The Obligation of Beauty

It took me over a quarter of a century to realize beauty is not something frivolous. We need beauty in our life. The truth still takes my breath away. With no particular aesthetic gift or impulse, I was for much of my life satisfied if my purchases were functional. They didn’t have to be pretty. And so neither did I, because my brain got me around. It was my mind, not my appearance, that helped me achieve in school and life and build relationships. I now look with patience upon the black-and-white assertions we draw in youth.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert borrows from The Italians by Luigi Barzini to tease out “why the Italians have produced the greatest artistic, political and scientific minds of the ages, but have still never become a major world power. [His answers] have to do with a sad Italian history of corruption…and dominators…which has generally led Italians to draw the seemingly accurate conclusion that nobody and nothing in this world can be trusted. Because the world is so corrupted…one should trust only what one can experience with one’s own senses. This is why Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captains of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent opera singers, conductors, ballerinas…actors, cooks, tailors…In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real. To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business – not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into rhetoric and plot.”

Gilbert goes on to describe how deep in the ruins of her marriage, she began to mend her soul by reading aloud Italian words out of a dictionary. I can relate. After my body broke down from stress and overwork in my 20s, I noticed the flowers for the first time. I had never seen them grace the cities I lived in. Too busy with things that mattered like studies and work, I had never looked. But in my frailty, I was ravished by their beauty, the force of their color. My spirit had fractured open, worn and thirsty for something beyond the dictates of duty. Eager for a song, not just the beat of the clock I raced. I didn’t understand why I took so hungrily to the flowers I had by practice dismissed. It took me years to realize that beauty is healing. And so the lyrical, sexy Italian sounds out of her mouth brought Gilbert healing joy. She says “the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity…You were given life; it is your duty…to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”

I would take it a step further. Beauty is the very fabric of our world. Yes, we’ve screwed things up with crime, war, destruction, and the abuse of our natural resources. But beauty dances in the pageantry of the sunset and of the cosmos (who said Jupiter had to be so beautiful??), in the languages of men. Some days the California sky is so magnificent, the clouds coiffed with a panache which in a painting would look overdone, too perfect. Beauty wasn’t an artful afterthought to this world. It obligated itself upon us. Beauty isn’t something to find. It is the substance of this earth.

How does this belated dawning translate in my life? While I remain impressed with women who match head to toe, my regard for them is largely what I hold for curious lab specimens. I was taken by my mother-in-law’s response when I thanked her for a recent gift card saying I’ll get something to look pretty in for her son. “Get something nice to be pretty for yourself. Life is short. Someday, you will realize that you don’t have much time left over to enjoy what you have now.” I was reminded that while vanity is one thing, self-respect is another and taking care with my appearance is good for the soul. The series on beauty that’s around the corner will take us through the body, spirit, femininity, relationships, love, memory, pain, suffering, art. Please welcome the guests who have worked hard over their stories and are still bleeding from the edits – because beauty is worth it.

The Land of the Living

March 2003, Journal

Friends were ready to call 911 this week.

Painfully sleep-deprived with glands really bad off, I attempted a home sauna. I didn’t realize it’d be too much after last week’s sauna at the gym. I drank at least a gallon of water this time but started seeing lights flash in the bathroom. My hands tingled. Things took a fast downturn the more I drank. I vomited myself completely out. Totally dehydrated, I went into shock.

I couldn’t move, lost sensation and perception of color. The few muscles I could still feel stiffened like wood. Lightheaded, I could hardly speak. Or crawl. I collapsed on the phone and managed to eke out a few words.

The wildest thing was the perfect succession of friends who came. After my doctor, the first friend I got a hold of was out on her lunch break right nearby. She made a bank deposit for me before the hour passed so the rent check wouldn’t bounce. Also went and picked up what I needed from my doctor’s to keep me out of the hospital.

