Saturday, March 5, 2016

Beauty's Where You Find It

Beauty has been on my mind lately.

* * * * *

I know of two women who died this week.

Both were considered beautiful by cultural standards - wide eyes, big smiles and slim stature - both were still young and at the height of their physical power. 

One was cut down in a moment - she died an accidental death with her beauty intact.

The other wasted away at the hands of cancer, and was worn to a mere thread of her former glory by the time she blessedly passed. 

And while it may seem natural to pity the woman who suffered before she died, I can't help but believe that her illness brought out a kind of beauty that runs far deeper than symmetrical facial features and silky hair. I've seen a few photos of her last days and rather than being repulsed by her sunken eyes, bald head and skeletal frame, I see a deeper, transcendent beauty in her eyes that expands my definition of what it means to be beautiful.

* * * * *

I was raised by a woman who never spoke of beauty. 

To the best of my memory, my mother didn't talk about my looks. She might have mentioned that my dress looked nice or she liked my new haircut. But she never told me that I was cute or pretty or beautiful, even though I'm sure she thought I was. So I grew up assuming there was something wrong with the way I looked. Maybe I wasn't straight-up ugly but certainly I must be unattractive or at least plain. 

Once I survived the turbulence of adolescence and got myself settled into young adulthood, I realized my looks were fine. But it wasn't until I hit my late twenties that I pieced together the reasons for my mom's inability to compliment me.. 

My mom never thought of herself as beautiful. She hated the way she looked.
And her mother before her carried the same shame.

I was born to a line of women who could not see their own beauty and could not speak of the beauty of their own flesh and blood. Feeling sadness and pity for their pain, I decided that I would be the generation to break that chain. I choose to see beauty in myself and my daughters, as well as my mother and grandmother. 

* * * * * 

Here in the Pacific Northwest, spring is quietly tiptoeing in. Though I always look forward to the dazzling cherry trees of mid-April and the exuberant peony season of late May, these early days of the new season are dearest to my heart.

One bold daffodil pushing up out of the earth.
Small bumps of leaf buds swelling the tips of tree branches.
Fresh rain that falls not with the icy chill of winter but the sweet promise of warmer days to come.

There is beauty not just in the lush celebration of spring but also first hints of new life.

 * * * * *

Ranger's been feeling much better this week. After his attack and some serious injuries to his unfortunate tumors, his heart also needed some time to mend. Quiet and withdrawn for the first few days, he has bounced back nicely. Once again, with twinkly eyes and sassy stomping feet, he began reminding me of our daily walk time just like always. My handsome Irishman seemed to be back on track.

Until I put him into the car. Nine days after the attack, I took Ranger out to the garage. I opened the side door of the van and he readily hopped up. But instead of settling into the middle seat as he has done all his life - and where he sat on that horrible ride to the emergency clinic - he took an odd detour to the far back seat. And within a heartbeat, he let loose with the most unholy noise I've ever heard him make.

My fourth-born described it as a screaming seal. I recognized it as pure primal distress.

Ranger let out a series of maybe ten such yelps before I could get my hands on him to pet and soothe. Once I stroked him for a few seconds, he seemed calmer so I turned around to settle myself into the middle seat. The cries started up again, just as heart-wrenching as before.

This time, I used one hand to rub the closest fluffy red ear while I pulled on his leash to guide him off the back seat, up to the middle seat, and onto my lap. My trembling boy climbed up willingly and settled himself across my legs where he stayed, quiet and calm, for the rest of our drive.

My guess is that sitting inside the car reminded Ranger of his harrowing trip to the emergency vet. Maybe he was actually remembering my anxiety rather than his own pain but there's no doubt that Ranger experienced an ugly recollection when he found himself back in that car. And nothing but my physical contact could soothe his anguish and restore his peace.

The ugly scars on my dog's body are slowly healing. And likewise, I see that in the hurt places of his soul, a beautiful new trust in me has grown to fill in the wounds.

 * * * * *

My final word on beauty goes to Madonna.

Two months after my first daughter was born, at a time when my postpartum self felt dreamily happy but not particularly beautiful, I danced before an audience for the first and only time (so far) in my life. The song was Madonna's Vogue and for our performance, the six of us were encouraged to go all out with dramatic hair and make-up. Holding nothing back, I smoldered my eyes in smoky shadow, lengthened my lashes with impossible layers of mascara, and let loose my usual pony-tailed hair into a long curly mane.

I was transformed.
I danced with wild abandon.
And I felt insanely beautiful.

To this day, every time I hear that song, the lyrics speak truth into my soul once again.

Beauty's where you find it.

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