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.

Boudoir Bravery

watermark2I 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

paintingThe 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

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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


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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.