Chubby Unicorn

I have a terrible memory. I find myself standing in the middle of a room wondering what I’m there to retrieve at least once a day. I have an alarm on my keys that tells me where my phone is and an alarm on my phone to tell me where my keys are. I might add one on my sunglasses too so both my keys and my phone can tell me where they are.

Appointments and childhood memories also slip away more often now if not written down. It’s a problem.

But there is a silver lining.

My husband, Kris, is so used to my poor memory that when I do remember something and surprise him with it months later, it’s a movie moment deserving of rising orchestral swells and happy tears.

This Christmas, I remembered a t-shirt he mentioned months ago just in time to get it wrapped and under the tree. The t-shirt shows a picture of a rhinoceros standing in front of an African sunset with the words “Save the Chubby Unicorn” printed underneath.

He finds it hilarious.

That Christmas morning I won the “Gold Star Wife” award, one I cherish even more than the silent praise I give myself when I get the dog’s name right the first time I call for him.

A few weeks after my moment of triumph, his colleague at work was wearing the same shirt.

“Oh my gosh! Don’t you just love that shirt?” he said. “Sara got me the same one and I chuckle every time I read it.”

“Sure,” she answered, “it fits who I am perfectly.”

Kris paused a moment, confused.  

She continued, “A few years ago, I was slim and trim and in the best shape of my life. It makes sense that my husband would get this for me now. I am definitely a chubby unicorn.”

“What did you say?” I ask him later that day as he tells me the story.

“I don’t even know,” he answers, “I was so caught off guard and things felt so awkward, I mumbled something about checking our flight gear before our next call and wandered off.”

“Hmmm…” I respond, lost in thought.

“I would never think this shirt is actually a statement about me,” he says. “It’s just funny. The rhino is the chubby version of the unicorn. Don’t you get it? They both have a horn.”

“Of course I get it,” I answer.

And I do.

And yet I also understand why her mind went there. As women we are so hard on ourselves, especially about our physical bodies. I wrote about how chubby I feel just last week and if the shirt had been a gift for me from him, I likely would have responded similarly.

On our Christmas morning, joy surrounded that shirt. On hers, did it bring shame and self-loathing instead? I doubt her husband was sending her a message, but she created one in her head.

This makes me sad for girls and women. We have been raised so differently from boys and men that where they see a funny t-shirt for exactly what it is, we have learned to use it as a weapon to judge and belittle ourselves.

As I write this, I’m sitting on a balcony in Costa Rica next to my husband. We both are writing and drinking beer, lounging in our swimsuits, enjoying the peacefulness of the countryside. To look at us, you would see near mirror images. And yet there are differences below the surface.

One of us is sucking in her stomach in case it makes a slight difference in her profile.

One of us is worried about the judgement of the people walking by who wave happy greetings.

One of us fully understands the pain behind his colleague’s chubby unicorn shirt assumption. That pain is refined and ingrained over decades with every magazine and tv ad celebrating perfection and happiness with a body that doesn’t look like mine.

One of us lives that same self judgement day after day.

But one of us is also determined to change that, for girls and women everywhere. And for herself. So that one day girls the world over can open that same t-shirt and simply laugh at the funny joke it was meant to be, finally free of the cultural messaging that twisted it in the first place.  

Battling the Bulge

“Ok, I need to do this. I’ve put it off long enough.”

I grimace at my naked reflection in the mirror. I’ve grown pudgy around the edges. I barely recognize myself; the result of not breaking a sweat in nearly a year and taking a good six months off from paying attention to what I’m eating.

“Sigh. It’s time. You need a jumpstart and a starting point. Just get it over with.”

I kick the “on” button with my toe, toggle to my settings, and place a timid first foot on the scale.

“Here goes nothing,” I mumble.

I step my second foot on, distribute my weight evenly, hold my breath, and say a silent prayer. I look down. My jaw drops.

I officially weigh the most I’ve weighed. Ever. In my life. It sucks. Big time.

While I knew it would be rough, I’m still surprised. My shoulders slump as I step off, defeated.