She was stunned to see me like that but couldn’t stay. When she dropped off the goods, my roommate had just arrived. Roomie was indispensable. She held the phone to my ear because I couldn’t do even that and as I whispered back to the doctor, kept the paper bag over my mouth and swathed me in blankets. I later learned she happened to have dropped by that moment only to grab some medicine for a sick friend she had with her. By this point, I had called T for prayer. I couldn’t pick up his follow-up calls and then was disoriented and taken aback to hear him at the door. Two other friends entered on his heels. I didn’t want them there, felt so bad for being a bother when I didn’t know them as well, but later saw I would’ve had to call the ambulance if they hadn’t taken care of me that night.

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So two guys, one girl. They didn’t have enough hands. Too nauseated and weak to move, I couldn’t open my eyes or sip water. Whatever I drank I promptly lost through both ends. I ran through the first remedy quickly and needed more. Friends spoke with the doctor and while one guy ran out to her office, I started regressing and losing feeling throughout my body again. I was limper than a rag doll (which at least has stuffing enough to sit up) that they had to push my chest and head up against the wall, keep the paper bag over my head, quickly lift it while one spooned me remedies every 40 seconds and pulled the bag back down.

It was so incredible we laughed. In his typical humor, T complained his hand was tired and hooked his elbow under my chin to keep my head up in a (gentle) wrestling choke. By the time they put me to bed at 11 pm, I hadn’t slept since three in the morning and my stomach was empty. What they had done was unbelievable. They had to work the next day but labored nonstop for seven hours to nurse an invalid back to life. I’d heard them pray.

It’s like…I’ve been in line forever at the DMV after an endless license suspension that’s kept me off the road, the land of the living. Just as I was making noticeable progress up the line, I found myself forced all the way to the end again. I’m looking out the window at the cars zooming past, sure I’ll never be able to join the world of normal again.

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December 2014

It is hard not to get emotional revisiting this chapter of the craziness I once called my life. I went on to rebuild from Ground Zero, to become stronger, to dance, marry and give birth to the child of my dreams. I went on to write and live all over again. There are many things about my blogging journey that have startled me – not only the growth of this readership but the depth. You don’t know what it is you do for me. Some days I hit publish. And your comfort is so deep, though I hadn’t sought it. Apparently, I’m not done needing angels. We all talk about the treasure of community we discovered in one another. A fresh wonder, it’s a familiar refrain on my lips. I’ve come to genuinely care for many of you these 21 months, and to share in your happiness and sorrows. I wish I could make it better, that things will look up in the new year, that the sun will break through your grief and fears. I also learned to laugh with you. Now that’s living, isn’t it? I look back at these 11 years. Wow, I’ve come far. Thanks to those who would light my way back every time. Normal? I’ll never be normal. And this blog proves it. You are one extraordinary bunch, great minds with the biggest hearts, and I am so very fortunate to know your love, affection, and respect. As you’ve glimpsed, I’ve received a great deal over the years and if the candles I light should ever help you find your way and stay the course, I am so grateful to be able to pay it forward.


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Men and Women: Another Difference, Part 2

Back in high school, a good friend said after meeting my family, “Your mother is so beautiful. What happened to you?!” I laughed. Good question. Part of Mom’s looks have been their enviable resilience to time, which she never took for granted. Korean women are vigilant against the insistence of gravity on their face, and here I am without the aid of benevolent genes. All the more I really should groom. Mom saw the family photos I sent and called me with an opening commentary on my husband. “He looks so good. He looks better every year. But…you! Take care of yourself!” she urged. She meant the face.

I came across a group shot of friends from five years back and was shocked to see how young we were. One guy is not yet 40 and has since gone gray. But he doesn’t look bad. Somehow his wife doesn’t wear the wrinkles so well. My mother still had to maintain her attractiveness with the diligent day-and-night regimen in a way Dad was free not to have to worry about. My husband is aging like wine. Me? I’m the milk on the counter.

