Not One of the “Pretty Girls”

Ann is the cute one. Claire is the creative one. I am the smart one.

Ann is the funny one. Claire is the strong one. I am the responsible one.

Ann is the social one. Claire is the gifted one. I am the quiet one.

The quiet one? Ugh.

First of all, I am not quiet. I never have been. I have, however, felt silenced much of my life. Even though I’ve never been fully silent, I have felt the burden of the expectation. Worse, I always knew my sisters were just as smart if not smarter than I was. And I am responsible, yes, but what choice did I have? Who wants to be defined by a necessity? I want to be defined by my spirit, my mark on the world, my soul song.

For decades, though, I have felt defined not by my authentic self, but in comparison to others. In my social group, I heard echoes of my parents’ characterizations of me. Sarah was the smart one, the responsible one, the quiet one. Why couldn’t I be cute? Fashionable? Fabulous? And why do so few people realize how funny I am?

I’m a natural leader. I get things done. I’m successful. Why not be known for those things? And aren’t I talented, a gifted singer and strong athlete? I can hold my own in just about any circumstance, and people usually like me once the get to know me. How can I make people understand I’m so much more than the labels of my youth?

More importantly, how I can stop hearing those labels in my own internal dialog with myself?

 

“I’d like us to be more understanding with Paulina, more inclusive,” I coached. “I think it must be hard to be one of the beautiful people.”

“Oh, right!” my colleague burst out. “Let’s all feel sorry for the pretty girl. Sorry, I can’t do it.”

We both laughed. Neither of us had ever been known as “pretty girls.” We had both been raised by struggling families, developing more scrappiness than poise we felt. We talked about this often. We’d grown increasingly assertive in our years. We knew how to fight for what we wanted. And, right or wrong, we assumed Paulina had just always been given what she wanted. In fact, my concern for her feelings, and my belief we should be more understanding came from a very conscious belief that she did not know how to handle NOT getting what she wanted because she’d been so privileged in her life as a 5’11”, built like a ballerina, blonde, blue-eyed, upper-middle class, ice princess. And, my colleague was right, no one is or should feel sorry for that.

The real problem is that no one, not Paulina, not anyone, is defined by those first impressions. But we’re all judged by them. Whether fighting the label “smart one” or “pretty one” or any other social short hand derived avoid actually learning about and understanding others and, instead, classify them into manageable data points in our schema, we are all limited by the labels assigned to us.

In the best case scenario, we acknowledge that these classifications are short cuts we are all prone to take but also acknowledge that they are not pathways to understanding–and then allow people and our relationships to grow beyond those classifications. This needs to start with ourselves, though. Because, the worst case scenario is we that we limit ourselves to those classifications and allow ourselves to be constrained and defined by them. They then become more than labels but fully developed stories we tell ourselves. Like these:

 

I am smart. I should do better in math because I am smart. Smart people are quiet and read a lot and stay home on Friday nights and do well in school. Smart is not popular. Smart is not pretty. Smart is not athletic. Smart is not funny. And I can’t do anything that makes me look stupid or that I might not be good at. People might think I’m not smart. And smart and Sarah are synonymous.

I am responsible. I can’t go out and have fun or take a day off. I don’t dare use all my vacation days when I have so much responsibility at work. I need to put the needs of others first, always, and make sure everyone is taken care of before I take care of myself. That’s the responsible thing. Because some people aren’t responsible. I need to be responsible. For everyone. That’s how responsible people live and happiness only comes from knowing I am seen as responsible and everyone feels taken care of. That’s how I’ll fulfill my role.

 

Narratives like this pervade our minds. They’re not all bad. They’re not particularly inspiring either. And they deny so much of who I am and what I can contribute and the countless other gifts I’ve been given by the universe. Isn’t the truly responsible thing to do to maximize all of my god-given strengths and skills? Isn’t that just smart? Isn’t it also fun, creative, and adventurous? I am fun, creative, and adventurous!

So why to I have to remind myself this almost daily in order to honor my impulses and desires and objectives of joy in this life? And why is my dear sister with social anxiety still trying to live up to being the funny social one? And when will Claire and I realize our own beauty and cuteness? And how can Paulina break free of the narratives we have attached to her in all of her beauty?

I’m fortunate to have friends I can be and usually am my truest best self around who remind me, “you know you want to go on this adventure, Sarah!” or “you’re gorgeous!” or “your laugh makes you who you are!” We should all be so fortunate.

