom I am closest to. I am an internaliser so I like to process things completely and ‘solve it’ before I tell anyone anything. That’s with the vinegar and the oil…I’ll pour out what’s on top and underneath with God and I’ll talk, vent and complain but I’m not always good at inviting God to help me with any of it as such.
    What I really need to get good at is sharing these things with those closest to me, especially my husband and closest friend, allowing them to support me. This is literally what I am working on in my life right now!

    1. So great Keryn, and if you are anything like me you will get frustrated that it is not happening as quickly as you want. Give yourself grace and space, you are crafting a new way of living and that takes time.

  6. I am so glad I’ve joined in this book-club, the posts written have been honest and incredible thought provoking. Thank you Jodie, Elaine and Amanda for asking the questions you have. I don’t know any of you personally, yet in a way I feel connected to you as we share in this yearning with Shauna “for a simpler, more soulful way of living”. I am feeling a mix of emotions at how every page of what I’ve read in this book has been resonating so loudly with what has been going on within me. Forgive me, but I was too curious and read further than I was suppose to. Her words paints such a picture, most my senses experience and emotions relate to her story. Yes, I’ve been feeling “stuffed” and have been “running laps” for years and finally came to a crashing halt in 2016. I am not certain, but I think I am now standing still or perhaps stepping around on the spot waiting to find my direction, almost like one waiting for the needle to point towards true north on a compass. Although it has been a painful process, it has been one of decision and an amazing time of reconnected with our Father God. I cried for help and rescued me, He has been whispering His loving discipline and I am doing my best to co-operate in obedience. I too was made aware of how I needed to “dethrone idols” and how I was the one that was “putting up more chairs” and getting myself all burnt out. At the moment I am also learning to say “the word that changes everything” and am a little less afraid of “disappointing people”. Yes, this book is already profoundly changing me too.
    Elaine asked what will it take from you to cross over to another way of living? My answer; desperation and fear. I felt broken and confused and I realised I have somewhere gone off track and got lost. But I called out to Jesus, He is indeed the Answer. Drawing close to the Father and spending time in His presence and in His Word has made all the difference!
    Amanda asked “Do you struggle with whether you are good enough?” and my answer would be I have never felt good enough. BUT I am focussing on my identity in Christ and believing that God will make it real for me?
    You asked what is on top?, which I think is a great place to start and I know that is relationship for me in every sense. Truly reconnecting with God, myself and my loved ones.
    Thank you so much for starting this online book-club ladies, maybe it was meant just for me:)
    Love, Anja

    1. Oh Anja thank you so much for joining us it is wonderful to hear your thoughts. Don’t worry about skipping ahead. On the first read I read this book in one day!

    2. Thank you for sharing, Anja. God is indeed our refuge and rest.

      Finding the way ahead is different for each one of us. Oil is such an important, sacred element in our faith. Annointing our souls with the oil of grave, connection and honesty will bring peace.

      Give yourself time. 🙏❤️

  7. Am I the only one who keeps getting hung up on the fact that when oil and vinegar separate, the oil is the one that sits on top?
    I love this book! But I couldn’t absorb everything I wanted to in this chapter because I kept on thinking how it’s actually the oil that is on top! …nevertheless, it doesn’t make the point any less powerful in what she was getting at. …dont know if this is the place to throw it out there, but I just had to wonder if I’m the only one getting caught up on that! 😂😂

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