“Ugly” Beauty

When my daughter was young we visited a women’s monastery.  There was a young nun tending to the chickens.  By all cultural standards, she was not pretty.  Her face was broken out and scarred, she had thick glasses and braces.  Her dark eyebrows formed a solid line, giving the appearance of a heavy, furrowed brow.  However, she warmly invited my daughter to help feed the chickens.  They chatted and laughed like old friends and when they were finished, my daughter casually remarked to me, “I hope I can be as pretty as she is some day.”  Her statement stopped me dead in my tracks and pointed out my embarrassing and blaring inability to see true beauty.

I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty lately: not the Victoria’s Secret/Hollywood kind of beauty, or even the glowing sun setting over the mountains kind of beauty.  I’ve been mulling over the idea of true beauty…soul beauty.  This kind of beauty might outwardly appear revolting or undesirable at the very least.  But for those that have the eyes to see, it is the purest form of beauty, ignorant of age, race, gender or religion.

I have a lifelong friend who is a cancer survivor.  After she lost her hair and struggled and fought her way through chemo and radiation, her hair began to grow back.  Naturally, she was self-conscious, but as she was bathing one night, her little girl petted her head and offhandedly commented how much she loved her mom’s cute, tiny baby hairs.  Those little stubbles of hair growing out of a bald head were beautiful.  My dear friend in a weakened state of vulnerability was beautiful.  It just took someone with the eyes to see.

I have another friend who while walking toward an elevator got stuck behind a slow moving mother and her child with special needs.  The child walked abnormally, shuffle-shuffle-clap, shuffle-shuffle-clap.  The mother was trying to move her child along to allow people through and apologetically glanced back at my friend.  Before the mother had time to offer an apology, my friend enthusiastically exclaimed, “Look at your beautiful child! He’s clapping to the rhythm of his steps perfectly!”  The shocked mother admitted that this was indeed what he was doing.  A child finding his own rhythm was beautiful.  A mother trying to be sensitive not only to her child, but to those around her was beautiful.  It just took someone with the eyes to see.

In each of these cases, our well-intentioned society might try to “fix” that which is “ugly”…make-up and a wax job for the sweet nun, a wig for my friend with cancer, therapy for the child walking irregularly…thus allegedly beautifying each scenario.  But in doing so, we dictate what we think beauty SHOULD look like and lose sight of what true beauty actually is.  True beauty functions like a magnet.  Those who are unable to perceive it will be repelled and perhaps even repulsed.  But for those that have eyes to see, true beauty will attract, draw in, and connect people on a soul level.

I realize that I severely lack the eyes to see.  I feel sorrowful when I recognize how much of my own soul is uncultivated, wild, ugly even.  But in order to avoid hypocrisy, I must practice seeing the beauty in my own soul.  I must nourish what is good within me instead of dwelling on that which is lacking.  And like a novice photographer sharpening his eye for what will make a good photograph, perhaps my vision will become clearer, less muddled by the confines of society, more free to see what is true and pure, more grounded in that which is real.  May we all have the clarity of soul to see the true beauty that is found in the “ugly”.

 

Christmas Humility Comes Early

An “amusing” half-day in the life of a mom and a kid with Christmas anxiety

imagesWednesday December 21, 2016                                                                                                              

3:00 p.m.     Grayson gets in the car with an amazing bag of Christmas goodies from his teacher.

3:01 p.m.     He immediately gives everything away to his sister because “it’s stupid.”

3:02 p.m.     …and quickly takes half of it back because “it’s actually pretty cool.”

5:30-5:45 p.m.  A flurry of questions concerning what time we will have to leave to get to church, how long church will last, how long the drive will last to get to Christmas dinner destination, will we eat or open presents first, if we will open presents all at once or one at a time, if he can open Christmas presents alone in a room instead of with everyone, how we will get all the Christmas presents back to our house, etc…etc…etc…etc…etc…

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The Loathsome Hover Ball

8:30 p.m.       Grayson is allowed to open one early present after asking a mere 50 kajillion times.  He looks at the half-spherical soccer ball that lights up and gives the appearance of floating  (that I THOUGHT he would enjoy), somehow manages to clench his entire face almost completely shut, throws the ball on the ground 3 times all while jumping up and down and raging about how stupid it is and crying hysterically.  I’m simultaneously trying to hush the muffled laughter of four other children so things don’t entirely explode.

