Six Likes

Six? Only six likes? I hit the refresh button. Stare at the result. 

Me and five others like the post? It’s even worse than I thought. I’m one of the six. How depressing.

I close the app in frustration, running my hands through my hair. 

I don’t get it. Some days it’s dozens. Heck, at times it’s over 100. But six? What is wrong with this post? 

What is wrong with me?

It’s an illogical leap but an increasingly easy one to make in a world where the number of likes is a currency of value.

I set my phone down, pick up my curling iron and attend to the task at hand–prepping to see Oprah speak at a nearby stadium. My mind churns through possible reasons for a low response as I work. 

I bet Oprah has never had a single post with only six likes. 

My inner critic loves moments like these, when a simple fact can be twisted into an assault on my character. 

My friend stops the unraveling though, calling from the other room– “Ready?” 

“Absolutely,” I call back. “Let’s go see OPRAH!”

As we walk to the stadium, we merge with groups of women, picking up a couple here, a small group there. With each block, our group grows. I feel an odd solidarity with them. We don’t know each other, but together we move towards the inspiration we hope Oprah will provide. 

Settling into our seats at the top of the stadium, Diet Coke and snacks in hand, I pull my phone out of my pocket, queue up a couple photos, and post them to social media. Out of habit, I check my notifications. 

Seven likes? Honestly. It’s been an hour. Only one more like? People hate this post. Maybe they hate me too.

Then, a deafening cheer interrupts my thoughts. “Hello Calgary!!!” Oprah calls over the din, sparking an even greater frenzy. 

About halfway through the show, she invites Gary Zukav, author of The Seat of the Soul, to the stage. One part of their discussion catches my attention. 

“We live in a world that tells us that external power is what matters,” Oprah says. “People measure their worth and value by how many followers, likes, and little hearts they have. How do we deal with that?”

I sit up in my seat. 

“If you’re looking at the number of likes you have in the world, you are giving your value to someone else,” Gary says, “or more precisely, you are asking someone else to tell you how much you are worth. As long as you do that, you’ll be in pain. But when you contribute instead of consume, you experience a new way of being in the world. Likes and dislikes will not be important to you. What will be important to you is following your heart and giving the gifts you were born to give. That creates authentic power.”

He’s right! Suddenly my tormented thinking of an hour before is embarrassing. Likes don’t matter. What matters is what I feel when I write my story and share it with others. What matters is the personal power I’ve uncovered and the positive responses I’ve gotten. What matters is the freedom I have found creating this blog and living authentically without shame. 

Six likes? So what! Maybe people are busy. Or maybe it did fall flat. But I was true to myself. I was vulnerable. I was willing to let others in and to connect with them. I was willing to be brave, not perfect. 

That’s worth far more than any number of likes. 

Stillness

Some days words flow. Other days they don’t. Today is the latter. I can never pinpoint the difference why it goes one way some days and another way other days. I’m drinking the same iced tea with lemon, sitting in the same sun spot in the same chair at the same time of day, with the same overstuffed brain of thoughts and yet no writing topic is demanding attention or volunteering to be explored today.

They say that’s the life of a writer. Some days the words flow like Montana spring run off. Other days they dribble, or worse, dry up altogether. The advice is always: “just start writing, something will come.”

But today, I have fleeting thoughts on heavy topics. They dance in and out, not staying long enough for me to find a pattern or a point to them:

  • Do I ever hear God? (A leftover musing from a small group gathering last weekend.)
  • Will I ever consistently get this stepmomming thing right? (A lingering thought after a family meeting yesterday.)
  • Is it possible to ever feel free of all my life baggage? (A constant thought.)
  • What could I possibly ever write that would have value to others? (A nagging persistent thought that pops up each time I sit to write.)

Generally, I am frustrated on days like today. I want to explore my memories, discover an important lesson and capture it on paper.