I reach for my undergarments as my self criticism kicks into high gear. One of the most challenging things about perfectionism are the negative voices. They are immediate, they are relentless, and they are cruel.

“You are ugly. You are fat. You are unattractive to everyone. Soon your husband won’t even desire you.”

“Why can’t you just stop eating so much? I mean come on, people have normal relationships with food all over the world. Why can’t you be more like them? Stop reaching for food in every circumstance, it’s clearly not your friend.”

“And for God’s sake, break a sweat. You are so lazy. You sit all damn day. How hard is it to get up once in awhile a walk around? No wonder every part of your body hurts, you’ve completely let yourself go.”

I grab the closest pair of pants that still fit and pull them on, lost in the rampant perfectionist thoughts. I feel deserving of them.

Behind me the bathroom door opens as I tug a t-shirt over my head.

“Hey babe, I brought you coffee,” my husband says as he sets it on the counter. Next to the cup he carefully places three small sticky notes. “I know I usually leave them downstairs but today I thought I would bring them to you as I head out.”

His sweet words break the berating of my inner voice. I look at him and smile. “Thanks baby,” I say as I lean in for a kiss, “this is just what I needed this morning.”

As he heads out to work, I take the first sip, and look down at the notes.

“I’m so lucky to know you. Who’s blessed? I. AM. LUCKY,” the first one reads.

“I love your stupid face. Stupidly….AWESOME face. You are amazing,” reads the second.

“I notice how awesome you are. I do. I see it in everything you do. I’m proud of you,” says the third.

My eyes tear up a little.

I hang the notes on the mirror as I start to dry my hair to prepare for the day. I read them again and again, letting them sink in.

Yes, I have a little work to do to feel more comfortable in my skin again. But as these notes attest, I am still loved. I am still blessed. I am still awesome. I am still valuable.

No matter what the scale reads.

And you are too.

Pasta Shenanigans

The room smells delicious. My wine glass sits half empty nearby, marred with lipstick marks and flour fingerprints. Around me is the sound of laughter, quiet conversations, and the occasional joke. I focus on winding the square of homemade pasta dough through the press for the seventh time, watching as  the dough creases and squiggles, emerging slightly softer than the last time through.

Setting the dough  on the table, I sip my wine as we switch attachments, ready to turn the dough into actual noodles. I’m full of excited anticipation, a feeling I have never experienced in any kitchen ever.

I wipe a stray hair off my forehead with the back of my hand, leaving a trail of flour in its wake. Nearby there’s a pop of a champagne cork as another group takes a break to refill their glasses.  

“Ready?” My partner asks.

“Absolutely,” I answer.

She carefully feeds the dough into our press, lining it up so it slips through evenly. I turn the handle, readying to catch the emerging noodles. Slowly they appear, a series of pasta snakes wiggling side by side.

I stretch my arm to accommodate their length, wanting them to remain continuous, even. They are soft, buttery to touch. I wonder how soft they would feel against my cheek, and catch myself wishing we didn’t have to cook them.

As the last bit of dough winds through the press, a marvelous thought, “I actually made noodles! Well, we made noodles.” I smile at my partner as I lay the spaghetti gently on the work space in front of me, careful not to fold or squish the ends.

The group of women sitting across from me erupts into laughter as one finishes her story, causing me to look up from our masterpiece. I smile at the scene around me. Women of various ages gathered around a table, sipping wine, telling stories, working together to prepare a meal. There’s something comforting about it. Historical. Soothing. I have the distinct feeling of belonging that comes when you participate in a ritual that’s been happening generation after generation the world over.

Our dough successfully noodled, we sit around the table, wine in hand, shoulder to shoulder, watching the instructor stir our pasta into a boiling pot.

“While we wait, let’s go around and each tell a little about what brought us here today,” she says.

We listen as the first few ladies share their interest in cooking or the occasion that brought them here together.

“What should we say?” my partner whispers to me as our turn nears.

“I think I’ll go with the full truth,” I whisper back, “you can build off that on your turn.”

We smile to each other as the woman before me finishes and all eyes turn to me.

