A Wonderful Way of Being Beautiful

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There was a time when, like many teens and young adults, I felt self-conscious about my appearance. One of my cousins had noted that many of us shared a family trait of having a weak chin. Another had pointed out my very fine hair hair that seemed never to hold a style. I was also likened to Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oil, for being starkly thin. I viewed physical defects as a mess and felt uncomfortable in public because of my hangups about my appearance. .

My mother encouraged me to forget about myself, noting that people rarely think about how someone looks, but always consider how one behaves. She insisted that I should be more concerned about treating people with interest and kindness than worrying incessantly about a few flaws that nobody would even notice. While I did my best to follow her advice I did not really understand how profoundly correct she had been until I was in my mid-twenties. That is when I finally began to develop confidence and to feel good about myself. 

Looking back at photos of teenage me, I see a quite pretty but very shy young girl. My features went together quite nicely and all I really needed was a bigger smile to light up my eyes and be a more inviting person. My thinness made it possible to wear virtually any style and look quite lovely. In fact, I would welcome a lithe frame like that now that I have added the pounds that come from living an enjoyable life. 

I still fret over my hair, but only because it is so difficult to maintain. I admit to envying anyone who can just pull their luxurious hair into a ponytail or a bun. Mine flies away like corn silk and refuses to do as I try to instruct it to do. Nonetheless, I have learned to work with it just as it is and move on to more important issues like caring for the people around me. 

My chin is indeed almost nonexistent. I’ve learned that full faced photos flatter me the most and I have one side that is definitely better that others. At this point I would probably look very strange if I were to suddenly purchase a better chin from a plastic surgeon. I find that very few people actually look better after going under a knife in the hopes of improving things. I mostly never even think about that tiny familial trait that one of my brothers hides nicely behind a lovely beard. It has become a matter of very little consequence to me. 

I’m one of those slow learners who realizes more clearly with each passing year just how wise my mother always was. She maintained that attractiveness had little or nothing to do with actual physical aspects. She noted that some of the most beautiful women in the world were acutely aware of flaws that nobody else ever noticed. She insisted that the rarest beauties were the ones who had the most loving hearts. 

We had a neighbor whom my mother almost revered. Her name was Rose Marie and she was the mother of five children. Her home was often chaotic and messy but the love inside was palpable. Rose Marie was a bit chubby after birthing five babies but somehow she did not come across as being overweight. It was her cherubic face that drew all of the attention. She had stunningly beautiful features, most especially because of her warm smile and her eyes that literally seemed to twinkle. She sported a think mane of dark black hair that she usually just wound into a knot at the back of her head. When she spoke it was as though her countenance was lit by an ethereal light. Her generosity was well known and admired by everyone who knew her. Her beauty was indeed enhanced by her personality. 

I suppose that we have all also known someone who might have been thought to be homely but for the loveliness of his/her generous spirit. I have met many women who had enough confidence to laugh off their flaws and approach the world stage with not just confidence but love and concern for the people around them. Few would instantly think of Mother Teresa as a beauty and yet hers is one of the loveliest faces I can imagine. Likewise, Eleanor Roosevelt was taunted as a child for her lack of feminine pulchritude, but her courageous spirit in pursuit of justice for all people radiated from her face hiding any flaws that may have been there. She was beloved by the American people because she had proven that she really cared for them, not because she was a gorgeous First Lady. 

As a young child I watched a television program called Father Knows Best. In my own case it was my mother who possessed the wisdom that I needed. She taught me to put myself together and then go out into the world without thinking about how I might look. Instead I followed her lead and worried more about how people were feeling. Most of the time it felt good to be that way. 

We live in an often superficial world that has a tendency to make young people feel self-conscious about themselves. We see individuals becoming successful with little more to offer than good looks. We learn soon enough that they often suffer because they never learned the importance of spending time just living and laughing rather than chasing after physical attractiveness. When the bloom of their beauty fades they feel as though they have nothing to offer. My mother showed me that real beauty is way more than skin deep. 