They hold me to being my best self and not subjugating myself to others, to my labels past or present, or to the narratives I told myself all those years in order to be who my labels told me I should be. I think, as women, we are particularly vulnerable to these types of narratives and, thankfully, particularly watchful of them in what my friends and I call, our soul sisters. In fact, it seems we are better at seeing the tell-tale signs in one another hiding our light and falling prey to the dark shadow of our old narratives than we at feeling the shadow we hide ourselves in.

I am learning to longer feel bad about about that, to longer judge myself for falling into old patterns that lead, per my narratives, to enabling others even martyring myself and holding back my humor and energy and adventure and silliness. I accept that I am simply in the process of rewiring my brain, carving new neural pathways in an effort to avoid those that have been so well worn. This is going to take time and it’s time beautifully spent asking myself daily how I honored my truest authentic best self and what I can learn from the day’s successes and struggles.

Living mindfully and giving myself permission to be myself and to be imperfect even at being myself–which used to seem like something I should just be naturally good at–is harder than following the old narratives. It just is. But it’s liberating too. And every day I feel more and more joy and more and more in love with the world. Who’d have thought a girl who used to cry herself to sleep riddled with anxiety as young as six could feel this way and have this much confidence? But I do because as hard as it is to be mindful, it was starting to hurt to be otherwise.

I even wonder how much of the stress I put on my heart, mind, body, and soul contributed not only to the anxieties I developed but to the lesions on my spine associated with the most pervasive narrative I fight–a woman living with MS. But just as I am learning to no longer define myself as just smart and responsible and quiet. So I definitely will not be defined by MS. I am so much more than this or any label and its associated narrative.

MS did make me face this struggle with my labels head on though. Overnight, following a terrifying and numbing flare up, I had to redefine who I was and what I said about myself as well as what others said about me. This was no longer a choice. My old narrative no longer were enough. Can you be the responsible one if you know someone might have to take care of you some day? Can the smart one also have cognitive fog? Oh, and I was so done being quiet. Who knew how much time I had to say what I wanted to say?

Challenge accepted. Project redefining Sarah, also known as acknowledging and becoming my true self, was set in irreversible motion.

I now hope to be defined by my authentic self, deep and complicated and full of life in a way that defies labels. I hope I can help all the “pretty girls” and the “smart girls” and “funny girls” learn that maybe they are all of these and none of these all at once. We are women who break through labels and refuse to accept the old narratives of those labels and, instead, create our own narratives of complicated, messy, beautiful lives. After all, why settle for a narrative, a work of fiction, when one can have a reality and make a real mark on this world?

The world deserves this contribution, not just another false narrative. So, are you ready to shed your labels with me Ann, Claire? Paulina? What about You?

 

 

My Soul Song: Look Up

You seek answers.

You seek healing.

You pray for hope, for signs to follow.

 
Stop crying for your angels.

Stop begging for mercy.

Stop looking where you’ve already been.

 
Just look up.

There it is.

The light of God is already there.

 
Receive the warmth.

Receive the glory.

Receive this new day as a gift for the taking.

 
Be assured.

Be thankful.

Be one who stays in the light.

 
Just look up.

There it is.

The light of God is already there.

My Soul Songs: Not Unlike a Rose 

MS is invisible even as it unfolds. 

Fighting MS is completely an inside job. You might never see what’s deep inside my soul as we laugh and go about our days like nothing’s wrong. 

And, like a rose, I will blossom. Like a rose with its thorns, I am beautiful and protected in my frailty. I might not have thorns but I sure do have plenty of fight. And I require plenty of care. 

Consider yourself warned. And appreciated. 

Soul Songs #23

He Knew

 

She looked downward, as if that could hide the tears that were about to fall.

She reached and put her hand on her heart to calm its racing.

He knew what to do.

He rose to join her.

His long stride quickly reached her side.

He gently put his arm around her.

She looked up.

They both smiled as their eyes met.

She returned to the task at hand with him by her side.

She still cried but she knew she could go on.

They both knew she could have done it without him there too, of course.

She did not need him.

She loved him, and there’s a difference.

They were stronger together.

They would never need to question.

They both knew.

And they always would.

