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.”

Little Me

**Sometimes being brave means sharing past life moments I’ve hidden for years. This blog tells of one of those moments.**

There’s a small crack on the wall above the door frame. If I wasn’t staring numbly at the wall, I wouldn’t notice it. I briefly wonder if someone once slammed the door so hard it cracked the plaster, or if it was something more benign, a simple settling of the earth.

The crack moves out of focus as my eyes fill with tears. Refocuses as I blink them away.

Outside the door, I can hear his voice, rising and lowering as he talks. A chuckle here, a softening of his tone there. He is pacing in the hallway, unhurried and unconcerned with how I’m feeling inside the room.

I can’t make out the words, but I don’t need to. I am familiar with the tone. It is the sweet one that hooked me two years earlier. Now, that tone tells me, he isn’t checking in with a babysitter about his kids, he’s talking to a woman he’s been intimate with who happens to be watching his kids.

I’ve been that girl. I’ve watched his kids a lot. I almost feel sorry for her. I’m certain she doesn’t know he’s here with me.

Uncertain of what to do, I grab my empty glass from the bedside table and head for the liquor bottles, determined to get my money’s worth at our all-inclusive resort and to keep the pain at bay. I fill my glass with rum and top it off with a small splash of coke from the mini fridge.

As his laughter seeps through the wall, I slide open the door to the porch, grabbing the cheap wooden pipe we bought from a vendor on the beach. It has a rudimentary carving of a frog along the side. At least I think it’s a frog. He hadn’t sprung for one with a clear carving, saving his limited funds for a bag of cheap Mexican marijuana purchased in the backroom of a store selling colorful trinkets and souvenirs. His one financial contribution to our week away.

Setting the glass down on the table, I crawl into a chair, pulling my knees to my chest, trying to make myself as small as possible. I raise the pipe to my lips and flick the lighter, take a deep breath, inhale.

A couple resort workers walk by, laughing as they head to their cars. Their shift is ending as day turns to night. They don’t see me sitting in the corner, tucked into myself. Their laughter feels out of place, the wrong soundtrack for the moment.  

As I take a swig of my drink, the first negative thought breaks through.

“He is talking to another girl while you pick up the tab for a first rate vacation! How stupid can you be?”

A drag of the pipe, another swig of my drink.

“My how the mighty have fallen. You thought you had it all together. Had all the answers to life. How’s that working out for you now?”

To stop the negative voices, I picture myself as a little girl. It’s a strategy I’ve used before. Little me is too young, innocent, and small to speak harshly to. Little me was good enough. Often I picture her standing beside me with a comforting hand on my shoulder, as if the power of her potential and innocence can stop my negativity.  

This strategy often helps, but not tonight.  

“You have gotten exactly what you deserve. Your husband divorced you. And now this man uses you. You don’t even put up a fight any more.”

Three swallows from the cup, but nothing stops the incessant ranting. As a little girl, I never imagined I would feel like this. I’m exhausted but restless. Numb but somehow antsy. Inside, I feel darker than night. My mind is as unshakably toxic as the man outside my door calling another woman “baby.” I am so tired of overhearing his flirty tone, and yet I feel strangely deserving of this treatment. An utter failure.

I rest my head on my knees, praying for relief, but finding none.

I move to the bathroom and turn on the shower to feel better, to drown out the sound of his voice. But it doesn’t work. His voice is gone but the negative thoughts are louder, like jackals moving in from every side, yanking me down onto the shower floor. There, months of pent up grief, fear, anxiety, and doubt pour from me. I cannot catch my breath.

Once again, I picture me as a little girl, sitting next to me on the shower floor, but rather than comfort me, she buries her face in her hands. I feel nothing and everything, a primal place I didn’t know existed.  

Time passes. The water continues to fall. But there is nothing but black darkness left. No light. No hope. Just the pit of rock bottom and no way out.

Eventually the door opens. “What are you doing on the floor?” he asks sharply. The light cuts across my eyes, alarmingly bright as I raise a hand to shield my face.  

