Truth of Beauty

Today I stepped on the scale for the first time in several weeks and discovered I’ve met my biggest weight loss goal, so far: one hundred pounds lost.

I’m elated about this, of course, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have mixed feelings about my body after losing so much weight. A little over a year ago, I wrote an article about how I’ve learned to accept my body, even celebrate it just a little. But I’ve recently come to see this just isn’t true. Or maybe it was true, when I wore shapeless clothing and my body was seen only by the man who’d met me in my early twenties and bore witness to the weight fluctuations, the stretch marks, the slow downward descent of my breasts and outward protrusion of my stomach. Maybe it was true before I started losing weight more rapidly, which has led to loose skin and an odd feeling of deflation. Or maybe it was never true at all, and I wrote that post more from wishful thinking than honesty. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever come to terms with my body. I wonder if I’ll ever stand before someone “naked and unashamed.”

Months ago, I read the story of Lucy Grealy, a cancer survivor who killed herself at age 39 after years struggling to accept herself following over 20 unsuccessful reconstructive surgeries to repair radiation damages to her jaw. As I read her story, both through the eyes of her best friend, Ann Patchett, in the book Truth and Beauty then through her own retelling in Autobiography of a Face, I was struck by a deep and unexpected sorrow. One night as I looked down at my body, I found myself sobbing in my husband’s arms: “I’m sorry! I’m just so sorry!” I said this over and over in my mind, to an imaginary little-girl Lucy. And as I lay there with my husband, crying for Lucy, I realized I was crying for myself as well.

I have spent a lifetime searching for identity in my physical appearance, never quite measuring up, hiding myself from view. Where Lucy tried to hide her face, I tried to hide my hips and thighs, stomach and breasts. Where Lucy was teased about her face, I was criticized about my body. Where Lucy adopted the idea she could never be loved, I adopted the idea I could only be loved if I looked a certain way. And as I realized the tragedy of Lucy’s upbringing, I understood the tragedy of all that had affected me in a similar way, (to an obviously lesser degree.) Society had given us both not just an impossible standard, but a false one.

Lucy writes, of the literary classics she was reading at the time:

“They presented a version of the world in which honor and virtue and dedication to the truth counted. The stories comforted me, though it didn’t escape my attention that these qualities were ascribed primarily to men. The women might be virtuous as well, but their physical beauty was crucial to the story.”

Society has given women a standard most of us have adopted without question: whatever other virtues we may have, physical beauty is one of the most – if not THE most – important. Show me the heroin of the book, tv show, or movie, who is not also beautiful and I will show you the exception to the rule. There is very little place in the media for bodies that are lumpy, bumpy, big, or disproportionate and where they do show up, they’re typically featured as awkward, obnoxious, slovenly, or evil. Mama June. Roseanne. Ursula. Where are the heroins with sagging breasts and pouchy stomachs? Where are the flabby arms and cellulite? We are given as a standard something most women will never be able to achieve and grow up in a world that tells us in order to be virtuous we must also be beautiful according to that standard. Different is considered deficient. This is heartbreaking.

But it’s not the end of the story. At least, it doesn’t have to be. I’m coming to understand that although I can’t fight the world’s definition of beauty, or sit around hoping others will value my physical appearance, I can choose to value myself. Today, I ask myself the question: is it possible to decide—for myself—what true beauty is to me? Is it possible to accept this body, regardless of whether anyone else ever does?

As a friend of mine once said, perception is affected by focus and focus is affected by choice. In the United States, the source of the media’s idea of beauty isn’t true beauty—which includes so much more than legs and butt and boobs—it’s business. Behind every sexy advertisement is an old man sitting in a yacht and behind every centerfold image is a woman struggling to pay her bills. The act of being aware of this – of paying attention to this truth – has the power to change things. Behold the great and powerful Oz…

Behold the man behind the curtain.

This game, like so many others, is rigged against us, and if we want to win we must step away and find another game to play. We can’t change the world’s definition of beauty, but we can change our own.

