A Farewell to Blogs

A lot of things have happened since we talked last. The United States has elected its next President, who will take office in January. And stating that fact is the limit of the attention I can bear to give him. Because every time I see his face, or hear his voice, or think about him at all, my heart and mind and soul and body and spirit and guts do something like this:

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I continue to find much joy in my marriage to John, and any time I get to spend with his family. [We’re enjoying an extended visit to Portland at the moment, and have gotten to see them an unprecedented three times in one  year.] My own family and friends–terms I often find interchangeable–continue to be the joy of my life on this twirling blue spaceball that we call home.

I’ve been enjoying my work as a copywriter and blogger for professionals. I work with some amazing people who have great, strong voices; and I love helping them come through, loud and clear.

I get to write up a minimum of 35 blogs a month these days, as well as proofreading, copy-editing; and donating writing services to some awesome grassroots efforts here at home. If I were to blog about my life over the last several months, it would amount to: Guess what: I wrote a blog today.

So things have been awfully quiet here; too quiet, in fact.

Which brings me to my news: this will be my last blog post on In Case of Fire, Use Stairs (as far as I know now, anyway).

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I am leaving an open door. A couple, actually. The blog won’t be deleted. The Facebook page for the blog won’t be deleted. I don’t want to close myself off to the possibility that this blog, like so many things in life, may re-emerge–like a verbose phoenix–from the ashes of silence to imbue the Internet with newfound revelations.

But as you can see–from my multiple absences stretching for months at a time–I can’t give this the regular attention it deserves. I want creative writing to continue to be a joy, not a burden.

The fact is, writing for me now–creatively, or otherwise–doesn’t take the same shape as writing for me 8 years ago (when this blog began). I still love to write. But  I take solace in doing so more privately nowadays [especially for the creative, introspective expression that is so characteristic of good blogging]. I don’t feel as compelled to share my thoughts and opinions with whoever cares to hear them. Occasionally that does happen on social media. But even there, not often.

And I don’t want to feel an undue pressure, guilt, etc. about that. I want to feel free to dig into writing and see where it takes me. If it takes me back to blogging: wonderful. If it leads me to write a book: excellent. If it turns out that journaling and work are the best ways for me to write, but that I uncover some new creative outlet along the way: sounds great.

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What I’m getting at it is: this isn’t bad news. I’ll miss blogging, of course. But this is the first time in more than 8 years that I’ve given myself this kind of permission: that I’ve simplified my life in a way that allows me to explore other possibilities creatively (and make room for new ones). I feel nothing but gratitude and joy and humility and the good kind of fear when I think about just how sparkly and special that is.

So I want you to know, I’ll be fine. I’ll be happy. I’ll find joy. I’ll learn new stuff.

And  I want to say thank you. To everyone who has ever commented, read, shared, or disagreed with my blog. You have taught me so much about myself and others, and have opened my mind to new perspectives. [And I would be remiss if I didn’t especially thank our pen-pal in the US Army, who connected with us through this blog. We can’t wait to hug you in person someday.]

If you want to keep up with me, don’t be afraid to keep an eye on my website (linked above), email me, or follow me on social media. I’m by no means disappearing, just simplifying. Just taking the first, big, scary step into a new adventure: figuring out more about just what kind of a writer I am now.

And I don’t know if any of you ever really came to this blog for advice (at your own risk, I might add). But if you did, here’s my parting wish for you: do what you need to do to find your true self. Start small, pray, and love real big, and you’ll be just fine.

Thank you for a marvelous eight years. You’ve finally convinced me I’m a writer.

Now, to do that– and perhaps, more! Off I go!

God bless you and yours, unto ages of ages.

Love, Beth

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Reaching for Paschal Joy

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Yesterday was Pascha (Easter) for Orthodox Christians. The Crown Jewel of the Church year, it’s a truly joyous experience that gives the soul a foretaste of heavenly banquet. Pascha is a night full of ancient, elaborate rites followed by a decadent meal that kicks off  luxurious week of feasting.

In some ways, this year was like others have been: a challenging Lent, an introspective Holy Week, and a Pascha surrounded by friends and family.

There was one important difference.

Last night, while out celebrating, I had one of my first anxiety attacks in months.

In a matter of minutes, I went from pleasant chatter to crippling fear, hyperventilating, shaking, and uncontrollable sobs. . . in public. Luckily I was with my husband and one of my best friends, who faces similar challenges. They both talked me down, and I ended the evening with peace of mind and gratitude for my amazing support system.

