Gratitude

Ishimwe

Gratitude

In Peace Corps, perhaps more so than in other phases of life, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative.

Our conversation patterns fall into a familiar cycle of complaints, implicit or explicit, as we discuss the foods we miss, the aspects of our jobs that frustrate us, the constant shifting of Peace Corps rules, the lack of comforts we took for granted back in the States. It’s harder to remember the things we’re grateful for.

I have a confession: this year I planned not to celebrate the holidays at all. I’ve been pushing my budget and my energy both to the limits lately, and Thanksgiving, especially, has sounded more like a chore than a holiday.

But a friend passing by talking about her love of Christmas reminded me of how much I, too, love the holiday season, and a couple other friends decided to visit me for Thanksgiving despite my having flatly refused to join in on their initial celebration plan, and suddenly the season didn’t seem so bleak and difficult. I’ve spent a few days making holiday decorations and hunting down Christmas music, and just like that, I’m looking forward to the holidays. And just like that, I remembered that there really are a lot of things I’m thankful for.

Here are a few of them—one for every month I’ve been in Rwanda:

  1. Friends who refuse to let me be alone on holidays
  2. Furry animal babies who cuddle me and love me even when I’m grouchy
  3. Neighbours who invest in me despite the language barrier
  4. Local co-workers who are motivated and serious about projects
  5. Holiday foods—we won’t have turkey or cranberry sauce, but if we put a little effort in, we can have goat and mashed potatoes and maybe even pie
  6. My own compound with running water—I will never get over how lucky I am to have a private space with a good wall and water I don’t have to haul in jerrycans
  7. The internet—even if my access to it is limited and slow, I can still communicate with my family more or less instantaneously despite thousands of miles between us
  8. Books—I may be the only person in my village who owns books, and these gateways to comfort, escape, and enlightenment that I’ve regarded as a right for many years suddenly appear clearly to be an incredible privilege
  9. Beautiful things—this week it’s the paper snowflakes I hung from my ceiling and the candles I stuck on some empty bottles on my bookshelf; I’m mesmerised; I can’t stop staring; isn’t it lovely that we have the capacity to create and admire art?
  10. Cozy clothes—jumpers and leggings and socks and hoodies and all the lovely soft clothes that make chilly evenings a little better
  11. Coffee—in a country where coffee is an export crop but not a common drink, I can buy freshly roasted and ground coffee just a 45-minute bus ride away from my site
  12. Rainy season—honestly, during dry season I’d forgotten how beautiful my area is, but now that the rains have returned, the hills are green and the valley shimmers wet in the setting suns and the colours are vibrant without their dry-season coats of dust, and I find myself craning my neck to stare in all directions when I walk up the road
  13. My health—some volunteers have been sick more often than not here; I’ve only been significantly sick three times in the fourteen months I’ve been in country
  14. A long holiday—my mind and body are so happy to have a chance to rest a little before next schoolyear, and I’m looking forward to lying on a beach for a week in early December

Anyway, there’s my list. I hope you, too, have plenty of things to be grateful for and that you take a moment to remember a few of them this holiday season.

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I Feel Good

Meza neza.

I feel good.

Yesterday I looked down at my feet and realised that my toenail polish had completely flaked off.

I have not reapplied it.

For the first time in what may be a decade or more, my toenails have been bare for longer than the time it takes to reapply paint.

I’ve never blogged much about appearance, body image, etc., in part because I think so many other people are doing so well at it and in part because I’ve never felt like I had much of a story to tell. If I had tried, I’m pretty sure it would’ve gone something like this:

Body image is important. It’s important to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s why I try to wear clothes that look nice but feel like pyjamas as much as possible. That’s also why I work out, because even though I drew the winning number on body type and metabolism by Western beauty standards, I don’t feel comfortable in my skin if I’m not sort of in shape. Also there are things about my body that I don’t like! Even people who look like they have it together have problems and insecurities!

It reads kind of smug and unnecessary.