8:31 – 9:00  p.m.     A series of going down to his room to cool off and coming back several times eventually ends in him agreeing to practice the CORRECT way of graciously opening a present that you don’t like and keeping unkind thoughts “in your brain,” to which he adds upon the conclusion of our practice session, that next time, he will wait until he’s calm to tell them that they didn’t pick out a good present.  Sigh… I give him an “A” for effort (as I’m trying to keep the simultaneous exasperation and laughter “in my brain”).

9:02 p.m.          …aaaannnddd he  is fighting with his sister over who gets to play with the AWESOME soccer ball and trying to think of a good place to hide it where no one will be able to find it while he sleeps.

9:15 p.m.         Grayson decides to move all of his presents down to his room so that he can open them alone in the dark in peace and quiet.

9:16 p.m.         He decides that upstairs is actually better and returns them all to their spot under the tree.

9:45 p.m.        He is sleeping!!!  Husband and I giggle and plan next year’s holiday game – everyone has to act like Grayson when they open their worst present.  Grayson opening “bad” presents is rapidly becoming an annual tradition that we have learned to find a certain amount of humor and endearment in.

9:50 p.m.        Mom labels presents from #1-7, worst to best, so that he will know what to expect and wraps a jar of pickles to practice on in the morning.

Thursday

5:33 a.m.          I am awakened to thunderous footsteps tearing through the house and a breathless child excitedly telling me that he opened another present but don’t worry it was an electric toothbrush that clearly wasn’t for him because it was dumb (it was for him).  I tell him I don’t care if he opens all of his presents.  I want to sleep.  Leave me alone.

5:34 a.m.       He is back to tell me that he won’t open any more presents and maybe I should hide them…just in case.  I tell him in the most patient words I can muster to get out and never come back.

5:35 a.m.       He’s back again.  He wants to know what he should do with the toothbrush.  I’m getting up as I can see that this sleeping thing is clearly not going to work for me.

5:36 a.m.       I’m stumbling (literally) to get coffee and explain my disappointment… “I like to watch you open presents…Daddy isn’t even here…I’m going to have to keep all your presents in my room so you don’t do this again.”  Grayson looks at me with his eyes filling up with tears, his chin starting to quiver and explains to me in a cracking voice, “I just wanted to practice so I could do a better job at opening my presents.”

5:37 a.m.        All of my irritability and sleepiness drain through a single tear trailing down my cheek.  I shut my mouth and stop explaining and start listening.  As hard as it is for me, it’s harder for him.  I hug him and tell him, “Good job.  I’m proud of you.”   Thank God for my early Christmas gift  – a dose of humility and a reminder to slow down and sit with him in his world.

You Are Enough.

13323703_1046851035408719_7118944347292993062_oTo my new friend…and for anyone else who is struggling to feel that they are “enough…”

I can see you have a hard time recognizing the beautiful person you are and all of the wonderful things that you do.  I shared that until you are able to see for yourself how amazing you are, you would have to learn to trust those who best know you.  I realize that I just met you and don’t yet qualify for that role.  But I have been where you are and my heart hurts because I understand how you feel.

You approached me because of our shared struggle in raising special needs kids.  My impression of you right off was that you live with gratitude (you didn’t have to come up to me to say thank you), and you are courageous (for being vulnerable with someone you just met).  I quickly realized that you are exceptionally amazing because you willingly chose to bring two struggling children (that are not yours by birth) into your practically empty-nest home.  I don’t know if you recognize the magnitude of this choice.  It doesn’t matter if you have been scared or have second guessed yourself…you willingly exchanged your life for theirs and there is no greater love than this.