But strangely, today, I feel calm, unhurried. Maybe today is different because of the soothing sound of my neighbor washing his driveway alongside the consistent, rhythmic chirp of a bird in a nearby tree. Maybe it’s the hum of an excavator working half a block away. Or perhaps– I’m tired. Emotionally tired by a recent hard conversation with the people I love. Physically tired from sleeping poorly because of it.  

Whatever it is, I’ll take it. In fact, I’m choosing to see it as evidence of growth. Not long ago, if I had nothing to say as a deadline approached, my perfectionist thoughts would have panicked.  They would have hounded and berated me endlessly until I had a blog written, edited, and queued for release.

Could it be that through this journey I’m getting taking hold of my perfectionism after all?

I can’t be sure. But what I do know is life is more peaceful without them. Life is more joyful when I extend myself the same grace I give to others. Life has a stillness and satisfaction to it when I simply let a bit of writing unfold, without expectation or force. And in that stillness, I’m discovering my ongoing questions are easier to answer:

  • I may not audibly hear God, but I feel him in the breeze around me and sense him in the connection I feel with that chirping bird.
  • I will not always stepmom perfectly, but I admire that I keep trying.
  • I may never be free of my baggage, but I can be grateful for the lessons I’ve learned because of it.
  • And just maybe those answers are what someone needs to read today. And if not, they were what I needed to write. And that is enough.

Gratitude

I made the last turn, headed up the driveway and pulled into the garage.

“We made it buddy,” I said to my golden retriever Barkley. “Finally.”

We had set out from Seattle ten hours earlier, it felt good to be home.

I opened his door and watched as he bounded from the car and began sniffing the yard, curious to uncover who had come by in our absence. I stretched as I watched him, my muscles aching after a long time in the same position.

After my father’s brain cancer diagnosis, I’d been making the trip back and forth monthly, anxious to soak up as much time with him as I could while escaping tension at home. Things hadn’t been going well in my marriage. When my husband’s mom died the year before from cancer, his grief lead him down an unexpected and destructive path. As I started to unpack the car, I replayed the conversation I’d had with my husband earlier in the week.

“I always wished for more time with my mom,” my husband said. “You need to spend as much time as you can with your dad. His prognosis isn’t good.”

“That’s what I am doing. I am getting here as often as I can,” I replied.

“But you keep coming back to Montana for me. I need to set you free– from me and this marriage so you can stay with your dad.”

“That isn’t what I want,” I sighed.

We’d been in this moment before. Many times. He’d been home less and less, certain he didn’t deserve me after all that had happened. He had talked of divorce a few times, but we’d managed to keep pushing on. Sometimes I thought I was holding it together by sheer will, terribly afraid I was going to lose both of the men in my life; one to death, and one to divorce.

Back in Montana, I grabbed the last couple bags from the car, yelled–“Let’s go Barkley”– and headed for the door, not noticing my husband’s truck wasn’t in its usual spot.

Inside, I habitually tossed my keys to the small dresser inside the door–but they clattered to the floor, landing in a pile of dust bunnies. The dresser was gone.  

What is going on?

I walked slowly up the stairs to the main floor, my heart pounding. Barkley raced ahead. I could hear him taking a long drink from his water dish as I crested the last step into the living room. Everything appeared normal.  

I set my load down and walked cautiously from room to room. Everything seemed in its place, and yet my hairs remained on end, alert.

In our bedroom, I slowly opened the closet door. Please no. Please no. Please no.

Inside, half the closet was empty.

No. No. No. No. No.

I rushed to his dresser, yanking drawers open. Empty.

All his things are gone. There’s nothing left of him in this house. His clothes. The dresser his grandpa made him. Everything personal to him is gone.

He’s gone.

My knees buckled and I collapsed to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably, rocking back and forth as months of fear and grief crashed in. I felt Barkley lay down next to me, giving me a tentative lick. I clung to him, making his coat wet with my tears. As day turned to night outside, he remained steady, comforting.  

