Perpetual Journey

“That’s it, I’m done with this,” I huff, setting my phone down in frustration. I lift my sweater to unbuckle the strap compressing my rib cage.

“What are you doing? What’s the problem?” my husband Kris asks from his perch at the counter.

“It’s this stupid exercise contest and the uncomfortable heart monitor belt that goes with it. My feet are killing me from running. I can barely walk or climb stairs my legs are so sore. I’m behind on work because of the time it takes me to fit this in, and this belt is literally cutting me in half. And now there’s no chance of winning the contest, so what’s the point?”

“It’s only day three Sara, you have all month to compete. Weren’t you in first place the other day?”

“Yes,” I snort in disgust. “I worked my tail off for five hours to get ahead yesterday, and did the same this morning, and still this other guy has double my points! I mean, I can’t exercise ten hours a day, that’s ridiculous!”

Finally finding the belt release, I fling it on the counter, plop myself into the chair next to him, and sigh.

I know I shouldn’t let it get to me. It’s a fun competition among friends. But it is also one that triggers my perfectionist and competitive tendencies which makes it harder to get my feelings under control.

I punch the close button on the app’s challenge board currently broadcasting my loser status, grab the belt, and stomp upstairs, tossing the belt onto my bedside table as I head for the shower.

Get a grip Sara. This isn’t life or death. You don’t have to prove anything to these people. They aren’t judging you.

But I can’t get a grip. As the water falls down over me I decide to bow out. It feels better for my soul. Another 27 days of working out while trying to adopt a healthy perspective on this competition would mentally exhaust me.

The discarded belt collects dust as the days pass. Everytime I see it, I vacillate between feeling like a childish sore loser and a wise woman, protecting my spirit. And while the belt’s presence doesn’t consume me, I am aware of the guilt ridden thoughts just below the surface. Occasionally these thoughts win and I strap it back on for a half hearted workout, before setting it back in its place.

Weeks later, I find myself in church on Easter, studiously taking sermon notes as the pastor outlines the way God sees us. It’s a hopeful message to match the holiday. One particular tidbit catches my attention.

“We aren’t finished yet,” my note reads. I begin drawing doodles as the pastor expounds, outlining her case for how our lives are journeys that never end, how we never stop growing or learning until our time on earth is done. And as such, God does not expect us to be anything other than a work in progress.

Logically, I know what she’s saying is true, but my perfectionist side often keeps me focused on end results for tangible proof of my worth. My journey, historically, has always been a means to an end. Something to struggle through to get the reassuring gold stars when the task is complete.

I have always had a subtle belief that I will one day be done with self discovery. That I will become the very best and perfect version of me with no flaws, pain, or missteps from that point forward. Hearing a reminder that it is impossible, that I will always be a work in progress, is initially disheartening. And yet, as I wrap my mind around this truth, I find it freeing as well.

If I can never achieve the “perfect” version of me, if it simply isn’t possible, perhaps I can begin to enjoy the journey of self discovery with greater consistency instead of always feeling as though I’m failing by never reaching the end.

Climbing into bed later that night, I notice the heart monitor band and am reminded of the competition. A competition that was intended to motivate us to begin a healthier set of habits by providing accountability and camaraderie. A competition I became so focused on winning, I failed to find any joy or value in the journey.

But with nine days left of the challenge, maybe it’s not too late to change that.

Spanx

“You about ready Sara?” my friend called from the other room.

I glanced down at the Spanx suit around my knees. “Just about!” I called back.

I grabbed hold of the fabric, scrunched it up and pulled it over my thighs. Carefully unrolling it a centimeter at a time, I tucked extra bits in here and there, pausing to adjust my underwear when it got stuck. I pulled the fabric across my torso, made sure the butt indentations lined up correctly, and pulled the straps over my shoulders.

Good grief, how will I ever go to the bathroom? I’ll have to completely disrobe.

I caught my reflection in the floor length mirror, turned sideways to see if any slimming had happened, and reached for my dress. It was difficult to move. Things pinched here and there. I even squeaked when I moved.

This is ridiculous. Aren’t Spanx supposed to be comfortable?

I slid my dress over my head. While I had to admit my silhouette looked better as the fabric settled into place, the Spanx were longer than the dress!

For crying out loud, I thought blowing an errant piece of hair off my forehead, I don’t have time for this.

