The Year I Turned Pretty

(And other things that never happened)

You know you clicked when you saw this. 

I think we are drawn to attractive things. Beautiful people, expensive clothes, pristine homes. We buy cool phones and popular books and watch movies with hopelessly unrealistic story lines. We crave the happy ending. We love the ugly duckling. 

But some of us never turned pretty. 

I bought Swabbies and Birkenstocks and 501’s hoping to adorn my awkward body enough to blend seamlessly in with the cool kids. But I had cheap haircuts and bad skin and I was hopelessly shy. I was good enough at sports to run with the “jocks” but I never really fit in anywhere.

I played Janis Ian on my cassette player until the tape snapped. I fell madly in love with Buddy on Family, and later, read Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek and knew exactly how Marlys felt most of the time. I agonized over every blemish and cursed my “bubble butt”. I lived through the years of wearing clothes from JCP,  shoes from Fred Meyer and Love’s Baby Soft in the pink glass bottle sprayed liberally on my wrists. I kept diaries under lock and key. I poured my heart out to my braver self. 

Somehow I survived the years of home perms. 

I would wake up some mornings to my Mom saying I should come downstairs before showering. I’d tiptoe down the stairs and peek around the corner to find her in the kitchen with the bar covered in newspaper and tiny curlers. The smell of the permanent wave solution would hit your nostrils first, then burn your eyes until they watered. I’d protest the whole time. I’d beg her not to leave them in too long. Inevitably, an hour or two later I’d be standing in front of the mirror, unrecognizable. Kinks and frizz in my fine blond hair. “You should look more like a girl” she’d say. “It will be pretty”. 

I remember how excited I was to fly on a plane for the first time, alone, on a trip to Portland to visit my uncle, his wife and their new baby. I felt grown up and couldn’t wait to tell my story to friends at school. Did this make me cool? I sure thought it might. We were going for pizza that first night, to the Organ Grinder, a popular new restaurant in the city. I was psyched … until my aunt came in and asked me to change my clothes. Off went the Keds and 501’s, on went the long dress and choker my Mom had packed in my things. I was 12 and I was mortified. 

There were other times too. At fifteen there was the night I tagged along with older friends to a party. Everyone was drinking beer from the keg in red solo cups. The weed was plentiful too, filling the air with that sweet, skunky smell. I can remember leaving with them in someone’s car and going to a boy’s house. My older friends, the pretty ones, snuck off to different rooms, boys in tow. And there I was, alone, on the couch in the dark of a stranger’s house. That night, Freebird and the rest of that Lynyrd Skynyrd album, would burn itself into my brain for eternity. 

No, I never turned pretty. 

Not back then. 
Not as a young adult. 
And not now either. 

After 60, you stop thinking about being pretty and start thinking about how to be relevant in a world where you have become invisible. For awhile I tried to impose my will and my wisdom onto anyone within earshot. I got the eye-roll often from my young niece and nephew. I found people saying no to my suggestions when I was just trying to steer them out of harm’s way. But was I? What was I really doing?

These days I still chase impossible things. I still have unrealistic expectaions of myself and others. I still get my feelings hurt, still write pages and pages to my braver self, still want the ‘best friend’ I never really had growing up. I still “want” and I am still disappointed. Maybe desire is really just a lack of information and I’m learning to live with those things differently now. I give myself permission to have longing. My self-talk is gentler. I try to stop imagining the completed painting and settle into the blank canvas knowing I can love emptiness too. 

This weekend on a walk with a friend we talked about addiction. He recently quit drinking AND smoking and wondered if I still had cravings. The truth? Yes. More often than you might imagine. A freshly lit cigarette can give an ex-smoker a rush like a line of pure cocaine. Watching someone walk away from a glass of wine half-full can give an ex-drinker pure anxiety. I haven’t had a drink in over 30 years, haven’t smoked for over 20, but the craving of these things isn’t buried as deep as you might expect. It’s always there, just below the surface. Waiting. 

I tell him about those cravings, but I tell him too, how quickly those moments pass. When I feel it coming, I see it for what it is, and give it a nod goodbye. I wouldn’t say I’ve made friends with what threatens to pull me under, but I would say I’ve made peace with it. It’s like I’ve furnished a little room where it can live in a big cozy chair as incentive. I try to think of that at other times too, like when grief or fear or jealousy threaten to snatch my attention.

