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?

 

 

Soul Songs #17

Parables of Love, Part I: The Guru We are here to heal, to be made whole. That is the only goal, and the lesson is found in the journey. The teacher is life itself. But The Guru, Our Master,  is eternal and takes many forms. Only when you open yourself to The Guru can you truly be healed.

“This is your time; invite yourself to just be,” she started.

The soft sound of healing breaths, in and out, began to hum as we drifted into our own inner spaces. Grounding ourselves in our breath, reminded of our humanity, and reaching with our hearts, reminded of our spirits, we commenced our yoga practice. It’s a practice designed for discovery. We struggle with poses we’re not yet strong enough to hold. We flow through stretches that push our limits. We falter, even fall, as we learn to balance. The discovery will be of our true selves, the core of our beings at the energy source that sparks our human existence. This practice is part of all we do.

The chimes bring us back as our guru intones reminders to listen to our bodies and go at our own pace.

“Thank you for sharing your practice with me today. Thank yourself for making the effort to be present. Notice if you were able to put on those yoga blinders and care only for your practice rather than comparing yourself and your practice to others. Ask your soul if you loved yourself in your practice today. That’s why we practice.”

We thought about her words. We closed our eyes and searched our souls. Then we all bowed and offered “namaste” at the conclusion of the hour. Emma sat frozen with a smile, beaming as if illuminated by the time we’d just shared as a group.

Her petite frame was shrouded in atypical exercise attire. But then Emma was no typical yoga instructor. Mousy brown hair went all directions, appearing to spring from her delicate pink face; it was pulled up as usual, in a style none could, nor would likely attempt, to replicate. Her baggy clothes looked as though they could slip off her narrow shoulders and hips without warning. Yet she held her balances with unwavering strength. She moved with beauty and grace none would expect from such a disheveled waif. She looked like a wood sprite or faerie playing at being human and unsure how to fit in. But when she spoke she lit up the room. She was truly beautiful.

“So, how was that on your your neck, Sarah?” She asked as I gathered my things after class. “Was that buggy? Because we don’t want it buggy. Remember, if you’re over it, you’re over it–just like anything in life. Yoga teaches us that, right?”

I snickered a bit. I couldn’t help it. Her phrasing always made me smile. “Who talks like that?” I thought.

“It was great, Emma. Really. I’ve been trying to listen to my body and honor my limits, …” I demonstrated what I’d been practicing, propping my head against my forearms on the mat. “It actually feels better this way and, look.” I pushed out the last word with a bit more force as I kicked my legs to the ceiling and entered my headstand.

“So that’s two goals met: crow pose and a yoga headstand,” I beamed upside down still.

“That’s so awesome! You amaze me.” She waited until I righted myself and returned to sit, crosslegged on my mat in front of her. “Sarah, can you believe that you’re stronger now, so many years after your diagnosis, than ever before? … I mean, that’s really powerful. You should be ecstatic” She searched my eyes, tearing up as they often did when the subject of my health and happiness came up.

“I am proud of myself,” I replied. “I know I can do whatever I set my mind to.”

“But you’re not happy. I can tell.” A tear escaped against my will as she leaned in and seemed to see into my soul.

“I can’t explain it. It’s like I’ve just discovered who I really am and it makes me sad that I haven’t honored my identity but, more, like I don’t know how to.” I admitted, wondering why and how she brought this honesty out in me–and why I kept coming back to share more.

“Sarah, sweetie, you do know. It’s why you keep coming.” We embraced at that and I let the tears flow.

It’s true that I’m a cryer, although most would never guess that. I would rather suffer great pain than cry in public. Tough. Strong. Hilarious. … those are the descriptors I make sure I demonstrate in my day-to-day activities. They’re also what I tell people I am. Emma says crying is a sign of strength, and I almost believe her. But I still think being able to hold my tears until I’m alone is a sign of even greater strength. Every time I say that she speaks of the need for vulnerability, but I’m not there yet.

But today I cried, sobs and sighs, and gasps for air included. It was no dainty or sweet cry. It was the heavy healing kind of cry.

“Well it’s about time, cutie,” she whispered. “I knew you had that in you. And now you’re ready.” Her smile soothed me as she spoke.

“Sarah, you’re about to begin a journey.” A mysterious shift in the room’s light, as if the sun had broken free of dozens of clouds, seemed to welcome me to another dimension as she spoke. The only way to explain it is to say it felt like church, that light and airy and thankful feeling of peace when church is the way it’s supposed to be and love is the lesson.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Today’s lesson will begin to explain it, so just go with it.”

“Okay, Emma. I’m all in. ”

“Cool,” she said informally. “Let’s do this!” She smiled, beamed really, as she began. “Today’s lesson is the parable of the guiding light.”

And, with that, I was transported to a morning more than two decades ago. namaste-yall

Soul Songs #1

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Take these wings and learn to fly.

I already am all I hope to be.

My best self is with me at all times.

I am open to unfolding and revealing

my beautiful wings.

The’ve always been there.

I was just afraid to stand out and reveal

my greatness.

For when one soars, one risks falling.

Still, I choose to soar.

I already am all I hope to be.