But, looking down at my bare toenails, I suddenly realised that here in Rwanda, for the first time in years, I do not perpetually have some facet of my appearance about which I’m uncomfortable.

I looked down at my feet and realised I wasn’t self-conscious about my toes.

I realised that I’ve been going to work for six months now without makeup and not feeling like my face has no definition.

I don’t remember the last time I washed my hair, but I don’t feel like I should hide it.

Sometimes I go to school after lunch with my meal clearly visible in the way my stomach presses against my shirt, and I don’t fight to suck it in.

I haven’t shaved in months, and I feel no concern about my calves or armpits being seen.

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(note that I’m completely unembarrassed to share this particularly unflattering photo)

It may sound silly (or maybe you’re like me and it sounds extremely relatable)—but these are all things that I’ve been to some degree embarrassed about for years. Why am I suddenly okay with things that I’ve always been uncomfortable with?

Here’s the only answer I’ve come up with: I have no way to compare myself anymore.

In the States, I was surrounded by people who shared my same basic features, and I subjected myself to endless comparisons. It’s not like I ever sat down and said, “I’m not good enough because x-feature on me isn’t as nice as so-and-so’s,” but somewhere in my mind I kept this little running tally of all the ways other people were beautiful. Then when I looked at myself, I had this overall feeling of being not quite good enough.

But here, I can’t do that.

It’s not that I don’t keep some kind of running total of how everyone around me is beautiful; I can tell you without even thinking about it that one of my coworkers has flawless fashion sense, another has a beautiful facial structure, yet another always has well-styled hair. But I can’t compare myself to them. We’re physically so different that there’s almost no common ground to compare.

I can’t compare my skin to theirs because it’s fundamentally different colours. I can’t compare my hair to theirs because mine is straight and theirs is kinky. I can’t compare my wardrobe to theirs, because they wear Rwandan styles and I wear Western styles. I can’t even compare my muscle tone to theirs, because we keep most of our bodies covered.

In addition, there are almost no mirrors in my life. I have a small mirror, maybe four inches in diameter, on my wall in my bedroom. If I want to see whether my outfit matches, I have to go outside and stand in my compound and catch my reflection in my windows—always warped by the bars and the different panes at slightly different angles.

As a result, I no longer think much about my appearance.

I judge my style by whether it feels comfortable, smells clean, and is appropriate for the context I expect to be in. I judge my body by whether I feel healthy. I no longer notice my shape much, but instead I notice whether I can carry my full water filter, make my morning workout more difficult, or speed-walk up the hill to school without pain in my thighs and lungs (I’m always speed-walking, because while being on time is a skill I have honed, leaving on time is a skill I may never attain).

And the end result is that I feel good.

I feel good about being seen. I feel good about my body. I feel good about myself.

It’s easy to say “don’t compare yourself,” but it’s almost impossible to stop until you have no choice.

I don’t know what will happen when I stop being surrounded by people superficially unlike myself, but here’s what I hope: I hope that I will maintain this idea that really nobody is just like me, and that really, we’re all too different to draw useful comparisons.

I hope that I’ll become so comfortable in my own skin that I’ll stop judging other people’s.

I’m Tired

​”Ndananiwe cyane.”

“I’m very tired.”

I find myself saying this often. Before I came to Rwanda, I envisioned myself surrounded by new friends, confidently exploring a new environment, eagerly practising a new language. 

What I didn’t take into account is that being in a new place with new people and a new language doesn’t make me a new person. I’m still me. 

Peace Corps doesn’t change that, and Rwanda doesn’t change that. 

But it does force me to act like a different person, pushing me out of my comfort zone a hundred times a day. And yet while it can force me to make small talk with strangers in a language I barely understand, it can’t take away the fear I feel while doing so, and that is exhausting. Every day I see more clearly the sharp discrepancy between who I am and who Peace Corps would like me to be. 

Peace Corps would like me to be bold and outgoing, ready to talk to anyone and everyone—but I’m not. Some days I think I’ll shatter if one more child yells at me from the side of the road. 