And forgive me, but I Facebook stalked you tonight.  I looked at your pictures and I didn’t see irritability or failure or anything else that you mentioned.  What I did see was a strong woman fighting to give two children a normal life; children that would have otherwise been lost to the proverbial system.  I saw two children living in a house surrounded with beautifully tended flowers and attending church in a loving community.  I saw birthday parties, extravagant school projects, Halloween costumes…all things that these children would never know without you.  I saw your beautiful smile in many pictures.  How many forgotten children never receive a genuine smile?  Do you realize what normalcy, consistency and safety you are giving to these kids?

Of course I know that there is more to meet the eye than what is portrayed on social media.  I know that you rage and cry and scream and want to drive off in your car and never look back.  But I also know WHY you feel this way.  It is NOT because of who YOU are.  It is because of the situation you are in and the ways you are being stretched and pushed beyond your capacity.  You are strong day in and day out.  You can’t even truly rest while you sleep because of the dreams and nightmares.  You are trying to love two children as your own, even though you missed out on the essential bonding years of infancy.  Not only that, but you work full time!!  In my book, this certainly qualifies you for some kind of major award! 

I can see that you truly want the best for these kids.  You really love them.  But I can also see that you’re tired, you’re depleted and you’re running on fumes.  You are human and you have a limited amount of time and energy.  So you have to, for everyone’s sake, eliminate all the needless junk in your life.  By this, I mean get rid of the self-imposed guilt.  Expel the hovering, vicious thoughts telling you that you’re failing.  And especially, eliminate (as you are able) all of the self-doubt that pushes you to believe that you’re not good enough, patient enough, loving enough, whatever enough.  You are you and that is enough.  At the end of every day you are empty.  This is because you have given everything so that they might want for nothing .  It will never feel like enough because they are bottomless pits at this point (regarding their neediness).  But with time, maybe their special needs will be less because of the backbreaking work you are putting forth now. 

Above all, try to look at yourself and everything around you with soft eyes.  Pursue beauty and that which feeds your soul.  Your face lit up when you talked about books…maybe you could make yourself a cozy reading niche?  Perhaps gardening or photography are undiscovered talents?  Regardless, figure out how to love, cherish, and respect yourself.  It is not selfish…it is survival.  Celebrate the small things, turn your morning coffee into a  sacred ritual.  Give yourself permission to sit and do nothing without judgment.  Fight for joy and pray for the eyes to see light and beauty. 

quotes_creator_20161219_090518And though I don’t know you well, know that I love you.  We are connected through our struggles and sufferings and I understand.  I understand that you sometimes feel trapped in your own life.  I recognize that you constantly feel as if you are on the verge of a mental breakdown and I am all too acutely aware of the guilt that has become your constant unwanted companion.  But I also see that you are strong enough.  You will have to work hard at resting, strive to surround yourself with love, and be a continual advocate for yourself and your family.  But I know that you can do it.  Hang in there and believe me when I say that you are amazing.  Good strength!

The Nakedness of Suffering

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The Prodigal by Emile Salome

Our little town prematurely lost a teenager to suicide yesterday.  Everyone is feeling the weight of something like this happening so close to home.   And the fact of the matter is that there are no words to offer, nothing to be said that can alleviate or comfort anyone who is truly suffering.  Suffering is pure blackness.  It is a deep, dark pit with room for only one.  Meals can be made, words of consolation spoken, but at the end of the day, no one can help carry the pain.  No one can make time pass more quickly.  The only way through suffering is right down the middle…there is no bypass.

However for those standing on the outside looking in, tragedy and suffering act like a flash forest fire.  In an instant, everything superfluous gets burned away like dross.  We are stripped of all pretenses and become aware of our mortality, the shortness of life and what we are living for that truly matters. We become painstakingly aware of how our priorities have gotten off-kilter, how busyness is running our life, and how unappreciative we have become.  We see with clarity (if only temporarily) what is important in life.