Clearing my throat and taking a sip of wine to calm my nerves I say, “My name is Sara. I’m here with my friend, Mitzi. I am married to her ex-husband. Since I need to feed her children some of the time, I agreed to come with her tonight. I am, after all, hopeless in the kitchen.”

There’s an awkward beat of silence as the women process what I’ve said. Silence followed by nervous, tittering laughter.

“Wait. What?” someone asks. “Did you say you are married to her ex-husband? And you’re here together?”

“We really enjoy spending time together,” Mitzi answers. “We’ve become good friends.”

There’s another awkward pause. We smile. We’ve grown used to it. At times even exploit it.

“I think that’s great,” another woman answers, “I wish my parents had been like that. It would have made life so much easier.”

A chorus of agreement spreads around our circle, as the pasta bubbles away in the middle of the table, filling the air with its delicious aroma.

I have no way of knowing if we’ve planted a seed that will alter another’s blended family for the better one day. But as we sit tasting homemade pasta, sipping wine, and chatting, I know Mitzi and I have another shared memory that illustrates our commitment to build a beautiful, blended, bonus family. One where we are all better people, not bitter people.

A thought so lovely it puts our delicious noodles to shame.

In Over My Head

I placed the rod in its holder, jumped down, fluffed the curtain into place, grabbed my drill off the coffee table, and stepped back to take a look. Turning in a slow circle, I admired the room and smiled. It was finally done. After four months of sixty hour weeks, the rental house was complete. I couldn’t find another piece of decor to shift, pillow to fluff, or surface to buff.  

It was beautiful.

“OH MY GOD! I did it! I actually did it!” I yelled.

I twirled in a circle, laughing, before collapsing on the living room couch to enjoy the moment. It was a moment I wouldn’t have imagined the previous summer when my grandma had decided to sell her home, and I had decided to buy it.

That summer, I’d stood in this very same place– intimidated. There were piles of old furniture waiting to be donated and cupboards hanging from hinges. The stained carpet was shadowed by peeling wallpaper. A collapsed deck sagged outside the sliding doors and popcorn ceilings stretched above me. Every single room needed attention.

That summer, the entire project rested on my shoulders. With no design or remodel experience, I would direct a crew of strangers and subcontractors from my home in Montana, half a country away. I would make every decision, complete every purchase, and coordinate every delivery. And when the time came, I would fly in to assemble every piece of furniture that arrived and break down every box.

That summer, I’d been scared and filled with doubt. My inner perfectionist was terrified.

But the house mattered more than my fear.

It had been my home away from home for over 30 years. The place I returned to in order to recharge my soul. It was, in fact, the place where I started my journey towards bravery with one twirl on a public beach.

That summer, as I stood overwhelmed, I saw how important that brave little twirl was. It had prepared me for the opportunity that stretched before me.

Prior to this journey of living brave rather than perfect, the fear of not executing a flawless remodel would have kept me from buying the house. Instead, I would have watched it slip into another family’s hands and grieved the hole it left behind.

But as I stood, intimidated, on the stained living room carpet, I reminded myself that while the size of the project was overwhelming, the pieces were manageable. I could tackle them one at a time and reach out to friends and colleagues when I needed help. For years, I had been practicing how to take action despite my fear, and this project would test those skills.

As summer spilled into fall and the months passed, the house came together little by little. Until one day I reached this perfect moment. Sitting in the silence the crew left behind when they packed up their tools and pulled out of the driveway, my hands covered in bandaids from furniture assembly mishaps and every muscle aching, I was content. Proud. In awe of what I had done.

Everything looked perfect.

I had honored the house I loved by bringing it to the best version it could be. And in the process, I had done the same for myself. For through the remodel, I learned that combining bravery with a dash of my perfectionism unlocked a new version of myself. One I hadn’t considered.

And perhaps that’s the real take-away.

Perfectionism unchecked is stifling, limiting, and at times crushing. It kept me living on the sidelines for a good portion of my life. But removing it altogether isn’t necessary either. Instead, by mixing the two, using one to keep the other in check, I can achieve truly magical things. Things far greater than I dreamed possible.

