Boudoir Bravery

Boudoir Bravery

I set the last box in the trunk, shove it down, rearrange the tangle of Christmas lights and the bag of cardigan sweaters so the door will latch, and slam it shut.

“Well that might be overkill,” I mutter to myself as I look through the window to the overflowing trunk. “I probably didn’t need to take the whole house with me.”

Brushing a stray hair out of my face, I open the door and slide into the driver’s seat, feeling anxious to get going. As I reach to adjust my mirror, I notice the firefighter’s hat is blocking a good portion of my view out the back window. With a sigh I steal a quick glance at the dashboard clock and decide it will have to do.

“I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” I mumble to myself as I start the car. “It’s my blog’s fault, all this be brave not perfect nonsense. People can talk me into anything now.”

I hit play on a podcast, pull onto the street, and settle in for my hour drive.

My wedding is two weeks away and I’m marrying a groom who is notoriously hard to buy for. I had been wracking my brain for weeks for the perfect wedding gift idea to no avail. Out of ideas and nearly out of time, my friend Chris, talked me into a boudoir photo shoot — a hobby of hers and an idea so completely out of character for me I still can’t believe I’m actually going through with it. My car is packed to the roof with gizmos, gadgets, props, and outfits, anything I could find to hold in front of my jiggly parts.

“I should have done this in my 20’s, or my 30’s,” I think to myself. “Now I’m wrinkly, freckly, and a tad droopy in places. And that’s not even taking into consideration my ten divorce pounds.”

The road stretches before me and I try to distract myself with an inspiring podcast, hoping its wise words will calm my anxious nerves. Instead, I find my mind wandering to memories and messaging from my life that make today’s adventure so challenging. A whispered judgment in a locker room here, a demanding and glossy headline there. A touch of church propriety sprinkled on top. So much cultural messaging that shaped me into a woman who feels if my body doesn’t measure up to a perfect standard, it’s not sexy, not worth showing. And even if it is, perhaps I better run the idea by someone more pious. The thoughts swirl around, one after another, making my head spin. I try to catch them, address them, ignore them, admonish them, anything to quiet them. But these negative thoughts about my appearance are some of the most resistant. They’ve been with me the longest and are the thoughts reinforced every single day by news articles, tv shows, magazine covers, social media posts, and the world as a whole.

They form the core of my perfectionism.

As such, they are the messages I’m trying hardest to shake on this journey. The messages that keep me bound, afraid, and sitting on life’s sidelines instead of diving in, living life to the fullest, and forging my own brave path forward. So I set my jaw and drive, determined to address them today in a real way, hoping that by doing so, I take one big step towards altering my life’s course and freeing me from their tight and relentless grip.  

Eventually I arrive, pull up in front of her studio, and turn off the car. Catching my eye in the mirror as I check my hair and makeup I murmur, “You’ve got this. Tap into your inner sex kitten.” I laugh at my joke, knowing if there is such a thing inside me, it’s buried under a lot of baggage. My cheesy humor seems to calm my nerves.

The sound of my car door opening startles an antelope grazing nearby. His head snaps up as he assesses me, but he seems unconcerned with my presence and unimpressed by my hair and makeup, returning quickly to his grassy breakfast.

“Clearly he has no idea what’s about to happen,” I mutter.  

Having heard me pull up, Chris and her daughter, Meriah, emerge from the studio calling happy greetings. They’re excited about the project and anxious to help me unload and get started.

Chris and I have been exchanging ideas and images for a week in preparation, deciding what looks we’re going for, what props we need to pull them off. Their excitement should be contagious but so far my stomach remains a stubborn ball of nerves.

“Woah,” my awe escapes me as I cross the threshold and look around. “I wasn’t expecting this,” I say to my friend, leaning to set my armload down on a nearby chair.

The building is comfortable, welcoming. The initial sitting area colorful and warm, the dressing room fanciful and filled with props, jewelry, robes, and furry blankets. I run my fingers over those closest to me, taking in their textures and beauty. Through a nearby door, the studio itself is bright and inviting. My heart rate begins to slow as I take it all in.

Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

Returning to the sitting area where my pile of stuff cascades across every surface, we begin to lay it out systematically, working through each look. We discuss a tentative order for the day, returning to the sample photos we’ve been exchanging as we strategize, matching poses with outfits. Eventually we are ready. Having stalled as long as I possibly can, I pick up the first outfit and excuse myself to change.

As I pull on each piece of the first look I whisper words of encouragement.

A stocking. “I can do this.”

The other stocking. “I am beautiful.”

Underwear. “I am perfectly imperfect.”

Bra. “I trust Chris to highlight the good, camouflage the bad.”

Garter. “My Kris loves me. He loves this body just as it is.”

Second garter. “It’s a good body, a healthy body.”

Earrings. “It has served me well for 43 years.”

Necklace. “I CAN do this. I need to do this.”

Stealing one last glance in the mirror I turn and open the door.

“Oh you look so good!” Meriah exclaims immediately as I step hesitantly back into the foyer. “Let me help you with the last hooks.” She moves to my side, no longer a stranger as she works to secure the clasps and hooks in intimate places I can’t reach.

“Champagne?” Chris asks, stepping towards me. “I find a sip or two makes the beginning a touch easier. But you’ll see, it will be great. We aren’t here to judge but to help you make something great. You’re beautiful and I’m going to capture that for both of you.”

I accept the glass from her outstretched hand and take a sip. The bubbles feel light and airy as they slip down my throat. I take another sip, smile at my friend. Thankful it’s her and not someone else with me in this moment.

There’s something raw, vulnerable, and intimate about posing in lingerie. And I’ve expertly dodged intimacy, rawness, and vulnerability for years; content to stay safely ensconced in logic, strategy, and my thoughts where I’m protected from failure and the judgement of others. Doing so has allowed me to appear perfect on the sideline much of my adult life. But I’m tired of the sideline, of watching others live life instead of living it myself. It’s why I’m on this journey, yet taking the first step remains challenging. Having a friend take it with me helps.

I swallow the last sip as Meriah slips the last hook in place and declares me ready. Chris reaches for her camera on the nearby counter and adjusts the lights in the studio space.  

“Be brave not perfect right?” she asks me.

I take a deep breath, look her in the eye, nod my ascent. “Be brave not perfect,” I reply, as I set my empty glass down firmly on the counter and step into the studio.

To see more of my friend’s work or to reach her for your own session, visit: https://m.facebook.com/ChrisGentryPhotography/

Joy Comes With the Morning

Joy Comes With the Morning

The sun begins its slow ascent above the horizon. Just the barest whisper of light. A rooster next door crows.

“Uggggghhh. It’s too early. It’s so dark, how does he even know it’s morning?” I think as I roll over, adjusting my pillow in a feeble attempt to block the noise.

Unsuccessful and awake, I lay in bed, wondering why God wired roosters to crow at such an ungodly hour. At times he sounds like a sick dog. Or maybe, I realize, this is just what a sick rooster sounds like.

I crack an eye open. The room is pitch black with the exception of the faintest of glows from the skylight in the adjoining bathroom. I could almost make it to the toilet without a flashlight. But it feels far away this early in the morning. I close my eye again, focus on the sounds around me. I can no longer hear the squeak of bats from the earlier hours. I imagine they’ve tucked in for the day, though how they can sleep through the rooster’s incessant howling is beyond me.

I hear the quiet breath of my fiancé sleeping beside me. Later today he will become my husband. I can hardly believe it. Most days it feels like an impossible dream. Listening to his steady breathing, my mind drifts, tracing the road I traveled to get to this day. The rooster provides an odd soundtrack, cock-a-doodle-doo-ing exclamation marks and commentary as my mind winds its way through the twists, turns, peaks, and valleys of the last six years. Memory upon memory. Some good, many challenging, and a select few I’ve shoved into hidden places deep inside.

