## No. 34 – It All Adds Up

Question number ten. Of the 250 sheep in a flock, 34% are white. What is the total number of white sheep in the flock?

1. 85
2. 216
3. 165
4. Not here.”

I read the last test question aloud to my small group of testing students and waited for them to work out their answers.

“Miss, where the times sign on the calculator again?” one of my students blurted out, loudly.

A grin crept across my face as I walked beside my student’s desk. “Remember if we have a question, especially during a test, we raise our hand,” I reinforced as I raised my hand in the air.

“Yes ma’am. Now, where’s the times sign?” J questioned again.

My black painted index finger nail pointed down to the multiplication symbol on J’s calculator.

“I knew it was that one!” he exclaimed. Then a moment later, his hands flew over his mouth as his eyes darted up to meet my gaze.

I pursed my lips together, attempting to restrain a smile, unsuccessfully. I shook my head gently at J as I began to weave my way between the students’ desks. Checking to see that they were working and keeping their eyes glued on their own tests. Zig-zagging my way through the desks I found myself standing at the front of the room again.

“Raise your hand,” I had to preface, “if you would like any of the test questions read again.”

“I need number fo” K shouted across the room, forcing the other students to look up from their papers.

I looked at K and waited for her to self-correct.

With an eye roll, lip pop and a lot of sass, K dramatically raised her hand with a wrist flip at the end. Just in case I hadn’t noticed.

I walked quietly and stood in front of K’s desk and responded to her gesture. “K, which question would you like me to read for you?”

“Number fo.”

I waited again. Giving her another opportunity to respond.

“Okay Miss………..question four” she over-emphasized, “……….please.”

I smiled, and nodded my head as I flipped to question four. I quietly read the question and returned to the front of the room again.

Five more minutes passed by and all my students had completed their tests. I dismissed them back to Math and I collected the three calculators that were left behind. Flipping off the light switch, I walked down the hall following my trail of students back to class.

Mrs. Math had quickly graded the tests within a few minutes of our return to class. She motioned for me to join her up at her podium where she had been grading. J’s test was at the top of the stack. She circled the 60 on top of his paper and smiled at me.

My eyes lit up as a full faced smile spread across my face. Now normally, a teacher wouldn’t typically be excited about their student making a 60 on a test. But this student, J, had been making 20’s all year. The same student who asked me to show him where the “times” button was on his calculator. He was incredibly intelligent, but had such difficulty showing it on paper. Mrs. Math and I had both been wracking our brains and resources to find ways to help him learn to better translate his knowledge to paper. So his 60 felt like 110.

I wasn’t sure if J would quite grasp the growth he was making, but I would do my best to convey it to him. Mrs. Math called up the students one by one so that they could see their test score. If they needed to make corrections, they could do that tomorrow during class.

I waited impatiently, just like the students for J’s name to be called. He sauntered up to the podium, taking his sweet time, then finally lowered his gaze on his test score. Mrs. Math whispered something to him, and I watched in awe as a smile crept across his face. Realizing he may have shown too much, J masked his smile quickly transforming his expression.

I was unable to mask my smile. I felt my grin consume my face. Right as it reached maximum capacity, J’s glance met mine. I couldn’t help but smile at him and nod in my head. Nothing too overt, or I might blow his cover of not caring about doing well. But a smile like the one I was radiating is contagious. Because as J swaggered back to his desk, I caught a glimpse of a suppressed tight-lipped smile.

My heart back flipped.

The bell rang soon after and all the students filed out. Mrs. Math and I exchanged hopeful yet tired glances and made my way to the next class.

Nothing could top the high I was riding the rest of the day. As the school bell rang indicating the day was over, I found myself still smirking. These kids were nothing like I could’ve imagined or prepared for. Perpetually exhausting, sarcastic, way too cool and eager to learn, but afraid to show it. My mind had never been so challenged before, yet so invigorated. Facilitating this type of authentic learning was the stuff movies were made of. My first taste of student success.

I unrattled my brain and called it a day. I was going to end on a high note. I deserved it. Most days ended with more work to do when I left than when I arrived in the morning. It regenerated and multiplied daily. Always more to do. But not today. I was going to bask in this victory. Revel in the moment in hopes of willing another like it into existence. I locked up my room and headed out to my car.

Strutting from my classroom at the end of the hallway, the furthest room away from the parking lot, I held my head high. Unlike most days where my eyes were buried into my phone screen as I responded to emails, typed out a to-do list for the next day or hung my head in utter exhaustion.

I exhaled deeply as I sat down in my car. This moment was too good to pass up; I wanted to share my victory. Pure joy is meant to be shared with others, not internalized. I dug out my cell phone to call my mom. Only to be sent into a screeching halt when my thoughts caught up to me. I gulped down a knot in my throat as the realization crashed over me. I hadn’t spoken to my mom in a month. Not since her unfriendly text message ordering me to disconnect from the family.

My mother and I certainly had no perfect relationship. We were not the pair that talked every day, or got mani/pedis together, and we often had differing opinions. But one role my mother had played in my life was my cheerleader. When I was down and frustrated, I could call her and be assured of myself. She would celebrate my victories, dust me off when I’d fallen and encourage me along the way. Oftentimes she felt like the only person I was able to truly talk to in my darkest moments.

However, this dynamic had feathered out over the past year or so. My senior year of college was a holistic growth spurt for me. Emotionally, mentally and spiritually I learned so much about who I was and what I believed. And through this growth, maybe I distanced myself a little. Or maybe, my mother anticipated my growing up and distanced herself. Maybe we both drew back simultaneously. But whatever the reason, the past year consisted of a rocky relationship, more disagreements, less heart-to-hearts and less communication in general.

Add the family explosion and my relationship with my mother seemed non-existent. I wanted to call her. In that moment, I longed to call her.

But I couldn’t.

