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.

Hairy Legs

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I settle my face into the cradle and take a few deep breaths. Soft new age music plays in the background of the dimly lit room. It’s meant to reassure me but I’m tenser than usual. I adjust the bolster with my feet, trying to get comfortable. The sheet slips free with my fidgeting and tangles around my legs. With a sigh, I reach a hand down and slide the bolster into place, attempting to smooth the blankets back into place and untangle my feet in the process.

“Honestly, settle Sara. You’re making a mess of things. She will have to spend the first five minutes getting you untangled,” I think as I lay back down and try to release the tension in my shoulders.

“It will be fine,” I whisper to myself. “Dozens of people come in here every day, the details have to blend together. Ugh, why did I do this to myself?”

Earlier that morning the schedule chime had gone off on my phone, reminding me of this appointment with 15 minutes to spare. I had brilliantly scheduled it for the morning after all the holiday hoopla knowing I would be desperate for a quiet room and some time to myself. And yet, in the chaos it had slipped my mind until my alarm sent me into a panicked hurry.

Switching it off and checking the time, I realized I could either jump into the shower and quickly shave my legs or grab a desperately needed cup of coffee. There was not time for both. With this journey towards bravery in mind and in a fit of defiance, I picked coffee and now paid the price. The hair on my legs seemed to mock me from under the skewed sheet. I felt every one of them, scratching against the blanket, certain I would be judged and found lacking when my massage therapist reached my legs.

A soft knock on the door stills my fidgeting.

“Ready?” her soft voice asks.

“As I’ll ever be,” I mumble unenthusiastically into the cradle.

With a practiced flourish, she closes the door and flutters the sheets into place, nestling the bolster into the crook of my feet at the same time. The music switches to a song melded with trickling water as she begins to work the tension out of my shoulders. I sigh, melting into the table as each kink releases and my muscles begin to relax.

Twenty minutes later I am shocked awake as I begin to feel the blanket shift as she uncovers my left leg.

“Oh no, oh no. Here it comes. She’s about to feel the stubble. I’m so nervous. And on top of that I have to pee. Crap. Why, oh why did I pick the cup of coffee?”

“Ugh. This is ridiculous. Thousands of people go into massages unworried every day with leg hair. Just relax already. It’s not a big deal.”

“Maybe, but I don’t. Ever. My legs are always smooth, unmarred by stubble. The smoothest legs of her day.”

“They don’t give gold stars for that you know. So why do you care? Let it go already and enjoy the moment. It’s leg hair for goodness sake, the entire population has it.”

My mind whirls, each thought tripping over the one before it. The moment drags on, suspended in time. I clear my throat, furiously thinking of something to say to fill an awkward silence only I can hear.

Fresh oil applied, she digs into my calf muscle. There isn’t a shift in her speed or her pressure to indicate she thinks anything is amiss, unusual, or awry. I sense no underlying judgement. I release a breath I didn’t know I held.

My rational brain knew things would unfold this way, and yet I’m still surprised. The negative thoughts in my head pushing endlessly for perfection in all things feel so incredibly real and right, it always catches me off guard when they are wrong.

I smile into the face cradle. Not only does the massage itself feel heavenly, so does the little bit of extra freedom I just gained.

How much time would I gain if I rewrite small moments like these going forward? What if I never again felt the need to apologize for leg stubble? And if conquering leg hair feels like a huge win, what might my life look like if I am able to shed the need for perfectionism in all moments?

I melt into a puddle of relaxed goo, in this present moment it feels not just possible, but probable.

And I’ll take that win, celebrate it, and hopefully carry it with me long into 2019.

Mario Kart

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“Go, go, go,” I hear the yells and giggles from the other room as I put the last dish into the dishwasher. “You’ve got this Hannah! Faster, faster, you’re doing great!”

“Take that,” Ethan hollers with glee.

“NOOOO, how did you do that? That’s it, I’m coming for you,” warns another voice.

The interaction makes me smile. My stepchildren and two friends are piled in the living room having just returned from Target where they pooled their Christmas gift cards to buy a new video game, a rare show of solidarity and cooperation. They now sit shoulder to shoulder, each leaning forward in an attempt to make their Mario character race just a little bit faster.

