THIS POST IS STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION – and so am I.
This post was due last Monday, as part of a blogging project launched by Susannah Conway, to celebrate her 41st birthday. I had plenty of time to write it. In fact, I started writing it the moment I received Susannah’s invitation. I knew just what I wanted to say – and what I’d call it: Finally Becoming Beautiful.
Writing it would be easy – a welcome pause in the middle of the perfect storm of breakdown and breakthrough which had been constellating around me for months.
My soul had other plans for this blog post.
Like most everything else in my life right now, it would quickly become a lens through which I could examine the emerging patterns of the flow of power in my life – and whatever bright (or dark) truth is trying to resolve itself in me.
A truth that would turn out to be ALL about beauty and aging – but also vulnerability, shame, courage and love.
Susannah’s invitation arrived at the perfect moment.
I’d just signed the papers placing my father on ‘Comfort Care’ at the nursing home. Now, if he developed infection, cancer or any other illness, doctors would let things take their course, offering only palliative care, until he was gone. I’d signed the papers through tears, with Dad’s permission. Paralyzed from the neck down, he’s finally ready to consider letting go. But each time I visit him, I can see that he’s not letting go – he’s terrified.
My mother is talking about dying, too. You’re the only one I can talk with about this,” she says. “Everyone else just poo-poos me. They tell me, ‘You’re just depressed.’” This ‘everyone else’ is my mother’s best friend, who will be lost when my mother goes. She’s a doctor, and she’s been keeping Mom alive with a transfusion of her own energy for several years. Right now, though my weekly visits are ‘for mom’, I can see that they’re offering her friend the chance to unplug from my mother’s endless need. In this way, i do what I can.
To help me through this time, I’d returned to acupuncture and to yoga class. I also began exploring, with a shaman and a psychotherapist, the truth about what it was like to grow up as the eldest daughter of a mother with multiple personality disorder and a father with cerebral palsy.
When I saw the invitation for Brene Brown’s Life Class: The Gifts of Imperfection it looked like a light-filled, heart-opening fun fest. Then, Brene asked us to pull out the boxes of old photographs.
I don’t like looking at photographs of myself. In fact, whenever a friend would post a photo of me on Facebook, I’d cringe. No matter how dazzling the smile or how brilliant the composition, all I saw were the flaws – my flaws: Ugh.Why didn’t I put on some makeup? Look at the circles under my eyes, the bumpy nose, the silly haircut. Why can’t I get it together?
I had no idea I was saying these things to myself. They flowed through my mind unattended, a polluted underground stream. The cringe was habitual – it arrived before the camera shutter was snapped and after I saw the results. I just never look good in photos, I’d sigh.
Now and then, someone would catch me off guard and snap an image that offered a glimmer of how I could look, how I might look if I were really beautiful.
For a while, I tried to figure out the strange magic of how to pose – studying the way a model (or a pretty friend) was holding her body in a photo (leaning in), how she’ d positioned their head (slightly cocked, chin up), how she smiled (big and toothy). My sister, Jenny, taught me at one of our Thanksgiving gatherings, to grin as widely as possible and look straight into the camera. That helped but not much.
I was 35(ish) when, while looking through a family album, I came across a series of photographs my husband and I had commissioned as an anniversary gift to ourselves.
The photographer was a dear and trusted friend. We’d loosened up a bit with wine. Plus, I’d just found out I was pregnant – a fact so joy-bursting that it made my skin glow from the inside. Yet, somehow, even then, the photo shoot was awkward and difficult.
Ugh, I slammed the book closed. I hate those photos.
Any other day, this would have sent me straight to the kitchen. Whipped cream and chocolate mousse. Potato chips and a glass of red wine. These things helped me feel better. But for some reason, I did something different: I reopened the cover of the photo album and looked again.
(I know it may not seem that way but this was a fierce act of courage.)
Wow! realized. This is a lovely photo. My husband is looking at me with such love and playfulness. and you know what… I used to be kind of … beautiful. How did I miss that?