I couldn’t call my mother. Too much time had passed in silence. Our lack of words, said more than any conversation could have. And just like that my moment of triumph on the hilltop crumbled into a puddle in the valley. Like a deflating balloon, I lost my air rapidly. Sinking further and further into my driver’s side seat. Call someone elseI urged myself. But it was no good. The moment had soured quickly and reminded me of the reality I had been unintentionally avoiding.

My life had changed drastically in a matter of months, and the dust had yet to settle. Today was simply the first day I had paused long enough to look up at my surroundings, only to be painfully greeted by chaos. The familiarity I had once possessed of my life was completely foreign to me now.

The ache in my heart was met with shame. Shame that it was my responsibility for the ever-growing fault in our relationship. Shame that I had a mother that I wasn’t communicating with when I had the capability to, while others didn’t have that option. Shame that I had let my guard down and self-inflicted this wound. Shame that I still cared, deeply.

So I sat in an empty parking lot while the my tear greeted the crease in my mouth that once housed a smile.

Author’s Note: I’m back! Did you miss me? I know I sure missed all of you. I would like to acknowledge that my sabbatical was unavoidable and imminent. To begin, I am fresh off one of the worst bouts of sickness I can recall experiencing. Three weeks it has taken me to feel completely well again. Five missed days of work, two doctor’s visits, two shots, one prescription and a lot of rest later and I am finally back to Sarah again. That was the unavoidable part.

Which brings us to the imminence of my silence. Yes, I was very sick. However, once my mind began to feel well, I had ample time to sit and write. In fact, it would have greatly behooved me to write. And yet, for the first time, I didn’t want to. Not because I was tired or busy or unable to. I truly did not want to write.

When sailing at sea and met with a vicious storm, you don’t think, you react. Everything happens to and around you, while you remain helpless to stop it. All you can do is respond to your environment. And the ocean can be a cruel creature. In my case, the waves obliterated everything in my life. My ship, my life preservers, my navigation and sense of direction. I was pummeled under the waves for so long that I couldn’t even swim. I was pushed, pulled, dunked, and overwhelmed so that my body stopped resisting. Because fighting the current was actually worse than succumbing to it.

I was on auto-pilot, survival mode. And that’s all I did-survive. So that when I resurfaced and was met with stillness and quiet, it sounded louder than the storm. I looked around me to find that I was isolated in the middle of the ocean, with nothing in sight. As my body descended out of survival mode, I was unsure what would happen next.

When chaos becomes your normal, peace and tranquility are petrifying. I spent so much time and energy fighting to survive, to just merely not drown that by the time the storm had calmed, I didn’t recognize my surroundings. Because now, I would have to make a decision. Which direction would I go? Was I able to swim? Did I have the strength to rebuild my life? The daunting dynamic shift left me feeling paralyzed. Because while surviving the storm was the most difficult thing I had ever done. What would come next would be grueling and tiresome and painful and difficult – I would have to swim. All that lay ahead of me was hard work.

To be frank, while writing about the big events in my past was hard, incredibly hard, I was able to somewhat disconnect and record the facts. What happened is what happened, I just had to put it down. But the part of the story that comes next is the calm waters. No major events, just minutia. My deep thoughts and feelings. My experiences with a gaping wound in my heart that I tried to repair as I had to keep moving.

And as I write about these next months in my story, I know that greater healing will follow. But not without pain. Because now I will reconnect with my story in a deeper way than I’ve previously had to.

Rather than be discouraged that you haven’t made it and you still have pain from your past, I want to encourage you that healing is not a destination. Healing and rebuilding is a process and one that is fluid and ambiguous. Do the hard work and self-reflect. Show yourself unending love, grace and forgiveness. And then give yourself even more.

With much, much love,

Sarah

## No. 33 – Bruno Mars Said it Best

I got paid on the 25thof September. (I know, it sounds like a moody rock song lyric). And being a newfound “responsible” adult, I decided to sit down, crunch the numbers and see how much my flexible income would be that month. So I factored in my rent, car payment, car insurance, cell phone bill, electric bill, internet bill, student loan payment and \$500 alternative certification payment and subtracted the amount I spent on my new bedding set. The harsh reality of the amount of my paycheck set in with a quickness.

My eyes blinked as they focused on the remaining number. I must have mistyped. Let’s try that again. Once again, my eyes settled on the number I would be left with until the 25thof October. Not possible. I hadn’t even factored in food and gas. One more time, I slowly typed in my starting monthly rate, and subtracted one by one the items that would need to be paid this month. Purposefully hitting each number, double and triple checking to ensure my accuracy. I exhaled and hit enter a final time. Slowly averting my eyes to the remaining total. Heart beating heavily as my breath quickened. Hoping my reality would be different than the previous two versions.

My jaw dropped. With just my bills factored in and the purchase I had already made, I would be left with less than \$50. How was that possible? There was no way that I could make \$50 stretch for 28 days. My gas light was already on, so gas was a necessity and I had to eat. In all this time, the notion had never occurred to me that my cost of living could be more than my paycheck.

My naiveté assumed that you got a job, and it would cover your bills, as long as you were smart and didn’t spend on frivolous items. But this? This was outrageous. I had worked for a month and a half with no paycheck. Barely scraping by with the money I had saved over the summer. I had no savings left, nothing to fall back on. I had nothing of value in my empty apartment. No fine jewelry that could be sold, no furniture that could give me a little wiggle room. And I barely had enough professional clothing articles to get through the work week. Not an asset in sight. I was one giant liability.

And according to my calculations, I wouldn’t be able to purchase any furniture, no clothes for work, no money to do my laundry, barely enough for gas, and about \$20 left over for food. I didn’t even have a dollar a day to work with. And wouldn’t be able to save a penny. I was tapped out the day after getting paid. Worse than tapped out, I was going to be in the negatives, if I purchased what I needed.

Tears overwhelmed my eyes and hung there, making the miniscule number on my calculator app blurry. Gaining volume, until plunging from the depths of my eyes and splashing on the screen of my illuminated phone. As water continuously flowed from my overburdened spirit through my eyes, my brain reeled with options. Running frantically in any direction that would lead to a solution. My initial thought was to return the bedding, I could do without it. But then I quickly realized that I could not return an already slept-in set of sheets and comforter.