Wiping my hands on a towel, I mosey in to join them. I perch on the nearby armchair to see what all the fuss is about. Colorful characters race through the course in their colorful cars through loop-d-loops and twists and turns, tossing turtles and banana peels along the way.  

A checkered flag is waved as the last one crosses the finish line and the scores go up on the screen. As the trophy is handed out to the winning team, they relive the best moments of the race.

“Did you see how I took out your car with that squid ink?

“Oh I saw it,” came the reply, “you’ll pay for that next round.

“I need to make some changes to my car, it is NOT well suited for that course.”

The characters line up again at the starting line and gun their engines as the countdown plays on the screen: 3….2….1….GO. This time the characters begin to race through roads made of piano keys and other musical accoutrements. I sit happily by, listening to their banter, trying to make sense of what’s happening on the screen. I watch close calls, triumphs, frustrations, and power ups. I cheer here and there for the underdog and throw in the occasional, “That’s not a nice way to talk to your sister,” but for the most part I’m caught up in the moment, savoring this moment in time and all it has to offer.

“Your turn Sara.” The sentence catches me off guard.

Wait. What did he say?

“Yeah, you should try it,” another chimes in.

“Umm…I don’t think so. I haven’t picked up a video game controller in nearly 20 years and even after watching you for 30 minutes I don’t have a clue how to play,”

“That’s ok, just push this button here, move this switch there, you’ll catch on.”

A controller is pushed into my hand. Quick directions given. “I don’t know how to do this. I will look like an idiot. What is the slowest time anyone has ever completed a course? These controllers are clearly made for smaller hands. My cool bonus mom facade is about to crumble into a bajillion pieces and they will see the truth. I’m a fraud, carefully hidden behind my perfect mask.”

“Just remember to push the button marked with an X with your thumb, it’s what makes you accelerate. Otherwise you’ll just sit there.”

An X? Where’s the X? Is this controller made for a left handed person? Why are all the important controls under my left thumb? I’m right handed. My left hand is nearly useless. What about all these other buttons? What do they do? Everywhere my fingers touch there’s a button. What if my car just sits there?”

“You got this. It’s ok if you’re not that good.”

“Easy for you to say kid, you’ve come in first place every single round. No secret shame happening in your head right now.”

On the screen even my character looks nervous, his rainbow mohawk giving him an air of toughness he doesn’t deserve. I can tell it’s a smokescreen, a distraction from the insecurities he hides inside. Just looking at him I can sense his trepidation, feel the sweat drip down his palms as he looks around wondering how he got lined up here among the big racers. I wipe my hands on my legs.

His colorful gokart reminds me of a bike I road in a parade once. I had been so proud of it at home with its streamers wound in and out perfectly between the wheel spokes. I rode with my head held high for miles until I got to the parade starting line and saw the other bikes. Those bikes had every color of streamer imaginable, putting my three colors to shame. They had tassels, and balloons, and bells covering every square inch. They glistened so shiny new my hand-me-down bike paled in comparison, making me feel small and insignificant.

“Oh great. This moment in time will play out just like that one. Once again I’m an imposter among giants.”

For a brief moment I glance at my stepdaughter Hannah. I was holding a controller because she had become frustrated with losing to the boys again and again, bristling even as they gave her encouragement. I could sense why. She’s wired a lot like me. Encouragement can feel patronizing to an overachieving perfectionist when your mind is filled with negative thoughts and self criticism.

“This is a chance for me to model a different message to her. A chance to be brave instead of shying away from something just because the world tells me if I can’t do it perfectly I shouldn’t do it at all. A chance to put my money where my mouth is and act as though I believe I am already enough, regardless of my performance in the next three minutes. I don’t need to make this race about me. It isn’t about me. It’s about having fun, letting go, and enjoying the moment. I can model that. For her, and for that little girl who felt her bike was inadequate for an entire parade because it didn’t seem to measure up.”

The countdown numbers begin to flash on the screen as I square my shoulders and start pushing buttons, familiarizing myself with the controller.