My best self is with me

and she is ready to fly.

Reaching for the Sun

It appeared out of nowhere, like something from a modern fairy tale. As the sun began to rise it caught my eye. Well, how could I have missed it, really? Coffee in hand, I pulled open the heavy drapes to begin my morning meditation and there it was.

The stalk was more than four feet high and the golden petals circled a seed-pod large enough to drop a garden’s worth of seeds to spring to life in the coming year. It’s massive leaves, unfolded, sparkled a bit in the early light reflecting off the morning dew. I stood in awe, mug poised, paused, just before my parted lips.

Somehow, a stunning sunflower had sprung up in the middle of my roses–my carefully cultivated rose bushes. For years I have cared for and photographed my 24 rose bushes. Their fragrant layered petals and prickly stems have kept me company since we moved in more than a decade ago. I had dealt with the random stray weed, the circling bees, and cobwebs from friend and foe. But I had never had anything like this surprise sunflower.

Truth be told, I am not a huge fan of roses. They had been planted before my time but I cared for them. I loved their scent and their bright colors outside my window, surrounding my porch as I sat and studied. I would have planted wild flowers though, free, untamed, varying heights and colors and needs. But I live within the boundaries of my HOA and knew roses were manageable for this chronic allergy sufferer to care for with limited time and effort, and huge reward.

Roses had always seemed too predictable though, too typical. And those thorns! So uninviting to the photographer stepping in, leaning in for the zoom on a perfectly poised honey be in the center of the bunch when–“ow!” If roses were people, they would be the admired and cooly popular girl who didn’t want a hug or offer a smile to those she didn’t know. Not the type I would be friends with!

But this morning, in the midst of those cold beautiful roses, stood this reminder of not only the kind of person I would befriend, but the kind of person I want to be. This singularly strong and vibrant sunflower in a bed of roses, not looking down on them but looking up to the rising sun, turning to face it’s golden god-light breaking through early morning clouds. “Wow.” That was all I could say.

I don’t know for a fact that this sunflower was sent as a message to me, but that’s how I chose to take it. I sat and meditated on love, light, and the strength to grow into the fullness of who I am meant to be even amongst those who might prefer something more typical or traditionally beautiful, or something that seemed less out of place. I gave thanks as I watched the rays of light unfold from behind pale clouds. I felt a little taller, a little bolder.

I will never be traditionally beautiful or sweet but I have my own appeal. I am so strong. I am so full of life. And I refuse to stop growing, no matter where I find myself. I just keep reaching for the sun. sunflower-closeup-480x294

 

The Hike

The woman sighed, that kind of audible, can-you-feel-my-pain type of sigh that begs for attention. “My daughter is still trying to figure out what she’s going to do with her life.”

Boisterous laughter followed immediately from the younger of her two companions. “Me too!” she giggled now. “I mean, I just graduated last week, and I’ve been working in my field for more than three years, but I have no idea what I want to do with my life!”

I couldn’t help myself. “Do any of us? We work on that every day of our lives. I promise it’s normal, no matter who you are–or how old.” My laugh at the end softened my unsolicited interjection.

The younger of the companions whose name I would learn was Mia, looked up from her determined gait along the trail we traversed, and almost beamed.

“Really?” And she laughed again. Her laughter was strong and sweet and evidence to me that she was going to be more than okay. She had the keys to success already, joy and a passion for adventure. And the way she tackled our hike, it was clear she knew how to work hard and overcome challenges too. She didn’t need to do anything with her life but live and love it!

“Really.” I reiterated. “I still wonder, on a regular basis what I want to do now, or next, and even think to myself…’when I grow up I want to be …’ … seriously, we’re all wondering and seeking…  .”

Her mom, Lila, chimed in, “isn’t that the truth?”

And, isn’t it?

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We hiked Paradise Trail today, a name too obvious for pondering our journeys and reflecting on our destinations, but real nonetheless. As we hiked my mind wandered even as my feet fell solidly on the path.

What will I learn this year? What will I overcome? What difference will I make?

When will I finish my dissertation? What next? Am I doing my best? Is my heart full of love? Do I see people as people?

Do I see myself as valuable enough to answer these questions without judgment?

Atop Paradise Trail I felt strong and certain even though I don’t know what the future holds. I can answer these questions one day at a time, without judgment, and remind myself that I’ve already come a long way.

I have a path I’ve chosen, and it’s beautiful. It’s not paved, but it’s clear enough to follow. There are also plenty of opportunities to veer and revise my route if I choose, which I know is something of a luxury. And there’s some amazing scenery to take in. Even better, there are places to stop and replenish my body and soul with some shade, some company, and of course plenty of water and time to catch my breath. Places like Paradise Trail today.

A group of strangers, all somehow from the state of Oregon converging in the middle of the southern Utah desert to remind each other that no one has it all figured out. We are all deciding daily what to do with our lives. And we need to celebrate that together, for ourselves and for each other.

We’re all doing the best we can with what we have to carve out our own paths and to make them beautiful. Paradise is just where we meet along the way.

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“Going my way?”

“Which way?”

“I’m not sure, it looks promising in all directions.”

“Then let’s head out this way, together, for now.”