I can’t do this. How am I going to survive this? I was barely hanging on before.

My phone chimed, startling me. I reached for it. Its bright light cut into the dark room as I opened the message.

Oh that’s right, gratitudes.

Every night for months, I’d been sending three things I was grateful for to my accountability partners. I have nothing. My world is shattered. My husband moved out and my father might be dying. What could I possibly be grateful for today?

Barkley’s tail thumped nearby. Our eyes met and the tenderness of his expression melted me. Gentle, loving, steady Barkley. I could start there.

I typed his name.

Two more.

I read the gratitude lists my friends had sent, realizing their consistent and punctual arrival had interrupted my grief, providing me with something positive to focus on.

I typed their names.

One more.

My grief headache pounded at my temples, but the tears had dried. The calm that follows crying had descended. I didn’t know what the next day, or week or month would bring–and I didn’t know how I would survive. But in that moment, I knew, somehow, I would.

I typed out my third gratitude.

I am still here.

Both Feet In

Author’s Note: This experience took place a number of years ago and includes the bravest moment of my life, a single decision that changed my life’s trajectory forever.

“It’s chilly out there,” I said to my date as I climbed into his car and turned on the seat heater. “I can’t say I’m a big fan of winter.”

“The car should warm up pretty quickly,” he said, cranking up the heat.

“That place was cool,” I said making conversation. “I’d never been there before.”  

“I’m glad you liked it. Did you want to go meet up with some of my friends down the street?” he asked, not wanting the night to end. “There’s live music.”

I glanced at my phone, noting the time, stalling, unsure I was ready to meet his friends. “I think I better get going. It takes me an hour to drive home.”

While we’d been dating for over a month, I had consistently shied away from anything that would integrate our worlds too closely. I had mastered the art of keeping one foot in and one foot out.

He sighed, disappointed.

“You know Sara, right now I am all about you. I’m not interested in pursuing anyone else. I think you’re adorable and there’s real potential here. But there will come a time when I will need you to make a decision. Not today. I’m not asking that. I’m just telling you, there will be an end to my patience with your indecision and I will move on. It’s ok if you’re not into me, I just don’t want to waste my time.”

I said I understood and he put the car in drive. We were both quiet as the blocks passed, but my mind was whirling.

This man adores me. He makes me laugh. He’s cute. He is interested in what I have to say. He opens my car door and spoils me. He treats me as I should be treated. What is wrong with me? Why do I hesitate?

A light snow started to fall as we drove, changing hues with the traffic lights. Leaning my head against the window, I suddenly felt incredibly weary. My divorce years ago had led me down a destructive path I felt I deserved, an appropriate penance for my failure to hold my marriage together.

You had someone who loved you once and he left you, remember? You don’t deserve the adoration of a man like this. Once he sees you for who you really are, he will be out the door anyway. And you’ll be right back in despair. Imagine how much that will hurt.

A tear slipped free as I realized what I would miss out on if I continued to believe my negative thoughts. They were slowly squeezing the life out of me.  

“What’s wrong?” my date asked looking over at me.

I couldn’t answer. There was no easy way to say what was happening in my mind.

“Why don’t you come inside for a minute,” he said when arrived at his house. “Maybe drink some water before you get on the road.”

I followed numbly behind, my life baggage weighing me down.

As he filled a glass with water, I stood awkwardly at the door, trying to hold it together. Then he turned, and studied me, his face softening.

“Come on, let’s sit down,” he said gently, lightly taking my hand as he moved to the couch. Setting the glass of water on a nearby table, he gathered me to him, wrapping his arms around me.

His kindness broke me. No one had treated me with softness in years. I collapsed into him, sobs wracking my body.

“It’s going to be ok,” he said. “You’re safe.”

Time passed as we sat together. He held me tenderly while I cried, whispering soothing words of comfort now and then, unfazed by my overwhelming wave of emotion. Inside, I mourned all I had lost before this moment. My husband. My security. My self worth. My dignity. My understanding of the world. My confidence.