We live and learn. Mostly, nature is my teacher these days. A friend I regularly correspond with through letters in the mail (yes, pen, paper, envelope, stamp) recently likened my morning walks to intimate encounters. I love that she recognized that, because that is exactly how it feels. Intimate. These last few years have taught me how powerful a teacher nature can be. I’ve learned patience and attentiveness as a practice, things I might never have learned any other way. 

And I’ve decided that “pretty” is underrated when it comes right down to it. Give me the eyes of steel like an eagle, the boistrous call of the tiniest wren, the patience of a great blue heron in wait. I wouldn’t call a hawk or a swallow  “pretty” but I’ve learned to see what is beautiful about them all. When you’re 16 you think everyone is looking at you. When you’re 60 you wish anyone would. If there was ever a case to be made for living our lives in reverse, this would be it. Maybe it’s already happening in some alternate Universe. Now there’s something to think on as I mull age and beauty and invisibility…

They say at 60 you have the face and the body you deserve, as if our choices have added themselves up in some grand equation of personal responsibility. I can live with that. But what about the heart we have at 60? Have we earned that too? If you have ever opened a pomegranate you know that beneath the layers lie the jewels. You would never know from looking at that purple husk the beauty that lies within. If you called me a pomegranate I wouldn’t be offended. 

My wife is having surgery for breast cancer today and it doesn’t escape me how insignificant it seems to be talking about the “pettiness of pretty”. Every person I’ve met along this current path has been beautiful. From the warriors carrying the cancer, the surgeons excising those demon seeds, to the community of support staff and caregivers in those rooms and hallways. 

In our lives we seem to shrink or rise in the face of adversity. I feel so grateful to have been in the company of so many warriors over the years. As I watch Kelly navigate this recent diagnosis I watch her rise at every turn. Armed with knowledge and faith and courage she is stepping into the unknown with the strength of her sisters (both literal and figurative), friends and family and with me, her pomegranate partner. 

I’ll let you know in the days ahead how the surgery went and how the recovery and healing are going. Thank you for being here. 

32 Comments on “The Year I Turned Pretty

  1. People don’t always see the true beauty in the world. You often share overlooked beauty with us through your pictures. That’s a gift. Hope your wife recovers quickly from her surgery. She is lucky to have you to help her through a difficult time.

    • Thank you so much for this. She is doing really well and we are quite optimistic. Having taken so many photos in the last several years I find myself looking more for the buried gems. Thanks for noticing. Truly, a pomegranate life.

  2. Darling, your beauty is truly deeper than can be measured. Thank you for this, coming from a place of complete understanding. Still, I’d much rather be compelling than pretty! 😉

    Sending light and love to Kelly and all who support you both today. You are close in my thoughts….


    • My dear friend, yes. I’d rather be many things other than pretty. And I hope I am. Thanks for all the love and support. All is well today. We’re forever grateful to our “village”. 🩷

  3. Beautiful piece. Wishing all good things come from Kelly’s surgery today and you’re both able to look back and see this as just one more obstacle on our journey called life!

    • Thank you so much. All went well and we are very optimistic. It’s a bit of a wake-up call that life is precious. I resolve not to squander it!

  4. Such great writing. There are so many comments and that means you were able to touch on things about yourself that also happens to most of us, but we normally do not want to think about them that much. It was a reminder to me that that among those difficult experiences from humanity there are also the sublime. Keep the faith.

    • Thank you so much* Yes, the difficult to the sublime. I love that!! I’m keeping the faith. Thanks for writing*

  5. A brilliant essay. Yes, I clicked when I saw that pretty title but only because it was from you. 🙂 I wondered how you had dealt with it, as it seems something we all had to at one point. Your history reads mighty familiar. How you transcend prettiness into the beauty of birds, too much attention into lack of it, and your growth into the pomegranate partner is mesmerising and the direction to take, no matter how sometimes we wish the reverse were true. Much love and good healing.

    • Thanks, Manja. It really is interesting to see the path of that youthful angst of mine in the rearview. The “too much” to “total lack” of attention is something that seems to happen overnight, but I know that isn’t really how it goes. Thanks for sharing. All is well*

  6. This is wonderful Bonnie Rae, thank you for sharing it. I’m glad we’ve reached that other side of aching to be what we’re not, and just kind of more indirectly wistful. As you say, there are so many more important things. You are certainly seen here in these words, and between the words, and in your photos – there you are. My youth is mostly parallel to yours in emotional upheaval and not fitting in. That may be most of us, though we can’t recognize in others. Thinking of you and Kelly often.