Soul Songs #22

Parables of Love, Part III: How Great Thou Art, A Lesson in Song Each soul has a song to sing and it cannot be stopped. Some sing with words, some with action, the best with hearts that cannot be stopped. Let your soul sing. 

The sun shone through the time-streaked bay windows in the small chapel, appearing to reflect directly off the lawn’s morning dew upward to light the room. The space was cramped and decorated, if you could call it that, with only in browns and other shades that appeared to have transformed in the way aged pages yellow.

Dust particles danced in the sunlight.

A small upright piano stood in the center of the room, appearing out of place in the barren room. A few folding chairs, a small makeshift podium, and a bouquet of plastic flowers were the only other items in the room.

“So depressing,” she whispered to herself as she set up her music.

He had left this place nearly two years ago but it looked just as it had when she last said goodbye. She shuddered thinking about it, but still she’d agreed to do this. She had a feeling he’d want her to. Papa always loved to hear her sing.

She made a final mark on her sheet music and set the copy out for the accompanist before she sat down to wait and collect her thoughts. Eyes closed, as in meditation, her silent prayer called on the pure loving universe to fill her with the spirit of love and compassion, for her song to reach all the way to her dear papa, wherever he may be, and for her soul to be filled by His love as she sang His praise.

The room had begun to fill. Wheelchairs rolled in one at a time with the frail and infirm beginning to form an audience. A few residents made it in and slowly found a seat on their own with little support. She realized how long this was going to take and knew she could never just sit there as they all began to fill in to see her.

“Well, of course, they’re not here to see me,” she thought. Shaking her head with a smile she stood to begin mingling. “They’re here for their church services, for time out of their rooms, for a chance to sit in the sun. …not unlike me, really,” she concluded.

Several smiles, handshakes, and a few hugs later, they all joined in prayer and gave thanks for their time together. They listened to words of hope and thanksgiving. There was no lesson. There was no admonishment. There was only love.

Her heart was full by the time she stood to sing. And it was magical.

“Oh Lord my God, when I, in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,” her voice carried and seemed to lift beyond her. She would never be able to explain it but it was more than her voice. She was only the vehicle.

“I see the stars. I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed… .”

Bright blue eyes met hers with a steady gaze as the chorus began. An unspoken agreement was made and soon the two of them were singing in unison.

The sun had completed its ascent and its light now filled the room. She could not help but smile as it warmed her skin. She felt so alive.

“Then sings my soul, my savior, God, to Thee. How great Thou art!”

She was transported, some sort of electrical current seemed to enfolding and uplift her. Everyone was signing by the final chorus, even those who’d seemed unable to speak as she’d mingled earlier. She’d never experienced anything like this. All voices commingled in joyful shouts of acclamation. And those bright blue eyes reminded her so much of Papa.

Now, years later, she recalled the tears and joy as she held the little box of thank you’s they’d sent the next day.

“How can I get that feeling again?” she wondered. But she knew. So she prayed that her soul song be one of love and compassion on this day that it might reach all in need. And she felt the sun warm her skin. He was with her.

Soul Songs #20: Extraordinary Girl

“She’s all alone again wiping the tears from her eyes. Some days she feels like dying. She gets so sick of crying.” *

Though ultimately an optimist, I spent my childhood nights in tears worried about the future, scared I’d never find love, praying for my family. I was so scared I’d let people down and never be good enough. I even had a special pillow that I used exclusively for crying into so my sister with whom I shared a room, could not hear me cry.

I’d cry for hours sometimes. Then I’d take a deep breath, say another prayer and rest with the assurance that tomorrow was a new day and held new possbilities. I’d listen to music until I fell asleep and always awoke ready for the day, wearing a smile more times than not. I would even tell myself that no one ever needed to know how I really felt or how weak and scared I was.

I now have a life far easier than anything I’d known was possible. I’m comfortable. I’m confident in who I am. And I  become bolder and braver every year, more my true unabashed self. My prayers are mostly for others and offered in gratitude.

But I still cry. Comfortable is not the same as happy. Grateful is not the same as fulfilled. But I am not scared. I’m an extraordinary girl in an extraordinary world. I know that now.

*lyrics from Greenday

Soul Songs #18

A Song Only You Can Hear

“You don’t love someone for their looks or their clothes or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear,” Oscar Wilde said.

So whose soul sings to you?  To me?

Who can hear the soul songs we cannot help but sing?

What beautiful music, indeed.

 

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