You men. Just how do you turn the card with the salt and pepper hair and crow’s feet? Dignified. They say you look dignified. Ugh. Not only are you spared the angst over a biological clock that measures the worth of your manhood but you have a longer visual expiration date. To add insult to injury, all you have to do is shave and get a buzz and you regain three young, handsome years. As a statistic, you die before we do. Your eye candy loses its sweetness and you’re gone. You leave us to our chores just when we could really use your muscle.

Several readers have asked to get together off the blog. I’ve taken a rain check for circumstances that keep me busy and close to home but I’m tempted to reconsider. God knows what I’ll look like in a year.

Here’s Part 1.

The Secret to Happiness

A friend of mine who suffered immensely caring for her ailing parents found herself an orphan in her 20s. She was left with such an inheritance that she could – by her own admission – stay in her room and live on take-out the rest of her life. Meaning, she was set. My friend was free to live not to work. To work not to live. The obligation of employment did not weigh on her life, and she was free to dream whatever she dared with the means to transform it to reality.

She continues to live with the guilt.

Because, she says, it is her parents’ money she is sitting on, not something she herself earned. No matter that she worked hard all her life in school, that she made it in the world of finance as an Ivy league graduate. When life served her comfort on a silver platter and swept clear her runway, she sunk into depression.

Her response back then was profoundly intriguing to me as I looked on while flailing for a financial foothold, after I had managed to study and make it into the world of designer clothes and country club dining. My life before and after this season was one hazardous patch of thin ice. I grew up watching my parents scrounge and sweat, and life without money struggles was a most curious fantasy. It happened to some but surely would pass me over. But the bitterness of the little girl became gratitude; in my newfound Christian faith, I realized that with so little I had nothing to lose. And provisions came my way in the most timely moments. I was about to shop for wardrobe to interview for head of the Gifted and Talented Program when my mother fell ill. I rushed back home to New York three hours away to be tied to her in the hospital until the eve of the big day. I was going to set out as unprepared as I could be when Mom sheepishly told me she couldn’t resist picking up a suit tossed outside a ritzy building on Lexington Avenue before I came. She had spotted it, good as it looked, on her way out after a long day of babysitting. Fit me perfectly and though I walked into my important meeting late, having gotten lost in the rain, I got the job over the women who looked the part of the upper-middle class community. I felt like Cinderella, though I’m not sure she was a bookworm. The assistant superintendent of the district put to me a grammar question the Caucasian candidates couldn’t answer. I know. Some of you are smiling. See? Learn your grammar. When later that year I told my principal the tale of the castaway suit, she remembered the way I’d walked in that day, said I looked sharp. She never would’ve known. But Cinderella did have to leave the ball.

When I left the district, there I was again – savings now depleted and too sick to work on my 30th birthday. Money can’t buy happiness but it sure pays the bills and puts food in your mouth. I know what it is to teeter on a tightrope without a net. One semester in college I sold my guitar so I could eat. The black hand of powerlessness slips a mask over your head and breathing becomes difficult. Now, you’d think it’s freedom on the other side of poverty, on the wide green grass of options. But even there you can become strapped – in fact, paralyzed. And instead of joy, you might find despair.

In his book and TED Talk, Barry Schwartz sheds light on what he calls the paradox of choice.

With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. I’ll give you one very dramatic example. A colleague of mine got access to investment records from Vanguard. And what she found is that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, rate of participation went down two percent. You offer 50 funds and 10 percent fewer employees participate than if you only offer five. Why? Because with 50 funds to choose from, it’s so damn hard to decide which fund to choose that you’ll just put it off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, and then tomorrow. So paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices. That’s one effect [of the power of choice].

Another is the escalation of expectations. This hit me when I went to replace my jeans. The shopkeeper said, “Do you want slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit? You want button fly or zipper fly? You want stonewashed or acid-washed? Do you want them distressed? You want boot cut, you want tapered, blah blah blah …” My jaw dropped, and after I recovered, I said, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” I spent an hour trying on all these damn jeans, and I walked out of the store — truth! — with the best-fitting jeans I had ever had. All this choice made it possible for me to do better. But I felt worse. Why with all of these options available, my expectations about how good a pair of jeans should be went up. I had no particular expectations when they only came in one flavor. When they came in 100 flavors, damn it, one of them should’ve been perfect. And what I got was good, but it wasn’t perfect. And so I compared what I got to what I expected, and what I got was disappointing in comparison to what I expected. Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results.