I yanked the dress and the restraining undergarment back off, and reached for my  backup Spanx — the biker short length. They didn’t cover me from shoulder to knee but perhaps would cover the most essential parts of my midsection.

“Sara?” my friend called.

“Ya, I know. I’m hurrying!” I yelled back.

But, even the shorts weren’t short enough! The Spanx fabric still peeked out from under the dress. I sat on the toilet, trying to push the fabric up, bunch it out of sight. It didn’t work.

Now what? All the girls look gorgeous in their leather pants and cute dresses. I feel like a frumpy mess.

Catching sight of myself in the mirror, I sighed. What am I doing? Why am I so intimidated? I never worry this much.

I was traveling with several women, half of whom I didn’t know. It was intimidating. To prepare, I’d spent the preceding two weeks at appointments. I’d dyed my hair, done my nails, shopped for new clothes, experimented with botox. I tried on every outfit I packed, ensuring all the accessories and combinations were Instagram worthy. I exercised. Fasted. Tanned. Fretted. Packed. Unpacked. And packed again.

Despite my efforts to be brave instead of perfect, I became consumed by the pressure to measure up to my companions.

Am I even enjoying my time here? Why is it so easy to fall back into perfectionism?

“Sara? Everyone is ready.”

I stood up and yanked off the spanx. I pulled on my boots, and assessed my reflection in the mirror. My eyes gravitated to my trouble areas, spotting a lump here, a divot there.

As my perfectionistic thoughts prepared their critique, I defiantly lifted my chin to stop them.

I am strong. I am confident. I have much to offer. I am brave, not perfect. I don’t need Spanx. I am beautiful– soft places and all.

“Let’s go have some fun,” I said as I yanked the bathroom door open.

“I love your dress,” one friend called as we headed out of the hotel room.

I smiled.“You can stay here,” I whispered to the Spanx, shoving them into my dresser drawer. “I’m fantastic without you.”

Sizing Up

In the dressing room, I grab the pair of jeans from the hanger and begin to pull them on. Too tight. I can’t get them over my thighs let alone my hips. I toss them to the floor and grab the next pair, checking the label.

Honestly, I grabbed this larger size by accident and now here I am putting them on, I remark to my unimpressed reflection. I shimmy into them, tucking in a bit of extra here and there. The button falls a little short of closing. I stand up straighter, suck my stomach in. Success. They close. I love the color of them. They have just the right amount of distressing. They are just what I’m looking for.

But can I sit in them? I move toward the dressing room bench in the corner apprehensively, and begin to lower down.

I feel the jeans pull tight across my thighs. The waistband cuts uncomfortably into my midsection but, still, I’m sitting without the button coming loose.

I can’t believe the size of these jeans. I can’t go bigger. I’ve never been that size. Maybe these will loosen up as I wear them, give me some breathing space.

I pull the jeans off and put them in my “maybe” pile.

Then, I reach for the cute dress. It looks perfect for a dinner I have coming up.

It should fit. It looks flowy and forgiving. And the color is to die for.As I pull it over my head I realize my error. I’m stuck. The fabric has less give than it appeared. I twist and turn, yank and pull, feeling a small seam rip. But finally, it’s on.

I look like a stuffed sausage. How does this not fit? And can I get it off again? I make a mental note to skip lunch.

After trying on several more items, I am thoroughly defeated. What began as a shopping trip to find something new and fun for an upcoming girls’ weekend quickly became a downward spiral of self loathing.

“Find anything that works?” asks a perky sales associate as I emerge from the dressing room.

“Not today,” I mumble back.

As I merge into the crowded mall, I match my footsteps to my thoughts. Too big. Too lazy. So flabby.

But then, I catch a cute jumpsuit in the next store window. Pause. Fight with my inner critic who tells me it’s too risky, that it will never look good on me. Defiantly I grab one anyway and head for the dressing room.

Here goes nothing. I pull the jumpsuit on, sliding it over my hips and up onto my shoulders. It’s way too big.

I twist around to try and see the label in the mirror. It’s the same size as the other place. What the heck?

Feeling my mood improve, I head back to the rack for a smaller size. Minutes later, the size down is also too big. Thrilled, I return for a size I couldn’t dream of wearing. Soon I’m twirling in the mirror, giddy with excitement. I’ve never been this size! I don’t love the color but I must buy this.

Yet as I change back into my clothes, I stop. I didn’t miraculously lose three sizes walking a few steps between stores.