Princess Diana was beloved not as much because she was a beautiful woman, but because she exuded warmth for every person she met regardless of their social class or circumstances. Audrey Hepburn was gorgeous until the day she died, but it was her work as a benefactor that made even her wrinkles and greying hair disappear from our gaze. We all have flaws but the worst of these is a closed and selfish heart. Anyone can be beautiful simply by forgetting about themselves and concentrating on all of the people they encounter. It is a wonderful way of being beautiful.  

Do You Hear What I Hear?

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My mother and I used to have conversations that only other women were able to understand. We left out words and whole sentences but knew exactly what the other was saying. My husband would scratch his head wondering if we were using some kind of code to communicate. It was difficult to explain to him that we were using woman speak from a language that we had perfected since I was a small child. In fact, my daughters and I have the same ability to talk to one another with a paucity of words. 

My husband and I have perfected a way of predicting the future utterances of each other. It is not unusual at all for us to complete sentences. It is as though each of us is living in the other’s head. After fifty years of marriage we really do understand the other’s thinking, but once in awhile I confound him with ideas that don’t make sense to him at all. 

It is often suggested that men and women have very different ways of communicating. In fact, there have been entire books written on the subject. In schools it is almost humorous to watch students in action. The girls tend to be attentive and focused while the boys seem to have trouble sitting still long enough to grasp concepts. All of these things affect the ways in which we speak to and respond to one another. 

I am totally a visual learner. I have to see things, read printed matter, take notes in order to comprehend a concept. My husband is an auditory learner. He can simply listen and be able to understand and remember what he has heard. Then there are those who need to touch and feel and interact to really grasp ideas. I suppose that I have a bit of that in me as well because I always studied while pacing back and forth. I was never able to just sit quietly in a library attempting to memorize facts. Without movement it was as though my brain was not working. Sometimes I even combined all three learning styles by walking back and forth in my room reading information out loud so that I might remember it for a test. I performed this ritual while preparing for exams on extremely difficult topics. 

I’ve learned the hard way that written communication can be totally misunderstood, regardless of how clearly I think my ideas are being expressed. Without the presence of vocal and facial cues people may misread a sentence or a comment . I have literally lost friends or angered family when I was not present to note their confusion and instantly clarify the intent of my remarks. Once feelings are hurt it is like picking up all of the feathers that have flown out of a down pillow. A kind of resentment remains and no apology seems to be sufficient. Our facial expressions and body language cues really do matter for the purpose of clarity. 

In today’s environment we would all do well to be more attuned to our communication skills because we seem to be talking over each other. Really understanding requires active listening. Our interactions should not be a debate in which we are constantly planning our next argument. Instead, it is always nice to attempt to understand why the other person is saying certain things. Suspending judgement can be difficult, but it is also the beginning of honest discourse. 

I hear a great deal of group speak these days. It’s lazy to categorize someone’s comments without finding out how they reached their conclusions. We’ve got some very bad habits of calling MAGA folk racists and fascists and Democrats communists and haters. The truth is that very few people fit into a neat mold. When we actually attempt to communicate with one another we begin to hear their voices and understand their histories and their needs. Using canned talking points de-legitimizes our individual personalities. 

We are products of our genetic structures, the environments in which we grew into adults, our educations, our experiences, our jobs. and so many other factors. Thinking and speaking and acting differently is a good thing that should be celebrated, but all too often divides us into camps. Really listening before talking is critical to the smooth functioning of our society. We seem to have lost the ability to appreciate the variety of our thoughts and dreams. 

The first step in reuniting should always be in finding our common ground for communicating. It requires practice to learn the ways in which people express themselves. If we take the time to understand who they are and where they are coming from we can lower our voices and sometimes even just sit together saying nothing. If we don’t make an effort to really hear the other person our conversations become little more than blathering. Take a deep breath and begin the process of really attempting to understand even the unfathomable conversations. It is a good step toward real communication. 

What Is This Thing Called Love?

