Pretty and Witty and Bright!

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Women are killing it in 2018. Killing it. Though we still haven’t completely leveled the playing field, it’s getting closer. Oprah at the Oscars, “Wonder Woman,” and the #MeToo movement which resulted in the Silence Breakers being named as Time Magazine’s most recent Person of the Year have been highlights. On a personal level, I am finishing two book drafts- those are major accomplishments for me.

And on the fun front,  I got to see “I Feel Pretty” just this week, and I loved it. Before the movie started, women and only women (most at least 30 years old- the humor is probably only funny for those of us who have lived a little. The marketers knew their audience, the first glimpse I got of the movie was on Pinterest) got comfy and ordered lunch while watching a preshow of Amy Schumer highlights: clips from “Trainwreck” and “Snatched” were interspersed with her comedy shorts. The movie trailers were for “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” “Ocean’s 8,” and the “Mamma Mia” musical sequel. All films about women who make us laugh. “I Feel Pretty” made me laugh. A lot. It also made me cry.

“I am beautiful.”

“Am I beautiful?”

“I’m not beautiful.”

That’s the progression for so many women. When we are little girls, we don’t doubt it. We play dress up in our mom’s heels, smearing lipstick on our faces and striking poses for photos. We throw on a pair of shorts or a swimsuit for play without a second thought about our bodies. But it changes somewhere along the way, doesn’t it? At least, for a lot of us. Some charmed angels manage to stay whatever society says beautiful is all the way through childhood and adolescence- shiny hair, clear skin, thin. But most of us go through some awkwardness, and that’s where our hearts and psyches stay.

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And so we meet Renee Bennett, Amy Schumer’s beleaguered Millenial in the new release “I Feel Pretty.” She’s watching a YouTube tutorial, trying to recreate a “faux-hawk” hairdo. It’s not going great. And she gives herself a long, long look in the mirror. It made me tear up, and here’s why: without speaking one word, I saw in her eyes exactly what she was saying. Because I say it to myself on a daily basis:

Not pretty enough. Not thin enough. Not enough, not enough, not enough.

To see her undress and take in her reflection after being fat-shamed into leaving a clothing boutique was, to be honest, gut wrenching. I teared up again here. Every time she looks in a mirror her shame radiates. Until the magic moment when it doesn’t. In a moment that is an acknowledged meta nod to the Tom Hanks gem “Big,” Renee bonks her head in a fall off the bike in her Soul Cycle class and wakes up completely convinced that she is fantastically gorgeous. And she is- but the trick is that nothing actually changed. She is the exact same person, but instead of an inner monologue of self shaming, she caresses her size ten legs and declares them perfect. It is her perception that has changed, not her actual appearance, though she doesn’t know it.

We watch what happens when this seemingly average, thicker girl owns her own beauty. She rules. And she falls in love. She makes courageous choices.

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I feel charming
Oh, so charming
It’s alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I’m real!- Maria, “West Side Story”

Make no mistake- this film is not “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” It’s not going to be nominated for any Oscars. Schumer is not a Streep-level actress. But she’s funny. Really, really funny and fearless. The bikini contest scene was uproarious- the theater was rocking at that point. Watching Michelle Williams, who is an Oscar nominated actress, play against type was utter joy. I fell a little in love with Rory Scovel, who played a slightly bewildered and really sweet love interest. Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips are the trusted sidekicks. I was so relieved that Aidy’s size was never mentioned. Not once. Not even as they created a triple-threat online dating profile. The audience that I watched with was completely female, and the laughs were loud and frequent, grounded in the reality that so many of us have lived: the magazines may not see us as goddesses, but that’s okay. We are goddesses even without their permission.

The Dove company did a really great campaign not too long ago, its message was just that- it’s how we see and define our own selves that matters. They did a hidden camera video of women who had to choose between two doors to enter a building: one labeled “Average” and one labeled “Beautiful.” I cried when I saw it. I cry to even think of it. Because almost no women chose the beautiful door. Their faces fell, in fact, as they made the choice. Heads hung as they walked in. Why do we do that to ourselves?

“I Feel Pretty” matters. It really does. It reinforces, it shouts, the truth that we are all beautiful. We all struggle with romantic relationships, friendships, and careers. Yet we are all pretty- fat, thin, tall, short, chic, basic, brown, white. Oscar trophies? No. Big laughs and happier ladies? Hell yes.

Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

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This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

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And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

How Do I Love Thee?

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Two nights ago, after a particularly devastating episode of “This is Us” (who am I kidding…nearly every episode is devastating when you’re either: child of an addict, recovering addict, married to recovering addict, estranged from a child, watching your daughter divorce, adjusting to the empty nest, a singer whose voice is in her past, struggling with body dysmorphia…), my sweet husband, who was sitting on the floor with our beagle, looked up at me with the most woeful, teary eyes. I climbed onto the floor and into his lap and we just cuddled and comforted. And with my arms wrapped around him, I wondered: Why? Why do I love him so? Why does he love me? Why? And not for the first time, I settled on this answer. Who cares why? It’s enough to know its truth.

We have, at times, even asked each other, “Why do you love me?” It’s an unanswerable question. This morning, I was listening to SuperSoul, and Pastor A.R. Bernard said that when we love each other for no reason- that’s unconditional love.

I mean sure, I can make a list of things I love about my husband. I love his laugh, his blue eyes, his easy access to deep and profound thought, his capacity for peace-keeping, his legs. I love the kind of father he is. I love how he wants to protect me from harm, whether it’s an advancing category five hurricane or a work colleague who is showing me something less than respect.

But why do I love him? I just…do.

I guess it’s what bothers me about making lists of why we love someone. This last Valentine’s Day, I saw one of those social media posts that tells you how to be a good parent. And you would put all these cut out hearts on your kid’s door with the reasons why you love them (specifically it said that, not “things you love about them”). And one of the hearts said along the lines of “You play basketball well.” And I thought…If I am a kid whose well-meaning mom said she loved me because I played basketball well, what would happen if I couldn’t play any more? What would happen if I couldn’t play well anymore? Kids want to know that they’re loved. Just because. Same with spouses. Just because.

Someday, my husband’s brain will be less sharp. His laugh will be creaky. His legs will be veiny. I know I won’t care.

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Elizabeth Barret Browning put it so perfectly in her famous sonnet, in which she enumerates the ways, not the whys of her love:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Truest, deepest love doesn’t have a reason. It just is.

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