Next, I thought of asking Kendrae for help, just a little. But then came to my senses. He was a college student, working to cover his own bills. And he was student teaching, so he was already maxed out. Maybe I could apply for a loan. Just enough to help absorb some of my initial costs. How would I be able to budget paying back a loan? If I couldn’t afford to pay my current bills, how would I be able to factor in an additional expense?

My mind went blank. It had run in every direction and come back empty handed. I had no idea what I was going to do. I had spent the past four years of college dreaming for the day when I could strike out on my own. Envisioning the long-awaited freedom I so desperately yearned for my whole life. And when I got what I had been so thirsty for, I found myself in the middle of a desert, more dehydrated than ever.

Kendrae and I had made plans to shop at Walmart together so we could both get what we needed and still spend some time together. His work hours were sporadic and consisted of a lot of late night shifts, my only free time. So a lot of our dates were completely unglamorous and involved grocery shopping. I honestly wasn’t sure what I would purchase as I had no budget to shop with. I might use the excuse that I left my list at home. Maybe I would blame it on being tired and I would come tomorrow on my own. Or I could be forthcoming with the information and be honest with my boyfriend. But I was embarrassed. So embarrassed at my lack of money management. I mentally kicked myself for being so stupid.

But then my heart told my head, that I did what I had to. I my apartment because it was the only one out of the ten I looked at with availability on such short notice. I needed a car, and got the one I qualified for with the lowest payment because I had no credit, no trade-in and no one to co-sign. I had to make so many arrangements quickly, before knowing my monthly budget because of the situation with my family. None of my bills were frivolous or extraneous because when you have one day to make arrangements, you do what you can. My choice to be independent came with a very high price tag. One that was almost unaffordable.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell Kendrae, but I knew that I needed to be honest with him. If anyone would understand why I was struggling, it would be him. He read the text messages, he experienced the conversations. He witnessed the extreme financial circumstances I was forced into for my “life choices.” And knowing his gentle, understanding demeanor, I could make a solid bet that my admission would be met with kindness, the way he dealt with everything else.

I would tell him after we got done grocery shopping. I would make us some dinner, and then break him the news. So I hopped in my car and headed to Walmart to meet Kendrae. My mind was elsewhere, so I opted for silence on my drive. I quickly spun the volume dial to low. Stuck somewhere between inaudible and a whisper as I made the short commute.

I pulled into a parking space in the Walmart parking lot and parked my car. I let the engine run as I shot Kendrae a brief text message to let him know that I had made it. As I hit send and leaned back into my driver’s side chair, a song sauntered through my speakers. Bruno Mars melodic intonation meandered from the car speakers to my receptive ear drums.

“I wanna be a billionaire so freakin’ bad
Buy all of the things I never had
Uh, I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen”

I laughed out loud at the song lyrics and the extreme notion. Billionaire, I just wanted to be able to pay my bills and buy some groceries. Where was the song for that? And then, loud and clear I was hit across the face with an idea. So forcefully that it was as if I heard the words audibly spoken to me in the car. Get a second job. I sat up straighter in my seat and looked around the Walmart parking lot. I leaned forward, chest pressed against my steering wheel and strained my neck to see if there was anyone around me. No. There was no one. And then, the phrase resonated again, even more clearly. Get a second job, Sarah. The idea presented itself to me as if it was an entity all its own.

Huh… A second job? That was something I could do. My school schedule was incredibly routine and wasn’t going to alter. I was free in the afternoon after 4:30 and never had any weekend obligations. If I could find a place willing to work around my day schedule, I might be able to pull this off. I began thinking of all the places that I could work that had reasonable hours.

I wouldn’t want to work anywhere overnight, because teaching would still be my top priority. This job couldn’t interfere or take anything away from my ability to teach my students. I would have to find somewhere that closed around 9 and would have the availability to work on the weekends. A place that would allow me to leave the work at work and disconnect when I went home. I always had my students on my mind. How can I help them better? How can I let them know I care? Am I making myself relatable to them? Are they getting what they need at home? I already brought this job home with me. I needed a part-time job that I could pick up when I clocked in and drop off when I clocked out. Making some extra cash would hopefully help me have a more reasonable budget for my minor weekly expenses. My paycheck from school would cover everything else.

A wave of relief washed over me as the probability of this new idea sunk in. This really seemed like the best solution to my money problems. Excitement at the idea of breathing room filled my lungs. I jumped out of the car as soon as I saw Kendrae’s truck backing into a parking spot near me. Before he could unbuckle his seat belt, I flung open his driver’s side door and pronounced: “I’m getting a second job!”

Without a beat or even a blink, Kendrae responded, “sounds good.” He stepped down from his truck and the two of us walked into Walmart together.

Author’s Note: I had a rough week. One of those where you feel like you’re in the middle of ten boxers and they’re all swinging at you. Jab in the ribs. Uppercut to the jaw. Front kick in the chest. I went through the emotional ringer. This match-up had been a long time coming. I could feel them brooding at me for a few weeks. They just waited until I let my guard down for a split second, and then pounced all at once.

It wasn’t one major event. It was the culmination of one hundred little things. Things that hadn’t been dealt with, but pushed to the back of my mind for a later date. Maybe it was just that I felt out of place lately. I found myself constantly feeling like a fraud. I felt like the child mistakenly seated at the grown-up’s table for dinner. But, I didn’t belong at the children’s table either. I was in between phases in life. I was supposed to be starting this new book, but was stuck in an unending preface. I kept turning page after page, only to feel stuck in the same place.

The irony of the title of my blog felt like a slap in the face. How can you call yourself relentless Sarah? You are nothing more than a relentless mess-up, I heard on repeat in my head. Each utterance holding more and more weight until I believed it was true. Sunk in my own pit of despair.

Until I reread the definition of relentless.