But I couldn’t shake my sense of shame and embarrassment, not to mention how isolating and joy-sucking a very public anxiety attack can be. All throughout today, I had a rough battle with sadness and despondence. But then I remembered Thomas.

The first Pascha ever, Christ appeared to the disciples, but Thomas ran late. He had to have felt despondent and isolated. He had to have been frustrated beyond belief.  But a week later, he has an amazing experience.

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” – John 20:24-29

Below: My nephew Parker watches his Auntie Beth sing a Paschal hymn.

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No one is without struggle and weakness, especially not the Saints of the Church. The thing I take from Thomas is not that he doubts, but that he presses on. And of course, the true beauty of the story is that he got to reach out and touch Love Incarnate in the hour of his greatest need.

I’m still feeling drained, sad,  and vulnerable after last night’s episode.  It’s a constant struggle against worry and guilt when depression and anxiety are at the reins. But that’s okay. I had a really imperfect Lent, but that’s okay. Even Pascha was challenging in some ways, but that’s okay. The Apostle Thomas reminds me that Paschal joy lasts a LOT longer than one night. And no matter what, Christ can meet me where I am: His Love is always within my reach.

Just Like Other Men: My Kick in the Pants from Thomas Merton

Sometimes, you need a kick in the pants.

And sometimes you get one.

Mine came a few nights ago, thanks to the writings of Thomas Merton.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee famously says, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men”. He even goes so far as to single out the Tax Collector praying in the corner nearby [especially not that guy- he’s the worst].

The problem with this Pharisee isn’t that he’s super religious, or too fastidious about keeping the Mosaic Law. The problem is the focus of his relationship to God: not his own sin and repentance, but to publicize and judge the sins of others, justifying himself by comparison (to people rather than God).  He’s not the only one: politicians do it, social media opinion leaders do it. And I do it, too.

After Bible Study this week, we had a discussion about not judging or shaming others for their failings, and meeting people “where they are” in their spiritual journey. We agreed that it was important to consider someone’s progress in terms of where they started, rather than where they currently are [for example, a person who had to pay his way through school and got average grades did not necessarily “do worse” than someone who made all As, but had everything paid for]. Feeling energized by the discussion, and filled with what I perceived to be righteous indignation, I said to my priest:

I just can’t stand those Bible-thumping, judgmental, Pharisaic religious fundamentalists!

After allowing me to vent for a few more moments,  and acknowledging where my feelings were valid, he calmly replied,”The trick is, we cannot judge the Bible-thumpers either.”

My brain then connected the following dots:

Wait. You mean judging people for being judge-y is still. . .judging them?

Yes it is. While there are many social and religious problems going on in the world and it is right to be concerned about them, my broad categorization of all people who come from a more fundamentalist religious background as judgmental Bible-thumpers, is in fact something a judgmental person would do [especially in light of the fact that I grew up thumping the Bible louder and prouder than most].

I was definitely humbled. Then- at Fr’s suggestion- I read the following passages by Thomas Merton:

If a man has to be pleasing to me, comforting, reassuring, before I can love him, then I cannot truly love him. . .If a man has to be a Jew or a Christian before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to be black or white before I can love him, then I cannot love him. If he has to belong to my political party or social group before I can love him, if he has to wear my kind of uniform, then my love is no longer love because it is not free: it is dictated by something outside my self. It is dominated by an appetite other than love. I love not the person but his classification, and in that event I love him not as a person, but as a thing. I love his label which confirms me in attachment to my own label. But in this case, I do not even love myself. I value myself not for what I am, but for my label, my classification. In this way I remain at the mercy of forces outside myself, and those who seem to me to be neighbors are indeed strangers for I am first of all a stranger to myself. – from Merton’s discussion of “The Good Samaritan”, emphasis added

The sin of classification is not the observing of basic differences, or in the preference of one ideology to another. The problem comes when I use someone’s classification as my reason for loving them (or not), rather than their humanity. This is convenient for me, since using their humanity as a reason to love them would mean I had to love everyone.

So do I choose to love everyone- regardless of how I or the society I live in (or ideology I agree with, or Church I go to) classifies them? Or do I only love people I like?

Okay, okay. I get it, Brother Tom. Kick administered to pants. But Merton wasn’t done dishing out the humble pie. The second thing I read that night was part of the account of his Louisville Vision, an epiphany he had about mankind while walking down a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky:

In Louisville, at the corner of fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation, in a special world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate and holy existence is a dream. Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others. (Merton, March 18, 1956, emphasis added)

What if- instead of the Pharisee’s approach-I took this one. What if this prayer- thank you God that I am just like other men- was in my heart, and realized in my life? What would that prayer look and sound like? And better yet, how might God dare to answer it?

