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.

Both Feet In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed, disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t deserve someone like this…

But what if I do?

I won’t be able to make this work…

But what if I can?

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

But what if I am?

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

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

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

“I’m in,” I whispered.

Hostage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready to try it?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Time to take care of those pesky squirrels.”

Tease

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

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

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

“You got one! Real him in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perpetual Journey

“That’s it, I’m done with this,” I huff, setting my phone down in frustration. I lift my sweater to unbuckle the strap compressing my rib cage.

“What are you doing? What’s the problem?” my husband Kris asks from his perch at the counter.

“It’s this stupid exercise contest and the uncomfortable heart monitor belt that goes with it. My feet are killing me from running. I can barely walk or climb stairs my legs are so sore. I’m behind on work because of the time it takes me to fit this in, and this belt is literally cutting me in half. And now there’s no chance of winning the contest, so what’s the point?”

“It’s only day three Sara, you have all month to compete. Weren’t you in first place the other day?”

“Yes,” I snort in disgust. “I worked my tail off for five hours to get ahead yesterday, and did the same this morning, and still this other guy has double my points! I mean, I can’t exercise ten hours a day, that’s ridiculous!”

Finally finding the belt release, I fling it on the counter, plop myself into the chair next to him, and sigh.

I know I shouldn’t let it get to me. It’s a fun competition among friends. But it is also one that triggers my perfectionist and competitive tendencies which makes it harder to get my feelings under control.

I punch the close button on the app’s challenge board currently broadcasting my loser status, grab the belt, and stomp upstairs, tossing the belt onto my bedside table as I head for the shower.

Get a grip Sara. This isn’t life or death. You don’t have to prove anything to these people. They aren’t judging you.

But I can’t get a grip. As the water falls down over me I decide to bow out. It feels better for my soul. Another 27 days of working out while trying to adopt a healthy perspective on this competition would mentally exhaust me.

The discarded belt collects dust as the days pass. Everytime I see it, I vacillate between feeling like a childish sore loser and a wise woman, protecting my spirit. And while the belt’s presence doesn’t consume me, I am aware of the guilt ridden thoughts just below the surface. Occasionally these thoughts win and I strap it back on for a half hearted workout, before setting it back in its place.

Weeks later, I find myself in church on Easter, studiously taking sermon notes as the pastor outlines the way God sees us. It’s a hopeful message to match the holiday. One particular tidbit catches my attention.

“We aren’t finished yet,” my note reads. I begin drawing doodles as the pastor expounds, outlining her case for how our lives are journeys that never end, how we never stop growing or learning until our time on earth is done. And as such, God does not expect us to be anything other than a work in progress.

Logically, I know what she’s saying is true, but my perfectionist side often keeps me focused on end results for tangible proof of my worth. My journey, historically, has always been a means to an end. Something to struggle through to get the reassuring gold stars when the task is complete.

I have always had a subtle belief that I will one day be done with self discovery. That I will become the very best and perfect version of me with no flaws, pain, or missteps from that point forward. Hearing a reminder that it is impossible, that I will always be a work in progress, is initially disheartening. And yet, as I wrap my mind around this truth, I find it freeing as well.

If I can never achieve the “perfect” version of me, if it simply isn’t possible, perhaps I can begin to enjoy the journey of self discovery with greater consistency instead of always feeling as though I’m failing by never reaching the end.

Climbing into bed later that night, I notice the heart monitor band and am reminded of the competition. A competition that was intended to motivate us to begin a healthier set of habits by providing accountability and camaraderie. A competition I became so focused on winning, I failed to find any joy or value in the journey.

But with nine days left of the challenge, maybe it’s not too late to change that.

Sizing Up

In the dressing room, I grab the pair of jeans from the hanger and begin to pull them on. Too tight. I can’t get them over my thighs let alone my hips. I toss them to the floor and grab the next pair, checking the label.

Honestly, I grabbed this larger size by accident and now here I am putting them on, I remark to my unimpressed reflection. I shimmy into them, tucking in a bit of extra here and there. The button falls a little short of closing. I stand up straighter, suck my stomach in. Success. They close. I love the color of them. They have just the right amount of distressing. They are just what I’m looking for.

But can I sit in them? I move toward the dressing room bench in the corner apprehensively, and begin to lower down.

I feel the jeans pull tight across my thighs. The waistband cuts uncomfortably into my midsection but, still, I’m sitting without the button coming loose.

I can’t believe the size of these jeans. I can’t go bigger. I’ve never been that size. Maybe these will loosen up as I wear them, give me some breathing space.

I pull the jeans off and put them in my “maybe” pile.

Then, I reach for the cute dress. It looks perfect for a dinner I have coming up.

It should fit. It looks flowy and forgiving. And the color is to die for.As I pull it over my head I realize my error. I’m stuck. The fabric has less give than it appeared. I twist and turn, yank and pull, feeling a small seam rip. But finally, it’s on.

I look like a stuffed sausage. How does this not fit? And can I get it off again? I make a mental note to skip lunch.

After trying on several more items, I am thoroughly defeated. What began as a shopping trip to find something new and fun for an upcoming girls’ weekend quickly became a downward spiral of self loathing.

“Find anything that works?” asks a perky sales associate as I emerge from the dressing room.

“Not today,” I mumble back.

As I merge into the crowded mall, I match my footsteps to my thoughts. Too big. Too lazy. So flabby.

But then, I catch a cute jumpsuit in the next store window. Pause. Fight with my inner critic who tells me it’s too risky, that it will never look good on me. Defiantly I grab one anyway and head for the dressing room.

Here goes nothing. I pull the jumpsuit on, sliding it over my hips and up onto my shoulders. It’s way too big.

I twist around to try and see the label in the mirror. It’s the same size as the other place. What the heck?

Feeling my mood improve, I head back to the rack for a smaller size. Minutes later, the size down is also too big. Thrilled, I return for a size I couldn’t dream of wearing. Soon I’m twirling in the mirror, giddy with excitement. I’ve never been this size! I don’t love the color but I must buy this.

Yet as I change back into my clothes, I stop. I didn’t miraculously lose three sizes walking a few steps between stores.

Why am I so willing to let a number on a piece of fabric dictate my mood when the numbers clearly aren’t consistent? Maybe I’m not always the one to blame when something doesn’t fit. Maybe the blame belongs to the fashion industry for its lack of standards, or worse, for actively manipulating me. What if the numbers just don’t matter?

I remember the perfectly distressed jeans. And the cute, jewel-toned dress. I’d discarded them as the sizing numbers climbed too high even though they were perfect in every other way. I look back at the jumpsuit I don’t love but plan to purchase because of how its number tag makes me feel.

That’s it, I think as I hang the jumpsuit on the discard rack and head back to the first store. “I’m getting what I love, no matter what the tag says. After all, worst case, I do own a pair of scissors. That small tag doesn’t stand a chance.”

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.