Relentless (adj) oppressively constant; incessant

synonyms: persistent, continuing, constant, nonstop, never-ending, unabating, interminable, unceasing, and so on.

Did anyone of those syllables suggest perfection? No. Did they imply not getting knocked down? No, quite the opposite in fact. The synonyms persistent and unceasing indicate that regardless of the circumstances, you won’t give up. No matter how many times life roughs me up, kicks me around, and slams me to the ground, I will continue to fight back.

So I will leave you with this message. One that I penned before ever starting my blog. It was one I needed to be reminded of, some 30 weeks later:

“I have misplaced so much time and energy on my pursuit of perfection and always trying to have it all together. Not only was it exhausting, but it was impossible. I found myself in a perpetual state of disappointment because I always seemed to fall short of my unreachable standards.

In an effort to combat my own insecurities and shortcomings, I have dedicated this blog to my imperfections. To the pieces of Sarah that don’t have it all together. And to the pieces that do. Because both my assets and imperfections add up to be whole.

The title, relentless Sarah, stems from the direction I want to be moving in. It is my mantra for how I choose to live my life, and one that I take very seriously. Every day, I strive to be relentless. In my daily pursuit of my passions. To be relentless in loving others. Relentless in my advocacy for standing up for my beliefs. Relentless in sharing kindness and generosity. And to relentlessly spread the truth.

I hope that through my blog, my message of being relentless shines true.”

Yes, I am relentless, even in my struggles. And so are you.

## No. 28 – Taking Care of Business

My first order of business was Step 1: Make sure Kendrae was alright.

So I quickly typed up a message asking how he was feeling. Kendrae responded that he was fine. That messages of hate had no effect on him, because he knew they were full of lies. In fact, he even messaged my mother back. A response that caught me off guard, but filled me with pride and a hint of jealousy. I was proud that Kendrae was able to stand up for himself. Jealous because that remained a feat I was unable to master. I had written, typed and vocalized a thousand responses to my parents. Some came out of spaces of anger, others came from places of brokenness and disappointment, others from confusion and guilt. And then most were a mixture of all of the above. But every single one, came from a place driven by emotion. And I knew, until I could remove my emotions from the situation and be objective, no conversation would better the situation. Anything I said, would only heap more onto the pile.

So I continued forward in silence. I believed that right now, the most impactful thing I could say, was nothing. My heart was too tender and still bleeding. Attempting to have a civil conversation was not only out of the question, but not safe for my well-being. And like I planned out, saying anything before I had taken care of the items on my mother’s list was a waste of energy.

Which brought me to Step 2: Get through the rest of the school day.This would most likely be the most difficult of the steps. I am a girl who naturally wears her emotions very openly. To survive the past few months, I had to fight against my natural tendencies and wear a mask. A task that drained me and left me feeling completely empty. But, I wasn’t out of the clearing yet. I would have to don my smiling mask, yet again and get through another day. Outwardly wearing a smile while inwardly suppressing tears.

The bell rang, indicating that I needed to join my students in their next class. Mrs. Vaughn’s 6thperiod. A dynamic class that engaged both students and teachers. A class that was going to be exceptionally difficult to fake it through. Mrs. Vaughn didn’t accept anything but the best from her students, and she would certainly notice if I was slacking in that department too. I was worried that she might notice something was wrong, and want to talk about it. She cared deeply for everyone; a trait that I very much admired normally, just not on this particular day. Because that would mean spilling the beans to my entire story. A fatal chink in my armor of surviving the school day.

So I pulled myself together, and glanced at my reflection in the glass window pane on my door before exiting. Smile,I told myself.Just two more periods. Even for a small glass window, my reflection wasn’t very convincing. So I closed my eyes, slowly breathed in. And out, then tried my smile again. Better, I thought. I could work with this.

I joined my students in the class and sat down in the back. Seeing their faces renewed and lifted my spirit. You can do this, I reminded myself again, a little more convincingly. And then Mrs. Vaughn and I made eye contact, and my cover was blown. She knew. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell that she knew something was up.

Oh please, God, don’t let her ask me any personal questions. I cannot handle any more right now.

I quickly moved to the other side of the room to check on two of my students. They were working quietly, but I stayed over there on the opposite side of the room. Maybe my acting skills weren’t up to par today, so my avoidance skills would have to kick it up a notch. I did a lot of floating around from desk to desk, a continual motion. Never stopping so that I really seemed engaged. I mean, I was, but still.

45 minutes passed by and the bell rang, bringing the class to a close. I shot Mrs. Vaughn a poor attempt at a half smirk as I quickly slipped out her classroom door. I passed through the busy hallway, making a bee-line to my classroom at the end of the hall. It was my conference period, the final period of the school day. I was in the home stretch. I used this time to google where an Allstate insurance office was located. I hoped there was an office in Longview. There was, thank goodness, 2.9 miles from my school. And they were open until 5:30. Perfect.

I had made it through the day without any hiccups. Which took me to Step 3: Go to an Allstate insurance office.After the final school bell rang, I gathered my belongings and followed the mass exodus of students out the doors. I kept my eyesight forward, not desiring to make eye contact so as to deter my crucial plans. I made it to my car without engaging in any conversations with co-workers or students. Pulled up the programed insurance office on my cell phone GPS and pulled out of the parking lot.

I was nervous as I pulled up to the insurance office. Not nervous to get on my own plan, but nervous about the payment details. I knew it would be embarrassing to admit that I had \$0.00 in my bank account. Not even some change. And the couple bucks I had on me in cash would not be enough to cover the cost of an insurance plan. That if the agent asked me to prepay for a plan, I would have wasted their time and have to come back on a later date.