Peace Corps would like me to immerse myself in my host family’s daily routine–but sometimes I can’t. Some days the anxiety and feeling of being and outsider are so overwhelming that it’s all I can do to greet them politely before I lock myself in my room. 

This is not to say Peace Corps is too much for me. I can do the tasks required, but I pay a price for that functionality. 

Some days I pay that price in tears or headaches or trembling hands. Some days I pay that price with exhaustion or a petrified mind, unable to process information or form coherent answers. 

Every day is different. Sometimes I talk to people even though I’m shaking, and sometimes I laugh when everything in me wants to cry. But sometimes I stay on my bed all afternoon, and sometimes I walk away without answering so I can break down in private. 

I’ve spent the last month searching for ways to cope with this dichotomy between who I am and who I need to  be to succeed here in this new world.

Coping strategies are hard during PST. I have little to no control over things like my schedule or diet, extremely limited free time, and a timetable that changes frequently and often without warning. My private space is limited to my bed, and my activities are limited to things I can do there or that I don’t mind people watching (working out on my porch ended after five minutes when a handful of neighbours lined up to watch). To make it worse, I feel guilty if I spend more than a few minutes at a time in my bedroom—I should be integrating, right? 

I have to find the things I can control, the things that make me feel most like myself, and fit them like glue into the cracks of my life to hold myself together. 


Things like reading, posting on Instagram, watching movies. Things like texting friends and family, listening to familiar music, writing. 

Right now the thing holding me together is NaNoWriMo. Usually it feels like one more obligation in a busy schedule, but now it feels like a goal I’m actually competent to achieve, an outlet, a way to feel like myself while I’m stretching and bending to fit into the Peace Corps mould. 

Ndananiwe cyane—I’m very tired. 

But I’m also many other things, even if sometimes I forget them. I’m also strong and brave and curious and eager and truly glad to be here. 

Being in a new place doesn’t make me a new person, but it does add things to my essential self, and I think this change, this constant growth, this struggle to discover what is me and what I can change—this is also a beautiful process.

Home

“Ndi gutaha.” 

“I’m going home.”

Those words rattled in my head with every bump of the crowded bus from Kayonza to Rwamagana. They bounced with my every step up familiar sidewalks and down dirt roads until I rounded that last curve by the banana plants and saw the familiar red gate rising at the end of the path. 

Home is a complicated concept—a network of small towns and rising cities and beloved people around the world—and somehow in the past six weeks, it’s expanded to include a cement and mud-brick compound on the outskirts of Rwamagana town. 

It’s been a rough week. For site visit, I left the comfort of my host family with my school’s Dean of Studies, a near stranger, and travelled to a different district to spend four days learning a new town and new people. 

Sometime amid the tears of fear and frustration this week, I realised culture shock had caught up with me. 

The name makes it sound like a sudden surprise at clear cultural differences, but the truth is it’s less of a shock and more of a pervading exhaustion. You go along thinking you’re fine, but it builds up little by little until, out of nowhere, you’re tired beyond belief. 

It’s a gradual wearing down beneath the grindstone of a million tiny things you don’t even notice in the moment. 

It’s the disproportionate effort required to communicate. It’s being stared at, shouted at, and touched on the street. It’s considering starving rather than take one more bite of unseasoned beans, and then taking one more bite. It’s struggling to keep my shoes clean and knowing that no matter how dirty someone else’s feet, mine are the ones being judged. It’s having to question the cultural assumptions behind any question. It’s not knowing the fair price of anything. It’s wondering whether I’ll ever have cheese or ice cream or chocolate ever again. 

It’s my fight-or-flight never resting, because I have no prior knowledge by which to predict any situation. 

At the beginning of this journey, someone gave us this advice: 

“Fall in love with your country as soon as possible.”

Someone else (probably on Welcome to Night Vale, to be honest) said this: 

“Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.”

In the moments when life here feels like a storm battering me, when I think I will break if I’m bent any further, it’s all too easy to remember what I dislike about this country and to forget all the things I love. 