The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in – we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation – the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness is low expectations.

Finally, one consequence of buying a bad-fitting pair of jeans when there is only one kind to buy is that when you are dissatisfied and you ask why, who’s responsible, the answer is clear: the world is responsible. What could you do? When there are hundreds of different styles of jeans available and you buy one that is disappointing, and you ask why, who’s responsible? It is equally clear that the answer to the question is you. You could have done better. With a hundred different kinds of jeans on display, there is no excuse for failure. And so when people make decisions, even though the results are good, they feel disappointed about them; they blame themselves.

Clinical depression has exploded in the industrial world in the last generation. I believe a significant contributor is that people have experiences that are disappointing because their standards are so high, and then when they have to explain these experiences to themselves, they think they’re at fault. And so we do better in general, objectively, and we feel worse. There’s no question that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow from that that more choice is better than some choice. There’s some magical amount. I don’t know what it is. I’m pretty confident that we have long since passed the point where options improve our welfare.

He knows me. I hate Walmart. I don’t care about the prices. Store’s just too big and I lose precious time looking for what I want. There are few things I loathe more than shopping for jeans, which is why I’ve stuck with my two pairs the last ten years. This is what likely happened to my orphan friend: she became overwhelmed at the gala of options she had stumbled into. We pine and claim we could’ve done better if we’d been dealt a kinder hand. Loaded with all the resources anyone could hope for; money, time, smarts, education, she stared at the dark mirror. How could she best use her talents, make an impact, do justice to her parents’ gift of sacrifice? She was stripped of excuses. What if her choice wasn’t good enough? Oh, the burden of getting it right.

Notice the themes written on the mighty dollar. Happiness, guilt, blame, worry. There are more, too, in this new series on money that our guest writers have been waiting to help roll out. Look out for our oldies, thoughts on class and belonging and identity. You might see yourself in the stories. Here we go!

Twilight

It still hurts to swallow and I can feel I’m not quite drug-free. I managed to contain my thoughts this morning, not ramble into the thicket of fear or worry about bleeding and complications. Though it was cold – of course it was cold – I focused on the moment. Milked how nice the nurses were and asked for three more blankets after discovering the throws were fresh out of a warmer.

I abhor hospitals and all their close cousins. The forms to sign, the smell, those ugly scrubs the color of flat twilight. Why couldn’t the staff sport something more cheerful? The process, the incompetence that lurks and has no place where people are fearful and suffering. Yet there I was, dependent on the system and its machines to tell me if I can go on in hope, can count on a semblance of normalcy to my days. Or if I’ve been harboring anything unwelcome along my G.I. Like cancer.

It was my first time on the oxygen tube. I’d seen it only in movies and on old people. Between the nasal cannula and the faithful monitor, I felt like a fully certified sick person. I hated it.

They didn’t tell me it was going to be so awful. At least the surgeon listened to me; saw that at 85 lbs I didn’t need as much sedative as the others and gave me half the normal dose. They lay me on my left side and I soon realized I would not have been able to hang in beyond those ten minutes. It was rough, even violent, though that was no one’s intention. The bite block kept my mouth open, and prevented me from biting and damaging the tube. I learned exactly why I hadn’t been allowed to eat or drink all morning. I gagged and gagged, and the tears ran. When I continued to wipe my eyes outside the room, the nurse explained the Versed does that to a lot of people.

The good look down my esophagus and stomach showed all was clear. Still sore from one of the biopsies, I realize that one had been unnecessary. Why the hec didn’t the doctor see the stomach test I’d passed already? Important thing is my innards looked healthy and at least I left with cool photos for Tennyson. He just learned the parts of the digestive system last week.