I let them come now and find that the most painful don’t sting as they once did. Instead, I feel as though I’m wandering through an art gallery of my life, stopping at each memory captured in time, experiencing the lingering feeling attached to it, marveling that the feelings have both dimmed and remained vivid.

I play back the nights I sobbed on the floor in the midst of my separation, curled around my faithful dog, certain I would never feel worthy of love again. The recollection is so real I reach my hand to my cheek, surprised to find it smooth instead of imprinted with tears and the pattern of my carpet.

I replay the day my finalized divorce decree blindsided me in the mail, picturing the envelope sliding to the kitchen floor while I stand staring at the judge’s seal wondering if I am supposed to nestle this document next to my marriage license in a safe place or shove it into the darkest cupboard and slam the door.

I relive the time I was here in Mexico with another man; remembering how I picked up the tab for a week of lousy treatment, lies, and sleepless nights. I recall how I added to my own misery by endlessly berating myself for being so stupid, chasing each negative thought with a drink to numb the pain.

I remember them all, dragging each hidden moment into the pale light of dawn, a gentle time of day when they are easiest to bare.

While not the first time I’ve relived them, it is the first time I’m able to move past the negative thoughts that accompany them and clearly see each memory’s influence on who I am today.

As a neighborhood dog begins barking with the rooster, I realize the nights on the floor wrestling with my self-worth brought clarity that it didn’t matter what others thought of me, only what I believed about myself. And I was worth something better.

And while shocking in its stealthy arrival, my divorce decree closed a door firmly behind me, one I had stubbornly kept cracked. A door that had to close so I could look forward rather than back. And once I did, I took the first tender step towards this new life.

That miserable week in Mexico became my painful rock bottom, a jarring turning point. Without its brutal lesson, I would have chosen similar men for years, hanging on to the illusion I could love the broken to wholeness. After all, that’s what every Disney movie had promised me. Instead, fed up and angry, I looked for something new and was now lying next to my own Prince Charming.

As individual challenging moments rearrange themselves, my journey down memory lane turns peaceful. A beautiful mosaic emerges. A portrait of a new me. A stronger me. A better me.  IMG_0477

A version of me who exists not in spite of but because of those painful moments.

A door slams suddenly on the street outside, breaking my reverie. My man stirs beside me. I’m aware of more sounds on the street. A truck rumbling by, the scrape of a gate opening. Two women call to one another, the neighboring property so close I swear they are in our room. The first ray of direct sun finally cracks through the curtain, beaming across the tile floor, tracing a path across the bed.

My fiancé’s eyes open. He sees me looking at him. Smiles. Reaches for me as he often does. Squeezes my hand.

“You ready for today?” he asks.

“Absolutely,” I answer.

“Me too,” he responds.

I stare at him, tracing my hand down his cheek. Catching my reflective mood, he whispers, “I love you, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” I answer, “I finally do too.”

Curse of the Gold Star

Curse of the Gold Star

The room is hot, unbearably hot. The lights dim as I sink into pigeon pose. A bead of sweat traces a path towards my eye as I lower my head to my mat. Wiping it away I focus on my breath, silencing my overactive mind. I hear the instructor’s voice as he circles the room, zeroing in on a student to guide into the pose. He is moving my way.

“Pick me, pick me,” a thought budges in. He takes a step closer. “Pick me, pick me,” it whispers again. I take a deep breath, refocus. He steps behind me. “Yes! We got picked! We win!” a chorus of voices in my head sing as they do a collective happy dance. I shake them off, trying to focus on the instructor’s hands on my back, guiding me lower into the stretch, readjusting my pose for maximum benefit. I breathe deeply, exhale fully.

Walking to the car after class, my fiancé Kris mumbles, “I never get picked. You always get picked.” A fleeting moment of smug triumph flashes through my mind before I catch it, an automatic response leftover from my childhood, just like the voices desperate to be picked. Neither are welcome, these roots of my perfectionism, for they remind me how far I still have to go to be free of them.

