Pesky Perfection

I’ve never really thought of myself as a perfectionist.

A perfectionist woman, as I see her, has her hair back in a high, sleek ponytail and wears white pressed shirts that do not contain remnants of lunch. Her weight falls right into the healthy range on the BMI chart and she has perfectly manicured nails. Her schedule is chock full of appointments, all which she keeps and arrives to on time, and she can speak expertly on a wide variety of things.

That is not me. I can’t wear white, it’s a miracle when I make it out of the house without forgetting something, and Just today a friend reminded me of a time I slipped on a rock, broke my phone and then nearly drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. I am not at all close to a woman who seeks perfection, or at least what I think perfect is.

Lately, though, perfectionism has been on my mind. As part of a 12-week spiritual course that I am taking, I was listening to a podcast one morning about perfectionism and the need to please. Earlier that morning I was out running and I was getting really worked up about all the things I needed to do. There were the little life things, like switch the electrical bill to my name in my new place and return emails that I should have responded to months ago. But there was bigger stuff, too – I needed to network more in the storytelling community, spend more time with that friend, write so much more than the little I’ve been doing. I was angry that there was too much to do and too many things to occupy my time. I felt so little next to all of these tasks.

But as I listened to the podcast, I started to realize why all these things caused me so much anxiety. I’ve always been the woman who did it all. From high school – a three-sport athlete, honor student and member of several groups – to career – I worked full-time and started my own publication – to Peace Corps – being on three internal committees and starting community projects in addition to teaching. I’ve always been the person who did it all.

When I first moved to Chicago, while readjusting to life beyond Peace Corps, I wanted everything. I wanted a job at a non-profit, I wanted a bustling social life, I wanted to volunteer, I wanted to run marathons, I wanted a boyfriend, I wanted hobbies. I wanted everything and I thought everything was attainable, and it was a painful year as I realized that I couldn’t have it all.

Then, within the last few months, I did. My friendships strengthened, I signed up for the marathon, I moved into an apartment of my own, things clicked at work and I met a really wonderful man. My life was finally becoming that perfect little life.

Yet, I felt like I can’t keep up, that there is too much that I am not doing. When I started to think about perfectionism, I worried that I am disappointing people and that I am not living up to my full potential. And as soon as those ideas became clear to me, I realized that I do seek to obtain perfection. I want to do it all and be it all, because I always have.

First, it sucks admitting you are a perfectionist. Perfectionist are stuck up bitches who have everything you want while you have salad dressing on your pants. But, perfectionism doesn’t sting on the outside, instead it’s that voice telling you that if you don’t do that thing your friend wants you to or if you don’t start making a plan for after your current job that you going to be the world’s biggest loser. That’s perfectionism.

How do you beat it? I don’t know. About 20 minutes ago, I was frazzled because while trying to juggle all that I have going on because I may let someone down, myself included. However, I think forgiveness and realistic expectations are key ingredients. I can’t do it all – I can’t run a marathon, take a storytelling class and work on a book all while having a job and working to not be a hermit. I can’t say yes to every invitation, but I can’t stay home every night of the week. There is a balance somewhere in all of that, which requires prioritizing and letting a few things go along with heaps and heaps of forgiveness.

It’s OK if I can’t do everything and be everything, which is a lesson I am honestly still learning. But that’s OK. I forgive myself for thinking that I needed to be in the first place. I am not perfect and I don’t need to be.

Five Years

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As the plane pulled away from the small municipal airport, my light tears turned into body-shaking sobs. I held on to the sight of my family on the other side of the airport window as long as I could, believing that it would be two years until I saw them again. Everything I knew about this world would change in a matter of days. My life, after that moment, would never be the same.

Five years later after I left for Niger and that morning of July 5 is still clearly etched into my memory. But there are others, too.

– Watching a 2010 World Cup game in a bar in the Philadelphia airport with my new Peace Corps friends.

– Our first rainstorm in Niger, tearing our bug nets quickly and efficiently as if we’ve been doing it for years.

– Our first standfast, which felt more like summer camp, with a talent show and dance party.

– When I arrived in Dan Tchiao and flocks of children came to greet me.

– The first time I got sick with dysentery and my host mother prayed over my head.

– Receiving the call that my dear friend had passed away in her sleep and then watching a box with her inside and an American flag draped over it being lifted on to an airplane.

