April 2018

Thursday, October 1, 2015


In the last two weeks, two different women who are residents at the assisted living center where I'm doing an internship have told me I'm pretty. One repeated the compliment several times (because I asked her to. I'm not proud. I told her she was my favorite person that day.)

I'd guess these women are in their late 70s, so you might quip that they don't see so well now. So be it. Strangers have not told me I'm pretty in a long time. I'm guessing that's partly because I'm over 50, and partly because since neurosurgery my eyes are crossed, part of my face doesn't work, and I walk with a cane (like I've injured my leg instead of my brain.)

I didn't think I've missed being told I'm pretty, but the joy I felt in their compliments make me think that maybe I have.

I went through a few beauty queen years when I was around 20. This was an odd time. Guys would stop in their tracks, apparently stunned, to comment on how beautiful I was. They'd say this to me as if I were a statue, not necessarily trying to pick me up but stating the truth as they saw it. Once a guy in the car next to me at a stoplight started taking my photo. Another time a drunk girl in a New York City club's bathroom yelled at me because she said I was so beautiful that I didn't need make-up, so she hated me (an odd compliment). Another guy asked me, "Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Katharine Hepburn?" (He said that in front of his friends and got a lot of grief for it but seemed to manage the ribbing.) I made friends easily and sometimes intimidated people. All because people thought I was pretty.

Those beauty queen years followed my ugly duckling years, so I found the positive attention odd. I was not a perpetual beauty like my sister and my mother, so I was unused to such attention: for some years I was bullied by the popular ring leader in school, sometimes didn't have dates to dances, and found it hard to make friends in middle school. How odd that making friends was so hard when I was an ugly duckling and became so easy once people thought of me as pretty.

The experience made me wary of people who seemed to like me before they knew me, and slightly cautious about the depth of friendship and attraction.

It's been easier in my middle years not to stand out as either pretty or ugly, and I feel a middle-aged confidence in the depths of my friendships and relationships now.

For example, my partner Ann and I went to the beach with our dear friend Ellen last week. My connection with Ellen is deeper than pretty: Ellen is funny, wise, and remarkably compassionate. Ellen is the person Ann called to be with us at the hospital after I was in a nasty car accident. (I wasn't hurt, but we weren't sure about that yet.) Ellen has been helping me find places to learn what I want to learn about working with people who are hurt using writing and reading. Ellen often sends me excellent poems. Ellen loves to shop in thrift stores. She's not fancy. She's just solid.

The three of us had fun being easily together over the weekend. We played games (and I won most of the time, which was excellent). We walked on the beach, admiring the kites and scowling at those who drove their cars on the sand. We admired the kites on the beach and those at the International Kite Museum. Ellen cooked dinner one night, Ann another, and we went out a third. Two nights we went to Scoopers for ice-cream, a delicacy that Ellen and I love and Ann accepts. (If you're at Long Beach, WA, go to Scoopers. They have 48 flavors, so you'll find a flavor you like. They give big scoops and the ice-cream's creamy.) We loved the ice-cream (one of the scoopers was wearing a shirt like my favorite hat when I was growing up: "I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice-cream." She didn't have sunglasses in her tee-shirt like the ones in my bucket hat, which could come down over my face, so she wasn't quite as cool.)

Before we walked on the beach the first time, Ellen said I could use her sunscreen because she had brought a lot, and I had forgotten mine. When she came out of her room, however, she couldn't rub the sunscreen in, so it gooped on her face. Turns out it was glue. We laughed, and were glad that she and I hadn't walked into the wind and the sand with glue on our faces.

So maybe I'm not pretty anymore. Maybe I'm pretty in a new way. It doesn't seem to matter much anymore. Friendship and love matter more now in a way that I had yearned for in those odd years of being beauty or beast. I'm so lucky to have so many good friends now, and to have a few from my past, both my ugly duckling days and my beauty queen days, still with me. 

Earlier this week, at the poetry club I host at an assisted living center, the five elders who were there and I read "Ode on a Grecian Urn" together. The poet, John Keats, concludes a lot of fretting about time and immortality by saying, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. / That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know."

Perhaps I love poets not because they look for beauty but because they see it all around them, in leaves that are green or golden or falling.

Now in my golden years, I feel lucky to experience beauty that's deeper than pretty. I experience beauty in Ann and friends and family; I experience beauty in the kindnesses of elders; I experience beauty in the gift of every moment.

As the same poet, Keats, reflects in his "Ode to Autumn," he (and we) should "think not" of summer's losses but recognize that autumn has its own music.

In this autumn of my life, I feel so grateful for so much beauty all around and in us. In this way for me, my brain tumors and aging have been gifts that continue to make me pause like those boys did during my beauty queen years just to marvel at how lovely living is.

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