Why am I so willing to let a number on a piece of fabric dictate my mood when the numbers clearly aren’t consistent? Maybe I’m not always the one to blame when something doesn’t fit. Maybe the blame belongs to the fashion industry for its lack of standards, or worse, for actively manipulating me. What if the numbers just don’t matter?

I remember the perfectly distressed jeans. And the cute, jewel-toned dress. I’d discarded them as the sizing numbers climbed too high even though they were perfect in every other way. I look back at the jumpsuit I don’t love but plan to purchase because of how its number tag makes me feel.

That’s it, I think as I hang the jumpsuit on the discard rack and head back to the first store. “I’m getting what I love, no matter what the tag says. After all, worst case, I do own a pair of scissors. That small tag doesn’t stand a chance.”

Ham, Shem, and Jepath

I pull into a parking space and turn off the car. Flipping the visor down, I smooth a flyaway hair from my face, and reapply a bit of lip gloss. I make eye contact with myself, and start my weekly pep talk.

You’ve got this. You were invited here. They value your opinion. You deserve to be here as much as anyone.” I’m heading into a women’s leadership meeting at my church. I’m nervous. Groups of intelligent women intimidate me. I never feel like I measure up.

You have been enjoying these meetings, remember? It won’t be like childhood.”  

It is a memory I recall easily. I’m sitting in a semicircle with a dozen girls in spring-colored dresses and shiny patent leather shoes. The girls opposite me are giggling about something. I watch the bows in their hair bob and weave as they huddle together, wondering what they’re talking about.

“Ok girls. We are going to play a Bible trivia game,” our Sunday School teacher says, clapping of her hands to get our attention. She is a kind woman with a helmet of curled, white hair. “If you get enough questions right, you can have free time outside.” A ripple of excitement runs through the group. It is a beautiful spring day.

The teacher gathers her stack of trivia cards and begins. I relax when I realize she isn’t going to make us take turns. Anyone who knows the answer can guess. Shy and uninterested in attention, I stay quiet throughout the game. We cover the bible basics. The ten commandments. The disciples. A few parables. We are sensing victory.

“You only need one more correct answer to earn your prize,” she says, smiling at our anxious faces. “What were the names of Noah’s three sons?” We look at each other, hoping someone will know the answer. No one is willing to guess.

“Anyone want to give it a try?” she eventually asks. I look down at my shoes and play with the hem of my dress, hoping to go unnoticed, knowing I probably won’t.

“How about you Sara? Your dad is the pastor. Do you know the answer?”

Everyone turns to look at me with hopeful eyes. The question is obscure. The teacher probably can’t even answer it without turning the card over to see the solution. But since my dad is the pastor, I’m often expected to know trivia answers, lead worship songs, and, in general, behave more piously.

I wipe my hands nervously on my dress. “I don’t know,” I mumble.

“Oh,” she says, surprised, flipping the card over to see the answer. “Ham, Shem, and Japeth,” she reads. “Let’s repeat that together.” My disappointed, stuck-inside, classmates do as she asks, but I’m lost in my thoughts.

“I should have known that. I let everyone down. I need to study more. This always happens. I need to be better prepared so I don’t have to feel this way again.” I glance at the bible sitting on the table next to her, overwhelmed by its size and wondering with despair how I will ever memorize it.

Now, as an adult I feel sad for “little me” in that situation. I am angry at the teacher for her unfair pressure. At the same time, I can see the situation from another point of view. I see a teacher doing her best, trying to help our class earn a prize. I see classmates hopeful but not passing judgment at an incorrect answer they also didn’t know.

And I see “little me,” sad and hard on herself when she didn’t need to be. She was every bit as beautiful and smart as those around her. She had lots to offer. She simply didn’t know the answer to an obscure trivia question.

The shift in perspective makes me wonder if my negative and anxious thoughts this morning are also untrue. If I will one day look back on this moment and see it with greater clarity. Feeling encouraged, I grab my purse off the passenger seat, slam the car door, and head for the building. Hearing my heels click as I cross the pavement I smile, remembering “little me’s” shiny shoes.

Screw Ham, Shem, and Jepath. We both have lots to offer,” I say as I grab the door handle and head confidently inside.  

Finally Free

“Are you ready Sara?” my stepson Ethan called up to me.

“Almost. Give me five more minutes,” I yelled back.