I composed myself and took the first step towards the office. I opened the door and was greeted by a friendly, dark-haired receptionist. She informed me that Mr. Gonzalez was with another client at the moment, but that I could wait in the lobby for him. I’m not sure how long I waited, but it felt like hours. And with each passing moment, my nerves only worsened. My mind running full speed towards the worst-case scenario. Not only did they expect a payment up front, they would need to speak to my parents to get me removed from their family insurance plan. I would have to have an awkward and overly personal conversation with my mother in front of a complete stranger only to be declined coverage. Or even worse…

“Sarah, Mr. Gonzalez will see you now,” the kind receptionist interrupted my crazy thoughts.

I exhaled, relieved that her timing stopped my crazy train dead in its tracks. But now my nerves were at an all-time high. I stood up and walked into Mr. Gonzalez’s office. I smiled nervously and sat down, absorbing all the details of his office. Motivational sayings, a picture of his young family, an award hanging on the wall. It was welcoming, but not too personal.

I explained to Mr. Gonzalez, or Eddie, as he insisted that I call him, that I had just gotten my first “big girl job” and that I wanted to get off of my parents’ insurance plan. I tried to keep the conversation light and polite, disclosing enough information to seem friendly, but not too much that would probe further in-depth questions. We talked about where I was teaching and a little bit about the special education field. Fine, I could handle these surface level questions.

As Eddie pulled up my current insurance plan, he noticed that my father was not tapped into all the discounts he could be receiving. With a few keyboard clicks, Eddie applied more discounts to my father’s policy. Not exactly on my seven-step plan for the day, but whatever.

After going through the rest of the details, and selecting the lowest coverage plan I could possibly manage, we reached the final step. Settling the payment.

I swallowed hard as I reached down in my purse for my wallet.

“You are wanting to enroll in the automatic monthly billing, correct? It will lower the cost of your monthly plan, and ensure that you never miss a payment.” Eddie further explained.

“Sure,” I responded. My face must have matched the color of his office walls- white. I was sure all the color had retreated from my face.

“And your payment date?”

“I’m sorry”, I questioned, “payment date?”

“Yes, you have the ability to select the date that your payment is drafted.”

The color instantly rushed back to its rightful place under my skin. “Ummm, can we do the 25th? That’s the day I get paid every month.” Why I felt the need to explain my date selection, I’m unsure. But I was nervous.

“Not a problem! So your first payment will come out on September 25th. Anything else I can help you with today, Miss Sarah?” the kindness in his voice soothed my nerves.

“No, thank you Eddie. You have been very helpful.”

I smiled, a real smile, and thanked him again as I left his office. I said my farewells to the receptionist and made my way to my newly insured car. I placed my new insurance card in the glove compartment and glanced at my phone.

It was 4:45. Plenty of time to complete the next item on my list. Step 4: Visit a Sprint store. The store location was actually on my route home from the Allstate office. They closed at 8, and I wanted to make sure that I got everything squared away tonight.

I pulled up to the store and sighed as I saw the line of people ahead of me through the glass window storefront. I put my car in park, turned off the engine and walked into the store. I was greeted and instructed to write my name down on the paper sign-in sheet. There were five names ahead of mine that had not yet been crossed off. Great,I thought, more waiting. No, this time I was going to be productive with my time, not allow my mind to turn down the dark road it inevitably always turned down.

I paced around the store for at least 45 minutes, feigning interest in the different cell phone models and accessories. I was not interested in a new phone at the moment. I had just purchased the one I had this summer. I hoped that switching plans would allow me to keep my phone and my number.

“Sarah…” my name was called by gentleman wearing a black polo shirt with the yellow Sprint logo.

Finally, I wasn’t sure I could pretend to look at the new iPhone one more time. I smiled as I approached the counter. Halfway genuine, halfway out of politeness. I pretty much gave this guy the spiel that I gave Eddie. First job, wanting to get on my own plan. Can I please keep my same phone and cell phone number?

To my absolute surprise, I was! Same phone, same number, new plan. This was actually the easiest step so far, minus the long wait. Again, I was signed up for the automatic billing feature. Since I signed up in the middle of their billing period, I would not have to make my first payment until October 10th, well after my first pay check. Whew! What a relief!

I thanked Greg for his assistance and walked out of the store. Wow, now all I really had left to do was Step 5: Text my mother that everything has been taken care of. The most difficult step of all. Communication with my mother. I never knew how to phrase things with her. What I meant to say and what my mother actually heard were two completely different messages. As far removed from each other as Mercury was from Neptune, millions and millions of miles away.

I would have to be objective and succinct. Nothing about my message could be open to perception or interpretation. After about 15 drafts and over a half hour sitting in my car in front of my apartment, I had crafted the perfect message.

Got my own car insurance, switched over my phone line, and took care of the health insurance. Thanks for covering it all as long as you did.

It was to the point, it let my parents know that they no longer needed to spend a cent on my behalf, and was objective. I toyed with the notion of not even including the second sentence, but it felt too cold without it. I was appreciative that up until this point I didn’t have to worry about my own bills while I was still in school. I truly was grateful. We may have disagreed on some fundamentals, but none of that negated my gratitude for their providence.

I reread the text for the twentieth time. I couldn’t find any flaw with it, but I’m sure there was. There was bound to be something that wouldn’t be received well and would be added to list of things Sarah couldn’t do right. But it was late, I had an exhausting day and I was ready to be done with this whole mess.

So I copied the message from the notes in my phone and pasted it into the open text message. I entered my mother’s name at the top and hit send.

I wasn’t sure if I would get a response from her or not, but I didn’t have the emotional stamina to deal with it tonight. I turned my phone on silent and wouldn’t look at it again until the next morning, when my alarm woke me up.

Which brings me to Step 7: Get some sleep. Tomorrow is a new day, and you’ll be a few steps closer to true independence. This will all be worth it. Chin up.

I didn’t skip Step 6: Pray. That step was interlaced all throughout the other seven steps. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through any of the other steps if I hadn’t been praying along the way.

A big inhale. And an even bigger exhale. In all the commotion of the day, I hadn’t realized what a relief this all truly was. I had taken two huge steps toward absolute independence from my parents. All the puppet strings had been severed, except one. And I would take care of that string another day.