I didn’t tell many friends, didn’t want to burden anyone. I don’t bother trying to explain to people the trouble I’ve had eating the last several years. One wonderful doctor of mine once said my life is difficult to describe. But pray, I did. Not so much for fear of dying but for the brute powerlessness of it all. You look in, you look out. And you see nothing but the unknown dark, hear nothing but the echo of your questions. For all your dreams and aspirations, you come up short face-to-face with your humanity.

You look up.

It’s Happy Hour

It happened after yoga one night. The April air was crisp as we hadn’t fully settled into spring. My family waited for me at home, dinner on the table. My eyes filled with tears of contentment. I had come through years of debilitating anxiety and was fortunate to be alive.

Average Yogini

So here are my picks to the prompt: Tell me about a moment when you were happy, so happy you could hardly see straight. You couldn’t have been happier if you’d won the Lottery. Go ahead and visit one another, make friends. Enjoy.

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Tough choice: Is it the day I completed a 10,000-mile bicycle ride and met Peggy; or the night California voters approved an effort I had initiated to reduce tobacco use? One led to happiness; the other has saved an estimated one million lives. I’ll go with love.

Wandering Through Time and Place

One year sober last month, I got to meet eight other ladies who had become friends via the sober blogs and communities. Sunshine, tea and cake, good conversation with great people who made me feel heard and understood. I didn’t feel like a freak anymore.

A Hangover Free Life

It was my husband’s birthday. We were hoping and praying for a celebration. We waited in the surgeon’s office for my pathology report on the breast cancer. I scanned the mumbo jumbo of the lab summary for any sign of good news.

Relief and profound gratitude. Healing had begun.

Snowdrops for Faith

I awoke to a machete death just outside the Nicaraguan church. It rattled me. Where was God? Under a lone tree someone sang and then another.

I had come cynical and empty. But with the gift of song came a rush of assurance. God was here.

Middlemay Books

“What a big penis!” We were stunned. Our practitioners had all guessed a girl. But it was his heartbeat, strong on the screen. Our boy actually drew a smile as we watched. I had longed to give my husband a son. I was wild with joy.

A Holistic Journey

Happiness is climbing a tree, catching a firefly, setting him free.
Happiness is playing the drum in your own school band.
And happiness is walking hand in hand.
Happiness is being alone every now and then.
For happiness is anyone and anything at all
That’s loved by you.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

My Misfit Brain

One sunny afternoon I went to a family and friends’ celebration, and I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. I’d that very week been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety; nobody there knew. Those at the gathering were celebrating religious and political beliefs that were virtually opposite to my markedly less conservative views. I was invited as a relative, and never knew if they really thought I shared their views or if it just didn’t matter. There was a lot of Bible reading, text interpreted to support favorite right-wing politicians. Many emotional speeches on the rightness and beauty of the group’s beliefs also implied that divergent views were stupid, evil or both. I wished I could disappear.

Mental health problems are inconvenient, messy, embarrassing. Incompatible philosophies and tastes, maybe even political or religious views, are sometimes socially acceptable as matters of personal leanings. But being exceedingly depressed or anxious? Lots of people would rather avoid or deny such things, and wish that mental-health patients, even functional ones like me, would keep quiet about it and get over ourselves.

Instead, I got help. I’m very lucky. I have terrific supporters, good doctors and meds. I’ve also recognized that I was already on the fringe before feeling so excluded at that long-ago party; that week’s personal crisis merely magnified it.

Feeling like such a misfit at the party simply exaggerated the real reasons I was miserable: severe depression and anxiety. Apparently I don’t have the balanced body chemistry that lets most people cope rather casually with everyday life. I think that every car on the road is about to crash into me; I have panic attacks in utterly benign situations; I believe everyone around me will reject me if they find out I’m so broken. My logic argues with my anxiety that this is all absolutely ridiculous, yet doesn’t always win.