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I often think of one of my neighbors who spent years caring for her wheelchair bound mother-in-law. My friend was a model of patience and kindness, tied to her house unless someone came to relieve her of her duties of watching over her very ill guest. She once asked me to stay with her mother-in-law for a very short time. It was not an easy task. The old lady was anxious and angry and let it be known that she did not like the idea that I was substituting for her long-suffering daughter-in-law. I found myself glancing often at my watch and hoping that I would soon be free to leave. I felt quite guilty as I thought of my neighbor doing this every single day for years, always with a saintly smile. Not once did I ever hear her utter a complaint. She was a model of love. 

I have known many such souls who literally dedicated years to the care of a family member and did so with the most amazing calm. They certainly encountered frustrations and became weary, but somehow they were driven by a sense of great devotion. Regardless of how many years of their lives passed as they sacrificed the kind of freedoms that most of us enjoy, they shouldered their responsibilities with grace and inspiring determination. There really is no greater love than this. 

We bandy about phrases like “true love,” but all too often when real life rears its head the relationships built on fantasies fall apart. It is in the toughest of times that we find our real friends and soulmates. These are the persons who are willing to walk through fire with us and more often that not, they are rare. 

A friend from high school recently celebrated her wedding anniversary. She spoke of meeting her husband and falling in love with him. God was at the center of their relationship. Little did they know when they pledged their fealty to each other that she would encounter multiple health problems in the ensuing years. Their fun together was sorely tested in those times but her husband proved to be the real deal. He cared for her with great love and patience. They found joy in the small victories over her illnesses. They understood their calling to honor one another in both sickness and health. 

Love can certainly be passionate but it is so much more than just a physical attraction to someone. Its greatest moments are found in the times when life throws challenges our way. Things all too often fall apart if the connections between people are only skin deep. The man who lovingly watches over his brain injured wife for decades is the incarnation of love. The woman who patiently nurtures her husband with dementia is a treasure. Such people are rare angels in our midst who tirelessly give of themselves in the truest sense of love. 

Philosophers and theologians speak of love. The Christian faith looks to Jesus to demonstrate what love is. He showed us that love is sacrifice for the sake of others, no matter how painful that may be. Love is the greatest gift that we might give to the people we encounter and we are told that it is always patient, never jealous. Love is also forgiving, a trait that can be very difficult to muster when someone hurts us. 

I have observed that true love requires effort. There is a give and take, an up and down to the flow of love. We often find love in the most unexpected places. Over and over again I have seen powerful examples of love that may have seemed quiet and unremarkable, but were in fact profound. My grandfather adored my grandmother and they enjoyed a life filled with fun and laughter. They were rocking along enjoying their dream of owning a farm when my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The next many months were crushing for my grandfather as my grandmother slowly slipped away. 

They were both in their late eighties and there was no Medicare at the time. My grandfather watched his life savings dwindle until the money evaporated in a pile of medical bills. She spent her final months at home because no hospital would take her. My grandfather dutifully nursed her and never once complained even though he was drowning in debts from her illness. He loved and cherished her until she took her last breath and then he sold everything he had ever owned to pay off his bills. He would spend the next twenty years of his very long life speaking of the joy that she had brought him and wishing that they had been able to squeeze out a bit more time together. He often boasted that she had been his best buddy, a title that told of the deep friendship.that brought had brought so much joy into their days. 

Love is all around us but we often misrepresent it. It is not just between a man and a woman or a married couple. It is a deep relationships between two people who are willing to walk with one another through life’s sometimes fiery journey. It is a parent’s love for children. It is the love exchanged between friends. It is an adventure that can be as smooth as a sail on a quiet lake or as rocky as a hike up a steep mountain. Love is human, often imperfect, but always concerned with the well being of others. We know it when we see it, and it is a beautiful thing even in its more ordinary forms. It is what we all seek and dream of finding even as we know it must begin with each of us. It need not be reciprocated to be real, but when it is, the world becomes a better place for everyone.

Let There Be Peace On Earth

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My favorite high school English teacher sought to make us citizens of the world. He challenged us to leave the protective bubbles of our childhood and learn about the vast collage of diversity and ideas that encompasses the globe. He wanted us to realize that there is more to life than just the tiny plot of real estate where we were born and spent our childhoods. He introduced us to literary tracts and world views that we had never before imagined. In the process he helped us to understand that we are all part of a vast interdependent network of people and ideas that transcend the narrow limits that we sometimes place on ourselves. He was the first to challenge me to explore and think beyond the barriers of time and place. 