Author’s Note: I want to touch on the concept of gratitude. It’s a word that has been on my heart a lot lately, because I don’t know if was I truly grasping the concept. What I’ve come to realize is that living a life of gratitude does not mean you have it all together. It does not mean that you have no desires for anything else because your heart is already so full.

Delving into these painful experiences from my life, I see a common thread of reaching and longing. A thread that is still present today. And for a most of my life I believed that in order to practice gratitude, it meant I had to be holly content with every aspect of my life. And if one area of my life was still in process, I wasn’t truly grateful, because I was still longing for something else.

Guilt overwhelmed me and I thought that if I was TRULY grateful, I wouldn’t be concerned with having a mattress. If I was truly grateful, I wouldn’t be worried about how I was going to eat. If I was truly grateful I wouldn’t be fixated on my broken relationship with my family.

And it wasn’t until very recently that I was hit over the head with the concept of gratitude. Gratitude is not something that only presents itself when life is just peachy. Because, let’s be honest, when is life ever peachy? Sure, we all go through phases, but part of being human is growing, developing and moving forward. With that forward movement comes reaching and longing and pushing. To be a better individual, sibling, friend, partner. Gratitude is not the absence of want. Gratitude is not complacency. Gratitude is rather the overwhelming presence and acknowledgement of what we do have.

I can be grateful to have four solid walls around me with a roof over my head, and still long for a bed. I can have all my bills paid and still long for margin. I can be working at a job that I don’t love while still demonstrating gratitude that my needs are being provided for. Gratitude is not a destination or a complete lack of want. Gratitude is the warm wave that washes over us as we continue swimming.

## No. 26 – Kindness of Strangers

My first week of teacher inservice was completely overwhelming. I knew no one and had no earthly idea or money to prepare my first classroom. I was hearing conflicting job descriptions in regards to what my day would look like and was disheartened to hear that even though I was starting work in August, I would not receive my first paycheck until September 25th! See, I was naïve to the knowledge that teachers get paid once a month. And new teachers, don’t see that first paycheck until the end of September. How was I going to make \$78 dollars stretch that far? Especially when I had so many needs.

Just don’t think about it, I told myself. If you ignore the problem it will go away.

Food’s not that important…plus, you could stand to drop a few pounds anyway. This will be good. You’re just going on a diet for a month. Maybe your stomach will shrink, and you won’t need to buy many groceries anyway.

You don’t need paper towels, you have nothing to make a mess with. No mess, no cleanup.

Dish soap? If you have no food, you have no dishes to wash. You can do without that too.

Toilet paper…? I would have to be creative with that one. I would have to find a way to make my small supply stretch.

Shampoo and body wash?  It’s better for your hair to skip daily washes. Maybe I could stretch my shampoos to three or four days. And my half empty bottle of body wash…I could dilute it so that I had more to work with. Adding a little water to your soap can’t hurt anything.

Now gas, that was another story. I had to have gas to get to and from work. Fortunately, my commute was about 10 minutes, and my Honda Accord got decent mileage. But, I wasn’t sure how much money to set aside for my gas budget. Gas was not something I could make stretch. When my tank was on E, there was no ignoring that. I would have to limit my driving as much as possible. I set aside \$40 for gas. Hopefully that would cover it.

That left me with \$38 dollars. \$38 dollars left from the check my father wrote me. Most of it dedicated to the rent due next week. I had nothing left for furniture. My living room remained a giant empty room. No couch, no dining room table, no chairs. I had one small, beat up, end table that served as a place to house my keys and purse next to the door. My dining options were to eat standing up in the kitchen, hovering over the sink or sit on the floor and use this strange, short, long table. Since sitting on the hardwood and scrunching down wasn’t very comfortable, I opted for kitchen sink hovering. On the rare occasions that I did eat.

In the bedroom, I used an old comforter that my parents brought that was mine from 8thgrade to make a pallet on the floor. Being that it was nine years old, it had an unpleasant distinct scent to it, and was lumpy. But if I folded it just right, I could match the lumps to the spaces with sparse cushioning so that it was almost flat. The old lumpy pillow with a different distinct smell had to be older than the comforter. I was able to fold and bunch it in a certain way so that it felt like my head and neck were supported. A small, decorative aquamarine blanket was used as my covering while I slept. The blanket was much too small for my long legs. So I would turn the blanket in more of a diamond shape, draw my knees close to my chest and tuck my feet in. Not the most ideal way to sleep, but it worked.

The shower had no shower curtain, so a towel next to the dual shower/tub sufficed to catch all the excess water that splashed out. It also doubled as a bath mat for when I stepped out of the shower. I had two towels. One for the floor, one for my body and hair. Washing them frequently was a problem, because I had no washer and dryer. The apartment complex had a laundry room, but it was expensive, and not in my tight budget. \$1.75 to wash and \$1.75 to dry? Plus, I had no laundry detergent. So that wasn’t an option. Instead, I would draw a bath, soak the towels in the tub, and scrub them down with my diluted body wash. Then hang them on the shower rod to dry out.

Kendrae’s apartment that he shared with two roommates was equipped with a washer and dryer, but I didn’t have the gas money to make the 15-minute drive every other day to wash my two towels. No, in about two weeks, after I had worn everything in my extremely limited closet, I would have to make the drive to his apartment to do my laundry. Then I could throw the towels in too, to get the thorough wash they so desperately needed.

Kendrae grasped that I didn’t have much, but I didn’t let him in on the severity of my living situation. In fact, because he was fearful of my parents, he did not want to step foot in my apartment. Which, honestly, was a relief. For one, I wasn’t entirely sure the place wasn’t under surveillance. So him staying away was to our benefit. And secondly, I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was struggling, especially Kendrae. He was going to school full-time and working as a Kroger cashier. He had to pay his own bills and was on an equally tight budget. I knew if he saw how much I lacked, he would insist on helping. But I knew he wasn’t in a position to do so. No, it was best if I kept my living arrangements to myself.