In other countries where monasteries still play a major part in daily life, the first thing that a monk often does is to dig the grave that he will one day be buried in.  This is not due to a morbid fascination with death, but rather as a reminder to live well so as to be prepared for death. What would life look like if we could preserve the somberness, the softness and the vulnerability of suffering?  What if we could more consistently expose our weaknesses, our pain and our naked self without fear of condemnation?  What if we all dared to live a more authentic life?

There is nothing that will lighten the load of the tragedy that has taken place.  Nothing will comfort a grieving mother struggling to survive her first day without her son.  But perhaps through our response, we can redeem what has been lost and live longer in this gift that suffering has to offer.  Love and prayers for anyone who is suffering today…

 

The New Man in My Life

There is a strange new man living in my house.  He is tall, dark and handsome.  Apparently, he is also extremely smart.  He’s always brandishing this alleged intelligence and for some odd reason, constantly feels the need to remind me of his self-proclaimed autonomy.  But it’s ironic…although he can drive a car, he can’t make a sandwich.  And even though he’s able to decode insane chemistry equations, he looks at me like I’m speaking in Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice if I ask him to clean his room.  This same “man,” who I am barely allowed to touch, also crawls into my room at 4 a.m. asking me if I have any medicine for his “tummy-ache.”

This paradoxical way of living is making me a little insane.  If I relied on his feedback at all, I might be a bit schizophrenic and (only) slightly insulted.  I have been told I’m a dictator, a crazy woman, completely irrational, and even a crack-addict!  The unfortunate thing is, I’m not even sure that I completely disagree.  Sometimes I feel like the wicked queen, wanting to wave my wand and banish him from my kingdom forever.  Other days I feel psychotic, like I could literally strangle the life out of him that I imparted 16 years ago.  At times, I cry, mourning the loss of childhood and sweet innocence.  And on rare occasions, my sanity returns to me (if only briefly) and I am able to look into his eyes and see my child.  I see his fears and struggles, his pain and insecurities, his dreams and failures.  In an instant, he becomes a mirror to me and I am laid bare before my fears and struggles, my pain and insecurities, my dreams and failures.  I am amazed and humbled as I realize that even though it seems that he is fighting against me, in reality, we are fighting together…fighting for his personhood, his character, his soul.

This stage of his life can only be likened to a second birth.  Many days, I feel as though it is one big, fat, long contraction…sweating and toiling, but painful and very seemingly unproductive. But this time, I am not laboring to bring forth a child, I am laboring with my whole heart and soul to bring forth a fully grown man: a man who is loving and appreciative, respectful and kind, hard working and moral. This is not an easy task in today’s world.  So to get through the labor pains, I keep before me the hopeful glimpses into his heart…images of him on the river, hunting with his dad and brother, the amazing photographs he takes, his hidden self-reflective side…and I find my hope that one day, the hard work will be over and standing before me will be an exceptional human being.  Lord willing, we will be able to look back and laugh together at these days and what he has put us through.

43810047-young-woman-eating-popcorn-while-watching-tv-isolated-on-white-backgroundAnd then…when time has passed and he’s grown and married and fathers my first sweet grand-baby, I will pull up my chair and popcorn and eagerly await for the arrival of my dear friend Karma!

 

Autism, Judgment, and Love

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“Levitating” with a shovel implanted in the ground

I am the mother of an 11-year-old boy with a diagnosis of autism and a love for magic, levitating, yo-yo’s and recreating things he’s seen on YouTube.  He makes me laugh and cry harder than any of my other children.  Over the years I have grown pretty thick skin.  I rarely notice the stares if he loses it in public.  I am mostly used to the judgment.  I have been told by a stranger at Costco that I should have left him at home when he pushed his sister.  He has been nudged by the boot of an unknown man and told to “mind his mother” when he was pitching a fit on the floor.  When I locked him out of my car in the parking lot of a mall because he was hitting me, the woman in the car facing mine took off her sunglasses to glare and shake her head at me (I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear).  To be certain, I am not impervious to these occurrences, but they have become a part of life to some degree; my new normal if you will.