I may not have travelled to every part of the globe like my sister-in-law from Taiwan, but because of that teacher I was open to understanding and appreciating the cultural differences that she introduced to our family. I learned from her about an ancient culture that had often seemed so different from my own. I realized that while the two of us had grown up under very different circumstances and customs, we were literally more alike than different because of our universal human needs. 

We are not alone on this planet. While it might feel comforting to isolate ourselves from the continuing problems of the world, it is a fools game to believe that we can close our borders and simply enjoy our good fortune while ignoring what is happening in faraway places. The days of using the oceans to protect us from concerns about foreign affairs are long gone, and thank goodness for that. We are a country of people from many nations and while our allegiance is to our own, our interdependence with the rest of humanity is a given that we cannot ignore. 

The world is a gooey mess right now. People continue to get sick and die from a virus that has left so many families and nations devastated. The inevitable chain reaction of events stemming from the long years of sickness, lockdowns, loss of income and production has fallen down on all of us like a heavy hammer. People are warring with one another both literally and figuratively. Crime and mass shooting are on the rise. The people of the world are hurting and worried and even angry. It’s important that we try to understand that we are all on the rollercoaster of this crazy time together. Our goals should be to work as a worldwide team to help all people get past the traumas of the last few years. It will no doubt be a difficult time wrought with privations for some and sacrifices for others, but if we remain aware of not just our own little corner of the planet, but the needs of the entire world we will all make it through this dark and daunting time.

We never quite know if what we are doing from one moment to the next is the correct way of solving the multitude of problems that are stalking us. All we can ever expect is that sometimes our efforts will work and sometimes they will fall apart. We just have to keep unselfishly trying and hoping that we will find the answers to our questions before too many people are hurt. This will require us to open our hearts to suffering wherever it lives. It will no doubt mean that our lives may not feel normal for a time or that everything will forever change. If we are willing to set aside our politics and prejudices we can make it to happier days once again.

There is so much to be done. Complaining about the cost of gasoline is the least of our worries. We have to help those who are being crushed by the economics of the pandemic and war. We have to move beyond our own desires and realize that it may be a long time before we feel settled and secure. We are in for a long haul of Covid repercussions in the entire world. The sooner we accept that fact, the better we will handle the continuing difficulties that crop up. It’s well past time to quit the blame game and work together with all of the members of the family of humankind. 

Each of us is a microcosm of the universe in which we live. Our bodies are very much alike under the skin. Our minds differ in cultures and beliefs but in the dark of night when we are honest with ourselves we must know that our desires are rarely that different from those of people in far away lands. We all need safety and love and belonging and self-esteem and self-actualization no matter where we were born or where we now live. Here in the United States many of us have opportunities and privileges that allow us to reach the peak of living as comfortably much like the lords of old. It is our duty to spread our good fortune to those who are in dire need both near us and far away. 

I recall a time when I was at a baseball game with friends. The stadium was packed with fans. it was a standing room only crowd. One of my companions commented that if we just asked each person who was present to contribute one dollar, and we did that at every such venue across the world, we would be able to fund so many important causes without people even noticing the difference in their pocket books. I often think of his idea when I am paying twenty dollars to park and drinking a five dollar soda at such events. I realize that if those who are able, were to set aside one dollar each day of the year for worthy causes, the coffers for aide would always be full.

Maybe for now we need to all consider our individual places in the world and ask ourselves what more we can do and how we might come together rather than throwing darts and jabs at those whose ideas and ways of living differ from our own. While we quibble over the small stuff, the pain on the planet only grows. It’s time we rise up with all that has always been best about humanity and let there be peace on earth beginning with ourselves. 

The Little Girl Inside

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I have just begun reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. A confluence of events lead me to this beautiful and insightful text beginning with the long term illness of my father-in-law’s second wife. I was already in an emotional tizzy from watching her slowly drift away into a haze of pain as her body shut down. It was so difficult for me to watch, and the fact that her demise came shortly after the anniversary of my father’s death, close to the anniversary of my mother’s passing, and the murder of nineteen innocents in Uvalde did not help my state of mind. I commented to my daughters that I do not do death well. In fact, I don’t think I have any idea how to deal effectively with sorrow. But then, who does?