As we begin our drive home, watching the sun rise on the horizon, I let my mind drift back to my earliest memory, one that set me on my perfectionist path.

I’m sitting at a table surrounded by other students in a cozy room. The walls around me are dark wood and shelves of books line the perimeter, leading to an elevated reading area in one corner. A small sink sits near the work area, ready for little hands to use. Outside an open window I can hear Candy Mae, the farm school cow, munching her breakfast. I adore her.

We sit shoulder to shoulder, weaving paper placemats. I’ve chosen my paper strips and colors carefully, using only the best pieces with the flattest edges. I work slower than my peers, wanting to get it right. My brow furrows as I concentrate, lining up the pieces carefully, weaving the pattern perfectly. One by one those around me complete the task and run off to enjoy free time. I labor on, pushing the pieces together tightly, careful not to rip the paper. Over and under, over and under. No spilled milk is getting through my placemat.

IMG_2654Occasionally a teacher walks by to check on me, murmurs a few encouraging words and moves on to mitigate a crisis brewing in another part of the room.

The last one at the table, I weave the final strip into place, pulling it tight against its neighbor. I pause. Take one last look. Wiggle a piece into a straighter line. Give my head a small nod. It is my best work to date. I sit quietly proud of myself, waiting for a teacher to excuse me. She comes over, takes a look at my work, reaches over my shoulder and adds something to the right hand corner of my placemat. As she pulls her hand away, it glistens, reflecting the lights overhead, shining up at me.

My first gold star.

IMG_2652It mesmerizes me with its beauty, instantly turning my placemat into a treasured piece of art. My pride in my work soars to a new level. An addicting level. I sit a little straighter. Smile. I take my placemat gently to my cubby, place it carefully next to my things. The star twinkles up at me.

I want another one.

Back in the car, I rest my head on the side window, letting the passing neighborhoods blur into stripes of color. I feel sad for that girl, my younger self. That moment started her on an exhausting path, a path chasing gold stars and their equivalents for decades.

Each one became more important than the last because somewhere along the way I stopped seeing them for what they were, validation of my mastery of a subject, and started seeing them as validation for who I was as a person. They became something concrete I could point to as evidence I had worth when inside I was filled with insecurity.

I thought if I just kept earning them, one after another, I would always have value and never have to address my insecurities. Instead, I could point to my pile of gold stars and report cards filled with A’s as proof I was worthy.

But this strategy came with a price.

With each passing perfect year, the pressure to maintain that level of performance grew. Subjects became harder, tension mounted, my efforts tripled as I tried to avoid failure. Eventually perfectionism consumed me, limited me, kept me living in fear with its endless hunger for the next perfect grade.

I began to measure my worth by what I could provide for people and their corresponding validation. It started innocently enough. A perfectly woven placemat. A well written paper. Sharing my toys. A listening ear.

Yet with each passing year, the more I achieved, the higher my standard moved. Suddenly instead of a well written paper, I felt pressure to increase my annual commission, year after year. To lead my real estate team to the top spot in the market. To provide a comfortable home for my spouse. A fancy vacation. To obsessively count every calorie and log every treadmill mile to maintain a thin frame. To offer unlimited forgiveness for the consequences of addiction, no matter the pain it caused me.

Always striving to produce the perfect product, the perfect response, the perfect gift.

And I succeeded. For years. Never failing. Able to juggle and control everything. I went through life piling up gold stars.

In the end, it nearly crushed me. When I finally experienced my first real failure with my divorce, the first time I couldn’t perform my way to a gold star ending, my world fell apart. All the insecurities, dark places, and fears my gold stars had kept at bay for 35 years came flooding to the surface, sending me into a deep depression.

I floundered, convinced what I suspected all these years was true…I had no intrinsic value outside of what I could produce for others. And I didn’t have enough energy to perform.