 

One Thing is Needed: Thoughts on Mary & Martha

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’s feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”- Luke 10:38-41

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Sometimes, if we only glance at it, Jesus seems to be picking on Martha in this Gospel reading. So it is good to remember that, along with their brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha are both saints. Each was a servant to Christ and remained devoted to him throughout their lives. No doubt, he loved everyone in their family dearly and equally. Like any sisters, Mary and Martha probably had a little bit of a rivalry. But the variety in their personalities meant that each brought different strengths to the way they related to and interacted with the Lord.

Notice that Martha welcomed Jesus into their home, and was dedicated to serving him and making everything the best it could be for him as their friend and guest, as their Lord and teacher. In addition to her gift for showing hospitality, she is clearly a woman of action. Action and diligence are certainly keys to a faithful life. With all these things considered, there is much to imitate in Martha’s example.

Martha was right to want to use her talents to prepare for Jesus and his visit. Her issue was never her service. It was that she became distracted and troubled with the many things on her plate. It was that she fell into the trap of comparison. And in the midst of the blessing she had been anticipating so greatly, she had not paused to enjoy and be thankful for the present moment. And who can’t relate to Martha? I compare myself to others constantly, often miss out on the [very apparent] gifts in my life, and can hardly be awake without being anxious and troubled about many things.

So Jesus was not so much making an example of Martha as helping her gain perspective. One thing is needed. I have often puzzled over this. Mary was doing several things. She was present with Jesus. She was focused. She was listening to his words. What is the one necessary thing she was doing?

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Rather than falling into the traps of distraction, comparison, and worry, Mary had chosen friendship with Jesus. Martha certainly loved him, and no doubt she was motivated by at least in great part by her love to make the house ready for his visit. But somewhere along the way, she seemed to forget the material point: he was already there, in their midst, waiting to spend time with her and her family.

I was once  lamenting my difficult grasping a teaching of the Church related to Mary, the mother of Jesus- and I was going round and round with my priest about the hows and whys and what-ifs when he looked at me and said in his typical, matter of fact way, “She is a person, not a theological concept. Get to know her as you would a person.”

The same, of course, is true for Jesus. It’s very easy to throw around the phrase “relationship with God” or “relationship with Jesus” without actually cultivating one. Like Martha, I become so focused on my checklist, on getting to a place where I am “good enough” or “ready enough” to pray or go to Church that I forget it is possible to pray at any moment. I treat Jesus like a theological concept for me to understand the ins and outs of, without contemplating what he is like, what makes him happy, what hurts him, or the unique gifts with which he fills my life on a daily basis.

We have the friends we do not because of fear, obligation, or because we have reasoned our way to an understanding that the friendship is the correct choice. We are friends because of the bond we share with them. The love that we experience with our friends is what keeps us coming back to one another. We want to get to know them, we ask them questions, we tell them thank you, we give them the gifts of our time and attention. We are not quick to doubt them, and we are certainly not afraid that at any moment they will leave or abandon us. We trust them. And when we are having trouble with that trust, we talk through it. We don’t walk away at the first misunderstanding. And the more loyal and loving a friendship is, the more we are willing to do to grow and nurture it.

Mary had the one thing that was needed, a desire to be friends with Jesus that she put into action. Her contribution was a small one, but Jesus recognized the beauty in it. And he held it out to Martha, not to chide her, but as a gentle reminder that her company was wanted and valuable.

You Can Do This

“Be nice to yourself” is something I say all the time, both to myself on a never-ending loop, and to others. And every time I say it, I have a simultaneous cringe-and-agree-wholeheartedly response. I totally get that it sounds very self-helpy. I used to be very uncomfortable with the whole idea of self-help [they call it self-improvement now, because a lot of people hate the term self-help, and apparently those same people are also extremely gullible]. But then I realized that part of the human existence is needing help, needing improvement, and wanting to get better. And while I am a big-time advocate of getting professional and/or peer support (because the human experience is communal), I also think that leaving ourselves out of the process is not a realistic way to go about making a positive change.

One thing I have chosen to work on within self-care or self-kindness is changing the way I talk to myself. Whether internally judging our rogue eyebrow hairs while brushing our teeth, or screaming, “I’m so stupid!” when we forget something, we talk to ourselves all the time. The things we say have different sources. Here are a few I have noticed when thinking about the things I say and think (especially when forming and giving opinions about myself):

-Social norms [i.e. the daily emails spamming my inbox about how to get a flatter belly, the Facebook sidebar ads telling me about the next big company to work for, the next degree to get, the next magic bullet to buy]
-Negative past experiences with others [for some reason it is a lot easier for me to remember the negative experiences than the positive ones!]
-Comparing myself to others in terms of “what they’ve got that I haven’t got”

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Does positive self-talk work?