“Perfect.”

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The Worst Rumor… and Why I Talk about It

Her hands were on her hips and she looked ready to accuse me of some awful misdeed.

“I  heard the worst rumor about you, but it looks like it can’t be possibly be true.” Ah. I was pretty sure I knew what she meant. I didn’t know her well but we’d interacted off and on at work for more than a decade so I had some sense of her views and understandings. We had a good working relationship. We were very different people though. In her smart flats and conservative slacks with a light weight gray sweater topped with her sensible bob-cut, she stood in sharp contrast to my bright red blouse, poppy-sprinkled skirt, five inch t-strap heals and newly died hair with three colors chunked for dramatic effect.

“Oh! Do you mean that you heard I have MS?” She blinked.

“So it’s true? But you look great.” I smiled. Of course what she meant was that I was incredibly mobile and mentally sharp. And, thank goodness. I wake up amazed myself on a regular basis. I also go to be most nights with more than a hint of fear: is that twinge going to get worse? Is my vision blurry from fatigue or is it changing? Does that bit of tingling in my shoulder mean I’m going to lose feeling again? What’s wrong with my foot–I am getting drop foot? Then, most nights, I take a deep cleansing breath, meditate, and remind myself that there are some things I control, some things I can influence, and some things I must simply accept. So I go to sleep and tell myself that I will re-assess in the morning.

I wake each morning with gratitude that I have all my senses and can do my exercises and can live another day alert. And I remind myself that I will do this, appreciate each day, for as long as I can do so consciously. I am one of the lucky ones after all.

So I do not shy away from telling people of my condition, my disease, this mysterious thing called MS. Telling them reminds me I am fortunate. I also believe it lets them realize their own blessings. Maybe more important, it draws attention to this little understood disease and demystifies it a bit. My strength and skills can be a reminder that 1) everyone you meet is dealing with things you might never know or understand so we must be thoughtful toward one another, 2) we should never underestimate the power and strength that come from a life with purpose–I still have a lot to do that really matters and I will do my best to do it regardless of my disease, and 3) talking helps.

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I was in first grade when I realized something remarkable.

“Isn’t it neat that you don’t feel sick when you’re talking and playing?” I said (well, some paraphrase of that I’m sure) to my little sister, Leah, as we kneeled at our toybox.

“What?” she asked.

“I don’t hurt when I talk. I can’t feel my cold.” I explained to her in terms I was confident a four year old could understand, watering down what was certainly very advanced first grader language.

“That is neat.” she said and then went back to dressing her teddy bear. But I was validated nonetheless. I felt I had discovered something amazing.

I have always been incredibly verbal, even verbose. I love to talk and to sing and to write. And it heals me. Even those who don’t have such linguistic drive have probably experienced some variation of this though.

My husband is a proud introvert but, as a day of teaching his fifth graders goes by his own cold and flu symptoms have waned each day this week. “You get too busy to feel sick; you’re distracted from the pain.” Ah, there it is–that magic our brains can perform to help us through our struggles.

I find it empowering to talk about my challenges and overcoming them. I also find it gratifying that, as I talk and engage with others I feel better. This is one of those rare blessings that I acknowledge as an actual gift from the universe. I am not spiritual but I definitely feel fortunate, even blessed.

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“Well, I just can’t believe it,” she continued. “How do you feel?” She always had a tone of disdain. She was not a happy woman. My smile always seemed to disturb her. In ten years, I’d actually never seen her smile. She was serious and dedicated to her work but she shied away from warmth.

“I feel great. I don’t have any numbness right now and I have good energy this week. I just keep moving forward like everyone else” I assured her. And I smiled.

“Wow. You’re amazing.”

“No” I laughed. “I just have a lot to do and I’m determined to do it to the best of my abilities.”

I turned away to return to my preparations for the meeting I’d be facilitating in just a few moments. She turned, as if to walk away, then paused. She returned her glance to me, looking very serious.

“Aren’t you afraid for people to find out and judge you?”

“People always judge us; I’m used to that as a strong working woman, aren’t you?” I laughed. I am sort-of known for my boisterous laugh and I know, in fact, it’s one of the things she finds off-putting about me. I draw too much attention to myself for her tastes.

She appeared to soften at my statement though. I realized she probably knew far too well what it felt like to be judged. I had judged her for her lack of warmth, in fact. I should be more thoughtful, I reminded myself.

“I have to talk about it. It’s real. It’s part of who I am and it’s not going away. Talking about it helps me come to terms with it a little more each conversation–and that makes me stronger.”

“Like I said, you’re amazing.” She turned and walked away. I couldn’t quite read her expression which was okay. I am sure she and I both had some reflecting to do. Frankly, I was impressed that she reached out. It was brave to even ask about something as taboo in the U.S. as disease–especially without a level of intimacy established in the relationship.

Maybe that’s progress. Maybe, as a society, we are dismantling the stigmas associated with illness. Maybe she and I were making progress in our own relationship.

I checked the clock and stood to open the meeting. And as I talked, I felt less fear. I felt no pain.

Oh! And the meeting was great. I was amazing.

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Photo: Annual Northern Utah Walk MS 2015