The first week of school wasn’t as wild as I anticipated. I spent most of the first few days familiarizing myself with paperwork, shifting student schedules around and praying no one asked me any personal questions. I was exhausted from being forced to live such an extreme façade the past few months just to survive. Now that I had taken a step away from that situation, I wanted to practice being myself. Or at least finally having a slight bit of freedom to rediscover who I was. So I kept my head down, and tried to keep conversations with others as surface level as possible. I smiled a lot and was always polite, but I learned how to avoid talking about myself or any facet of my life.

Under less extreme circumstances, I am drawn to people. I love human-to-human connections and feed off of other’s energy. But I was embarrassed. I was mortified at the thought of telling someone that I wasn’t close with my family. What was even more intimidating was trying to describe our relationship with one another. Estranged? Ex-communicated? Ostracized? Complicated? All adjectives that would just prompt further questions that I didn’t want to or know how to answer.

I ate my lunch in my classroom by myself because I was embarrassed at my lack of food. I didn’t want to raise any concern over my three crackers for lunch. Plus, lunch rooms can foster conversations about one’s personal life, so it was best if I just hid out in my room. I would just explain that I needed some down time or that I would be working through lunch if I was ever invited to eat with the others.

Once September 25throlled around, I would be fine. If I could just make it to that first paycheck, my living circumstances would improve. I could buy a mattress, half-way stock my pantry, buy a shower curtain. Then each month I would slowly furnish the rest of my apartment. I would purchase a table so I could sit down to eat. Then a couch so I could actually use my living room. Oh, and internet! I couldn’t wait to have internet installed. I could transition to my own cell phone plan so I could ditch that burner phone. Get on my own car insurance so I could be fully independent and earn the freedom I deserved.

I looked down at the large, free desk calendar gifted to all the JMS teachers and exhaled as I focused on the date: September 3rd.  21 more days until I got paid. How was I going to make my last few dollars stretch that far? I could feel my heart beating faster and the blood rush to my cheeks. My typical meat locker of a classroom suddenly felt like the outside Texas heat.

The question reverberated in my head again: how was I going to make my last few dollars stretch that far? My gas light was on and my pantry was bare. I had no necessary toiletries. The fact that I only had \$14 remaining was starting to truly sink in. My throat was expanding and taking a breath transformed into an arduous task. Before breaking into a full-on panic attack, I pushed all my worries into the furthest back crevice of my brain. Worrying will get you nowhere, I chided myself. Plus, I didn’t have the time right now. I was due at the first staff meeting of the school year.

The meeting started off like you would expect a first-of-the-year-staff meeting to go. The room was filled with, happy you’re here’s, we’re going to have a great years, and are you as tired as I am after only a week and a half? The kum ba ya was interrupted as the principal called my name out loud. Again, the blood rushed to my cheeks and I’m certain I looked like a sunburnt strawberry. I stood up, mortified, as I was beckoned to a table displayed in front of the entire staff. Two more names were called and the trio of new teachers were awkwardly standing in front of the room.

Then, in a gesture I’ll never forget, Mr. Mitchell presented us with a new teacher care package. He stated, that everyone knows how difficult it can be to be a teacher. Especially when you’re just starting out and waiting for your first paycheck. So JMS wanted to help us out in a small way and gift us some vital necessities. All three new teachers were given two tote sacks with grocery store and essential items inside.

I was instantly embarrassed. Could they tell I was that hard up? Did someone notice my lack of lunch or heavily repeated attire? Was it plastered across my forehead? All I could do was smile nervously and embrace the kind gesture. I may have felt humiliated, but I wasn’t too proud to accept the offering. I needed it more than I was willing to admit.

I left the staff meeting hoping that my face hadn’t given me away. My cheeks were flushed and warm to the touch of my hand. Just smile big enough and no one will know. The mantra that ruled my life. Smile and nod. That method had been my go-to move for just about everything. Who could blame me, it had about at 98% success rate.

Back in my empty apartment, I set the sacks on my poor excuse of a dining room table. If I was honest with myself, I had to get over any insecurities about accepting this gift. Could they have just been trying to help out struggling new teachers? We all had received the items; I wasn’t singled out. Just be grateful, Sarah. You are working at a school that cares about the well-being of their staff.

As I unloaded the bags, I couldn’t suppress the tears. Four rolls of paper towels, eight rolls of toilet paper, trash bags, Lysol wipes, household cleaner and more food than I had eaten the whole last week. I was overcome with humility and gratitude. All of my major needs were taken care of. These people that I barely even knew and I had purposely been trying to avoid eye contact with, had come together and taken care of me.  They had provided for me in my most crucial needs, ones I hadn’t even expressed. Crossing my legs on the floor as I rested my back against the kitchen cupboard, I closed my eyes as the waves of kindness washed over me. Thank you, I expressed aloud. And my words echoed through the empty apartment and through my heart.

I learned that “just enough” is still ENOUGH. I may not have had a mattress, a full gas tank, or even a full stomach. But I had a heart, overflowing.

*Actual photo of my gift bag my first year at Judson Middle School. September 4, 2014.

Author’s Note: As I sat and wrote this post, one message hung around the forefront of my mind. So I want to leave you with this thought as it has proven its autonomy in my life over and over. Financial wealth does not equate favor. Let me say it again. Financial wealth DOES NOT equate favor. When stuck in the middle of a circumstances that seem overwhelming, do not believe the lie that if you were on the right path, you should have smooth sailing with money rolling in. If I had taken my absolute lack of any material items as the compass for being on the right path, I would have turned and sprinted the other way.

Allowing material possessions and money in the bank to determine your validity, your direction, and your favor will only leave you empty. Money does not equal fulfillment. Money does not equal good life choices. Money does not equal happiness. I am not saying that possessing money is bad. But using money as lighthouse in the middle of the fog to guide your ship into the harbor will only end with a crash into the rocks.