As fate would have it, a friend whose son was murdered almost a year ago wrote about his journey through grief and the complex emotions he has experienced during that time. He told us about his own magical thinking and quoted Ms. Didion’s book. At that moment I sensed that I needed to read her story as well. I needed to know if the jumble of feelings that have come and gone since my father’s death were okay or the sign of a disturbance that lives on incessantly inside of me. It was as though I had found a place to feel safe with my muddled thoughts. 

I became a dutiful people pleaser, a fixer of problems, on the day that my father died in spite of the reality that I was only eight years old. I approached death by doing things, attempting to take control of uncontrollable situations. My version of magical thinking was pretending that I was strong and capable. This was the face that I showed the world. Like Ms. Didion people thought of me as the “cool” presence in an emergency, but like her my rationality was little more than a reaction, a way of coping that denied the reality of what was happening. 

I remember a time when my brother and I took my mother for a consult to find out why she was coughing so much, spitting up blood, having difficulty breathing. My brother has told me that when the doctor gave us his diagnosis that my mother was dying from lung cancer I was angry and yelling. I do not even remember this. Try as I may I cannot believe that I did not hear what the doctor had said, or rather, I did not accept what the doctor told us. I was angry with my mother for overacting and giving in to tears of despair. I was certain that we would be able to fix her health and I did not want her to be pessimistic. All of it was a fog in my mind that I have never been able to unravel or explain. 

I learned from The Year of Magical Thinking that Joan Didion had similar experiences. Her husband’s sudden death and the events surrounding it were a blur in her mind. She had difficulty remembering the sequence of events and how she had reacted. She only remembered that the paramedics had commended her for being cool, but she did not recall being cool. In fact, she was “so determined to avoid any inappropriate responses (tears, anger, helplessness, laugher…” that she shut down all response.

When I read that line in Ms. Didion’s book I cried tears of relief because I suppose that I had trained myself to shut down in the face of tragedy or death. I did that unconsciously to protect myself from the truth, which would have been too much to accept in the moment. I had to give myself time to overcome my sorrow and my anger. In spite of my calm demeanor there has always been a core of rage in my heart that frightened me and made me feel abnormal. Through Ms. Didion’s words I saw myself over and over again. I realized that the little girl in me needed to know that I had reacted in a perfectly acceptable and typical way to my father’s death and every other death thereafter. 

My mother reached a point in life where she was not longer able to attend funerals, not so much because she was physically unable, but because she was no longer able to handle the sorrow. She grieved quite openly in private. She was able to shed tears with little or no effort. She had decided that she would no longer hide her feelings to make others feel comfortable. It was a freeing experience for her that I envied because I had long ago become a stoic, someone who often confounded people with my steadiness. 

I suppose that we are experiencing a kind of global grief right now. There is much anger in our hearts over the loss of millions of souls to Covid-19. We rage at the horrors of wars, not just in Ukraine but wherever such conflicts exist. We are weary of violence, crime, injustice. We worry about our future on a planet that is rapidly heating up and causing natural disasters that rent our sense of security in two. We are reacting in many different ways to the horrors that we witness, including adopting a kind of magical thinking that if we can just stay calm and hang in there it may all go away. Some run to movies, and trips and entertainment to pretend that all is well while others worry that we are doomed to a tragic future because of our unwillingness to face issues and take positive actions. Surely there is a way to quell our grief for humanity that lies somewhere in between, that allows each of us to be ourselves and love ourselves. 

I am not healed from my personal losses, and may never be, but it has been good to search my heart in a rational and honest way and to forgive myself for simply being human. Sometimes I react in the voice of an awkward eight year old who continues to dwell in my brain. I have to love her and calm her and then be my present self who has learned more about life and how the world works. I have to use my grief and the anger that follows from it more wisely and thoughtfully. What I really want is to make the world better and I believe that it can be done.