I don’t deserve someone like this…

But what if I do?

I won’t be able to make this work…

But what if I can?

I am not good enough. I will never be good enough…

But what if I am?

Years of grief, doubt, betrayal, and sadness poured from me–and he absorbed it all. With patience. Tenderness. Strength. Kindness. Unafraid to walk with me through my darkness.

I never said anything. And he never asked me to. He simply provided the safe place to land I had been looking for. Occasionally he would murmur kind words, telling me things would be ok, that I was safe, that I was worthy of his attention.

As his words challenged my inner critic, I became angry. Angry with my inner voice for keeping me in a dark place. I desperately wanted to see me as he saw me. I wanted to be kind to myself, forgive myself. I wanted a different life path.

“I’m in,” I whispered.

Hostage

“I don’t know about this,” I said to my husband Kris as we walked through the door, “I’m really not a fan of guns.”

“It’s going to be fine. Just try it. You might like it.”

I stepped into the bright warehouse. Colorful targets lined one wall, gear hung on the others. In the middle of the room stood a glass case containing guns of all sizes. Collectively, they looked menacing, a stark contrast to the smiling man behind the counter.

I had avoided guns my whole life with the exception of the required BB gun safety class in fourth grade gym. I have two memories of that class: lying uncomfortably on my belly, aiming at a target affixed to a cardboard box and afterward, throwing up in the hallway in front of all of my classmates. Perhaps the embarrassment of that incident kept me from touching a gun again for 35 years.

But now, years later, we were on a getaway date with my brother and sister-in-law and I wanted to be a good sport. That desire, and my husband’s casual reminder to “be brave, not perfect,” got me through my initial hesitation.

I was definitely a fish out of water, uncomfortable and nervous. For much of my life, perfectionism kept me from trying new things out of fear I would look stupid, feel awkward, perform imperfectly, or face judgement. I learned to observe rather than participate. But I’m changing that, so I signed the liability waiver and handed it back to the smiling clerk. In return, he handed me safety goggles, ear protection, and two targets: one featuring a woman being held hostage and another filled with cute, cuddly squirrels.

We stepped into the shooting area. “Ready for this?” Kris asked.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I said. “Besides, now I have to rescue this woman from her attacker or the guilt will keep me awake tonight. I just hope I don’t accidentally kill her.”

“Whatever you have to tell yourself to give this a try,” he smiled playfully.

I handed the hostage target to my brother-in-law so he could set things up. The safety officer in the room nodded at me, chuckling at my inappropriate footwear. I could only shrug in response. The heels matched my outfit.

I stepped into our cubby and leaned in to hear my brother-in-law’s muffled instructions through the earmuffs. He calmly pointed out the chamber, the safety, the clip. He rattled off a couple words of caution and some basics about my shooting stance.

“Ready to try it?” he asked.

Wait. Already? Don’t people usually take hours of gun safety? That was less than three minutes. I am now unconfidently holding a loaded weapon. What am I doing?

I nodded hesitantly, thinking through what I’d learned about body position. Square shoulders and hips to target. Create a solid grip. Extend arms out. Slightly bend knees and elbows. Lean forward. Close one eye. Line the site up with the attacker on the target. Pull evenly on the trigger. Don’t hit the hostage.

I took a steadying breath and fired. The kickback startled me, and the empty shell casing flew into the air and straight down my shirt.

“What the heck?!?!” I yelped, dropping a hand to my shirt to find and free it.

“They will fly all over. Just stay focused. You have a bunch of shots to go,” my brother-in-law said.

I took aim again and again, gradually adjusting to the feel of the gun and the strength of the kickback. Before long, the clip was empty.

“Let’s see how you did,” he said, bringing the target back in with the press of a button.

I took stock of the attacker and hostage. He was definitely dead. She may never use her right hand again but otherwise appeared unscathed.