I can’t find an appropriate response or the energy to give it. There’s no kindness, concern, or patience in his voice. I hear him snort as he turns and walks away, heading for the patio.

I turn off the water and reach for my towel, moving in slow motion, eventually making my way to the chair beside him.

“What is the matter with you?”  he says “We are in a beautiful place and you’re crying on the shower floor.” He takes a drag from the pipe, exhaling a curl of smoke into the night air.

I have no response. There’s really nothing to say. He has never been overly concerned with my feelings and doesn’t plan to start now. Two days into a week-long vacation and things are already clear. He has moved on and has no intention of pretending otherwise. He is here for the paid vacation.

Is this all I deserve now? This relationship, and my divorce before that, have taken their toll, stripping away my self-worth one challenging moment at a time.

We sit in silence for a while. Occasionally he offers me the pipe. I accept it, hoping its contents will provide me with an escape, help me sleep.

Eventually I unfold from the chair. My muscles ache from head to toe. Deep inside, I know I deserve better, and certainly little me deserves more, but I don’t have the energy to fight for either of us tonight. Instead, I leave him out there, turn out the bedroom lights and crawl into my side of the bed. I grab my headphones, queue up a “happy” playlist and listen to one song after another, watching the shadows shift as the trees dance in the streetlight’s glow.

An hour later, he stumbles into bed, and begins snoring. Five more days of this vacation left. A penance, perhaps, for being unable to hold my marriage together and for choosing a broken companion to chase away the loneliness.  

“If this trip is already like this, will there be nothing of me left after five more days?” I wonder. Does it even matter?”

I close my eyes. “Does it even matter?”

I roll onto my side and wipe the tears from my cheek. “Do I even matter?”

Then I imagine little me again, touching my shoulder. This time her voice gets through the negativity as I drift into an exhausted sleep. “I think we do.”

Me

I top off the air in the tires, squeeze them to be sure they are full, and set the pump back on the shelf. Headphones in place and podcast queued up, I push off and begin pedaling, settling myself on the bicycle seat as I head down the familiar road towards the beach.

Overhead, the trees shade me from the sun, dripping Spanish moss down to create a canopy of texture and sound. I feel my hair begin to curl in the humid South Carolina air and smile as I bid goodbye to the twelve wasted minutes I spent straightening it earlier.

I hit play on my podcast and Oprah’s voice fills the silence. I’m in the middle of a podcast series with her and Eckhart Tolle, the author of one of my favorite books, A New Earth. They are discussing the book chapter-by-chapter and they are the perfect companions for my ride.

“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it,” Eckhart is saying. “Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Defining yourself through thought is limiting yourself.”

I hit pause to let his statement soak in. As I turn it over in my mind, I remember the last time I was miserably unhappy. It was just a couple weeks ago on a hotel balcony in Costa Rica.  

Then, after 48 hours of tension and raw discussions with my husband on our honeymoon, I’d retreated to the balcony, exhausted, deflated, and quickly spiraling into a dark place. Curled up with a box of kleenex in a swinging chair, I let the tears fall. Earlier, he’d expressed a list of hard-to-hear, but valid, insights about me and about our relationship. Those had mingled with a harsh follow-up critique from my inner perfectionist and sent me to a familiar pit of despair. Every negative thought felt so true and real they crushed me with their assessment of my character.

Now, riding my bike toward the beach, I realize that defining myself through my perfectionistic thoughts limits who I am and is the primary cause of any unhappiness. What if I hadn’t been so attached to who those thoughts say I am? Would I have felt such a strong need to dig in and defend myself for two days? Would I have sunk into such a dark place after? Probably not.

Overhead a crow caws his agreement as I hit play on the podcast, anxious to hear more.

Tolle continues: “Ego takes everything personally. Emotion arises, defensiveness, perhaps even aggression. You are defending yourself, or rather the illusion of yourself…If there is awareness in you, you will be able to recognize that voice in your head for what it is: an old thought, conditioned by the past. You no longer need to believe every thought you think. ”

I rewind and listen again, remembering my awful thoughts in Costa Rica. That night, I twisted what my husband said and convinced myself I was a bad friend, a bad wife, an endless work in progress who would never be good enough.