So I stopped trying altogether.

I went through the motions at work but with little drive or interest. I hid from friends. I drank nightly, using alcohol to numb my overwhelming self-doubt. I paired myself with men who treated me poorly, certain I only deserved the most broken until I could earn my way to someone better.

I lived this way for months, years.

Until I found myself tipsy one night, sitting on the shower floor, crying as water poured over me, knowing the man I was with was outside the door on the phone with another girl and calling her baby, wondering what went wrong.

I had tried so hard. I had been so perfect. I had met every spoken and unspoken expectation of every person in my life. I had woven my life’s placemat well. Yet here I was, a shell of myself, drowning in despair on a cold tile floor.

In that moment, I remembered that sweet little girl smiling at her first gold star.

A gold star she never needed. She was already proud of her work. She knew she had done a good job and liked the end product. She didn’t need the validation that star had provided. She already knew she had value.

And she was still a part of me.

This journey to be brave, not perfect is a journey to find her again. To remember her. To hug her. To love her. To give her grace. To listen to her voice. To tell her she has value. With or without a straight placemat. With or without a ripped corner.

With or without a gold star.

Because in valuing her, I learn to value myself now.

With or without a high paying job.

With or without saving the world.

With or without an extroverted personality.

With or without a size 2 body.

With or without others’ gold stars of approval.

Valuable just because I’m me. A woman who is doing the best she can. One who is sometimes brave, never perfect, but always worthy.

-Sara

Guest Blog – My Own Racism

Editor’s Note: Hannah Kaull is an alumni of Million Girl Army, my non-profit organization that transforms middle school girls into globally compassionate teens. She’s had a lot on her mind lately and I invited her to share. Hannah is dedicated to doing her part to make the world a better place. She is an inspiration and I think you’ll enjoy what she has to say.  – Sara


IMG_0374

Race.

Whenever I even say the word, I feel tension in the room.

Why? Where in society did we go wrong? Why because of skin color do issues suddenly exponentially rise? What makes a person feel like they are superior based solely on the color of their skin?

I don’t know. I don’t have many answers. I wish I did. I wish I could change the way humans view each other. But I can’t. I don’t understand the thought process of my peers, the generations of people below and above me. However, I do know my thought process and my experiences. I can only speak for myself. And this is my story; a story of what I want to change.

I was raised in a predominately white community and being one of the only brown girls brought a set of challenges. As a young girl I wanted nothing to do with my skin color. I felt different, which is the last thing I wanted to feel navigating my way through elementary school as I attempted to make friends. I vividly remember tears streaming down my face as I realized I wasn’t like everyone else. That was just the start.

IMG_9558Through middle school, already an incredibly awkward time, I felt singled out because of my skin color. Sometimes it would be funny to joke about, other times teachers wanted me to tell them more about my “home country,” both challenging when I already felt like I stood out just going through the day. Then, the latter part of middle school when many of my friends starting getting more interested in boys, I worried no one would ever like me because of my darker complexion. And high school, where even as I begin I accept my skin color, embracing my difference, I remain aware I’m usually the darkest person in the room.

These are just little snippets of my life.

I did enjoy the attention. Sometimes. I liked when people seemed to genuinely want to know the backstory of where I came from. The jokes could be funny, I would usually laugh along, a lot of them I even made myself. I don’t think people even meant to be rude, I think their intention was good most of the time. It was just the way it was.

IMG_1607But, equally and if  not more, I didn’t want to feel like the odd one out. I didn’t always like to answer questions about where I was born. Because it was Bozeman, Montana. Not India. Maybe I didn’t like to be asked if my marriage was going to be arranged. Because it isn’t. So while the questions can be humorous, after a while maybe – just once – it would be nice to not feel as if people are staring at me or asking questions because of my skin tone.

The first time I went to New York City I realized there was a deep rooted issue boiling inside me. Around the age of ten as I got off the plane, I made a comment like, “These are my people.” It was the first distinct moment where I didn’t feel looked at because of my skin color. I wasn’t singled out. It was the first moment where I felt I could hold a conversation with another human being –  person to person – without race as the unspoken theme. At the age of ten.

