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Do you remember those paint by the numbers sets? Do they even make those anymore? I don’t consider myself a painter but when I was younger I thought it would be cool to paint a beautiful picture that would hang up in some art museum somewhere for hundreds of years and inspire someone, anyone to do something wonderful with their life. While I didn’t paint that masterpiece, I was gifted with a couple of paint by the numbers kits when I was younger.

If you’ve never seen a paint by numbers kit, it is a small 8″ x 10″ piece of white textured cardboard with blue lines all over it with numbers in the spaces and shapes between lines. There is also a small paintbrush and some paints. The most crucial piece to the paint by numbers is that there is a key that tells you what color each number is. Like 42 is blue. So in my meticulous mind (yes, even at 10 I was meticulous and thoughtful before doing almost anything) I examined the “canvas” and began looking for numbers. I would then pick a number and its corresponding color and I would begin. I would find that number everywhere on that canvas and I would paint as carefully as I could between the lines. As more colors were added to the canvas the picture, which before was just a bunch of squiggly lines and shapes on the cardboard, started to take on the semblance of a picture, a beautiful picture, a masterpiece.

As I got down to the last color the most important thing (for me anyway in my meticulous, careful mind) was to not smudge the other colors or go over the lines and cover up that pretty blue with the yellow. That would definitely ruin my perfect masterpiece. Inevitably I did however and then I would do my best to restore the messed up squiggly shape to its original color. Seldom was that done to the perfection necessary inside my little, striving head. Eventually I would finish however and I would gaze upon my masterpiece and I would be happy for a while at what I had done but invariably I would notice that it seemed to not flow like the pictures I had seen in books where colors actually flowed together in shapes and patterns and textures that didn’t seem as contrived as my little masterpiece. It was then that I knew I would probably never be a painter. I didn’t have that creative talent to let colors mix and play on the canvas. I was too concerned with things not being messy.

A few weeks ago I was heading out for a long run. It was to be my last long run for October and my last long run before the half-marathon I was to run for this year (which I ran yesterday by the way and set a new personal record of 3:11:28. Yay me!) My plan called for 10-12 miles and I was determined to run 12 miles that day. That would put me over 100 miles for the month with 6 days left in the month. I’d never run 100 miles in a month before so I was excited about the prospect.

However, the universe conspired against me that day. Several factors came into play that kept me from accomplishing that goal and feeling truly awesome about myself. For one, it was day 7 of a new nutrition program I was following called the Whole 30 with a bunch of fellow FXBers. Day 7 per the book was the day that we would feel like taking a nap, not a day we would feel like running 12 miles. I had been pushing some of my runs recently running steady state type runs on days I was supposed to running easy. I had also been thinking about why I always seemed more comfortable running alone.

When I run alone and especially on the Heritage Trail, a wonderful, well-groomed trail just at the outskirts of Dubuque, IA where I live, I think a lot. I mean a lot. Sometimes problems seem to pop up along with new perspectives on how to resolve them. Sometimes I think of why I am slow to connect with others and whether I am capable of engaging others. Other times, I think of a blog article and the words kind of seem to flow into my brain and through my thoughts into my consciousness. (If I could only be writing that article as I ran, I think I would be so productive!) Other times, I think of that plot and characters for my novel series and I think of another piece of the plot puzzle or another aspect of a character that I think will flesh them out and make them leap out of the page into my reader’s minds. Sometimes I think about my past and certain events which have shaped who I am for better or worse. I try to find a more positive perspective on those events usually. It doesn’t always work that way though.

Well on this long run, besides the general feeling of being tired and weak, I started thinking about those paint by the number sets from my youth and my life. I also started thinking about what I was valuing in life. What were the things that I found the most important?

My Timehop feed and my Facebook memories for most of this year have been a little repetitive and honestly a little boring. There was hardly anything worth mentioning from January through March. After that it was mostly a post about a workout at Farrell’s or a run. They were about how many calories I burned or how many kilometers I ran (yes, I know I live in the US and I should track my distance by miles but when I first started running it felt so much more empowering to say I had run 3 or 4 or 5 kilometers than it did to say I ran 2 or 3 miles. My daughter Stephanie would poke fun at me for this. I finally got it and changed just before I ran my first half-marathon.) All that seemed important based on what I was willing to share on Facebook was how hard I worked out and how many calories I burned and how many miles I ran.

I realized that for the most part I was living my life by numbers. My life was these squiggly lines on the canvas of my soul with numbers on them. Those numbers corresponded with something that was important to me in life, those things that I had made important. Instead of 42 was blue however, my life by numbers was 42 equals how many calories I burned. 43 was how many days in a month I attended Farrell’s. 44 was how many times I ran this month. 45 was my 5K PR. In reviewing those posts and thinking about them as I ran, I became convinced that I was living life by the numbers and here seemed to be the numbers that I was the most concerned about:

600 Calories burned in a workout
4 Miles run
475 Friends on Facebook (400 of which were probably added after 2014 and all of them have been subjected to my posts about calories burned. Sorry about that!)
53 likes on a Facebook post (that was a good one and usually had nothing to do with calories burned)
3 Likes on a Facebook post (I thought it was funny)
35:29 new 5K PR
My salary at work
79 e-mails on Match.com (most of them written by me to someone else by the way!)