But there are things I love, even when I’m drowning under waves of culture shock and exhaustion. 

I love the rolling hills patterned with fields of beans and rice, the dry rattle of banana leaves in the wind before a rainstorm, the music rolling out the doors of boutiques and down the street. 

I love the warm greetings of shopkeepers I know and the tendency of old ladies to pull me in for a hug instead of shaking hands. 

I love the uninhibited joy of children and adults alike whenever there’s a game or a song or a good conversation. 

I love the goats by the side of the road and the tiny, impossibly blue swallows that dart and dive and swoop bat-like and the magpies and hawks vying for the right to circle any place that might have food. 

I love the sunsets and the dark storm clouds and the vibrant dirt roads. 

And today, when I knocked on that big red gate and heard a patter of feet and the bolt screeching back, I discovered I love the look of surprised delight on Simbi’s face, and I love hearing Nziza chanting my name before I ever reach the door, and I love Hiro’s silent, tight hugs.

I love walking into this place, so strange to me a month ago, and knowing I’ve come home. 

It’s Good

“Ni byiza.” 

“It’s good.”

We learned this phrase in our first language session, and over the past few weeks, I’ve caught myself repeating it over and over. 

In the beginning, I didn’t know a better response for almost any question I was asked. How was I doing? Ni byiza. How was the food? Ni byiza. How was language learning? Ni byiza. 

I still catch myself saying this often, especially when discussing some quirk of Rwandan culture of some embarrassing language or cultural mistake. 

This whole experience is beginning to divide into categories in my mind. 

Things I expected:

  • Hot sun and dusty roads 
  • Lots of staring
  • Rice and beans
  • Noun classes
  • Sunburns and bug bites
  • Bucket showers and pit latrines 
  • Slow/nonexistent internet 
  • Cows and chickens on the roads
  • Haggling in the market 
  • House help
  • Long lessons
  • Language barrier 
  • Fear of standing in front of a classroom

Things I didn’t expect:

  • Reserved culture—Rwandans are nice but more standoffish than I’d expected
  • Chilly days
  • Almost total lack of non-meat animals (aside from ubiquitous giant magpie-looking birds) 
  • Almost total lack of coffee
  • Extremely supportive PCVs constantly on hand to answer questions and ease our transition 
  • Lack of daily rain during rainy season
  • Lack of humidity
  • Effort involved in acquiring water 
  • Brushing teeth with a water bottle and spitting into a latrine drain
  • Total inability to connect laptop to internet 
  • Extreme ease of texting/calling family and friends in the States 
  • Being unable to buy a pillow for weeks on end
  • Mixed consonants
  • Another TCK in the group 
  • Receiving preferential treatment from my host family—I still get fed first and take my tea out of nice mugs that nobody else in the family uses

Things I’m still uncomfortable with:

  • Bucket showers
  • Being stared at/followed/called “muzungu”  (“white person” or “foreigner”) 
  • Being uncertain whether any given child approaching will ignore me, follow silently, great me politely, or demand money
  • Constant people and social pressure wearing me out 
  • The concept of me as a teacher
  • Dichotomy between cultural emphasis on cleanliness and lack of some forms of hygiene—significantly hand washing 
  • Verb tenses 
  • Pressure on women to dress/behave properly 
  • Many cockroaches and a rat in my latrine
  • People talking very quietly 
  • Cooking over a charcoal stove

Thinks I’m surprised to discover I like:

  • Pit latrines—you never actually touch the facilities, so it feels cleaner than a toilet and smells better than any outhouse I’ve ever encountered
  • Market shopping—overwhelming, but satisfying and comfortable now that I know a few vendors
  • Repetitive food
  • Learning about the Rwandan school system
  • Porridge
  • Green bananas
  • Evenings at the garden bar with 40 other Americans 
  • Eating supper at 8:30 or 9:00
  • Watching the news in Kinyarwanda and understanding every fifth word 
  • Trying  to converse with my umukozi despite a complete language barrier 
  • Chatting with passing strangers on the walk home
  • Kinyarwanda’s complexity

    These lists grow and shrink moment by moment, experience by experience. Ultimately, to each item, I find myself saying, “Ni byiza.” 

