“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”.

 

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!

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.”

 

Mundane Motherhood

I remember I broke down in tears after I gave birth naturally to my first child.  I had worked so hard and had been so strong that the tears of relief literally came rolling down my face.  Today, I look at my boys. We are well into teenage years and even though the hardest years might yet remain, I could almost cry in relief because those early years were just. so. much.  To all of you moms with young kids and babies… now that I’m on the other side and have regained (some) sense of sanity, know that you are amazing. You pick up the same toys day in and day out. You hold the hand of a new walker and let them go up and down the stairs fifty billion times. You listen to the same incessant chatter and even though you feel like you might lose your mind, you smile and encourage the novice talker.  You sit and endlessly keep a drawer from shutting on their little fingers just so they can learn how to open and close.  You have the strength to get through the mundane, the love and loyalty of a mother bear, and the patience of a saint. The bad thing is, you don’t feel like it. You end so many days feeling like a failure, like you did nothing worthwhile, like nothing got accomplished.  All I can say after being a stay at home mom for fifteen years so far, is that everything will one day be worth it. You’ll see a picture of your teenage boys sleeping in a truck after a long hunting weekend and every little mundane task, and every never ending day will be so, so worth it.  Give yourself room to acknowledge that you have a very. hard. job.  Respect yourself enough to take the time you need to regather, and love yourself enough to be kind.  The world can be cruel enough without your own self-condemnation.  I know that everyone says this, but you will blink and they will literally be grown.  But contrary to what others may say, I don’t find it sad or remorseful.  I find it beautiful.  I love seeing my kids grow into their own person.  I love having real, tough conversations with them.  I love seeing their passions and even their pains.  It all reminds me that as a mom, I have been allowed to co-create another life, another real, live, struggling person.  It is humbling beyond belief.  I know that I still have a very long way to go.  But for tonight, I can fall asleep believing in my heart that every seemingly pointless moment was all beyond worth it.

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.”