– Thanksgiving and Christmas in Zinder.

– Showing new volunteers around the Zinder market and feeling like I’d become an expert in three months.

– Tondi trembling as he read the words of our evacuation orders.

– Watching Dan Tchiao from the rearview mirror and sobbing from the deepest heartbreak I’ve ever felt.

Niger was the beginning of a life shift for me and, my world did change that July 5. In no way could I envision that my journey to Niger would end the way it did, but it was meant to be that way. I was meant to have just those six month in that incredible desert nation, and then two years of service in Lesotho.

In just six months, I felt a lot of pain in that country. For the first time, I saw true poverty and I realized that there was little I could do. I had to say goodbye to my beautiful village way before I was ready. And, I lost a dear, dear friend who I still think about often.

Yet, in one of the poorest countries in the world, I found lots of joy and love. I met Nigeriens who will never have one percent of the luxuries that I have, but still smile every day and love the people around them with everything they have. I met fellow Americans with such rich and intelligent souls that I was instantly inspired to do as much good as possible, and to this day, I am constantly amazed at the incredible things they do to make this world a better place. I also got to see a side of myself, one with courage and patience, that I am not sure I would have believed existed before I got on that plane July 5, 2010.

All of our lives change after five years, if we are lucky, but there has never been a time in my life so chalk full of monumental moments than the last five years. So many of the defining parts of my life happened in that time and I know I wouldn’t be where I am – in a very good and happy spot – if not for Niger. That West African Country which few can properly pronounce and fewer have ever heard of is shaped into my personality and I will never not feel a deep love for it. It was my beginning, my foundation, and where I learned so much about the world and about myself. Even if I only got six months in that country with those amazing people, I am thankful for every single second.

One Year

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A single person can’t move a full bed three stories on her own.

I know. I tried.

Alone in this new city and without any pants because the airline had lost my bag and Chicago was colder than expected, I just wanted to sleep in the bed that I paid too much for from my room’s previous tenant. All my frustration and fear would surely morph into energy and I would get that bed up to my room, I thought that first night in Chicago.

It didn’t.

Not even half way up, a neighbor saw me struggling and offered to help. Then, I couldn’t figure out the frame (and it seriously wasn’t until LAST week that someone pointed out that my frame is for a queen and I have a full mattress) (it also took until Kieara came several months later before I got the bed on a frame), but at least I had a bed. I fell asleep half excited, half scared about this new life in Chicago.

I wanted Chicago to make me happy. I wanted it to bring me love and passion and purpose. I wanted it to be the answer to all of my problems. I wanted to climb the top all on my own and just be OK. It’s been one year since I landed in Chicago, drove up Lake Shore Drive and immediately fell in love with this city’s skyline.

I came to Chicago a pretty broken person and it took several months before I could put myself together. I wanted so much while fearing that I didn’t know what I wanted. I was the loneliest I had ever been in my life – yes, even next to all those nights in Lesotho – and each new day took more effort than I seemed to have.

But, I showed up. I contacted barely acquaintances and said yes to every social invitation. I found my go-to coffee shop and settled into commuting habits. I stumbled and came close to failing, but then I got up and tried again. All I wanted was a life that I could be proud of and, even when that didn’t seem possible, I kept trying.

Someone how, without much fanfare, it all came into place. Occasionally I will be out to brunch or walking through downtown on my way to work and think, “Yes, this is how I always imagined it to be.

I couldn’t do it on my own, though. I needed my family’s support and their visits to Chicago. I needed those barely acquaintances that became good friends. I needed the friends who always remind me to text when I made it home. I needed incredible colleagues who are also my friends. I needed the strangers who give me their seat on the train or offer a quick hello.

And here I am, at the top. My first year in this city was tough and sometimes I wanted to pack up and leave again, but I didn’t. I didn’t because I knew that one day this moment would come, the moment when everything feels so right.

I am not sure where I will be when the second anniversary comes, but I am not fearful. I look back at that woman I was when I first arrive and she feels so different than who I am now. I struggled, I triumphed, I grew.

All I know is that I go into the next year feeling quite proud of the little life I created in this city.