As I was running, I was literally thinking about these numbers and those paint by numbers and visually I was stepping back and looking at my canvas. I saw a lot of empty spots with numbers I didn’t recognize. Those numbers didn’t seem to be on the key to my life. I think I knew what they were but it was hard to admit it to myself at mile 2 of my run. As I examined it closer however it came to me, in a sad, kind of unraveling way. It was areas of my life I was working on but not fully engaged in, not all in on. Areas in which I would have to be vulnerable to make them work and be worthwhile.

4 – the number of meaningful relationships that I had where I truly felt comfortable (and that seemed to be shaky at times)
2 – the number of groups I felt I belonged to (and when I say belonged, I counted myself a member but wasn’t really that engaged and connected with)
1 – the number of meaningful conversations I seemed to have on a weekly basis (or was it a monthly basis)
7 – the number of positive thoughts I thought about myself each week (I am actually quite mean to myself at times. In fact, if you had a window or TV screen into my brain you would probably observe that I’m my own bully. Not always but enough of the time to warrant a comment.)

I also noticed that I didn’t like this measuring stick I was using to measure my life most of the time, the one that gave me the most happiness. My canvas seemed to have too many unpainted spaces. It had too much white space. Where there was color it looked like my early paintings: contrived, separated, oddly disjointed. There was no blending of colors like the masterpieces. I’m not saying either that the masterpieces were perfect, I just think that they were perfectly imperfect!

While these thoughts were swirling around my brain, my legs were protesting the run. My lungs were wondering why I was doing this. To get 12 miles in my “live by the numbers” personality was crying out, “We need to reach 100 miles. Today!”

But my soul (and I’m convinced it was my soul, my spirit, that part of me where divinity resides) finally put it’s foot down.

“You’ve already painted all of the 42s and 43s and 44s and 45s. There are no more squiggly spaces left on your canvas for those colors. You must start painting the rest of your canvas. I, your soul, demand it.”

And so I stopped running. I looked up the trail as I panted. I turned and looked back the way I had come and I tried to catch my breath. I bargained with myself. I knew I had more days to reach 100 miles in October. I could still reach that number if I turned around now. I didn’t need it today. That was enough for my conscious, number chasing me to turn around and run home. I fought the urge to at least go to the three mile mark before turning around. I just ran back to my car. Sort of. I no longer had the will to run so it was run for a bit then walk and it seemed it was more walking than running. I told my number chasing mind that I was just tired. In truth I was tired but not necessarily of running. I was tired of not feeling a sense of belonging.

I’ve been thinking about this for 3 weeks and this morning I felt like I needed to finally get these thoughts down onto the electronic paper of my computer and out into the world. Those white spaces that were missing were 55 – Connection, something we all want and try for sometimes in sputtering, awkward spurts. It was 60 – Belonging, that so very important feeling that we all as human beings need. It was 33 – Calm, something that is difficult in this world and culture that demands that we be busy, that we not sleep, that we must get so much work done in a day to feel like we are enough. It was all those other white spaces that I don’t even know what they need to be filled up with yet. I will learn that as I go.

I’ve spent a lot of time the last 3 weeks reading in the quietness of my living room. I put 2 mantras on my bathroom mirror. One says simply, “I am enough.” The other says “I am worthy of love and belonging.” It’s not like I don’t feel those things at times, because I do, but by putting them on my mirror which I stare into for a while while the shower water heats up, I have those daily reminders to start my day with.

The numbing noise of the TV has been absent for awhile in the evenings while I linger in the silence of uncertainty. I’m reaching out and trying to make connections and trying to feel that sense of belonging. I’m trying real hard to understand what belonging really is. I’m trying to make courageous decisions and be the lion (or the tiger that is on my Facebook cover now. It is one of the most beautiful and inspiring pictures I’ve seen in a long time.) I’m attempting to be more authentic. I’m learning to ask for help (and thank goodness for good friends who have put up with my struggles.) I’m addressing my need for perfection, my 20 ton armor against feeling vulnerable as well as my other shields against vulnerability. In fact, I’m doing my best to get a handle on how to be vulnerable without becoming a puke bag of emotion at times.

More importantly, I’m trying my best to not worry about painting exactly between the lines and instead am allowing the paints to merge and smear together. So as I work on the canvas of my life (which by the way is never done, we’re always adding to the painting that is our life) I vow to step back at times and appreciate its messiness, its wonderful splashes of color, the order that I emphasize in things mixed with the chaos and uncertainty that is life. I vow to feel joy over this canvas and most importantly, gratitude that I still have brush and canvas to work with. I vow to be a little messy and I vow to be okay with being perfectly imperfect.