Looking back, it was in this stage of financial famine that I felt the most fulfilled. It sounds backwards, but in my dire need, I was forced to rely only on the one true guiding Light. If I had taken my lack of money as any indication that I had made the right decision, I would be poorly mistaken. But instead, I continued to step forward in faith and have been reassured again and again and again that while the path I am walking is not easy, I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. So next time you find yourself in a phase of famine, take heart because it may just mean that you are precisely where you’re supposed to be.

## No. 25 – The Caged Bird

Slivers of light sliced through the white, wooden blinds. I turned over on my right side, and felt an ache through my back. The top of my hand rested on the plush carpet. Confused, I peeled open my eyes which quickly settled on the carpet directly beneath me. I was literally laying on the ground. As I sat up, I felt the strain in my muscles. My air mattress seemed to be lacking a crucial element – air.

Frustration rushed to the surface as I remembered yesterday’s events. I had a sinking feeling this air mattress was faulty. And I was disappointed to be right. This was not right. How could my parents give me a broken air mattress instead of my fully functional mattress? A mattress that would now only furnish an empty, extra bedroom. This was not an accident or slip of the mind. It was my main request in fact. No, this, was thought out and intentional.

My eyes scanned the barren bedroom. Then stopped on that awful dark brown armoire. This they managed to bring. The utterly unnecessary piece of furniture I made clear I didn’t want or need. I shook my head in amazement. Then thought better. At this point in time, nothing my parents did or didn’t do should shock me. All my expectations had been shattered months ago. Even if it felt like a whole other lifetime ago. Sarah pre-two months ago and Sarah now felt like two separate beings. Individuals who had nothing in common.

So this was how it felt like on the other side of the fence. I took in a deep breath and released it slowly as the changes settled in. My body yearned to relax, to let my guard down. But my mind had other plans. What if’s and extreme and crazy scenarios held my mind hostage, convincing me I hadn’t escaped captivity.

Paranoia grabbed hold of my throat and slowly choked my breath away. There was no way I had gotten out that easily; there had to be a catch. Why else would my parents trek out to Longview with none of my furniture? They hadn’t stayed long, weren’t interested in looking around much and really didn’t ask many questions about my new job.

Was their entire trip a hoax based on the ulterior motive of scoping the place out?

Did they just want my address?

Did they bug the dresser?

Was there now a tracker on my car?

Crazy, I know. Even for my wild imagination. But after you’ve been traumatized, your filter of what a person is and isn’t capable of doing goes out the window. Even someone you’ve known and loved your whole life. Nothing is labeled off limits. So while, yes, I felt like a crazy person for allowing my thoughts to run rampant, I also reminded myself that being cautions was my best bet.

Three hours of distance, my name on the lease, and I still felt trapped. The freedom I had dreamt about all summer turned out to be a mirage. No closer within my reach than it was two months ago. How had nothing really changed? Geographic relocation was just as it sounded. Simply a change of geography. None of my problems were alleviated with my family. My relationship was still forbidden. A secret trapped in my inmost vault so as not to mention to anyone that could somehow connect back to my parents. No pictures, no spending excess time in public, not sharing any information with my friends.

For these next few months, I would have to fly under the radar. Once I saved up enough to be completely financially free, then I could step out from the shadows, and into the light. But until I got my own insurance, car insurance and cell phone bill, I would be forced to keep our love tucked away. I would have to continue to use my burner phone to communicate with Kendrae. I knew my parents would continue checking my current cell phone record even though I was now out of their house.

All of their restrictions and judgements followed me to Longview. My big, empty apartment suddenly felt much smaller.

Trapped like a bird in her cage, I walked around the vacant apartment. Dragging my finger along the textured wall as I walked the inside perimeter. Wanting to familiarize myself with every minute detail. So if anything was slightly out of place, I would notice. I wanted to familiarize myself with the sounds outside my window, the hum of the refrigerator, the clunk of the ice dropping into the icemaker. I wanted to recognize the sound of the air conditioning cooling the wide-open spaces. And grow accustomed to the wind as it breezed across my patio. Because not only was I still on guard, anticipating a stealth attack at any moment, I was now in foreign territory as well.

I steeled my resolve and heightened my senses. This time, I would be ready. If I caught even the slightest glimpse of freedom, I was flying out of the cage without looking back.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

-Maya Angelou

Author’s Note: In the spirit of keeping it real, I’m going to do just that. Some of you may have noticed that a post didn’t go up last week. Which for me, was a pretty big deal. When I set out to begin this journey, I planned out a year’s worth of posts to get started. One post a week for 52 weeks. And I kept to that schedule for 24 weeks. For almost half a year, I committed to weekly open-heart surgeries. I committed to sort through my brokenness publically, which hasn’t been an easy undertaking.

Every week, I’ve benefited from this process and allowed myself to heal. But last week was different. Ironically enough my message from the previous week was that done is better than perfect. So what happens when you don’t even start? Is there an adage for that?

I’ve had a lot of life changes going on behind the scenes. Which is not to be used as an excuse. Bottom line, I didn’t set aside enough time required to write in the manner that I do. Sure, I could have scrambled and slung something together to post for the sake of posting on a scheduled timeline. Because after all, something is better than nothing, right?

Not always the case. Because I care so deeply about the message that I’m sharing, I take careful consideration in regards to the content. Are any of my posts going to be perfectly written? No. But do I intend to write each of them in a meaningful and well thought out manner in a way that hopefully serves someone else? Absolutely. One hundred percent, YES. So just know that I will never post for the sake of posting or meeting my own quota.

And while I don’t believe in sitting around and waiting for inspiration to write a powerful piece, often times there is a little magic that comes into play. It takes more than just dedication and making myself sit down to write. I can craft a post, and still lack quality. And other days, the lens through which to tell my perspective of this narrative flows right through me and I don’t stop typing for an hour straight.

All this to say that life should not only be measured by what we produce. True growth and wisdom come from the process, not the end result. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to accurately articulate how grateful I am to every single person who chooses to partake in this process with me. Thank you.

Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled posts!