3….I’ve got this.

2…..For Hannah.

1….For my younger self and her carefully woven streamers. She was perfect even then.

GO!

Boudoir Bravery

watermark2I set the last box in the trunk, shove it down, rearrange the tangle of Christmas lights and the bag of cardigan sweaters so the door will latch, and slam it shut.

“Well that might be overkill,” I mutter to myself as I look through the window to the overflowing trunk. “I probably didn’t need to take the whole house with me.”

Brushing a stray hair out of my face, I open the door and slide into the driver’s seat, feeling anxious to get going. As I reach to adjust my mirror, I notice the firefighter’s hat is blocking a good portion of my view out the back window. With a sigh I steal a quick glance at the dashboard clock and decide it will have to do.

“I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” I mumble to myself as I start the car. “It’s my blog’s fault, all this be brave not perfect nonsense. People can talk me into anything now.”

I hit play on a podcast, pull onto the street, and settle in for my hour drive.

My wedding is two weeks away and I’m marrying a groom who is notoriously hard to buy for. I had been wracking my brain for weeks for the perfect wedding gift idea to no avail. Out of ideas and nearly out of time, my friend Chris, talked me into a boudoir photo shoot — a hobby of hers and an idea so completely out of character for me I still can’t believe I’m actually going through with it. My car is packed to the roof with gizmos, gadgets, props, and outfits, anything I could find to hold in front of my jiggly parts.

“I should have done this in my 20’s, or my 30’s,” I think to myself. “Now I’m wrinkly, freckly, and a tad droopy in places. And that’s not even taking into consideration my ten divorce pounds.”

The road stretches before me and I try to distract myself with an inspiring podcast, hoping its wise words will calm my anxious nerves. Instead, I find my mind wandering to memories and messaging from my life that make today’s adventure so challenging. A whispered judgment in a locker room here, a demanding and glossy headline there. A touch of church propriety sprinkled on top. So much cultural messaging that shaped me into a woman who feels if my body doesn’t measure up to a perfect standard, it’s not sexy, not worth showing. And even if it is, perhaps I better run the idea by someone more pious. The thoughts swirl around, one after another, making my head spin. I try to catch them, address them, ignore them, admonish them, anything to quiet them. But these negative thoughts about my appearance are some of the most resistant. They’ve been with me the longest and are the thoughts reinforced every single day by news articles, tv shows, magazine covers, social media posts, and the world as a whole.

They form the core of my perfectionism.

As such, they are the messages I’m trying hardest to shake on this journey. The messages that keep me bound, afraid, and sitting on life’s sidelines instead of diving in, living life to the fullest, and forging my own brave path forward. So I set my jaw and drive, determined to address them today in a real way, hoping that by doing so, I take one big step towards altering my life’s course and freeing me from their tight and relentless grip.  

Eventually I arrive, pull up in front of her studio, and turn off the car. Catching my eye in the mirror as I check my hair and makeup I murmur, “You’ve got this. Tap into your inner sex kitten.” I laugh at my joke, knowing if there is such a thing inside me, it’s buried under a lot of baggage. My cheesy humor seems to calm my nerves.

The sound of my car door opening startles an antelope grazing nearby. His head snaps up as he assesses me, but he seems unconcerned with my presence and unimpressed by my hair and makeup, returning quickly to his grassy breakfast.

“Clearly he has no idea what’s about to happen,” I mutter.  

Having heard me pull up, Chris and her daughter, Meriah, emerge from the studio calling happy greetings. They’re excited about the project and anxious to help me unload and get started.

Chris and I have been exchanging ideas and images for a week in preparation, deciding what looks we’re going for, what props we need to pull them off. Their excitement should be contagious but so far my stomach remains a stubborn ball of nerves.

“Woah,” my awe escapes me as I cross the threshold and look around. “I wasn’t expecting this,” I say to my friend, leaning to set my armload down on a nearby chair.

The building is comfortable, welcoming. The initial sitting area colorful and warm, the dressing room fanciful and filled with props, jewelry, robes, and furry blankets. I run my fingers over those closest to me, taking in their textures and beauty. Through a nearby door, the studio itself is bright and inviting. My heart rate begins to slow as I take it all in.

Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

Returning to the sitting area where my pile of stuff cascades across every surface, we begin to lay it out systematically, working through each look. We discuss a tentative order for the day, returning to the sample photos we’ve been exchanging as we strategize, matching poses with outfits. Eventually we are ready. Having stalled as long as I possibly can, I pick up the first outfit and excuse myself to change.

As I pull on each piece of the first look I whisper words of encouragement.

A stocking. “I can do this.”

The other stocking. “I am beautiful.”

Underwear. “I am perfectly imperfect.”

Bra. “I trust Chris to highlight the good, camouflage the bad.”

Garter. “My Kris loves me. He loves this body just as it is.”

Second garter. “It’s a good body, a healthy body.”

Earrings. “It has served me well for 43 years.”

Necklace. “I CAN do this. I need to do this.”

Stealing one last glance in the mirror I turn and open the door.

“Oh you look so good!” Meriah exclaims immediately as I step hesitantly back into the foyer. “Let me help you with the last hooks.” She moves to my side, no longer a stranger as she works to secure the clasps and hooks in intimate places I can’t reach.

“Champagne?” Chris asks, stepping towards me. “I find a sip or two makes the beginning a touch easier. But you’ll see, it will be great. We aren’t here to judge but to help you make something great. You’re beautiful and I’m going to capture that for both of you.”

I accept the glass from her outstretched hand and take a sip. The bubbles feel light and airy as they slip down my throat. I take another sip, smile at my friend. Thankful it’s her and not someone else with me in this moment.

There’s something raw, vulnerable, and intimate about posing in lingerie. And I’ve expertly dodged intimacy, rawness, and vulnerability for years; content to stay safely ensconced in logic, strategy, and my thoughts where I’m protected from failure and the judgement of others. Doing so has allowed me to appear perfect on the sideline much of my adult life. But I’m tired of the sideline, of watching others live life instead of living it myself. It’s why I’m on this journey, yet taking the first step remains challenging. Having a friend take it with me helps.

I swallow the last sip as Meriah slips the last hook in place and declares me ready. Chris reaches for her camera on the nearby counter and adjusts the lights in the studio space.  

“Be brave not perfect right?” she asks me.

I take a deep breath, look her in the eye, nod my ascent. “Be brave not perfect,” I reply, as I set my empty glass down firmly on the counter and step into the studio.

To see more of my friend’s work or to reach her for your own session, visit: https://m.facebook.com/ChrisGentryPhotography/

Joy Comes With the Morning

paintingThe sun begins its slow ascent above the horizon. Just the barest whisper of light. A rooster next door crows.

“Uggggghhh. It’s too early. It’s so dark, how does he even know it’s morning?” I think as I roll over, adjusting my pillow in a feeble attempt to block the noise.

Unsuccessful and awake, I lay in bed, wondering why God wired roosters to crow at such an ungodly hour. At times he sounds like a sick dog. Or maybe, I realize, this is just what a sick rooster sounds like.

I crack an eye open. The room is pitch black with the exception of the faintest of glows from the skylight in the adjoining bathroom. I could almost make it to the toilet without a flashlight. But it feels far away this early in the morning. I close my eye again, focus on the sounds around me. I can no longer hear the squeak of bats from the earlier hours. I imagine they’ve tucked in for the day, though how they can sleep through the rooster’s incessant howling is beyond me.

I hear the quiet breath of my fiancé sleeping beside me. Later today he will become my husband. I can hardly believe it. Most days it feels like an impossible dream. Listening to his steady breathing, my mind drifts, tracing the road I traveled to get to this day. The rooster provides an odd soundtrack, cock-a-doodle-doo-ing exclamation marks and commentary as my mind winds its way through the twists, turns, peaks, and valleys of the last six years. Memory upon memory. Some good, many challenging, and a select few I’ve shoved into hidden places deep inside.