Looking ahead, I see that a lot of my decisions about where and what I want to do are rooted in wanting diversity in my life, to be surrounded by more people of color. But in seeking this I also realized this …

I’m subconsciously racist.

I was talking to my mom about plans for college a few weeks ago and made a statement along the lines of, “I want to get out of a place with so many white people in one area.” And immediately, I realized I showed that same racist attitude I felt I have been shown my whole life. The comment may seem funny to some, rude to others. But it truly comes from a place of hurt.

And that’s a huge take away. As I put the blame on others because I feel insecure about my skin color, I end up doing the same thing to them.

This is a problem. It is a never ending cycle. Look at the news. Look at our political climate. I think we are all racist. You may not mean to be. But from our day-to-day lives and our life experiences we all lean to our tribe. When we start to swing too far to one end of the spectrum either focusing on the minorities or the majority, we encounter issues.

We need to find a middle ground. It is far from equal. I don’t know if it can ever be. I truly don’t think it will be. But I do think as much as we want to put the blame on other people for being racist, it needs to start within ourselves. How?

Change the small day-to-day comments.

Change the way you approach someone.

Change how you have a conversation.

Change the minor details of interactions you have with people.

Make a difference in the way you view race.

We are all human. We need to all be looked at as humans. I don’t care what your race is, your sexual preference,  or your socioeconomic background.

We all deserved to be loved equally.

We are all to blame for not sharing that love equally.

Just love.

Love regardless of anything, treating everyone as you would want to be treated. It’s a message every adult has been telling us over and over our whole lives.

Yet, maybe it’s time to do more than talk about it. Maybe it’s time to actually try it. It may be the only thing that could, over time, bring real change.

-Hannah Kaull, 16

Facing Fear

FullSizeRender 9Outside the window prairie stretches for miles in every direction, wave upon wave of grass blowing in the breeze. In the distance, a large lake rimmed by trees reflects the sunlight, its ripples just barely evident from where I stand. On the horizon, the sun sinks below a cloud, streaming beams of light in every direction. A hawk flies by, its speckled feathers highlighted as it passes through a sunbeam. The beauty of the moment, of the place, takes my breath away. It settles my heartbeat, slowing its rhythm.

I relax my hand; suddenly aware I’ve gripped my papers so tightly they’ve crumpled into a mess of wrinkles. Chatter filters up from downstairs, a blend of female voices as they gather in the kitchen, the soothing cadence of their conversation occasionally broken by peals of laughter.

Outside a car door slams, signaling another participant has arrived. On the driveway below I see her reach into the backseat, pull out a striped bag and a pillow. Juggling both, she locks the car and heads towards the house. Soon after I hear the main door open and a series of greetings as she joins the group.

I look down at my papers, smooth them on my pant leg, read the opening lines printed there. Closing my eyes, I recite them to myself, trying to recall those that come after.

I’ve been invited to speak at a women’s retreat, to share bits of my story, and to talk about the freedom that comes when you build an authentic relationship with yourself and conquer fear. While I was honored to be asked, as the time approaches I realize the task combines two of my greatest fears: public speaking and groups of smart women.

“What have I gotten myself into?” I whisper to myself. “Who am I to speak with any authority about anything? I’m just a woman muddling my way through life, writing bits and pieces here and there to help process my thoughts. I’m certainly not an expert in anything. What if I bumble it? What if they reject what I have to share? What if I forget what I’ve planned to say?”

 My inner critic is alive and well, ready to jump in with her two cents. Ten cents really.

And yet, I find as quickly as the negative thoughts come, I catch them. This journey to be brave, not perfect hasn’t eradicated the thoughts, but it has taught me to catch them faster. That awareness allows me to fight back, minimizing their damage.