And I can’t wait to see where that realization takes me.

Hairy Legs

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I settle my face into the cradle and take a few deep breaths. Soft new age music plays in the background of the dimly lit room. It’s meant to reassure me but I’m tenser than usual. I adjust the bolster with my feet, trying to get comfortable. The sheet slips free with my fidgeting and tangles around my legs. With a sigh, I reach a hand down and slide the bolster into place, attempting to smooth the blankets back into place and untangle my feet in the process.

“Honestly, settle Sara. You’re making a mess of things. She will have to spend the first five minutes getting you untangled,” I think as I lay back down and try to release the tension in my shoulders.

“It will be fine,” I whisper to myself. “Dozens of people come in here every day, the details have to blend together. Ugh, why did I do this to myself?”

Earlier that morning the schedule chime had gone off on my phone, reminding me of this appointment with 15 minutes to spare. I had brilliantly scheduled it for the morning after all the holiday hoopla knowing I would be desperate for a quiet room and some time to myself. And yet, in the chaos it had slipped my mind until my alarm sent me into a panicked hurry.

Switching it off and checking the time, I realized I could either jump into the shower and quickly shave my legs or grab a desperately needed cup of coffee. There was not time for both. With this journey towards bravery in mind and in a fit of defiance, I picked coffee and now paid the price. The hair on my legs seemed to mock me from under the skewed sheet. I felt every one of them, scratching against the blanket, certain I would be judged and found lacking when my massage therapist reached my legs.

A soft knock on the door stills my fidgeting.

“Ready?” her soft voice asks.

“As I’ll ever be,” I mumble unenthusiastically into the cradle.

With a practiced flourish, she closes the door and flutters the sheets into place, nestling the bolster into the crook of my feet at the same time. The music switches to a song melded with trickling water as she begins to work the tension out of my shoulders. I sigh, melting into the table as each kink releases and my muscles begin to relax.

Twenty minutes later I am shocked awake as I begin to feel the blanket shift as she uncovers my left leg.

“Oh no, oh no. Here it comes. She’s about to feel the stubble. I’m so nervous. And on top of that I have to pee. Crap. Why, oh why did I pick the cup of coffee?”

“Ugh. This is ridiculous. Thousands of people go into massages unworried every day with leg hair. Just relax already. It’s not a big deal.”

“Maybe, but I don’t. Ever. My legs are always smooth, unmarred by stubble. The smoothest legs of her day.”

“They don’t give gold stars for that you know. So why do you care? Let it go already and enjoy the moment. It’s leg hair for goodness sake, the entire population has it.”

My mind whirls, each thought tripping over the one before it. The moment drags on, suspended in time. I clear my throat, furiously thinking of something to say to fill an awkward silence only I can hear.

Fresh oil applied, she digs into my calf muscle. There isn’t a shift in her speed or her pressure to indicate she thinks anything is amiss, unusual, or awry. I sense no underlying judgement. I release a breath I didn’t know I held.

My rational brain knew things would unfold this way, and yet I’m still surprised. The negative thoughts in my head pushing endlessly for perfection in all things feel so incredibly real and right, it always catches me off guard when they are wrong.

I smile into the face cradle. Not only does the massage itself feel heavenly, so does the little bit of extra freedom I just gained.

How much time would I gain if I rewrite small moments like these going forward? What if I never again felt the need to apologize for leg stubble? And if conquering leg hair feels like a huge win, what might my life look like if I am able to shed the need for perfectionism in all moments?

I melt into a puddle of relaxed goo, in this present moment it feels not just possible, but probable.

And I’ll take that win, celebrate it, and hopefully carry it with me long into 2019.

Mario Kart

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“Go, go, go,” I hear the yells and giggles from the other room as I put the last dish into the dishwasher. “You’ve got this Hannah! Faster, faster, you’re doing great!”

“Take that,” Ethan hollers with glee.

“NOOOO, how did you do that? That’s it, I’m coming for you,” warns another voice.