But I also remember, that as my tears ran out, I felt the breeze and heard the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. I noticed the canopy of stars stretching endlessly above me. I became aware of my breath and the feel of the wall under my feet as I pushed off to keep my chair swinging. My emotional exhaustion had returned me to the present moment.

Was that the awareness Eckhart spoke of? The feeling of being so present in the moment that my thoughts still?

“How to be at peace now?” Tolle asks, before answering his own question. “By making peace with the present moment. The present moment is the field on which the game of life happens. It cannot happen anywhere else…It is when we are trapped in incessant streams of compulsive thinking that the universe really disintegrates for us, and we lose the ability to sense the interconnectedness of all that exists…Only if we are still enough inside and the noise of thinking subsides can we become aware that there is a hidden harmony here, a sacredness, a higher order in which everything has its perfect place and could not be other than the way it is.”

Arriving at the beach, I turn the podcast off, and hear my bike tires rumble over the boardwalk below. Countless times, over 35 years, I’ve ridden this way, knowing the smooth sand of the Atlantic shore will greet me at the end. I return because riding along the ocean in this familiar place soothes something inside me. Here I can always drown out the voice in my head; the one Eckhart is talking about.

But, while it is easy here, I must remember the peace of being in the present moment is always available to me, regardless of my location or life events. And being in the present moment quiets my thoughts and reminds me I am not who they say I am. I am something more.

I turn my bike into the sun. A flock of small sea birds flitters past, alighting on a tide pool just ahead, only to take off immediately as I reach them. We move from tide pool to tide pool as I pedal down the beach. A pelican flies overhead, turning its head to look down on me. For a brief moment, I stare into its big brown eye and hold my breath. The waves crash rhythmically, consistently, the soundtrack for my ride. Ahead of me, a golden retriever plays in the waves, soaked from nose to tail. He turns to his owner and barks. The owner responds by throwing his ball down the beach towards me. He bounds after it, dodging waves and screeching to a sandy halt, having the time of his life.

The voice in my head goes quiet. For the first time in a long time, I feel calm, connected, peaceful, and content. I am the true me, not who my limiting thoughts say I am.  

And it’s beautiful.

Surf’s Up

The alarm’s brash sound cut through the peaceful morning, setting my heart racing. I’d been restless all night, never fully falling into deep sleep, yet still it managed to startle me.

I stumbled to the bathroom, turned on the shower to warm the water, and glanced in the mirror.

“You excited about today?” my husband Kris yelled from the other room. I could hear him rummaging through his suitcase, opening the curtains to let in the morning sun, and turning on the portable speaker.

“Mmmhmmm…” I mumbled non-committedly.

Soon Michael Franti’s reggae happiness filled the air as I stepped into the spray and let the water cascade over me.

“I say hey, I’ll be gone today, but I’ll be back all around the way….” the song reverberated off the tile and I tapped a toe to the rhythm. I was anxious about the day. We were heading to the beach to learn to surf.

In the past when the opportunity had presented itself, I’d sat happily on the sidelines watching. Neither a fan of the water nor of new activities for which I had no skill, I’d been content to let others go, cheering them safely from the shore.

It seems like everywhere I go, the more I see, the less I know…”

But this was a honeymoon, so I was the only other person available to go. While Kris would have gone alone and enjoyed his time, I knew he would love it more if I tagged along. So gamely I’d agreed the night before.

“But I know one thing, that I love you…” his head poked around the door as he sang along, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

I smiled. His excitement was contagious.

An hour later, standing on the shore next to surf boards that towered over me, I was less certain.

“I didn’t realize they were so big,” I said to our instructor, Alejandro.

“You’ll do great,” he smiled back. “Pura vida. All is well, I will help you.”

We spent what felt like a frighteningly inadequate amount of time practicing on the shore and soon after I found the board strapped to my ankle and shoved under my arm as he turned and pointed me to the sea.