“Shhh. You’re not welcome here. My story helps others. My willingness to share it vulnerably is rare. It seems to inspire people, encourage them to do the same, to dig in and live more authentically. Be quiet so I can do what I came here to do.”

 Though they never disappear, the negative voices do fade to the background, something impossible even a few months ago. I return to the memorizing task at hand, picking up where I left off.

Before long I hear footsteps on the stairs as the women climb to where I am, journals in hand, settling into chairs and couches loosely grouped in a semi-circle. With a quick whispered prayer, I move to the front, as ready as I will ever be to share my story and what it’s taught me.

I focus on my breathing as I’m introduced, humbled by the words shared about me. I look around the room at the women assembled, curious what brought them to this place this weekend, what doubts and shames they keep hidden inside. I wonder if what I share will be enough to crack their careful facades and inspire them to welcome what the weekend will bring. I hope so. My pulse quickens as the introduction ends.

“Be brave, not perfect,” I whisper to myself as I stand, face my fear, and begin.

Morning

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 9.30.59 PMMorning sounds different in South Carolina.

Sitting on my grandma’s porch drinking coffee, the new sounds captivate me, pull me into the beauty of the morning.

In the canopy overhead, a symphony of unfamiliar bird calls, each more interesting than the next. There’s a persistent high pitched trill, repeated over and over with such determination and dedication I think it’s owner is desperate to communicate his message. On the opposite end of the scale, a low quacking rumble, coming from somewhere in the lagoon nearby. Understated and quietly riveting.

Hidden among the leaves of a nearby bush, a songbird sings a song resembling a contented whistle. I can’t find its owner but the upbeat nature of the tune makes me smile as I picture a line of dwarves heading off to work.

Occasionally I hear a sound I do know; the caw of a crow as it flies overhead, the happy chirp of the chick-a-dee as it flits from tree to tree.

And underneath it all, a quiet, subdued coo. So faint I almost miss it. Audible only if everyone else is silent. I wonder briefly how that bird will ever find a mate when he’s so hard to hear. Does she have ears only for him?

Each one, unique. Interesting. Unfamiliar.

I tense as I hear movement in the undergrowth that covers the forest floor below me, certain an alligator is about to emerge. The sound grows louder. Closer. I breathe a sigh of relief as a resident squirrel bounds into sight, busily sorting through fallen leaves for breakfast treasures.

As I relax and close my eyes, a power saw whines, joined by the beat of a hammer as construction begins on the house next door, evidence that life goes on after a hurricane. Down the street a leaf blower starts as a landscaper gets to work separating the fallen pine needles from their grassy beds. Manmade machine sounds blend with the natural creating an interesting orchestra that fills the air.

I sit, taking it all in. Separating sounds from one another. Seeing how many I can hear.

Even the wind sounds different as it moves gently through the trees instead of across the open valleys of Montana. It’s more of a whisper, just a hint of its sound back home. And yet it’s still able to create both a fine white noise, and a host of individual sounds. The subtle rattle of leaves, the clitter-clack of a pinecone tumbling through the branches to the bed of leaves below, the tinkle of a wind chime at the neighbor’s house.

It’s been three sips of coffee, but it feels much longer.

Out front in the driveway a car door slams, my signal it’s time to engage with the world.

Reluctantly I open my eyes and take a last sip.

Questions flutter through my mind as I stand, collect my things, move to the door.

Does every place in the world have its own unique set of morning sounds? Would I recognize my set of sounds? How long would I have to live in a place for its morning sounds to become those I associate with home?

It never occurred to me I might be able to identify my home by the sounds of the morning; sounds I didn’t realize were familiar until they were replaced by others.

It makes me wonder how often I actually stop and listen.

How often I stop and notice the world around me.

How often I stop and hear what a place has to share.

How often I stop and marvel at the living things I share the world with.

How often I stop at all.