Trust in practice

When I was job searching after Peace Corps, I had two strong leads – one in D.C. and one in Seattle. Both communications positions at non-profits and both organizations came highly recommended by people I know that are familiar with them. The major difference, at least for me at the time, was that I was a step further in the hiring process with the D.C. gig and that offer came before I had my final interview with the Seattle job. I mulled over both positions, along with both cities, even though I was uncertain if I would take the D.C. job or even get the Seattle job. There was also opportunities for me to stay in South Dakota longer or take a months-long road trip with a friend. The options overwhelmed me, but one day I woke up with this notion in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t a loud roar, but one that felt authentic. I hadn’t committed to anything, but with clarity I wrote an email to the hiring manager of the Seattle job and withdrew my application.

On occasion I think about the Seattle life I could have had, but I do not dwell. That isn’t my life.

In that fleeting moment, I trusted my gut and knew that I needed to turn in another direction, even if I wasn’t completely sold on D.C. at the time. There was something just not right about that job in Seattle and I thought that if I removed it from my possibilities I would know what to do. I did and eventually took that  job in D.C., only to leave it four months later for another offer in Chicago.

Was D.C. the right decision? Would I have come to Chicago had I gone to Seattle first? Or maybe I should have just stayed in South Dakota? Would I have gotten to my true path quicker? I honestly don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know that this is where I am supposed to be right now. I trust that and I don’t really need to doubt the path that got me here.

Today a choice was put in front of me. Because I am not ready to discuss the whole situation on the internet, this will be a bit vague (no, I am not moving or taking another job – I am done with that, for now). I could go do one road, a solitary path that includes no certainty of being the right one. Or I could go down another path with lots of paths to veer off of whenever I felt unsure. The road of many options is safer and I could always back out if I disappointed or felt disappointed while the solitary road would is an all in situation without any success guaranteed.

I took the solitary road.

And, soon after, I panicked. What if I had chosen unwisely? Maybe I had missed the signs that this isn’t the road I should be on at all. What if I get hurt? What if the other road is where I am supposed to travel and I am not smart enough to realize it?

But that’s only one side of the equation. There is also the likely possibility that I knew exactly what I was doing and made a decision based on love, not the fear of missing out (which I do all too often).

I was tempted to turn to friends and loved ones to reassure me that I made the right choice, but I did not. I didn’t because that steady, albeit sometimes soft, voice told me this is what I needed to do. I could have asked for signs from the Universe or every person in my phone book, but I knew deep down what I needed to do. That doesn’t mean that this path is my ultimate destiny, but maybe it will lead me there, like D.C. did.

I do not know what will happen from here, but this vulnerability is exhilarating. This is more of a beginning than an ending and I am able to travel down this road knowing I am here because I trusted myself.

Trust

It’s raining this evening.

I have multiple places that I could be, that I should be, but I chose to go home and sit with my thoughts and a cup of warm tea. It’s something that I learned from Lesotho – when Mother Nature sings with a storm, and your heart feels it, then it is time to be still and let it thrash about you.

I need to stop. I need to crawl into my bed with something steaming and watch the scented candle flicker. I need to listen to the chorus of rain drops and thunder. I need to just be alone.

The last few months have been crazy busy. I spent a week in South Dakota and Oklahoma, both for work, then two wedding weekends in Minneapolis and another two weeks in New Zealand for the vacation of a lifetime. The few days I had in Chicago were spent socializing and moving from one dinner to the next. I came home some nights so exhausted that I couldn’t put pajamas on.

One night last week I woke up in a foul mood. I hadn’t slept well the night before and my mind was buzzing with all of the things I would need to do. Our office was having a staff retreat, and while it’s usually nice to see all of my coworkers and think big together, it takes us away from our day-to-day work and to-do lists and email boxes overwhelm me. My nights were just as busy with activities and outings scheduled each evening. On top of that, I had just started an online spiritual class, was in the midst of my second week of marathon training, and trying to find a place to live so as not to be homeless by the end of the month. All I wanted was a few hours to just be me and I didn’t think it would come for awhile.

