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.  

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!

In the Neon Glow

IMG_7926Outside my window headlights whiz past. Their colors merge and dance through the haze created by the car’s exhaust as we sit hunkered in trying to stay warm. Light snow falls. Gentle flakes falling to welcome December, a month known for joy, hope and optimism. It should be beautiful.

Their beauty is lost on me.

A couple pulls up beside us, parks, and emerges from their car laughing as they close their doors and head inside. The neon light of the sign we’ve parked under casts a pink glow on the dashboard. There’s a slight flicker to it. One I’d rather focus on than the conversation at hand.

Above the heater’s hum he breaks the silence,  continuing our conversation, “For the last few months, I don’t think you even like me. I think I annoy you. That I hurt you often. That I’m a source of pain, not joy. When was the last time we even went on a date that didn’t end in tension or an argument? I wonder if you regret your decision to marry me.”

I hear his words and go still. I see a tear trickle free down his cheek and every hair on my body snaps to attention.

A  familiar skip of a heartbeat makes my chest ache. I tense, straightening my spine and shifting in my seat. Inside my thoughts start whirling, lining up to play defense. The conversation feels familiar. I’ve had one like it years ago. It didn’t end well.

In the ensuing silence, my team of overactive inner workmen jump to attention, scrambling into action to protect my heart. I picture them wielding their bricks and mortar with practiced efficiency as I brace for what could come next. The foreman barks orders, “This is the moment we’ve trained for men. Go, go, go. Overload those wheelbarrows with bricks. Stir that mortar faster. Forget precision, just get that wall up on the double. The bad news is coming, we can’t leave a flank exposed.”

Time slows as my mind races to catch up with what I’ve heard. The heater hums, filling the silence as my nails cut half circles into my palms.

Outside his window the couple returns to their car, parcel in hand. The engine roars to life and they pull away.

Watching their taillights fade, I frantically run through possible responses, digging through my quiver of word weapons. Sarcastic sass. Dismissive impertinence. Defensive argument. Deflective blame shifting. Brooding silence. Self-pitying despair. Wounding guilt.

Each one has been sharpened to perfection by past painful life moments. I need only notch one into my bow, let it fly, and duck down behind my wall. Safe and protected.

I reach for deflective blame shifting, take aim, and lift my eyes to face him.    

I see a second tear slip free and get wiped hastily away. I gaze at his face, my favorite face. I remember his baggage, his past hurts, his scars and pause.

I remember his insecurities, his fears, his hope in me and soften; hands unclenching as I really see him, still beautiful in pink flickering neon light.

Inside the foreman holds up a hand. His crew stops, ears cocked ready for their next order. Behind them the wall around my heart remains only half built, vulnerable.

“She won’t do it. It leaves her too exposed. Too vulnerable. She will appear imperfect,” one bricklayer whispers to his colleague. They all stand to rapt attention waiting for me to speak.

I take a breath, set down my bow, and reach for him.

“I’m sorry,” I say as I grab his hand. “The last few months have been hard for me, oddly emotional and at times overwhelming. You bear the brunt of that because you’re my safe place. The best decision I ever made. Not one I regret. Never one I regret. You are my joy, not my pain.”

I nervously wait, letting my words sink in, praying they don’t precede deeper pain and this instinct is right.

Our eyes meet. The silence is both deafening and oddly peaceful. We are alone in it, connected in a cocoon of warmth as the snow falls outside and the world buzzes around us.

“I love you,” comes his reply. “It isn’t always easy, but we are in this together.”

“Yes. Together.” I reply.

He puts the car in reverse just as the neon light finally holds steady. It won’t be the end of the conversation, we have a number of things to work through, and yet I smile as we pull away, picturing my foreman inside, shoulders slumping as he breaks the news to the crew they may soon be unemployed.

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

Blank Canvas

Outside the window, sun filters through the trees, shifting from the bright light of day to the softer light of dusk. A slight breeze filters through the window, blowing a hair that’s slipped free of my ponytail so it tickles my cheek. I glance down at my palette, pausing my paintbrush over the brightest blue.

