After her father tragically died when she was just 17, Paulette Perhach protected herself by saying no to the things that scared her. But, inspired by Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes, Paulette spent two years being a yes-person, ending up somewhere she never thought she'd be – in a South American carnival parade wearing a sock-stuffed gold bra, white miniskirt and eight-foot headdress. Oh, and doing the samba before a crowd of total strangers.
Here, she tells her story of how the word ‘yes’ changed her life for the better.
In her popular TED2016 talk, Shonda Rhimes tells us how her life was changed by the word ‘yes’ during a year of saying it to everything that scared her. If you’ve never had a year of saying yes, I recommend it. I challenged myself to two.
I had joined the mythical American Peace Corps: two years of volunteering somewhere in the world. For me, it was South America, a small town in Paraguay. I vowed to myself that I would say yes to any opportunity that came my way, picturing parties, camping trips, and long drives to unknown destinations.
What I had not anticipated was the question two high school kids posed after knocking on my door, what they wanted to me to say yes to: “Will you dance in our carnival parade?”
Under different circumstances, this would have been an absolute no. While my first dream job was to be a dancer, I got stymied at the kick ball change – just about the first thing you’re supposed to learn. I’m so clumsy that someone has yelled at me, as an adult woman who just spilled a drink on the communal desk yet again, “You know you should be using your sippy cup!”
Plus, I am not a small woman. My nickname in high school was ‘Big Blonde Amazon’. I’m 5ft 10in and about 12 and a half stone. Which is fine, in general. But not so fine jiggling down Main Street in front of a crowd. In a country where the average man came eye level with my chin and my light hair blazed over the brunette crowds, I had never been more inclined to hide. Everywhere I went people not only looked at me, but yelled at me, “Rubia!” as if ‘Blondie’ were my name.
It didn’t help that in Paraguay it’s perfectly polite to tell someone how ‘fat’ they look, and people seemed to enjoy practicing their etiquette on me. I took greater and greater joy in sequestering myself to my house, where, with no eyes on me, I was still myself, and not some exotic beast.
With those two hopeful faces at my door, waiting for my answer, I scoured my mind for a way to bail on my rule. But the only asterisk on my vow had been that it didn’t apply to sex stuff, obviously. I had to say yes.
The boy clapped, his eyes wide like a ringmaster who had just acquired an albino elephant for his circus. Then, what I thought they said was that they wanted me to give them a bra to decorate for my costume. I repeated the word I was sure I had misunderstood: “Sostén?”
“Sí!” the girl replied. “Un push-up!”
They would get me a headdress and skirt, they said, and I needed high heels. And I needed to samba.
I promptly had a panic attack that lasted several weeks. I generally wore Birkenstocks, and could only find heels for my size 11 feet at one shop in the capital for the cost of a month’s Paraguayan rent. My bra wasn’t very push-up, because I had packed to help people, not to be sexy, so I boosted it with rolled-up ankle socks.
I paid for an online ‘How to Samba’ video. My 12-year-old host sister watched me practice with the same look she might use watching a cat cough up a hairball. “No, no, like this,” she would say, and show me. I would try again. She would shake her head.
I received my outfit: a white skirt, short. My bra, with the space between straps cut out as if they wanted to create back-fat rolls, dangling with tassels and covered in gold sequins, except for two 4cm flat-backed crystals sewn right in the middle like gemstone nipples. Lastly, the headdress: a gold-painted styrofoam triangle topped with a huge eye, peacock feathers streaming out of it and reaching eight feet above my head.
The night before the parade, I kept having this nightmare that I was dancing in it wearing only a gold-sequinned bra. On the day I forced myself through the motions. When my neighbour, who I didn’t even know very well, walked by my front window and saw me cooking lunch, he said, "You shouldn’t eat too much today. Just a little bit.”
While we waited for the parade to begin, the young girls I knew rubbed my pale, nearly 30-year-old body with gold glitter. The ringmaster came and put glue on the back of a crystal and pushed it into the center of my forehead. Before I could figure out how to say, “Is that superglue?”, it started to burn. They gave me a gold staff to hold, and my host sister said, “You’ve got to dance like this,” putting both hands on top of it, and shimmying her butt while dropping it low.
The drums started. The crowd, hundreds of them from surrounding towns, stared on from the stands. And then it was time. One second you’re a normal person, the next you’re a dancer in South America.
Over the loudspeaker, I heard the announcer say, “La Americana, Pauli! Baila Pauli, baila!”
The first round ripped the walls off the box of who I thought I was. Public humiliation begins to describe the feeling. I just put one foot out, rocked that hip like I saw in the video, and kept going. But during the second round, the third round, I got into it. I got used to it.
I probably still looked stupid as hell. I have one picture where a girl behind me has her jaw dropped, as you might if someone’s boob popped out, if someone were embarrassing herself. But I also have another photo where I look sublimely delighted. I have video, which no one will ever, ever see. Looking at these pictures, I’m so grateful I never have to do that again, and I’m so grateful I did it once.
In her speech, Rhimes talks about how saying yes brought her the “hum of life”. It was a hum she used to think she got from work. But she finally figured out that “the hum is joy-specific. The real hum is love-specific. The hum is the electricity that comes from being excited by life.”
Saying yes brought me the joy of ending up somewhere I would have otherwise never let myself go.
“The spectrum of all that might happen is more vast than I ever expected”
I had my no years too. After my dad died when I was 17, for a long while all I said was no. I’m still terrified of all those horrible surprises life can throw at you, but I know on a deeper level that the most profound tragedy would be to go through life without leaving room for the wonderful ones.
If I can find myself, my big, clumsy, just-want-to-read self, dancing down a street under lights in South America, the spectrum of all that might happen is more vast than I ever expected before. My official years of saying yes are over, but they opened me up to saying yes more often since, to not box myself in to my known roles.
I will never dance in a parade again. In fact, I hate parades. But sometimes, in my kitchen, after a glance to make sure the curtains are drawn, I let myself put one foot forward and rock that hip out, and as I stir my pasta I do that little dance I learned that one time I was a dancer. I giggle to myself at my memories, and feel that hum of excitement about what life might bring next if I just keep saying yes to its possibilities.
Images: Paulette Perhach / Rex Features