Yes. While scientists are not certain exactly how it works, they are sure it is effective in every area where it is practiced. Some experts think it’s because you are actually changing interactions in your brain [re-wiring it, relearning what is true about yourself], while others think it’s based on something simpler: the more often we hear something, and the more confidence with which that something is said, the more likely we are to believe it over time [Cable news, anyone?!]. Either way, it works.

Not only is audibly saying positive things to yourself really beneficial, there is a best practice for doing so. Another study about affirmation found that the best way to get positive messages to stick is to use second or third-person when making the affirmations themselves. In other words, when looking in the mirror in the morning, or preparing for the big test or meeting, it works better to say “you can do this!” than it does to say “I can do this!” The same study offered a few examples of public figures or celebrities using this tactic before making a big speech or announcing a major change in their careers.

What I like the most about this strategy is not only that it works, but that it is one of the easiest to practice and maintain. I don’t have to start out believing that I can do something in order to say I can, and doing so takes a couple of seconds. I still have a long way to go, but I can honestly say that pushing through and discarding the negative and almost exclusively false messages about myself to practice courage and positivity is off to a great start for me.

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I say practice because it’s not easy, I can’t do it perfectly, and it doesn’t come naturally, but the more it’s done, the more I will be able to see the benefits.

But why does it work better to use second or third person, even though it sounds more than a little weird? The reason is believed to be that doing so creates distance. By saying “you can do this” instead of “I can”, we are mimicking the way we would address another person who is struggling. The results of the research seem to back up what a lot of us know to be true: we are much more often a lot kinder to others than to ourselves.

This may be the only case where pretending to be someone you’re not actually has concrete psychological and emotional benefits.

So, if you battle with being unkind to yourself, there is a way to start making it happen. You can do this.

A Letter to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

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Dear Amy and the Smart Girls:

I just visited your website where I read- with the same disappointment one might read the phrase “Sorry, we’re all out of pizza”- that Smart Girls has no contributor/intern/job openings at this time, but to check back later. I can assure you I will check back later, but in the meantime, I hope you will take a few minutes to read this letter due to your general awesomeness, your interest in story-sharing, and my bone-deep conviction that I am your long-awaited best friend. I have been trying to be more courageous lately, and this is borderline crazy, so I thought I’d go for it and see what happens.

I am a 29 year old woman (or Girl, to stick with the vernacular) from Nashville, TN. I have grown up here, and- apart from an internship for the Federal Government in DC and about 15 months of graduate school in Athens, GA- I have lived here all my life. Doing the best I could in school was a good decision; I was able to go to both undergrad and graduate school with several scholarships in tow, and to receive honors over the course of my education. Because I have always loved learning and put a great deal of pressure on myself to succeed, I started college at 17, finished my bachelor’s shortly before 21, and completed my Master’s within a few days of turning 23. [I realize that not enough people get an opportunity for an education, so I am profoundly grateful to have had it]. It is uncomfortable for me to write this part of the letter, because I was raised to be modest, which I kinda took to an extreme by never talking any of about my accomplishments with my friends. I am also leaving some stuff out because I am terrified that someone reading this will think I’m- gasp!- kinda braggy, or even worse: that I’m no fun at parties. Anyway, bear with me, I promise that not only do I have a point, it’s on it’s way. Also, I’m super fun at parties. Ask anyone.

My bachelor’s in Sociology [“Oh, wow. This world is kinda messed up for all these reasons that seem to be cemented in the social and economic fabric, and here are a bunch of depressing books and papers about just how bad it is.”] paved the way for my Master’s in Nonprofit Organizations [“Maybe it’s more like peanut butter than cement: it’s sticky and messy and gross when it gets on you, but malleable. We can change it, we will change it, as soon as we get enough grant money.”], and I have been working in the nonprofit field as a volunteer, intern board member or staff member, for about 10 years now.

But a traditional education and list of 9 to 5 jobs do not necessarily a Smart Girl make. We have all met plenty of people who have the appearances of success that are really just Mean Girls [“One time, she punched me in the face. It was awesome.”]. And of course there are plenty of Smart Girls who are so because they have found joy, success, and contentment and human connection by their own unique and innovative means. There is so much room in this world for Smart Girls, and so many Smart Girls looking for voices. I know this not just because I have met those girls, but because I am one.