But what I cannot handle, what absolutely dissolves my resolve and shakes me to the core is when someone shows me kindness.  Heaven help us all if a stranger stops and asks if I’m alright or if I need help, or even worse, tells me I’m doing a wonderful job as a mother.  I might actually drop and shed every last tear in my body.  I can be strong and keep a stiff upper lip.  But look at me with concern on a bad day and ask how I’m doing, and you might literally witness my complete and utter undoing.

There are many things in life that I do not know.  But the one thing I do know is this: impulsive judgment without understanding gives rise to anger and bitterness.  It builds walls and leads to retreat or retaliation.  Love however, can undo and rebuild in one swift movement.  It can pluck you out of your small world and drop you into the foreign land of another’s struggles.  In a world confused by what color lives matter,  who can use what restroom, and which politician will cause the end of the world, if we do not respond with love, we will leave only emotional casualties behind.

Consequently, when we find ourselves on the receiving end of unfair judgment, we are left with a choice. We can wallow in the pain, playing the part of a victim.  Or we can choose to release ourselves, and with gratitude, turn our focus to the goodness surrounding us.  We will see what we choose to see.  Even though I have, at times, been enraged by people’s cruelty, it cannot compare with the love that has humbled me over and over again.  I have seen my son bite his teacher and draw blood, and then watched them walk hand and hand into school.  Friends and family have searched for and then cooked meals that are free of the fifty billion allergens we avoid, just to give me a night off of cooking, or to make sure that my son has a special treat at family dinners.  Teachers at his school have given up their personal time so that my husband and I could get away for our anniversary.  I have received phone calls from school because one of my other children had unbeknownst to me, taken the needs of a physically disabled student upon himself, and was carrying the child’s backpack to class every day.  My dad regularly drives an hour each way to take my son to a movie so that I might enjoy a quiet morning in church alone. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I have been on the receiving end of the unconditional love of my son.  No matter how many times I lose it, or become irritable with him, or feel like I’m going insane, he tells me every night at bedtime without fail, “Good night, I love you.  You’re special to me.  I think about you in my heart.  I think about you in my peace.”  I don’t really even know what it means, but it’s beautiful.  Some nights, I brush over it, because I’m just so excited for him to go to bed.  But when I stop and think about it, I can’t really think of anything nicer that anyone has ever said to me.  And once again, I am undone.  Love has overcome the anger and frustration of the day and released me one more time from the snare of judgment (me toward myself this time).  I settle in for the night and fall asleep with the words of Mother Teresa in my heart, “Not all of us can do great things.  But we can do small things with great love.”

 

Reading Color

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Today I met the most amazing man.  He is an older gentleman from Greece and he writes (draws) icons for Orthodox churches. He was sweet and funny but what I found fascinating was his ability to see color.  Now anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit obsessed with color. I love the undertones, the way they change from wall to wall, from day to night. I love colors that look blue and gray and green all at once, to where you almost don’t know what color you’re looking at.  I would get a Ph.D. in color if there was such a thing!  This is very different than my husband, who when asked which paint swatch he likes best, responds with a shrug and says that they all look the same (bless his heart, as they say in the South).  But I digress…back to the iconographer. What amazed me about this man is that he not only can read color, he  knows how to MAKE it!  He can look at a color and know how much black and white and red and yellow and blue would be required to CREATE any color!  He knows what to add if it’s too dark or how much to add if it’s too light and what colors enhance the richness of others.  This might be silly but it honestly mesmerized me.  I’ve been thinking about it all day.  What talent and skill!

soulAnd so I have come to this thought tonight…what if we could look at people the way that this artist looks at color?  What if we could have insight into the creation of their personhood, how they became who they are…their ups and downs, sorrows and joys, the moments that have either broken or resurrected them, what they currently long for?  What if we could discern exactly what “color” to add to enhance other’s lives and beautify their existence?  How much more patient and compassionate would we all become?  What if we could learn to look at OURSELVES this way?!  What if today, instead of seeing my irritability and the dishes and the messes and everything that feels like a failure, what if I could look at myself like a color, complex with constantly changing undertones, drastically different in the morning light, but beautiful nonetheless.