I looked back at the screen, cursor hovering over the POST button on my blog. My article Little Me, sitting, waiting, ready to be released to the wider world. I took a few steadying breaths.

I can do this. It will be good to do this. I’ve kept this memory a secret for too long.”

I re-read the first couple of lines for the thousandth time as anxious thoughts circled.

What if people judge me? What if he finds out what I’ve written and gets mad at me?”

I’d spent hours working on the piece, reliving the shame-filled memory it described, trying to capture the depth of how it felt in words. I’d written and rewritten it, agonizing over how it would be received, wondering if I should share it with others and open my experience up to their critique.

“SARA!! We’re waiting!” my husband Kris called.

“Coming!” I yelled back, hurrying downstairs, hitting “post” before I could change my mind.

“What are we watching?” I asked grabbing a blanket and settling into the couch.

Leaving Neverland,” Ethan replied as he hit play.

“It’s the two part documentary about Michael Jackson,” my husband added handing me the popcorn bowl.

I was aware of the film. In fact, I’d been actively avoiding it, afraid the accusations of abuse it contained would impact my love of Michael’s music.

“Just try it,” Kris said sensing my hesitation.

An hour later, Ethan broke in over the narrative, “Most people don’t think these accusations of abuse are true. Online, they’re saying these guys have testified for Michael in the past. They said under oath nothing happened to them. Why would they lie?”

“Maybe they will talk about that,” I half-heartedly answered, but in my own way, I already understood why they would lie to protect someone who was bad for them. I had done the same thing until an hour ago when I posted Little Me.

But–why did I lie? Why did I go to such great lengths to hide a secret? Those were questions I could try to answer, and hopefully learn from.

I lied because I was afraid of what the truth would reveal about me. But I also lied to protect him, the boyfriend who had caused me serious pain and self doubt. I lied because, at times, despite his cruelty, I still loved and admired him. Or maybe, I just wanted to save him, hoping that his redemption would somehow mean my own. I lied because my feelings were so complicated, so firmly rooted in the gray of life, I didn’t know how to process them and I was certain others wouldn’t understand. So instead I kept secrets, until, finally, I found the courage to write about it.  

After the movie, I lay awake wondering how my post would be received, and what the fallout would be in the coming days. And I imagined the men in the film feeling that same anticipatory fear. What would people say when the truth came out? Would they be compassionate or condemning? Would they only see the prior lies?    

“I watched the Michael Jackson documentary,” I said to my friend two weeks later.

“What did you think?” she asked.

“Well…” I said, remembering my blog-anxiety from the night we watched it, suddenly realizing how much had changed since then. I had started to laugh more frequently. I had more energy. I  no longer tried to maintain an illusion of perfection with my friends, making our interactions more authentic. I remembered how others had shared their experiences in response to my article, making me feel understood and less lonely. Most importantly, I felt lighter and more peaceful. Sharing my secret had released me from its tenacious hold.

I smiled at her. “I think in telling their truths after all these years– they might finally feel free.”

Charlie Brown

I adjusted my mask, wiping a bead of condensation off my upper lip with my tongue before settling it back in place. I felt my eyelashes flutter against the mask’s eye slits and began to count my blinks to pass the time.

“Oh look, it’s Charlie Brown,” Becky giggled. “Who’s in there? Is that you Josh? Mike?”

“It’s Sara,” came my muffled reply.

“Sara? I never would have guessed that! Why are you dressed as Charlie Brown? You should be a princess like the rest of us!” Becky squealed. I saw a flutter of glittery blue material as she twirled in front of me and felt a soft bop on my head before her twinkling wand broke into my line of vision.

I scratched the seams inside my shirt. The material felt rough, hot, and suddenly uncool.

“I hate Halloween,” I mumbled as I turned away and made my way to the back of the alphabetical line. Soon we would parade through the school to show off our costumes.

I shuffled shyly between Mark and Stacy through classroom after classroom listening to kids and teachers comment on various costumes. None of them were mine.

“I’m never dressing up again,” I whispered.

And I didn’t.

Until recently.

“We should get family photos,” my husband said one night, “to show our new blended family.”

I pictured the standard Montana family photo with a denim-clad family standing in a field using the mountains as a backdrop and wrinkled my nose.

“I don’t know babe,” I replied, “I’m game if we do something unique and different; everyone does the same thing here.”