The interaction makes me smile. My stepchildren and two friends are piled in the living room having just returned from Target where they pooled their Christmas gift cards to buy a new video game, a rare show of solidarity and cooperation. They now sit shoulder to shoulder, each leaning forward in an attempt to make their Mario character race just a little bit faster.

Wiping my hands on a towel, I mosey in to join them. I perch on the nearby armchair to see what all the fuss is about. Colorful characters race through the course in their colorful cars through loop-d-loops and twists and turns, tossing turtles and banana peels along the way.  

A checkered flag is waved as the last one crosses the finish line and the scores go up on the screen. As the trophy is handed out to the winning team, they relive the best moments of the race.

“Did you see how I took out your car with that squid ink?

“Oh I saw it,” came the reply, “you’ll pay for that next round.

“I need to make some changes to my car, it is NOT well suited for that course.”

The characters line up again at the starting line and gun their engines as the countdown plays on the screen: 3….2….1….GO. This time the characters begin to race through roads made of piano keys and other musical accoutrements. I sit happily by, listening to their banter, trying to make sense of what’s happening on the screen. I watch close calls, triumphs, frustrations, and power ups. I cheer here and there for the underdog and throw in the occasional, “That’s not a nice way to talk to your sister,” but for the most part I’m caught up in the moment, savoring this moment in time and all it has to offer.

“Your turn Sara.” The sentence catches me off guard.

Wait. What did he say?

“Yeah, you should try it,” another chimes in.

“Umm…I don’t think so. I haven’t picked up a video game controller in nearly 20 years and even after watching you for 30 minutes I don’t have a clue how to play,”

“That’s ok, just push this button here, move this switch there, you’ll catch on.”

A controller is pushed into my hand. Quick directions given. “I don’t know how to do this. I will look like an idiot. What is the slowest time anyone has ever completed a course? These controllers are clearly made for smaller hands. My cool bonus mom facade is about to crumble into a bajillion pieces and they will see the truth. I’m a fraud, carefully hidden behind my perfect mask.”

“Just remember to push the button marked with an X with your thumb, it’s what makes you accelerate. Otherwise you’ll just sit there.”

An X? Where’s the X? Is this controller made for a left handed person? Why are all the important controls under my left thumb? I’m right handed. My left hand is nearly useless. What about all these other buttons? What do they do? Everywhere my fingers touch there’s a button. What if my car just sits there?”

“You got this. It’s ok if you’re not that good.”

“Easy for you to say kid, you’ve come in first place every single round. No secret shame happening in your head right now.”

On the screen even my character looks nervous, his rainbow mohawk giving him an air of toughness he doesn’t deserve. I can tell it’s a smokescreen, a distraction from the insecurities he hides inside. Just looking at him I can sense his trepidation, feel the sweat drip down his palms as he looks around wondering how he got lined up here among the big racers. I wipe my hands on my legs.

His colorful gokart reminds me of a bike I road in a parade once. I had been so proud of it at home with its streamers wound in and out perfectly between the wheel spokes. I rode with my head held high for miles until I got to the parade starting line and saw the other bikes. Those bikes had every color of streamer imaginable, putting my three colors to shame. They had tassels, and balloons, and bells covering every square inch. They glistened so shiny new my hand-me-down bike paled in comparison, making me feel small and insignificant.

“Oh great. This moment in time will play out just like that one. Once again I’m an imposter among giants.”

For a brief moment I glance at my stepdaughter Hannah. I was holding a controller because she had become frustrated with losing to the boys again and again, bristling even as they gave her encouragement. I could sense why. She’s wired a lot like me. Encouragement can feel patronizing to an overachieving perfectionist when your mind is filled with negative thoughts and self criticism.

“This is a chance for me to model a different message to her. A chance to be brave instead of shying away from something just because the world tells me if I can’t do it perfectly I shouldn’t do it at all. A chance to put my money where my mouth is and act as though I believe I am already enough, regardless of my performance in the next three minutes. I don’t need to make this race about me. It isn’t about me. It’s about having fun, letting go, and enjoying the moment. I can model that. For her, and for that little girl who felt her bike was inadequate for an entire parade because it didn’t seem to measure up.”