My instructor’s voice lifts and falls in the background as she moves seamlessly between students, giving an idea here, a bit of encouragement there. Her voice calm and soothing. I reconsider, move my hand to hover over the magenta. Pause. Uncertain.

A song plays quietly, a broken soundtrack to our class as it cuts in and out following the whims of a satellite signal. Right now it’s a light jazz that somehow perfectly fits the mood.

Little BighornI glance again at the landscape photo I’ve chosen for my project, one of my favorite places in the world. I want to get this right, somehow capture how it makes me feel, what it’s like to be there. An ambitious task for my first attempt. I move my paintbrush to the yellow. Hesitate.

A sharp crunch breaks into the quiet as someone nearby bites into a carrot. Chewing, she steps back from her easel, putting her work in perspective. She tilts her head, takes another bite, assesses her work. Her eyes zero in on an area. She sets the carrot down, takes up a paintbrush and delicately steps back to add a swish of color here, a dab there.

Refocusing, I pick up a glob of blue, mix in a touch of green. Then some white. My paintbrush moves smoothly through the paint as the colors swirl together, blending to become a color found only in the biggest box of crayons. For a moment I soak in how it feels, my gaze hypnotized by the kaleidoscope of changing colors. Forward and back. Round and round.

I take a dab of paint, move to my canvas. Digging for a confidence I don’t have as a virgin painter I take a breath. Ready myself.

“I don’t know,” a sharp voice fills the room, a stark contrast to the subtle mood. “I just hate it. I’ve made such a mess of it. Ruined it.” I look up. It’s Diane, star student, mouth turned down, brow furrowed. On the easel in front of her is a painting she’s been working on for weeks. A stunningly accurate representation of the photo taped beside it. She’s captured perfectly the soft yellow shades of trees in fall, the mountains in the distance majestic in their detail. She’s woven empty branches of trees that have already lost their leaves into a tapestry of trees alive with fall’s colors.

A perceived imperfection of a bush in the foreground has caught her attention, invisible to the rest of us. “It just has no dimension, looks so flat. I’ve tried everything. Everything I do just makes it worse. I’m so frustrated.”

“Take a step back. What do you like about it?” our instructor asks patiently, moving to her side.

“Nothing. I don’t like anything. I can only tell you all the things I don’t like about it. I need to start over.”

I try to tune her out, refocus on my own work. Yet every time I go to make the first stroke, her criticisms ring sharp in the air. Around me, no one else seems bothered. A couple students offer feeble comments of encouragement as they work, others appear unaware of her, lost in their own worlds. The instructor seems unfazed, patiently soothing her. I alone seem unable to move forward while she’s talking, the biting criticism of herself harsh, demanding, relentless. It’s distracting and consuming.

The music jolts back on in the background, a loud jazzy blues song that underscores her criticisms, sharpening them. They weave together into a crescendo, persistently demanding my mind’s attention.

“Why is this bothering me?” I wonder. “Why can’t I tune her out?”

 And then it hits me.

The sudden realization creates a vacuum, leaving an air of deafening silence around me. So still I can almost hear my heartbeat.

She is voicing thoughts nearly identical to those in my head.

Thoughts that keep my hand poised over my canvas, instead of painting freely.

Thoughts that keep me afraid to try.

Perfectionist thoughts.

Identified and exposed, the vacuum recedes taking the binding thoughts with them.

Slowly the noises of the room creep back into my consciousness. Diane has quieted. She’s refocused, already putting our instructor’s suggestions to work. The music shifts to something quieter, fading in and out.  Another breeze wafts through the room. The soothing mood returns.

Familiar.

But I am not.

Suddenly free from the thoughts that held me captive, I make the first stroke, a brilliant blue streak across the sky.

Painting freely in defiance of perfectionism.

painting little bighorn