The support and treatment have been great. I’m not ‘cured’ of being different this way, but for the most part I manage fine. Still, there will always be another odd-one-out party, another trial that seems gigantic though logic reminds me that being odd or upset is inconsequential.

What saved the day for me was to join the children. I discovered a wonderful kind of grace there: the littlest kids don’t care who believes what or who seems left out. While the adults bonded over joys I could never share, I wanted to escape to the car to nurse the emotional paralysis of my terrors in private. Instead, I slipped out to the front porch and sat on the swing in the safer company of kids, and we chattered aimlessly about how much cake and ice cream we all planned to eat. They didn’t care whether I seemed normal or grown-up, or not. Next party, I’ll be heading straight for the porch.

Kathryn at Art-Colored Glasses

 

My Own Mind Alienated Me

Change is the only constant in life.” ~ Heraclitus

Change.  It happens every day to each and every one of us.  People we know change, situations change, life changes.  But what happens when, without warning, you are the one who changes?

In the fall of 2008, I was diagnosed with a chronic medical condition called Meniere’s Disease.  I could no longer perform at the job I loved, drive a vehicle, or make plans without planning to cancel them.  The diagnosis not only changed my life, it changed who I was.  It took a long time before I could accept the changes I needed to make in my life.  But it took longer to accept the changes that were happening inside of me.

My memory was something I had always prided myself in.  I could remember dates, phone numbers, names, places.  Imagine my horror in returning to work after several months, walking into the office and struggling to place a co-worker’s name.  It was humiliating.  I could no longer concentrate for longer than a few minutes and became easily distracted.  Where I once felt able to handle any conversation, I now struggled to keep it flowing.  I missed important appointments I’d noted by memory only to have it fail time and time again.  For the first time in my life, I had to use a scheduler.  I also needed to use reminder alarms to check the scheduler on a daily basis.

I looked in the mirror and recognised the face, but no longer knew that person.  The person who had been there was gone.  It felt like I had been shut out from my own self.  Why was this happening?  Why was my own mind alienating me?  The feelings of intense frustration, anger and helplessness were overwhelming.  It was difficult enough to live with other people looking at me differently, but to have my own consciousness do this to me?  It was the worst form of betrayal I had ever felt.

It wasn’t easy to get to know the new me.  In fact, I didn’t like her at all.  Mentally, I felt dumb and slow.  Emotionally, I was angry and bitter.  The new me was a very unhappy person.  I was miserable much of the time despite the brave face I put on.  I was also in denial that this was even happening.  I spent a good deal of time angry with myself.  Why couldn’t I remember like I used to?  Why did I need someone to explain things to me?  I asked myself again and again why I was making myself feel different.

It took me several years to realize the answer.  I was making myself feel different because I was different.  I had to accept that.  For my own sanity, I needed to accept that.  I was no longer the person I was before my illness.  It wasn’t my fault.  Why was I blaming myself for something I’d had no control over?

I needed to learn to love myself again, and I began to do just that.  Taking it moment by moment, I became mindful of my thoughts.  I ensured that my thoughts remained on a positive track and I would no longer do any mental or emotional self-harm.

I can now say I am in love with myself again.  There are still tough moments.   But it is, and always will be, a process.

I invite you to read more of my struggle with Meniere’s Disease in the post How Living With A Chronic Illness Improved My Life.

Carrie~Anne

Why I Run

You might run for the thrill. You sail into the zone, keep on like you’re under a spell. I wish it came so naturally to me, wish these limbs would move with knowing.

I run because I was terrible at it. And I’m less terrible the more I do it. I run to silence the aspiration for what’s easy. To teach my body to endure, hold on just a little longer. I run to meet my weaker self head on – conquer her on strong legs Treadmill2so I limp less under my load. I sprint for the fullness of being alive because I often forget how to live. I remember the power of simplicity. I jog to find my pace and cadence. I run to take ownership of myself and to stretch my reserve. I run to claim every day that is mine.

I run because good enough isn’t good enough.

 

See me wrestle? Why I Sweat