That night I met some friends at a bar to watch the Blackhawks game. I had just looked at an apartment – for which I will sign the lease this week – and felt mentally exhausted. I had wanted to go home, but something told me to go so I did. Although I work with these friends, it felt like I hadn’t seen them in ages. We talked about the goal setting we did at work that day and what we truly want from our lives. We cheered when the Hawks scored and moaned when Tampa Bay did. Soon, other friends joined us and we had a full table. When the evening ended, we all walked into the street and scattered into different directions. It was slightly drizzling and the street lights danced throughout the quiet road. A wave of emotion came over me as I thought about how broken and lonely I had been just a year ago, when I first moved to the city. I thought about the amazing work I get to do with incredible people and the wonderful individuals who support me each day. I thought about this city, which at one time felt as unfamiliar as a foreign land but is now engraved into me like home. I thought about the dreams brewing beneath my skin and how they felt attainable. This was a feeling that I had recognized from other times in my life – a run on the campus of South Dakota State my junior year of high school, a month or so after I moved back to South Dakota from Idaho, countless times when I would stare out into the river valley while fetching water. I knew that at that moment I had all I needed and was right where I was meant to be.

It’s probably not a surprise to anyone reading this that I don’t often trust myself. Little decisions like whether or not to purchase a new dress or what movie to see plague me. Just today I was worked up about whether I should go out with friends to watch the Hawks game or go to meditation. I am so convinced that each little decision I make is representative of who I am and I am terrified I won’t chose wisely.

Sometimes I forget that I have chosen wisely before and that I am not always trying to sabotage myself. There have been times, such as the Peace Corps and running an ultra marathon, where I was the only who believed that I could achieve my goal, and that my belief in myself was enough to get back up after the knock downs. Leading up to that moment on the street, I felt like I was running so quickly and frantically into a direction that I wasn’t sure I was meant to go, but the stillness of the moment reassured me. How lucky I was to be with such great people and to have developed such a flourishing life in an amazing city, I was thankful and within that gratitude I saw the trust that led me there.

Tonight, I needed that again. I needed to take a slight step back to see the things I can’t up close. I needed my own soothing voice reminding me that all I need is all I have and that I do know what direction to soar into. What’s beautiful, though, is the recognition of this need. It’s natural to not trust yourself and be uncertain and the growth comes from when you can see the hesitation and lean into it.

You need the storm to come so you can listen, take it in, and trust that it will pass.

When it’s not easy to choose you

“Self respect is such a painful thing to maintain.”

This is something a dear friend told me as I relayed my desire to reach out to someone who had not respected me. It was not a person who historically had treated me poorly, but actually quite the opposite, even reminding me what it felt like to be cared for and looked after.

Then something changed. We went from giggling in a parking lot to exchanges of long, pent up text messages in a matter of hours. I replayed those messages in my head for hours, wondering if this was the final act or not. I was ashamed then said then angry. I asked to talk about the situation but this desire was not granted, not a priority for the other person.

And so I sat, pining for some indication that a message of amends would come yet half ready to slap it down. I looked at my phone and messaged my friend instead.

I wanted to chase this person. I wanted to convince this person to see it my way, to give me another shot. I wanted to fix this thing. This anxiety and pain boiled through me and I nearly toppled to its pressure, but then I remembered that I had been here before. I told myself, and all of you, that I wasn’t going to put up with people who didn’t value me and sticking to that promise meant more than trying to repair something with someone that didn’t have time for me.

So I let it be. I sat with my emotions and tried to take what good I could from the situation. I embraced the love of those who never think twice in giving it to me and I believed in what I deserve. Walking home, a fresh layer of hope struck me. It would certainly be OK.

It’s not easy to pick yourself in situations. It’s not easy to overlook initial pain for your longterm benefit. Yet, it’s the only way you can move forward. Respecting myself and putting myself first may never be easy, but it will always be the right choice.

The Warrior

A warrior stands on the top of dark ash, sweaty and tired. She lost but she is not defeated. Her hope and determination is now greater than ever.

Warriors are women who stand up against sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Warriors are single mothers who work two jobs to feed their children.

Warriors are leaders and artists who push the status quo so a new voice is heard.

Warriors are young girls who demand that their societies educate them.

I do not think of myself as a warrior, rather a woman who has been granted a lot in life and doesn’t understand true struggle. Who am I to suffer, I say as I am suffering. My demons are not physical, but rather internal and often self-imposed.

Yet, they bring me to my knees with fear and they make me doubt who I am. Sometimes, I think that they will win. But, like the warriors, my soul must be bigger. I must slay these inner foes so that I can be the person who makes a real difference, the person the world needs me to be. I must undo the years of self-doubt and criticism to become the authentic version of myself.

To do this, I must be a warrior. I am a warrior.