I let them come now and find that the most painful don’t sting as they once did. Instead, I feel as though I’m wandering through an art gallery of my life, stopping at each memory captured in time, experiencing the lingering feeling attached to it, marveling that the feelings have both dimmed and remained vivid.

I play back the nights I sobbed on the floor in the midst of my separation, curled around my faithful dog, certain I would never feel worthy of love again. The recollection is so real I reach my hand to my cheek, surprised to find it smooth instead of imprinted with tears and the pattern of my carpet.

I replay the day my finalized divorce decree blindsided me in the mail, picturing the envelope sliding to the kitchen floor while I stand staring at the judge’s seal wondering if I am supposed to nestle this document next to my marriage license in a safe place or shove it into the darkest cupboard and slam the door.

I relive the time I was here in Mexico with another man; remembering how I picked up the tab for a week of lousy treatment, lies, and sleepless nights. I recall how I added to my own misery by endlessly berating myself for being so stupid, chasing each negative thought with a drink to numb the pain.

I remember them all, dragging each hidden moment into the pale light of dawn, a gentle time of day when they are easiest to bare.

While not the first time I’ve relived them, it is the first time I’m able to move past the negative thoughts that accompany them and clearly see each memory’s influence on who I am today.

As a neighborhood dog begins barking with the rooster, I realize the nights on the floor wrestling with my self-worth brought clarity that it didn’t matter what others thought of me, only what I believed about myself. And I was worth something better.

And while shocking in its stealthy arrival, my divorce decree closed a door firmly behind me, one I had stubbornly kept cracked. A door that had to close so I could look forward rather than back. And once I did, I took the first tender step towards this new life.

That miserable week in Mexico became my painful rock bottom, a jarring turning point. Without its brutal lesson, I would have chosen similar men for years, hanging on to the illusion I could love the broken to wholeness. After all, that’s what every Disney movie had promised me. Instead, fed up and angry, I looked for something new and was now lying next to my own Prince Charming.

As individual challenging moments rearrange themselves, my journey down memory lane turns peaceful. A beautiful mosaic emerges. A portrait of a new me. A stronger me. A better me.  IMG_0477

A version of me who exists not in spite of but because of those painful moments.

A door slams suddenly on the street outside, breaking my reverie. My man stirs beside me. I’m aware of more sounds on the street. A truck rumbling by, the scrape of a gate opening. Two women call to one another, the neighboring property so close I swear they are in our room. The first ray of direct sun finally cracks through the curtain, beaming across the tile floor, tracing a path across the bed.

My fiancé’s eyes open. He sees me looking at him. Smiles. Reaches for me as he often does. Squeezes my hand.

“You ready for today?” he asks.

“Absolutely,” I answer.

“Me too,” he responds.

I stare at him, tracing my hand down his cheek. Catching my reflective mood, he whispers, “I love you, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” I answer, “I finally do too.”

Curse of the Gold Star

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The room is hot, unbearably hot. The lights dim as I sink into pigeon pose. A bead of sweat traces a path towards my eye as I lower my head to my mat. Wiping it away I focus on my breath, silencing my overactive mind. I hear the instructor’s voice as he circles the room, zeroing in on a student to guide into the pose. He is moving my way.

“Pick me, pick me,” a thought budges in. He takes a step closer. “Pick me, pick me,” it whispers again. I take a deep breath, refocus. He steps behind me. “Yes! We got picked! We win!” a chorus of voices in my head sing as they do a collective happy dance. I shake them off, trying to focus on the instructor’s hands on my back, guiding me lower into the stretch, readjusting my pose for maximum benefit. I breathe deeply, exhale fully.

Walking to the car after class, my fiancé Kris mumbles, “I never get picked. You always get picked.” A fleeting moment of smug triumph flashes through my mind before I catch it, an automatic response leftover from my childhood, just like the voices desperate to be picked. Neither are welcome, these roots of my perfectionism, for they remind me how far I still have to go to be free of them.

As we begin our drive home, watching the sun rise on the horizon, I let my mind drift back to my earliest memory, one that set me on my perfectionist path.

