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.

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.

Spanx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sara?” my friend called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sara? Everyone is ready.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ham, Shem, and Jepath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving Neverland,” Ethan replied as he hit play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you think?” she asked.

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

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