“Every stretch mark, age spot, dimple, and stray hair I’ve picked up along the way tells a story. It might not be the story I would have liked to tell, of hours at the gym, consistent healthy eating, or regular spa treatments (ha!) But it tells the story of a woman, a family, and a little farm. It tells the story of eight beautiful, healthy children and a life lived, to the best of my ability, walking with God. It’s my story. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

I wrote these words a year ago. Can I believe them?

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Phoenix

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you, step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
– Joseph Campbell

“Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. There are no general principles for this art of being. Yet the signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life. The senses are generous pathways that can bring you home.”
– John O’Donohue

“Narrow is the road that leads to life.”
—Jesus

 

Christianity gave me an excellent script by which to live my life, an excellent map to follow. It told me if I did A and B and C, and if I walked THIS road instead of THAT one, I would be following the footsteps of millions of others who had reached the destination and could ensure my safety. It gave me stability, predictability, an idea of what the future would hold and, to a certain extent, a feeling of control over my life and lack of vulnerability. For years, I followed that map as best I could, doing everything the church told me I ought. Until things fell apart.

When things fell apart, I let go of everything the church, my society, and the world around me had ever taught me about who I ought to be and what I ought to think and determined to travel (to the best of my ability) my own path, doing everything I could to listen to that still, small voice inside, the voice I call (for lack of a better word) My Soul. I have a feeling it could also be called Holy Spirit. Too often, over the years, I’d ignored this voice in an effort to be “right” according to the opinions of those around me. Now, I stopped listening to the opinions of others. Stopped asking for permission. Stopped explaining myself. I started saying “no” more often and started saying “yes” more often. I did the next thing I felt led to do, and then the next, and then the next. Then one day, I ended up in a place I never thought I’d go, a place the church told me God would never lead.

During this time, I struggled not only to understand my experience, but to figure out the “right” thing to do. Finding myself in a place I never thought I’d be, everything seemed too big, too complicated. I couldn’t possibly take THIS one step at a time. I had responsibilities, obligations. Somehow, I had to come up with a plan, find some path to follow, figure out the destination. I spent a miserable few months trying to do just that, until a friend convinced me to do something that, by all accounts, seemed exactly the “right” thing to do. So I did that “right” thing… and everything grew worse. Much worse. Inside, I felt myself screaming and one day I stopped and listened. Really listened. Tears rolled down my face as I realized, she’s been screaming for years.

Suddenly, I knew I couldn’t ignore that screaming voice anymore. I knew I had to stop looking for the destination and start once more to listen to the voice whispering the next right step. Not the big picture, not the five year plan, just the next right step, trusting it to “bring me home.”

I am coming to believe that the destination is not mine to know. I am coming to believe I can only ever know the next right thing, and then the next, one right thing at a time. Not the next right thing for my husband, or my friends, or even my children, but the next right thing for myself. Step by step, day by day, moment by moment. God, The Universe, My Soul, The Holy Spirit, whatever I want to call It, this Higher Power knows about the people in my life and I am coming to believe that by doing the next right thing for me, I am also doing the next right thing for them.

I think I am beginning to understand what Joseph Campbell and John O’Donohue and (dare I say it?) Jesus meant when they spoke of the path as narrow and unseen. Where religion gives a map, The Spirit gives the next step, and only the next step. Should I choose to take it, there will be no one on the other side to cheer me, no one to tell me it’s all going to be okay. Religion gives a picture of the journey. The Spirit extends an empty canvas. And that is terrifying.

I once heard someone say the Universe is always trying to push us toward the direction of our own growth. If this is true, what is happening to me now makes sense in a way few things ever have. It’s as if a match has been lit to a kindling gathered to destroy the straw house religion and popular opinion had me build. My husband recently said he feels I’m not the same person I was when we got married. He’s right, I’m not. I am Phoenix, rising from the ashes.