I’m sitting at a table surrounded by other students in a cozy room. The walls around me are dark wood and shelves of books line the perimeter, leading to an elevated reading area in one corner. A small sink sits near the work area, ready for little hands to use. Outside an open window I can hear Candy Mae, the farm school cow, munching her breakfast. I adore her.

We sit shoulder to shoulder, weaving paper placemats. I’ve chosen my paper strips and colors carefully, using only the best pieces with the flattest edges. I work slower than my peers, wanting to get it right. My brow furrows as I concentrate, lining up the pieces carefully, weaving the pattern perfectly. One by one those around me complete the task and run off to enjoy free time. I labor on, pushing the pieces together tightly, careful not to rip the paper. Over and under, over and under. No spilled milk is getting through my placemat.

IMG_2654Occasionally a teacher walks by to check on me, murmurs a few encouraging words and moves on to mitigate a crisis brewing in another part of the room.

The last one at the table, I weave the final strip into place, pulling it tight against its neighbor. I pause. Take one last look. Wiggle a piece into a straighter line. Give my head a small nod. It is my best work to date. I sit quietly proud of myself, waiting for a teacher to excuse me. She comes over, takes a look at my work, reaches over my shoulder and adds something to the right hand corner of my placemat. As she pulls her hand away, it glistens, reflecting the lights overhead, shining up at me.

My first gold star.

IMG_2652It mesmerizes me with its beauty, instantly turning my placemat into a treasured piece of art. My pride in my work soars to a new level. An addicting level. I sit a little straighter. Smile. I take my placemat gently to my cubby, place it carefully next to my things. The star twinkles up at me.

I want another one.

Back in the car, I rest my head on the side window, letting the passing neighborhoods blur into stripes of color. I feel sad for that girl, my younger self. That moment started her on an exhausting path, a path chasing gold stars and their equivalents for decades.

Each one became more important than the last because somewhere along the way I stopped seeing them for what they were, validation of my mastery of a subject, and started seeing them as validation for who I was as a person. They became something concrete I could point to as evidence I had worth when inside I was filled with insecurity.

I thought if I just kept earning them, one after another, I would always have value and never have to address my insecurities. Instead, I could point to my pile of gold stars and report cards filled with A’s as proof I was worthy.

But this strategy came with a price.

With each passing perfect year, the pressure to maintain that level of performance grew. Subjects became harder, tension mounted, my efforts tripled as I tried to avoid failure. Eventually perfectionism consumed me, limited me, kept me living in fear with its endless hunger for the next perfect grade.

I began to measure my worth by what I could provide for people and their corresponding validation. It started innocently enough. A perfectly woven placemat. A well written paper. Sharing my toys. A listening ear.

Yet with each passing year, the more I achieved, the higher my standard moved. Suddenly instead of a well written paper, I felt pressure to increase my annual commission, year after year. To lead my real estate team to the top spot in the market. To provide a comfortable home for my spouse. A fancy vacation. To obsessively count every calorie and log every treadmill mile to maintain a thin frame. To offer unlimited forgiveness for the consequences of addiction, no matter the pain it caused me.

Always striving to produce the perfect product, the perfect response, the perfect gift.

And I succeeded. For years. Never failing. Able to juggle and control everything. I went through life piling up gold stars.

In the end, it nearly crushed me. When I finally experienced my first real failure with my divorce, the first time I couldn’t perform my way to a gold star ending, my world fell apart. All the insecurities, dark places, and fears my gold stars had kept at bay for 35 years came flooding to the surface, sending me into a deep depression.

I floundered, convinced what I suspected all these years was true…I had no intrinsic value outside of what I could produce for others. And I didn’t have enough energy to perform.

So I stopped trying altogether.

I went through the motions at work but with little drive or interest. I hid from friends. I drank nightly, using alcohol to numb my overwhelming self-doubt. I paired myself with men who treated me poorly, certain I only deserved the most broken until I could earn my way to someone better.

I lived this way for months, years.

Until I found myself tipsy one night, sitting on the shower floor, crying as water poured over me, knowing the man I was with was outside the door on the phone with another girl and calling her baby, wondering what went wrong.

