(And other things that never happened)
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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.