Blank Canvas

Outside the window, sun filters through the trees, shifting from the bright light of day to the softer light of dusk. A slight breeze filters through the window, blowing a hair that’s slipped free of my ponytail so it tickles my cheek. I glance down at my palette, pausing my paintbrush over the brightest blue.

My instructor’s voice lifts and falls in the background as she moves seamlessly between students, giving an idea here, a bit of encouragement there. Her voice calm and soothing. I reconsider, move my hand to hover over the magenta. Pause. Uncertain.

A song plays quietly, a broken soundtrack to our class as it cuts in and out following the whims of a satellite signal. Right now it’s a light jazz that somehow perfectly fits the mood.

Little BighornI glance again at the landscape photo I’ve chosen for my project, one of my favorite places in the world. I want to get this right, somehow capture how it makes me feel, what it’s like to be there. An ambitious task for my first attempt. I move my paintbrush to the yellow. Hesitate.

A sharp crunch breaks into the quiet as someone nearby bites into a carrot. Chewing, she steps back from her easel, putting her work in perspective. She tilts her head, takes another bite, assesses her work. Her eyes zero in on an area. She sets the carrot down, takes up a paintbrush and delicately steps back to add a swish of color here, a dab there.

Refocusing, I pick up a glob of blue, mix in a touch of green. Then some white. My paintbrush moves smoothly through the paint as the colors swirl together, blending to become a color found only in the biggest box of crayons. For a moment I soak in how it feels, my gaze hypnotized by the kaleidoscope of changing colors. Forward and back. Round and round.

I take a dab of paint, move to my canvas. Digging for a confidence I don’t have as a virgin painter I take a breath. Ready myself.

“I don’t know,” a sharp voice fills the room, a stark contrast to the subtle mood. “I just hate it. I’ve made such a mess of it. Ruined it.” I look up. It’s Diane, star student, mouth turned down, brow furrowed. On the easel in front of her is a painting she’s been working on for weeks. A stunningly accurate representation of the photo taped beside it. She’s captured perfectly the soft yellow shades of trees in fall, the mountains in the distance majestic in their detail. She’s woven empty branches of trees that have already lost their leaves into a tapestry of trees alive with fall’s colors.

A perceived imperfection of a bush in the foreground has caught her attention, invisible to the rest of us. “It just has no dimension, looks so flat. I’ve tried everything. Everything I do just makes it worse. I’m so frustrated.”

“Take a step back. What do you like about it?” our instructor asks patiently, moving to her side.

“Nothing. I don’t like anything. I can only tell you all the things I don’t like about it. I need to start over.”

I try to tune her out, refocus on my own work. Yet every time I go to make the first stroke, her criticisms ring sharp in the air. Around me, no one else seems bothered. A couple students offer feeble comments of encouragement as they work, others appear unaware of her, lost in their own worlds. The instructor seems unfazed, patiently soothing her. I alone seem unable to move forward while she’s talking, the biting criticism of herself harsh, demanding, relentless. It’s distracting and consuming.

The music jolts back on in the background, a loud jazzy blues song that underscores her criticisms, sharpening them. They weave together into a crescendo, persistently demanding my mind’s attention.

“Why is this bothering me?” I wonder. “Why can’t I tune her out?”

 And then it hits me.

The sudden realization creates a vacuum, leaving an air of deafening silence around me. So still I can almost hear my heartbeat.

She is voicing thoughts nearly identical to those in my head.

Thoughts that keep my hand poised over my canvas, instead of painting freely.

Thoughts that keep me afraid to try.

Perfectionist thoughts.

Identified and exposed, the vacuum recedes taking the binding thoughts with them.

Slowly the noises of the room creep back into my consciousness. Diane has quieted. She’s refocused, already putting our instructor’s suggestions to work. The music shifts to something quieter, fading in and out.  Another breeze wafts through the room. The soothing mood returns.

Familiar.

But I am not.

Suddenly free from the thoughts that held me captive, I make the first stroke, a brilliant blue streak across the sky.

Painting freely in defiance of perfectionism.

painting little bighorn