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I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disability with onset at birth that affects everyone who has it in ways unique to them. Most commonly, mobility, motor skills and speech are affected first, with other secondary effects. However, just like with any other experience of disability, the challenges faced when living out that experience are not merely physical. Beyond my own story, I know that many people experience intellectual disability, and many have a disability that is not visible but still plays a great part in the challenges they face [such as Autism Spectrum Disorders or Traumatic Brain Injuries, among many]. And while a life with a disability is certainly just as full of joy, blessing, talent and strength as anyone else’s, there are also many other factors at play that too often silence the voices of so many Smart People out there. People with disabilities face far more hurdles to employment, education, and acceptance in community life than their typically developing peers. People with disabilities are almost entirely absent from popular culture and media, with the few exceptions still placing all the focus on their “otherness”. And the rate of depression, anxiety, and similar emotional challenges amongst people with disabilities is extremely high.

Here I’ve spent a decade working for people with disabilities, with many of my peers working twice as long as I have, and it is still remarkable to people that I have an education, a job and a partner. While I am not in any way downplaying the very real work myself and so many people I know have done to reach such milestones, I dream for a world where stories like mine are no longer the exception, but the rule. And I am at a point in my life where I am realizing that sometimes in order to do big work, you have to think big. You have to try something new; you have to leap and see where you might land.

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Why Smart Girls, you ask? Why not one of those spiffy nonprofits I alluded to like a hundred paragraphs ago? Well, because the Smart Girls are all about acceptance, celebration, and inclusion. They’re all about having a voice that gets heard, not by shaming and negativity, but by affirming, by celebrating and building connections. Yes, nonprofits serving people with disabilities crusade for all these things, but the whole point of doing so is for our story to be heard, and not just by people who already know it. To make lasting change, I have to tell the story of disability experience in a way that causes someone to snap out of their comfort and familiarity zones and realize, “This is not just a cute, inspirational article. This is my story. These are my neighbors and friends. This is my family member or partner.”

Working in the disability services field the power of connection is apparent. We work hard to cultivate a spirit of empathy, and an attitude of saying “you can do anything you set your mind to, and I’m here if you need any help or support in making it happen”. I was very fortunate to have a community, a support system, a means of finding my voice. But in this age of information overload and lack of true connection, I have often wondered: are there other people out there needing that community, that sense of voice? I believe the answer is yes, and I believe that need will always be present. I also believe that Smart Girls can be one of those voices

Recently, I re-entered the job market. My husband suggested I contact you guys (because he’s smart, too), and I considered that suggestion a huge vote of confidence. Of course I realize sending this letter provides no guarantees of a response, or of any action on your part. I am just reaching out in hopes that perhaps somewhere in my story, you will see an opportunity, or that when one arises, you will remember this letter. If you want to think of ways to make your curriculum more accessible to people with disabilities, if you need help finding great stories of people with disabilities to tell, if you ever want to make sure that eliminating ableism is a clear part of your values, or if you just want to eat some nachos, you know where to find me.

Thank you for all you do, you beautiful unicorns of the sea.
Beth H. Thielman

Aspiring Smart Girl

Nashville, TN

You have a great body.

It’s summer time, so you might be wondering: do I have a beach body? What about a bikini body? Is my body amazing enough to be flattered or shown or celebrated in broad daylight by myself or others?

Yes.

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You want a beach body? Place yourself squarely on the beach, and you shall have one.
How about a bikini body? Place a bikini on your body and. . . voila!

Men, are you worried about your body because you don’t have the build of an Avenger? Don’t worry. They look (and are) electronically and (might be) pharmaceutically manipulated. You, on the other hand, look great.

Women, are you worried, because you don’t see someone who looks like you on the cover of a magazine? Don’t worry. They’re not real. But you are. And you look great, too.

Some of you may be thinking something like: I’m ugly. I’m fat. I’m skinny.

I’m not ________________ enough.

Nonsense. You are perfectly _____________ enough. You’re rad. You’re awesome. You’re beautiful.

In the Psalms, David says, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. I know that full well”. And the first chapter of Genesis, when talking about how we are made,  says that we all look like God (1:26-27).

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That means that no matter what it looks like, no matter what it is struggling with internally or externally, whether you can change the things you want to change about it or not, your body is a beautiful, wonderful, awesome thing. Take care of it, treat it well. Be nice to it. Definitely don’t be ashamed of it. In fact,  strut down the street inviting others to bask in the glow of your fabulousness.

Because you only have one body. There is only one that looks like yours. And it’s great.