I had tried so hard. I had been so perfect. I had met every spoken and unspoken expectation of every person in my life. I had woven my life’s placemat well. Yet here I was, a shell of myself, drowning in despair on a cold tile floor.

In that moment, I remembered that sweet little girl smiling at her first gold star.

A gold star she never needed. She was already proud of her work. She knew she had done a good job and liked the end product. She didn’t need the validation that star had provided. She already knew she had value.

And she was still a part of me.

This journey to be brave, not perfect is a journey to find her again. To remember her. To hug her. To love her. To give her grace. To listen to her voice. To tell her she has value. With or without a straight placemat. With or without a ripped corner.

With or without a gold star.

Because in valuing her, I learn to value myself now.

With or without a high paying job.

With or without saving the world.

With or without an extroverted personality.

With or without a size 2 body.

With or without others’ gold stars of approval.

Valuable just because I’m me. A woman who is doing the best she can. One who is sometimes brave, never perfect, but always worthy.

-Sara

A Question by the Sea

view of Italian roadThe cursor blinks tauntingly at me. My page is blank. On the horizon, the sun is rising over the Mediterranean, beginning another impossibly beautiful day. In the distance a woman calls to someone in a language I can’t understand. A man yells back a curt response. On the road below my balcony, a scooter flies by, nearly colliding with a semi-truck that is much too large for the road space. The sky and the sea stretch endlessly before me, competing with one another for the prize of “most brilliant blue.”

I close my eyes, feel the sun warm my face. “I can do this,” I tell myself.

It’s 2014. Despondent and in need of drastic action to correct my life’s course, I’m on a three-month sabbatical from work. I’ve traveled around the world, visiting new and familiar places, working my way through a writing program designed to help me uncover past patterns so I can use them to outline my desired future. Things had been going reasonably well, I was nearing the end. Through weeks of emotional exhaustion, brutal honesty with myself, and an intense commitment to writing, I had completed every piece of the program with the exception of the question that troubled me, “Describe your ideal mate.”

With another sip of coffee, hands poised to type, I let my mind wander back in time, three years earlier, to the darkest period of my life. The time that makes this question hard to answer.

“I want a divorce,” he says. “I don’t see things changing for me and I can’t keep you in limbo as I try to figure out my life.” The words hang in the air. I hear a clock ticking in the distance, mocking as it marks this moment in time. “How odd,” I think, “I don’t remember owning a clock that ticks.” I let go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding.

Part of me knew this was coming. We had danced around the topic for a year, always stopping just short of a decision. We’d had this exact conversation before. A few times.

“I’ll figure out the paperwork, get it to you to sign,” he says standing and moving towards the door.

I nod once, staring into the space he just left. I focus on the grime on the window, visible now that he’s moved. Willing myself not to cry, I pick out the shape of a rabbit, then a clown.

“I’m sorry. Really. This isn’t how I expected life to go,” he says softly.

“I know,” I whisper back.

I can’t turn and face him. It’s too hard to watch him walk away. I straighten my spine, using my last ounce of strength to stay upright as he leaves.

I hear the basement door close, his truck start, and the motor’s acceleration as he pulls away. I listen as it retreats into the distance, wanting to hang on to the last familiar sound before facing the new world around me. In its absence a thick silence descends. The window grime clown changes back into a rabbit. A tear slips free. Then another. “Is the rabbit crying? Wait. No, that’s me.” The thoughts tumble, each one odder than the next until I let the truth in.

It’s really over.

I collapse on the couch, letting the sobs long held inside flow. Their escape allows space for the darkness to descend.

Darkness that will stay with me for years.

balcony tableBack on the Mediterranean balcony, I let my mind wander to that memory. I relive the way it felt, the details somehow unmarred by the passage of time.

My thoughts drift to a time one month later when with a final signature, I sign away my marriage and with it my sense of self-worth, ushering in three years of listless drifting as I struggle to rediscover who I am.

Moments from those years flash in and out in quick succession. I let them run free, seeing where they take me. I journey through times I turned to God then alcohol, cycling between the two as I sought answers or relief.