But alas, my eye is not quite as developed as this skilled artisan.  I still see only in tones and shadows.  I do not look deep enough or close enough.  The late author Jonathan Swift writes that, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  Oh, that I might have the eyes to see that which remains hidden in every person, and the knowledge of what to add so that fullness of color might be achieved.   Perhaps over the course of my life, I will hone my skill and attain proficiency.  In the meantime, I will remain restlessly content to aspire to those who have inspired.

The Beautiful Life

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The ancient Greek philosophers stated that there were three prime virtues: goodness, truth and beauty. Most individuals would readily affirm this statement and even proclaim that they are trying to live a good and honest life. But how many would honestly be able to say that they are actively pursuing a beautiful life? As humans with souls, we understand this to mean that we not only live our spiritual life in a beautiful way, but also our corporeal, tangible and every day life. This ideally means that we are to physically beautify everything we come in contact with, be it a person (ourselves included), a meal, our home, our workplace, or city of residence.  Now this can seem like quite a tall order, especially in this busy, stressed-out, frantic culture that we live in. It can become another checkmark on our to-do list as opposed to an organic way of living an aesthetic life.

In order to move forward in addressing the creation of beauty, we must first acknowledge the problems that are so often evident in our American culture.  In my opinion, the primary issue is that we have traded the art of beauty for pragmatism (what is useful) and efficiency (does it get the job done). For example, our American churches resemble nothing of the old grandeur once delegated to places of worship. They unfortunately blend in, even in industrial parks. As an amusing, but not funny side note, we were driving by a local church with one of our children’s friends. He asked what store it was and when we told him that it was a church, he quite wisely stated, “It doesn’t look like one.” Even children seem to inherently realize the need for beauty. A secondary problem is that people often equate the pursuit of beauty to selfishness or the pursuit of vanity. Nothing could in fact be further from the truth. Pure beauty blesses all that come in contact with it. One final observation is that is for the most part, we have forgotten or perhaps have never even identified that which we love. The classic childhood question asks, “What is your favorite color?” As adults we think this is silly and quickly brush it off. But why can we no longer answer this question? Why do we not have favorite colors, favorite smells, favorite foods, favorite flowers? And if we do, why do we not routinely surround ourselves with them? Why must life become gray with age? If we will learn to fall in love with our physical and natural  and yes, even man-made surroundings, I daresay we will discover a new level of joy and delight in the world around us.

Moving from the philosophical to the practical, how does this apply to everyday life? When I am working with clients in their homes, I use only one rule: they must love anything and everything that is brought into their home. Statements like, “This would be ok” or “This might work,” are problematic, in that people are looking to external criteria to define their tastes. True beauty must have its roots in love. It should be emotionally evocative. Think of watching a Colorado sunset. In one moment, all five senses can quite literally feel and absorb true beauty. It is in fact these five senses that provide an ideal framework with which to recreate beauty. With the holidays upon us, let us consider how this might be achieved. Visually, you could make your house sparkle by adding different forms of lighting…fire tipped, dripping candles of multiple heights and colors on a tray; twinkling rope lighting on a ledge; even by installing a dimmer to a dining room chandelier. The tactile dimension could be established with the use of soft, fuzzy blankets draped over a favorite chair by a lit fire; Christmas carols in the background could provide an audible contribution and the smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven would wrap it all up. The creation of beauty is much more comprehensive than simply making something look nice. It is more about creating the feeling of beauty. Our understanding of what is beautiful is far too often reduced to only that which can be seen by the eye. It is much more properly understood in the integration of all senses.

In further examples, light a fragrant candle on an ordinary day while cleaning with your favorite music playing in background. Buy fresh flowers for no particular reason. Fix an unexpected dinner served on fancy china; don’t wait for that special occasion. Buy plush and inviting pillows instead of scratchy, “pretty” ones. And then, you will realize as the Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker states that, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.” And from there, as Dostoevsky states, “Beauty will save the world.”