I Cried

I cried over a bowl once.

I don’t remember what it looked like, really; I was six or seven, and it was some kind of mixing bowl, but it had been my great-grandmother’s. We were packing to move overseas, a process I understood in terms of its end result. My parents were up late, deciding what to pack, what to put in storage, what to get rid of. You don’t realise how much you own until you have to condense a houseful of belongings into a few airport-ready bins.

I remember yellow kitchen light and open cupboards and the chaos of boxes and kitchenware littering the floor, and my mother holding the bowl and deciding to get rid of it.

And I remember crying.

She told me it was silly to cry, because I hadn’t even known the woman, and it was her grandmother, not mine, and her bowl, not mine, and she told me that sometimes you have to get rid of things, even sentimental things, because you can’t keep everything.

She got rid of the bowl.

I don’t know why that mattered so much to me; all her reasons were right. Maybe it was the stress of the transition catching me unawares, or maybe I was an emotional kid awake after my bedtime. Somehow, though, in the moment, it felt right to cry, to mourn without inhibition what I saw as the loss of something beautiful and meaningful.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/irteza/5922171727/in/photolist-a2jFk6-8bBrX8-rpFgum-JerKp-eeG4gh-4h2Dhw-a4GjY4-bQmwg4-85LaZk-4y3K9S-c18unC-crVFsN-9gNcst-bACWR7-9tSm1t-KAkU-a66E5d-AGc9Wp-5E4k1j-dVhmMD-smwbp-zZDX36-5iXdaD-g671Bo-6twiPY-nCFM-o28GN-a4JUTS-6fmybb-4QzDpG-fYGziu-8cQxVt-dcs1ru-5XCqe8-QRxBz-8cTQ85-7B7ywb-7kCK7-92mokf-7EgqdY-aJtonp-4tAq1X-4rY5Gi-9YvyhF-7uoiHf-soDQG-gh2Gw-Gizvv1-yRciei-5AjEfV

I used to cry a lot, actually, but I don’t so much anymore.

I cried for homesickness after every move, but at some point that stopped. Sometime between moving to the desert and moving into a dorm room, homesickness stopped being a poignant ache and started being a fact of life—like a chronic backache, it’s always present, always painful, but no longer debilitating; it’s so constant I hardly remember what life was like before it.

I cried over deaths of people I hardly knew. I cried in the living room over sad movies and in the back of the classroom over sad books that I hid in my lap and read during lectures. I cried over beautiful music and skinned knees and lost toys.

I cried a lot.

I cried unashamedly.

But somewhere along the lines things changed, and I started to hate crying. I began to develop tricks for avoiding tears—biting my cheek, thinking of something funny, dissociating, counting backward from a hundred, anything that would distract my brain long enough to regain control of myself.

My childhood self saw tears as a beautiful thing—a cleansing, a connection, a genuine expression. My beginning-to-grow-up self lost that perspective. Sometime after that bowl, tears became a weakness instead of a strength, a betrayal instead of an admission. They became something to hide, something to deny, something to avoid.

I cried over a rabbit yesterday.

bunny

She died in my hands, and there was nothing I could do, and somehow, through the panic and the grief, I remembered my mother standing in that yellow kitchen telling me that you can’t keep everything even if you love it. I held the tiny convulsing body and I cried, and in the infinity between fluttering heartbeats, I remembered every other animal I cried for.

I remembered the mouse dead in the mousetrap when I was eight, and the baby bird dead in my hands when I was ten. I remembered one puppy kicking and going still when I was nine and one puppy watching through the fence as we drove away when I was eleven. I remembered a pair of baby quail in a cardboard box and an old mare rearing in a new corral.

And as I cried, uninhibited, unashamed, over the loss of something beautiful, I thought, for the first time in a long time, that maybe tears are a cleansing.

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Beautiful

It’s been a long time since I felt beautiful.