The countdown numbers begin to flash on the screen as I square my shoulders and start pushing buttons, familiarizing myself with the controller.

3….I’ve got this.

2…..For Hannah.

1….For my younger self and her carefully woven streamers. She was perfect even then.

GO!

In the Neon Glow

IMG_7926Outside my window headlights whiz past. Their colors merge and dance through the haze created by the car’s exhaust as we sit hunkered in trying to stay warm. Light snow falls. Gentle flakes falling to welcome December, a month known for joy, hope and optimism. It should be beautiful.

Their beauty is lost on me.

A couple pulls up beside us, parks, and emerges from their car laughing as they close their doors and head inside. The neon light of the sign we’ve parked under casts a pink glow on the dashboard. There’s a slight flicker to it. One I’d rather focus on than the conversation at hand.

Above the heater’s hum he breaks the silence,  continuing our conversation, “For the last few months, I don’t think you even like me. I think I annoy you. That I hurt you often. That I’m a source of pain, not joy. When was the last time we even went on a date that didn’t end in tension or an argument? I wonder if you regret your decision to marry me.”

I hear his words and go still. I see a tear trickle free down his cheek and every hair on my body snaps to attention.

A  familiar skip of a heartbeat makes my chest ache. I tense, straightening my spine and shifting in my seat. Inside my thoughts start whirling, lining up to play defense. The conversation feels familiar. I’ve had one like it years ago. It didn’t end well.

In the ensuing silence, my team of overactive inner workmen jump to attention, scrambling into action to protect my heart. I picture them wielding their bricks and mortar with practiced efficiency as I brace for what could come next. The foreman barks orders, “This is the moment we’ve trained for men. Go, go, go. Overload those wheelbarrows with bricks. Stir that mortar faster. Forget precision, just get that wall up on the double. The bad news is coming, we can’t leave a flank exposed.”

Time slows as my mind races to catch up with what I’ve heard. The heater hums, filling the silence as my nails cut half circles into my palms.

Outside his window the couple returns to their car, parcel in hand. The engine roars to life and they pull away.

Watching their taillights fade, I frantically run through possible responses, digging through my quiver of word weapons. Sarcastic sass. Dismissive impertinence. Defensive argument. Deflective blame shifting. Brooding silence. Self-pitying despair. Wounding guilt.

Each one has been sharpened to perfection by past painful life moments. I need only notch one into my bow, let it fly, and duck down behind my wall. Safe and protected.

I reach for deflective blame shifting, take aim, and lift my eyes to face him.    

I see a second tear slip free and get wiped hastily away. I gaze at his face, my favorite face. I remember his baggage, his past hurts, his scars and pause.

I remember his insecurities, his fears, his hope in me and soften; hands unclenching as I really see him, still beautiful in pink flickering neon light.

Inside the foreman holds up a hand. His crew stops, ears cocked ready for their next order. Behind them the wall around my heart remains only half built, vulnerable.

“She won’t do it. It leaves her too exposed. Too vulnerable. She will appear imperfect,” one bricklayer whispers to his colleague. They all stand to rapt attention waiting for me to speak.

I take a breath, set down my bow, and reach for him.

“I’m sorry,” I say as I grab his hand. “The last few months have been hard for me, oddly emotional and at times overwhelming. You bear the brunt of that because you’re my safe place. The best decision I ever made. Not one I regret. Never one I regret. You are my joy, not my pain.”

I nervously wait, letting my words sink in, praying they don’t precede deeper pain and this instinct is right.

Our eyes meet. The silence is both deafening and oddly peaceful. We are alone in it, connected in a cocoon of warmth as the snow falls outside and the world buzzes around us.

“I love you,” comes his reply. “It isn’t always easy, but we are in this together.”

“Yes. Together.” I reply.

He puts the car in reverse just as the neon light finally holds steady. It won’t be the end of the conversation, we have a number of things to work through, and yet I smile as we pull away, picturing my foreman inside, shoulders slumping as he breaks the news to the crew they may soon be unemployed.