“I’m up for whatever fun thing you come up with,” came his reply. “You will think of something. I know it.” I watched him fire off a quick email to a photographer friend before he settled in and fell asleep.

I lay awake in the light of Pinterest’s glow, scrolling with indecision and the pressure to find the right idea.

“What if you wore costumes?” came an errant thought hours later.

“I hate costumes.” I answered myself.

“Maybe it’s time to stop letting an old memory keep your fearful. Be brave.” the niggling thought pushed back.

“I suppose,” I admitted.

A few weeks later we stood in a graffiti-covered parking garage, steampunk costumes on, laughing together. From my top hat, to my gear accessories, to my fake leather pants and cane, I was completely out of my element.

“This is fun,” my stepson said, adjusting his mask.

“Yeah, good idea Sara,” my stepdaughter seconded. I smiled at them.

“Now, just pop your hip out Sara. Own it. Add a little flare, get into character,” called the photographer, bringing me back to the task at hand.

Her lights flashed, highlighting the word ‘thug’ scrawled in pink spray paint on the wall near me. I focused my gaze back at the camera.

“What the heck,” I said leaning on my cane and popping my hip to the side. “I’ll do it for you guys…and Charlie Brown.”

Slivered Almonds

I surveyed the ingredients on the counter, comparing them to the simple recipe pulled up on my phone. Satisfied I had everything, I turned on the burner, filled a measuring cup with slivered almonds, and dumped them into the pan.

“Here goes nothing,” I said to the little dog at my feet.

Earlier that day, knowing my cooking skill limitations, a friend had given me the task of bringing a bag salad to our gathering that night.  Determined to fancy up the bag of butter lettuce chilling in the fridge, I had decided to make candied almonds.

“Let’s hope replacing brown sugar with regular sugar doesn’t mess anything up. Think that will work?”

The little dog cocked his head in response. I took it as a yes, and dumped the sugar into the pan, sprinkled in a little cinnamon, and picked up the spatula.

“Stir continuously for 5-7 minutes until toasted. Do you think they literally mean continuously?” I asked him. Met only with silence, I turned on a timer and began stirring.

Cooking has long been my nemesis. I am beyond uncomfortable in the kitchen. The loosey-goosey nature of cooking directions does not fit my desire for perfection and precision. Burned bread, chewy chicken, soggy vegetables, and other less perfect meals had caused me to hang up my apron years before.

“See where trying to be brave instead of perfect gets me?” I asked my little companion. “At least no one is expecting anything more than a bag of lettuce from me if this is an epic fail.” More silent staring and a tentative tail wag.

I glanced at the timer. Three minutes to go. As far as I could tell nothing was happening in the pan. I watched the almonds cut trails through the sugar, wondering how the two would ever cling to each other.

“Maybe I should have added butter.” A few thumps of the tail and the small butt wiggle he reserves for his favorite things. “You like butter?” I asked. More wiggling.

Turning back to the pan I noticed that the sugar seemed to be melting. As I stirred, it began to coat the almonds with a light sheen. Soon a little smoke and toasted almond smell emanated from the pan.  

I glanced back at the recipe.

You can tell the almonds are done when you start to smell the toasted nut flavor and the sugar melts completely, coating the nuts.

“But there’s still two minutes on the timer,” I said to my little helper. “Do you think they’re done?”

I turned off the heat, certain burned almonds weren’t what I was going for.

I spread them on wax paper to cool, hoping they would cool into crunchy bits of deliciousness.

I cleaned the kitchen to pass the time, eventually returning with my companion to the almonds.

“Well, here goes nothing. You want to try it first or should I?” I asked him. He let out an excited whine. I flipped him an almond in response. It was devoured instantly.

“I’m not sure you’re the best judge,” I said, “you didn’t even taste that.”

I picked up my own piece and popped it into my mouth where it dissolved into a lovely blend of sweet and crunchy.

“We did it!” I yelled picking him up off the floor and spinning in a circle. “We actually did it!”

Later that night I gathered around the table with friends, enjoying our last dinner together before one moved across the country. “Where did you find the almonds for the salad Sara? They’re delicious.”

“I made them,” I replied to stunned silence.

“You cooked?” she asked. “But you hate to cook. Why the change? Because you’re learning to be brave, not perfect?”

“Yes,” I answered. “And because I’m going to miss you. You are absolutely worth facing my fears for.”