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Posted in Criticism, Faith, Healing, Miscellaneous, Perfectionism, Victory Journal | 2 Comments

Newest Addition

Our cow had her first calf today (a little bull) and our oldest caught it on video…

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Till We Meet Again

Lisa opened her eyes and looked around her hospital bed. While she slept, the room had filled and for the first time, she saw the friends and family members gathered there. She arched a brow. “What brings you all here?”
Grief gave way to laughter, and those who loved her took a healing breath as Lisa did what she had always done, comforting those around her, easing their pain even as hers increased.
Lisa spent her last days connecting with everyone who came to see her, struggling to stay awake long enough to talk to each and every person. With labored breaths and broken words, my Aunt asked her friends about their families, about their jobs, about the things that were important to each of them. In her final moments, she told my brother to get his tires checked, reminded her sister to take care of their mother, asked that we all stop crying.
Lisa died as she had lived… caring for those around her, making others as comfortable as she could, loving each and every person with a love that had weathered countless storms and fostered life-long friendships. Those who loved her cared for her in return, traveling great distances to be there, spending every moment they could with her. They cooked, cleaned, and made sure she lacked for nothing. Lisa’s sister cared for her tirelessly, taking more on her shoulders than I think even she thought possible, exhibiting a strength I don’t think she knew she had. Lisa’s doctor, also one of her closest friends, came to see her multiple times a day, answering our questions, giving instructions, repressing her own grief in order to be strong for us. Her brother-in-law stayed up all night watching over her so the rest of us could sleep, her sister-in-law and cousins worked tirelessly to make the arrangements after her death, friends and family members crowded the house to help pack and move her things. So many people loved Lisa through this time, in so many ways, it is impossible to list them all. We stayed up late talking with and singing to her. We made plans for an empanada stand. We cried, and laughed, and comforted each other as best we could.
I never said goodbye to Lisa. I couldn’t bring myself to speak the words.
“Don’t say it,” she told me. “Say ‘till we meet again.’”
And so I did. And so I have. I have met Lisa in a sunrise over water, in the wagging tail of a dog, in the sound of a dove, in the faces of my family members, in the soothing words of her friends, in the arms of a loved one, in the care and kindness she nurtured and fostered in everyone she knew and loved. Lisa will never be gone as long as sunflowers stretch their faces to the sky and waves crash against the ocean shore. As long as incredible women love each other, and care for each other, and hold each other close. For this, I am truly thankful.

“Those we hold most dear never truly leave us… They live on in the kindness they showed, the comfort they shared and the love they brought into our lives.”
– Isabel Norton

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Swales

Jon and I have decided to try our hand at a permaculture system that involves planting many different varieties of plant and tree in and near swales, which we’ve dug in our front yard. It’s not pretty, but we’re hoping to get lots of produce from it, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberries, asparagus, radishes, varying types of lettuce, kale, spinach, carrots, and over 200 fruit and nut bearing trees. Can’t wait for everything to start growing!!! Here are a few pictures from today:

 

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Coming Home

Exactly one year ago, I wrote a post in which I mentioned the struggles I was having with Christianity, specifically my own pursuit of “correct doctrine.” For all my Christian life, I had believed that being a “good” Christian meant having the right opinions about the bible and believing the right things about God. After almost twenty years of living this way, making unimaginable sacrifices and horrible mistakes along the way, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t keep squeezing myself into the box that my church and my culture had assigned to me.  I couldn’t keep looking to everyone and everything around me to determine what I should and should not do.  I couldn’t keep trying to be “good” and I couldn’t keep striving to be “right.”  So I decided to let go, as much as possible, of everything the church, my society, and the world around me had ever taught me about who I ought to be and what I ought to think and how I ought to act and I determined to travel – as much as possible, – my own path, doing everything I could to listen to that small, quiet voice deep inside that I’d ignored for so awfully long. 

One of the early and, in retrospect, most important things that happened to me during this time started with a simple question: “What does my heart love?” As I struggled to answer this question I soon realized that the only way I could do so truthfully was to list the things I USED to love – all the things that had brought me a deep sense of peace and joy when I was younger, before I got married, before I had children, before I became a “Christian.”