“You saved her,” Kris said coming up beside me. “Nice work! What did you think?”

I looked down at the gun, a small sleek 9 mm pistol, and back at my target. I thought of how my journey to replace perfectionism with bravery had brought me to this unexpected place. I felt an unexpected glimmer of pride.

“Time to take care of those pesky squirrels.”

Tease

The boat rocked as we made our way down the river. The sun shone overhead, its heat softened by the occasional passing cloud. I stood at the bow of the boat, casting my arm forward and back, trying to mimic the fly fishing cast I had learned before we set off. The rhythm of it soothed me.

“That looks great. Aim for that little pocket of darker water over by the shore. The fish love to gather there,” my companion said. I took aim.

Forward and back. Forward and back. Forward and back. On the third cast I let the fly touch the surface just briefly and was rewarded with a tug on the line.

“You got one! Real him in.”

Caught up in the excitement, I scrambled to follow the directions.

“He’s a nice one. Great work, especially for your first time,” my guide encouraged me, grabbing the net to contain the fish.

I smiled back at him. “Thanks for teaching me and bringing me out here. I’ve always wanted to try fly fishing.”

Having released the fish after the customary photo, I cracked open a Corona and settled into my seat, leaning back to feel the sun on my face.

My companion guided the boat towards a little pool of calm water to rest. This wasn’t our first encounter. We’d been regularly running into each other at the bar after work. He was young and made me laugh; the perfect distraction to ease the pain of a recent and brutal breakup. This fly-fishing afternoon was the first time we’d purposefully gone out together, and it was working. I felt relaxed and happy for the first time in months.

Caught up in the mood, I set my beer down and made my way towards him, straddling his lap.

“Really, thank you for today. It’s just what I needed,” I said, leaning in for a kiss.

I felt his hand run up my back, stroking it softly. “Sure. I like spending time with you.”

Our kiss deepened. His scruff was softer than my ex-boyfriend’s. The kiss felt foreign but not unpleasant. As the alcohol’s warmth descended, I lost myself in the moment, my body sinking into his as I let my guard down.

Then, I felt his fingers move from my waist, to my bikini strap, trying to free the knot. I stiffened, broke our kiss, and climbed off his lap, heading back to my spot at the front of the boat.

“You’re such a tease,” he said laughing. I flashed him a flirty smile in response, one that didn’t quite reach my eyes.

Such a tease. His judgement clung to me. I knew I didn’t actually owe him anything, and yet I felt I did. He had unknowingly bolstered my resolve to leave a destructive relationship by providing me with a distraction. His interest in me had helped me begin to move from self doubt towards confidence. His infectious, carefree take on life had brought about my first moments of joy after several challenging years.

I was grateful. But I was also fragile. A painful divorce followed by a terribly toxic relationship had left me wary of being used, afraid it would add baggage to a heavy load I already struggled to carry.

We floated slowly down the river as I worked through complicated questions. Do I really want to take the next step with him, or do I just hate being called a tease? Should I say no and risk losing his interest and company? If I lost him, could I resist returning to my ex and our destructive relationship? Was I willing to risk finding out?

The boat bumped the shore, jarring me out of my reverie. We’d reached the end of our journey. I helped to clean it out, picking up the empty bottles I’d dropped at my feet as I wrestled with the potential fallout of each decision. With the boat on the trailer ready to go, I felt the weight of the moment. I needed to make a decision. And one choice marginally outweighed the other.

While I wasn’t necessarily ready for sex, it seemed to be his preferred currency. And I couldn’t afford to lose him. There was simply more potential for damage without him than with him.

He is kind to you. We have fun together. No one will judge you. It probably would have happened one day anyway. I encouraged myself as I climbed into the truck and slammed the door.

“Want to come back to my place?” I asked looking over at him. He smiled broadly and nodded his ascent. I cracked open another Corona.

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.