My hair is at an awkward growing-out stage ever since that shaving-my-head episode. I’ve worn the same shorts for days. There’s a stubborn pimple on my chin, and I can’t remember the last time I put on make-up or earrings.

Since I’ve been working from home and leaving the house only to pet my dog and learn karate—where, honestly, I’m going to be a sweaty mess anyway, so why try—this doesn’t bother me much until it’s time for a photo. I never notice how often photos happen until I actively dislike the way I look in them; then suddenly Snapchat is a hazard and those passport photos feel more threatening than usual.

Last night I hid in my room and spent probably ten or fifteen minutes working to get this selfie, because I thought the message was worth putting out there, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my face in the frame and still ever leave my room again.

 

I’m not particularly in love with my appearance at the best of times, but I’m not used to feeling unbeautiful. So last night, after the selfie thing (and after a shower, because I’m not kidding about sweaty), I stood in front of a mirror and gave myself a good hard look.

I did not suddenly realise that I’m gorgeous, but I did suddenly realise that I was looking for all the wrong things.

So I don’t feel beautiful. So what? Here’s what I do feel:

I feel strong. This summer has pushed me in ways I never expected. I’ve held a full split until I thought my legs would break, done jump squats until I couldn’t breathe, run until the world narrowed to the pain in my body and the desperation in my lungs and the zigzag cracks in the pavement. I’ve walked down a mountain and carried my sleeping niece and coaxed impossibly tight compression stockings onto my granny’s feet.

I feel healthy. Despite my natural bent toward a happy couch potato lifestyle, I’ve spent the summer taking care of myself, body and mind and soul. I’ve eaten fresh vegetables from the garden, gone on long walks at sunset, and paid uncharacteristically close attention to hydration. I’ve faced anxiety and given myself room to breathe, reminded myself to sleep and rewarded myself with hours upon delightful hours of binge-reading.

I feel brave. We all live with fear, but this summer I’ve decided to live past that fear. I’ve stood my ground in difficult conversations, applied for new jobs, and stayed with strangers. I’ve made scary phone calls and I’ve asked scary questions. I’ve faced the reality of my next two years and made preparations instead of hiding. I’ve begun learning the kind of thing you’re supposed to start as a child and, despite my fear, I’ve shown up to every lesson and learned to laugh when the five-year-olds succeed and I fail.

And after staring into that mirror and thinking about these things, I realised that it doesn’t matter if I feel beautiful, because beautiful was never the standard to begin with. Beautiful can be achieved any day with some cosmetic products and some time on my hands; Youtube has proven that.

Who I am is more fundamental than my skin tone or my hairstyle.

It’s in the way I hold myself when things don’t go my way. It’s in what I do when I’d rather do nothing. It’s in how I get back on my feet after a tumble.

Maybe you’re feeling beautiful today, and if you are, I’m genuinely thrilled for you, because there’s a confidence in that feeling. But if you’re like me, if you can’t remember the last time you felt gorgeous, take a closer look at yourself and decide what’s fundamental about you—what can’t be created with good contouring or a new outfit, and what can’t be taken away by a bad hairstyle or a few down days.

Because you are beautiful—but you are so much more than that.

Defining Ourselves

“We live in a culture where we define ourselves by our weaknesses.”

My mother said it in passing recently, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe because it struck me so hard and true. We define ourselves by our weaknesses—by the things we haven’t accomplished or the lifestyle we don’t have, by our disorders or our deficiencies.

I see it in myself. I see it everywhere, in fact, once I begin to look for it.

I define myself by my social anxiety and lack of financial security. Even when I acknowledge my strengths, I find a way to turn them into weaknesses: I am a mediocre musician and an aspiring novelist.

You probably do it too—undermine yourself, maybe out of a sense of false modesty, or maybe out of fear. You’re successful, but…

But what?

It’s smart in some ways, finding our weak points, learning to compensate for our deficiencies, protecting our vulnerabilities. But in a world full of impossible standards, where failure is magnified and our best is never quite good enough, we have enough negative voices cutting us down; we don’t need to make ourselves feel worse.