    The expected and the unexpected are equally good. Recognising what I dislike is as valuable as noticing what I enjoy about this new life. Ni byiza, all of it. 

    The more I say it, the more I realise it’s not a judgment I get to pass on the culture or situation, but a position I take. It’s a choice to see each of these things as somehow, in some way, good. 

    I don’t get to choose any of these things. This is where I am, and this is the way things are, and the choice I have when faced with this is to recognise all of it and say, “Ni byiza.” 

    Do You Understand?

    “Murabyumva? Murabyumva?”

    “Do you understand? Do you understand?”

    Eight of us in the classroom chorus, “Yego!”—“Yes!”— in response, even though we’re not sure we understand.

    All day this has been going on. We’re saturated with new words, new sounds, new expressions. Our language trainers laugh and clap for us every time we muddle through a word, even when we mangle the foreign sounds with our clumsy American tongues.

    Every few minutes, one of them grins at us and asks, “Murabyumva?”

    Once in a while, too confused to fake it or maybe just brave enough to admit it, one of us answers, “Oya!”—“No!”

    Sometimes, if we’re too overwhelmed to put together a reasonable understanding from the liberal flow of Kinyarwanda and never-ending pantomime our teachers use, they pause and patiently use English to explain the specific meaning of a word or the slight contextual difference between “muramuke” and “ijororyiza.”

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    In the space of a few days, this has become my reality.

    I’ve gone from feeling like a more-or-less adult to feeling like a child. My vocabulary is limited to basic greetings, “thank you,” “yes” and “no,” and “I want.” I don’t recognise most of the food. I don’t know the customs or the culture. I don’t even know how to ask for the bathroom (I asked someone, and she said, “It’s more complicated,” and didn’t tell me).

    I’ve always liked to know everything—to be aware of all the ins and outs, to know the reasons behind everything, to be able to predict and control. I can’t do that anymore.

    I don’t know the ins and outs of Rwandan culture or language. I can’t predict anyone’s responses or behaviour. I can’t guess what sounds should go together or how to rearrange my limited vocabulary into a different sentence than the formulaic dialogue on the board.

    I’m ignorant and dependent—dependent on my host country’s goodwill and condescension, dependent on my teachers’ forgiveness for my unwitting faux pas, dependent on everyone else’s bilingual abilities to compensate for my own lack of language.

    Now that I have no choice, I’m finding that there’s a kind of joy to it.

    There’s a freedom I’ve seldom allowed myself in situations I can control. Freedom to make mistakes, freedom to forget, freedom to laugh at myself.

    There’s a grace—from myself, from my peers, from my trainers. Grace that says, “Yego!” or “Ni byiza!”—“It’s good!”—when I fumble a word or fudge a phoneme. Grace that cheers for each attempt no matter the failure and acknowledges varying levels of skill as all equally acceptable.

    There’s a beauty in the struggle to learn something wholly new, to create sounds that my tongue has never formed before, to admit my utter lack of knowledge and to sit humbly, repeating new phrases like a child, accepting smiles and laughter and wholehearted encouragement from my trainers.

    There’s a beauty in not knowing. There’s a beauty in being helpless.

    This position of complete vulnerability gives me a new permission to see every tiny step as a great achievement. Instead of criticising my insufficiencies until I reach some high benchmark, I’m allowing myself to celebrate each inch I gain.

    In the space of a few days, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with not knowing. I’ve learned to ask dumb questions and then ask them again when I don’t understand answers. To pretend I know and trust that at some point in the future, I will. To say “Yego!” when the teacher asks, “Murabyumva?” and to believe that all the tangles of phonemes will separate themselves in time and that for now it is okay to repeat them half-knowingly, to scramble the mixed consonants, and to laugh and clap and call out “Yego!” for my smallest successes.

    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.

    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.