Eventually, I came to realize that somewhere along the path of my life, I had started taking on identities. At the age of fifteen, I left my mom to move in with my dad and decided I was going to be a “good daughter.” I set out to be respectful and kind and helpful and try as much as possible never to rock the boat. I decided I was going to be a “good student” and made straight-A’s throughout my high school years. When I met Jesus during my freshman year of college, I decided I was going to be a “good Christian” and so I began an almost 20 year journey that consisted mostly of the search for “correct doctrine.” I got married and began a 15 year struggle to be a “good wife.” Had children and did everything I could to be a “good mother.” And all along, as I layered one identity after another on top of myself, I got smaller and smaller and smaller. Until one day I realized that when faced with the question “what does your heart love” I couldn’t answer. Because I didn’t know.

I wrote that list of all the things I used to love and spent a year doing as many of the things on it as possible. I allowed myself to spend entire days in my bedroom, just reading or journaling or listening to music. I started to paint and sketch and draw again. I bought a horse and learned to ride (with varying degrees of success.)  I even climbed a tree (not nearly as much fun at 37 as it was three decades earlier.) As I started doing the things I loved, I found that I still loved (most of) them and also found new things to love along the way.  But more importantly, I also found my own voice, my own strength, my own wisdom. I found myself.  And it has set me free.

Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any predetermined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence… It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wildernesses of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making. If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. There are no general principles for this art of being. Yet the signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life. The senses are generous pathways that can bring you home.

– John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

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Wind in the Wilderness

“When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens… ‘disgusting,’ ‘ingrates,’ ‘pigs,’ ‘retard,’ ‘fag,’ ‘bitch,’ or other labels… we should immediately wonder, ‘is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?’ We must never tolerate dehumanization – the primary instrument of violence that has been used against mass groups of people recorded throughout history.” – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

I was thinking this statement over last night when I realized that it’s easy for me to get behind Brene’s words, as long as she’s talking about the marginalized, the minority and the oppressed. But I discovered that I felt differently about her statement when I replaced words like “aliens” and “fags” with words like “white-supremacist” “bigot” and “racist.” Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to recognize my own need to lay aside the labels. Because what we’re talking about here are not character flaws or states of being (after all, people CAN BE “disgusting” and others ARE, by definition, “aliens.”) What Brene is talking about here is how we USE those words to lump people into categories and reduce their humanity. And when I switch the words out I am forced to see that it happens on both sides. It happens inside of ME.

I began discussing this with a friend on facebook last night and some excellent questions were asked: “don’t some of those groups, like the ones marching in Charlottesville, DESERVE to be labeled?” and: “Are we just supposed to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the face of evil and become doormats?”

These are good questions, but if what Brene is telling us is true, there is a third option to consider: MOVING CLOSE. As Brene writes: “people are hard to hate close up.” We can choose to love the person behind the hate even when its hard, because people deserve to be loved and we deserve to be the kinds of people who love. This doesn’t mean we check our morality at the door. It means we find a way to connect while firmly holding our position and gently seeking to understand theirs better. Those who are filled with hate have things inside them that are difficult and disturbing… but that is not all they have inside of them. They have friends and family they love deeply, they have struggles and conflicts that are difficult and painful. When we label and dehumanize people – any people – we participate in the false dichotomy of “us” vs. “them.” This is a position that will lead us nowhere but further apart. A friend of mine likes to say that it’s a game that is rigged. The moment we start to play, we’ve already lost. In order to win, we must find a new game to play. Move closer. Moving close means being brave enough to walk through our own pain in order to understand theirs.

This is what we run up against as we consider this issue. How so-damn-hard it all is. How agonizing and upsetting and hopeless everything seems to be. But this is where it starts. We break the mold by breaking it within ourselves. We start the change by finding the strength to change ourselves. Others may never bend (although when faced with love and understanding, people usually do,) but WE can bend. And when we do, we become like the blades of grass which allow the wind to bend them, and in doing so, ensure the wind will never break them.

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