And then: This is becoming obsessive. It’s self-absorbed and shallow – and completely un-spiritual. But of course, you wouldn’t know that – you never went to church and you don’t follow through and you haven’t got a masters in comparative religion and …
What the… ?
This new litany of self-criticism stopped me cold. I didn’t believe any of it – and yet, it had me upset and agitated. No one – no parent or teacher had ever spoken to me that way. Where was this voice coming from?
I began to argue with it. That’s not nice, I told myself. But then, wait a minute! I suddenly realized: There’s a voice in my head – a voice that another part of me can argue with!
The next moment: You’ll never figure this out. And anyway, who cares? This is stupid.
Clearly this voice didn’t like being looked at. But for the first time in my life, I kept looking. I wasn’t afraid of the voice – I was amazed by it.
While I was looking, I noticed a few things about the voice. First, I was certain the voice wasn’t me – and it wasn’t an angel or demon or the voice of God. But it was a part of me- a part that was starving for attention – my attention and, somehow, I just knew this
It would be dishonest to say that all of this awareness arrived at once. It would take years for me to really get to know the particular energetic signature that was this voice. But I did get to know it – and when I did, when I turned my attention toward it, it began to teach me.
It showed me that this aspect of the MIND is terrified of silence – that’s why it talks so much. It’s afraid that in silence, there is ‘nothing’, a great emptiness into which I could fall, undefended, unprotected into eternal separation. Which would be pretty terrifying – if it were true.
But it’s not true – the voice taught me that. It led me to the secret rooms where it had stored all my old hurts:
- “Your feet are deformed – you’ll never be a ballerina.”
- “You’re not pretty enough to get that boy (a football player) to like you.”
- “You’re not popular enough to make the kick squad.”
And the deeper hurts, on which these things were standing.
- “There’s something wrong with your father – and you look just like him. Therefore, you are bent and … not pretty, too. “
- “There’s something wrong with your mother - and you sound just like her. Therefore, you are awkward and weird and internally broken to pieces, too.”
The voice and I stood together and brought these things to light. Together, offering comfort and reassurance to one another, we walked right up to these terrifying edges and looked at them again.
In the process, we discovered the real truth: that by shielding me from these devastating ‘truths’, my scared inner voice was holding me separate me from the empowering truth of who I really am.
So, sure, my father’s face twisted, his hands shook, and his body was bent. But when I rejected what was imperfect about my father (in myself) I held myself apart from the gifts he’d also given to me: the wisdom and insight that he brought to his work as a social worker, the sense of humor and the never-give-up-hope attitude that helped him keep going – from early childhood, when doctors told his parents to institutionalize him, through high school and college, where he ran track. The same qualities that were keeping his spirits up now, in the nursing home.
And sure, my mother was shy – and she stuttered and she wrestled with the demons of her own mind. Yet, if I rejected what was imperfect in my mother (in myself) I’d lose touch with the gifts she’d given to me: the photographic memory and gift of imagery, the artistic talent, the spritely light-heartedness that makes it possible for her, still, to laugh at her situation – and the radiant beauty of her heart.
I was working with all of this when Brene Brown asked us to find two photos of ourselves and whisper supportive things to them.
I chose the photos, shown here – one, taken during my second year of college; the other, taken last month at Dad’s nursing home.
I was composing my whispers when I heard the ping of my email inbox, Susannah’s invitation had arrived.
…. Funny how that happens. Funny how the soul arranges these constellations of awakening. Funny how, as soul questions arise and open around you, they open holographically, touching every part of your life.
I picked up my pen, thinking: I know just what I’ll write about: Finally becoming beautiful.
Then, in another act of fierce courage, I looked into the eyes of the woman I once was and the woman I’ve recently become, and I began whispering.
Susannah Conway has put together a beautiful collection of all the posts we wrote. You can download it here or go to Susannah’s beautiful post where she links to all of the bloggers who participated in this project