“We’ll be right behind you. Just don’t let the board get in front of you once you reach the water or it could crash into your face with a wave. Very bad.”

I can do this,” I muttered to myself. “These waves are tiny, how bad can it be? And if I fall, the water is shallow and I can at least say I tried it.”

I made my way into deeper water, trying to pass through the water break into the calmer sea beyond.

“Be brave, not perfect. You only need to try it. No one cares if you fall. It’s your first time. If nothing else, you’ll have something to write about.”

Finally in calmer water, I turned to wait for the other two students and our instructor who were making their way towards me. In the distance, the group photographer waited on shore, camera poised waiting to catch every moment so he could sell them to us later.

“These photos will be priceless,” I thought to myself as I waited for the others to close the gap between us.

“Ok Sara,” said Alejandro, “hop on like we practiced. You’re up first!”

“Me?” I asked. “Surely one of the others should go first, I’ve never done this before.”

“I’ll be right here,” came his answer. “I’ve never had a student not get up. A few tries and you’ll have it. Up you go.”

I grabbed the edges of the board, not sharing his enthusiasm or his certainty, and half jumped half flopped my body onto the end of it. I pulled myself forward, stretching the length of my body in the center of the board, settling my toes towards the edge, and prepared to wait for a wave, taking a few deep breaths to steady my rapid heartbeat.

“Here it comes, ready?” he called.

“Wait…already? What do I…”

“Now!!!” he yelled. “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!”

My arms flailed at my sides, trying to catch traction in the water around me as I scrambled to follow his directions.

“Up! Jump up!” he called.

I could feel the momentum of the wave but couldn’t process fast enough. The routine we had practiced on the sand slipped immediately out of mind. Frantic, I pulled myself onto my knees, wobbly and unsteady. I could hear voices cheering me in the distance. I planted one foot in front of me, looked to the shore, and steadily tried to get the second one balanced beneath me on the board, distributing my weight evenly.

“Wait. I’m standing.” I thought. “And I’m moving still. Am I surfing? Why am I not falling? I should be falling.”

My legs shook beneath me with the effort and adrenaline. I heard my name in the distance.

“Sara!! Sara!!! Look over here!!!”

I turned my head to the sound, spotted the photographer waving at me with his camera and smiled.

Oh my gosh!!! I’m actually surfing a wave!!!”

I raised my arms triumphantly over my head. The moment captured on film, I turned my attention to the beach rapidly approaching.

“Shit,” I thought, “how do I stop? We never talked about stopping. We only talked about getting up. What do I do when I reach the shore?”

I started to panic. I was running out of water as I sped towards shore. Making a gametime decision, I stepped off the board and into the shallow water, intending to run gracefully to the shore. Insead, unable to keep up with my momentum, I sprawled into a spectacular crash, bouncing along the bottom of the ocean, tearing up the side of my leg and inhaling a gallon of seawater. Eventually screeching to a stop, I sat up and looked around.

Everyone was clapping and smiling.

“You did it!” I heard Kris yell. I waved in acknowledgement as I took stock of my body parts.

“I’m good,” I said under my breath, “A bit banged up, but good. And I did it, I actually did it!”

I collected my board and hoisted it under my arm, and turned back to face the sea. As the sun warmed me from above and the surf crashed around me, I paused to soak in the moment. “Be brave, not perfect,” I thought, “look how far I’ve come.”

“Well done,” Alejandro called.

“We really need to talk about the dismount!” I yelled back.


Chubby Unicorn

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

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

But there is a silver lining.

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

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

He finds it hilarious.

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

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

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

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

Kris paused a moment, confused.  

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

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

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

“Hmmm…” I respond, lost in thought.

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

“Of course I get it,” I answer.

And I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battling the Bulge

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

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

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

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

“Here goes nothing,” I mumble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My eyes tear up a little.

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

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

No matter what the scale reads.

And you are too.

Pasta Shenanigans

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

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

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

“Ready?” My partner asks.

“Absolutely,” I answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.