To moments I cried myself to sleep, crumpled in the fetal position on the floor, certain I had no strength left to continue another day. To days when I couldn’t get out of bed, overwhelmed by the energy it would take to fake my way through the day so the world felt comfortable around me.

I relive moments under the vast Montana sky as I lay in my hammock, hummingbirds fluttering about my head, strangely interested in the sound of my tears.

I reluctantly follow my thoughts to the face of a man I dated after, desperately seeking evidence I was lovable. A man I traveled to the other side of the world to forget. A man who reinforced my belief I deserved nothing more than to be used, cheated on, and left behind. A man who kept my heart broken.

Ideal mate?” I ask myself, “Is there such a thing? Love causes so much pain.”

I scroll past the question, slightly uncomfortable leaving a portion unfinished.

I hesitate.

Scroll back up.

Stop.

The cursor blinks in the space where my answer should be.

“Yeah, but…what if?” The question filters up from the farthest corner of my heart, lingering. I gaze out over the sea, spot a couple of birds flying by. I’m torn between self-protection and hope, at war with myself.

I’m tired of being sad. I’m tired of love hurting. If I avoid it, never let anyone in, I can ensure that won’t happen. It’s safe,” argues my mind.

“Yeah, but…what if?” whispers my heart.

The question catches me off guard. My heart had recently joined forces with my head on this issue, what was happening?

“What if?” my heart persists.

 “What if what?” logic snaps back, “You know, whatever. It’s your funeral. Besides, it isn’t as if by writing it you actually have to do let anyone in, it’s just a silly exercise.”

 With little to draw from, I start. Grudgingly at first, describing someone the complete opposite of everyone I had known.

My ideal partner would love me unconditionally. He would care about the things that are important to me just because they were important to me. He would love to travel with me. He would share a compassion for the poor and have a strong sense of justice.”

“Be more specific,” my heart chimes in. “What do you want? No one will read this. Tell the truth.”

I dig deeper and continue on, describing someone so perfect for me I would have to be in a Disney movie for him to exist.

He would open doors for me and help me with my coat. He would be tender and affectionate. He would treat me as though I was the only woman in the room, having eyes only for me. He would have a healthy relationship with alcohol. He would be comfortable with people and also alone. He would be smart, able to engage in intellectual conversation. He would be successful in his own way. He would be comfortable with what he contributes and not be threatened if I make more money than him. He would not take advantage of that either. He would admit his flaws and what he has learned from hard times in his life. He would be honest, real, raw, and confident.

I write. Then I forget about it.

I return home from my sabbatical and find myself sucked into the same behaviors, repeating the same patterns, unable to maintain the clarity of my time away in the midst of real life’s expectations. My friend despair creeps back in as I work hard to convince myself I’m happy. Despite a profound life experience, nothing feels different.

With one tiny exception. On that balcony, I let my heart write what it yearned for.

Maybe that’s why, one year later, while most of me worked overtime to keep Kris at arm’s length, one small piece looked out from behind the wall I’d carefully constructed around my heart and recognized him. Recognized him as the one I had written about. The ideal man I didn’t believe could possibly exist.

He was real. And he had found me.

Life hasn’t been all butterflies and roses since then. I continue to struggle with feeling unworthy of unconditional love. A sharp word of criticism spirals me into dark places in my head, where I easily beat myself up for perceived failings. My history and the scars attached to it travel with us as we build a life together, part of the baggage I carry.

But as we work together to heal my wounds, I begin to see my baggage and that season of time differently. Instead of being the end, it provides a stark contrast to this happier season, making its brilliance brighter and sweeter.

Recently I stood on a mountain roadside with Kris and his kids, twisting a decoder ring they claimed to have found. Its message actually written for me, “I love you. Sara, will you marry me?”

For the briefest beat the last six years replayed in my mind, moments and memories flashing in quick succession. Overhead a bird sang as I looked at the man who waited so patiently while I healed my heart, tenderly nurturing me along the way. I realized over time I had sewn all those painful moments into a beautiful tapestry. Into the woman I was designed to be.

The years hadn’t defined me, they had refined me.

“Yes.”IMG_9757