So why do we do it? Maybe it’s self-preservation. We’re terrified of being insignificant and insufficient, so we cut ourselves down before someone else can do it for us. Being told we’re worthless hurts less if we’ve already told it to ourselves. When someone says, “You’re not good enough,” we can respond with, “I never said I was.”

edmundburke

We try to protect ourselves by reducing our value to the lowest common denominator. We’re afraid to be knocked down if we stand too tall. Weaknesses are impervious to attack, invulnerable to comparison. In a competitive culture, someone else’s strengths always feel like a threat to mine, but someone else’s weaknesses feel like companionship.

But what if we defined ourselves by our strengths? What if we turned the model on its head and saw every drawback as a gift? What if I stopped saying, “I am anxious” and began saying, “I am brave enough to function despite my anxiety”?

Suddenly we’re not petrified by fear, not shackled by the limitations we’ve set. We’re free to try, fail, and try again. We’re free to take ownership of our wins as well as our losses. We’re strong enough to stand for ourselves, to acknowledge ourselves as being more than the sum of our shortcomings.

We are not defined in terms of other people. I don’t have to see myself in competition. I can own my abilities no matter where they fall in relation to you. We don’t have to be strong versus stronger—we can all be strong. We don’t have to be successful versus more successful—we can all be successful.

We are all good enough, if we’ll only stop looking for reasons not to be.

Comparisons

“How do you adult so much better than I do?” a friend asked me recently.

For a few minutes, I couldn’t answer, certain she’d meant to ask someone else. Someone besides me. In that space of waiting, I ran up the tally in my mind—all the reasons she was most definitely a better adult than I:

  • She’s married, so she has the relationship thing figured out—I’m single.
  • She did all her own wedding decorations, so she’s not only crafty but able to complete projects—I’ve been knitting the same jumper for the past two years.
  • She has an apartment—I live with my parents at the moment.
  • She has a car—I’ve been letting my brothers chauffeur me around town.
  • She has a job—well, so do I, technically, but her job seems better.
  • She ……

And so on. At about that point, I was ready to give up, burn the unfinished to-do list I’ve been hiding from for a month, curl up on the sofa forever, and declare myself incompetent as an adult.

“You don’t have to run. You can walk,” my mother tells me. “Something is better than nothing.”

That’s her philosophy when it comes to almost everything, and as I begin to let go of my terrifying perfectionism, I see that she’s right. I’ve heard it most of my life, and you probably have too: “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” The subtle implication can be disastrous though: “If you don’t feel competent to complete this perfectly, don’t even bother starting.”

This poisonous perfectionism, has resulted in a lot of not bothering starting for me.

I didn’t have time for a whole workout, so I didn’t move at all.

I couldn’t make it on time, so I skipped class entirely.

I couldn’t commit to a deep friendship, so I skipped out on the rewarding acquaintanceship.

I’m sure you can relate, because the more I see of people, the more I realise that this “don’t do it if you can’t do it perfectly” mentality affects a huge number of us. What’s worse, though, is that many of us turn the maxim into something even more warped: “If you can’t do it as well as the person next to you, don’t do it at all.”

Suddenly, our focus isn’t on excellence at all—it’s on competition.

So this week, I’m letting go of competition. I’m letting go of perfectionism, of the lie that I can’t be successful if I can’t outdo someone else, of the need to do everything or nothing, with no healthy in-between.

This week, I’m recognising that though devastation lurks in the comparisons, beauty lives in the contrasts. Beauty lives the knowledge of how far I’ve come and the challenge of how far I have yet to go. It’s in the way our strengths and weaknesses make us need each other, in the way today’s struggles teach us to value tomorrow’s respite. It’s in getting up and doing something, even if it’s not the best something, even if it’s a small something.

Beauty is in every step I think I can’t take, every movement beyond the status quo, every something that goes beyond nothing.