    • Thanks so much, Nancy. I love that: indirectly wistful. It’s perfect. I agree that most of us had that awkward early teenage nonsense. And you’re right that mostly we couldn’t see it in others. A classic myopic view, methinks. Thanks so much for being here*

  7. Here is your gifted writing coming through. Isn’t it marvelous when you can express what’s really inside? It feels as though you have here. Such a beautiful post, my friend.

    Hilarious you mention addictions just as I was smacked with one yesterday. I stepped into the Drive-thru cigarette shop (yes, we have that here) for the very first time since I quit smoking about a year and a half ago? Two years? The shop also rents UHauls, and that’s what I was there for. While I talked with the woman behind the counter, my eyes went directly to the section that holds “my” brand, and the request for “two packs of…” was right there on the tip of my tongue the whole time. Inwardly, I laughed at myself to think of buying cigarettes. What would you do with them, I asked myself. You don’t smoke anymore, I told myself, and yet that purchase request stayed right there at the forefront of my mind during the whole UHaul discussion. I marveled at my well-programmed brain. Yes, the desire is RIGHT there. I would love to have a new pack of cigarettes in my hand so much. I would love it. For…about two days…then I would hate it again.

    I’m so glad to get old and learn such good stuff as you describe here. I wish I had learned it when I was young, but I didn’t. Hugs to you both during this stressful time.

    • I can totally relate! For me, the really persistent thing was that for a long time every time I left the house I would do my mental checklist: wallet, keys, cigarettes. So glad to be free of all of that! Thanks for being here and thanks for the good wishes. All is well*

  8. Kelly and you are in my heart. I loved this piece so much.

    • Thanks so much for being here, Connie* I did think parts of my story would resonate. Glad you were moved to write*

  9. I always thought you were cute, smart and very athletic. I can so relate to your feelings. I always felt ugly and inadequate. I excelled in my grades and sports. I was never asked to dances, prom or homecoming thus adding to my feelings of ugliness/inadequacy. Even as an adult I find myself doing so much to gain acceptance which allows people to get what they need from me, but I gain nothing of what I need mist often. When you came and sat at the hospital with me the day of Keiths surgery it meant the world to me. People are rarely there for me! Too bad in our early days we didn’t connect more! Although I wouldn’t have communicated my feelings or needs back then either. I am attempting to set better boundaries for the takers who have none! My best wishes to you and your lovely wife!

    • Oh, Nancy, thanks so much for these words. I’m like you, still looking for acceptance, knowing in my heart that the only acceptance I really need, comes from within. We did pretty well in spite of it all, though, didn’t we?! Thanks for writing*

  10. You are proof that Janis Ian was wrong, that love was not meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skinned smiles. Sending much love and healing thoughts your way.

    • Thanks so much, Jocelyn. While Janis Ian’s At Seventeen was an anthem for many of my teenage years, you might just be right that she didn’t have it quite right in the long run! Thanks for being here*

  11. Not a pretty story, but beautifully written. With age come wisdom, with wisdom comes beauty. Beauty outshines pretty. You have arrived, my friend, you have arrived.

    • Thanks so much for these words. “Pretty” is really over-rated. Glad you’re in my current orbit*

  12. This, pomegranate after pomegranate, jewel after jewel.

  13. We could have been cousins from another mother. I had that same bad perm and love’s baby soft perfume. Being the “fat kid”, I didn’t fit in anywhere either. My parents idea of “encouraging” me to lose weight was to tease me mercilessly. I totally get it.
    Sending healing thoughts to Kelly for an unevenful recovery and long bright future.

    • Omg, those perms were the worst, weren’t they?! It’s amazing we all survived those early teen years. I would never want to go back, that’s for sure! Thanks for the good thoughts. All went well.

  14. Oh Bonnie Rae, thank you for this beautiful remembrance of your loveliness–inner and outer. I have been thinking of you and Kelly… sending you so much healing energy… savor the moment and trust the future. love, cb

    • Thank you, Christina. All went well and we are optimistic about the future! Thank you for the kind words*

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