Saturday, February 20, 2016

Over My Head: Pretty

I was caught by this idea last fall, in the early days of treatment. I took photos to supplement the inevitable blog post--my phone helpfully documents that they were taken November 7. And while the drive to write about this has continued rummaging around in my head, digging through old boxes and making a mess, here we are months later. What big-name writer said that so much of writing happens before pen touches the page? Truth--but equally good for euphemistically disguising procrastination, fear of what's in those rummaged boxes.

I grew up on fairy tales, but very early--too early--in my childhood, I was gripped with a certainty that while I could play at it, I wasn't the main character because I wasn't beautiful. I don't have any crushing early memory that brought this on. No scabs to pick at here. I don't remember being upset by it--I wasn't upset that I didn't speak Spanish, either--it was a fact, to be known but not worth dwelling on.

By middle and high school, I had found my way to what I thought was a healthy place of understanding that real beauty was on the inside, that looks weren't everything, and the rest of the mantras. I learned to love the songs that made something of how the woman looked to just that one particular man who loved her. That was the key: to find that one boy who would see through all the layers of worldly unprettiness and see the charming girl underneath. A favorite movie musical of mine was West Side Story. "I feel pretty," Maria sings--lyrics that fit so well into the mythos: Why did she feel pretty? "For I'm loved by a pretty, wonderful boy."

I kept growing up, and came to a better adult place of seeing beauty, and seeing myself. I didn't stumble on some great truth; but over time, through little lessons here and there, small places of healing and shaking off the indoctrinations of the '90s, finding a happy place of self-image. I was beautiful in my way of being beautiful, like everyone else. I had made choices in high school and college--defiant, reactive choices--and now I began to unmake them. I had stopped wearing pinks and purples, had never been comfortable in skirts or makeup. As I grew I bought bright colors and high-heeled shoes, got over my fear of blinding myself with mascara. And I kept growing.

When I was diagnosed last year, sometime in the first couple days, someone said the word "chemo," and in quick succession I heard in my head its pair: "bald." I steeled myself--I remember choosing that word--purposefully, carefully steeling myself. I would be the strong woman, who did not need her hair to define her, who would not be shaken. But some of those middle school shadows jostled in forgotten boxes. I prayed and leaned into the poetry of scripture and songs, cried quietly with only God to hear, growled at myself for being so fragile, so predictably weak. "So you'll look like a dude," I told my mirror image one night. "You'll deal with it. There are worse things." And there are. But that was somehow not a helpful answer.

I stood in a grocery store line as a friend whispered if I'd noticed hair loss. I combed my hand through my hair confidently and we gaped helpless at the dozens, maybe hundreds of strands piled between my fingers. The world went silent for a second. This was happening now. The steeling began in earnest, and the next day we made a game of it--what better defense than humor. Hailee chopped at my hair with kitchen scissors, did my makeup at the kitchen island; Julie snapped pictures, first the informal process and later an autumnal photo shoot outside. We laughed, and made it something more than loss.

I came home. I kept the bathroom light off. I was sure I would come around, it would be okay. There are worse things, there are worse things. And the initial few glanced reflections were more surprise than anything--your hair is dead, so being bald doesn't feel any different--you need your other senses to know it's true. I had so steeled myself, had erected so many defensive walls that it took a few days. First, to realize I didn't need them--to realize it didn't hurt to see my reflection. And then, to see something else.

In passing the mirror--and, increasingly, stopping at the mirror, studying the picture in front of me--I found that I didn't need to fight for balance and self-image. I didn't have to argue or placate. I didn't have to tell myself that I was still beautiful around the eyes or mouth. Because being beautiful wasn't even in question. I would hear Maria's voice singing her song in my head: for the first time in memory, I felt pretty. I'd find myself catching half a glimpse  of myself and giggling. I acted like a teenager who preens and gazes at their changing features. And all that makeup I had piled up to smear on, to convince the world that I was still female, became a way to celebrate, not to hide. I was joyful instead of ashamed, and what was behind the face was being healed, not breaking further.

"Yet God has made everything beautiful in its own time," Solomon wrote a few thousand years ago (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Like so much else that's easily simplified or misunderstood out of context, I digested that verse in high school to be followed by, "...Your time just isn't now. He'll make you beautiful... later. Stop asking." It was a little comforting--but mostly not. Now a new voice speaking those words was what came to me in my giggling and blushing. What I planned and prepared for? Yeah, the absolute mind-blowing opposite of that.

Is this the big headliner story of this process? Maybe not. I still have a brain tumor. I still have to take fairly serious drugs to tame it. Blood tests and MRIs and consults pepper my calendar for rest of this year and beyond. So who cares if I feel pretty?

I guess... me.

Less Maria's dancing, I suppose. More that the God of the universe, who created all things to move and work and evolve in every way, who will handle warmongers and peacemakers with perfect justice, cares enough to meet me in the middle of such a little, should-be-below-His-radar thing. "Those who look to the Lord for help will be radiant with joy," Solomon's father David wrote. "No shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened" (Psalm 34:5-6).

I keep this photo on my phone so that I stumble on it occasionally. Because the newness, the noticeableness of feeling pretty has become the new normal, and sometimes I need to see how much it struck me at the time. Not being pretty itself, but joy, the surprise, the gratitude of knowing my silly little need was heard and met and held and answered. Because Maria was right: I feel pretty because I'm loved.

"See that pretty face in that mirror there? Who could that attractive girl be?
Such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile, such a pretty meeeee."
- Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story

"In my distress I prayed to the Lord,
and the Lord answered me and set me free."
- Psalm 118:5

Sunday, February 7, 2016

And Now for Something Completely Different...

I've spent so many words on the larger things lately--faith, sickness, healing--and from some inner curve of myself, I feel the need to balance it out with something smaller: the human interest piece after the stories of bombings and rescues, if you will. This memory has caught my attention a couple times in the past few weeks, like that particle in the water as it circles in the sink. Such a little thing, how does it keep snagging my attention and not just go down the drain?

I still can’t pinpoint what it was about him but, to borrow Josh Lyman's word*, he ensorcelled me; this half a lifetime later, it's the only word that holds up. I could say I loved him--"It might have grown to that," cries a younger me--but it didn’t, so it wasn’t. He spun me, but didn't toy with or trap me. We each meant the best in our different ways, and how much he knew--that what was friendly love was also something else--I couldn't say and certainly never told him. He was real and kind and present with me in a way I'd only guessed at from the stories, and I fastened myself to it, even as I felt his passage through and out of my life.

Here in the present tense, I hang up in the sky today, seatbelt fastened low and tight across my hips, and I let myself spin with the water as the moment snags me again. And as I'm snagged, I realize how little I actually remember: I can see him clearly, can sound out the feeling of being with him, but when it comes to actual memories, anything more than a snapshot, I only have the one. More fitting than strange, really--like most sorceries, the power fades with time.

Our collection of artsy-geeky friends are piled around the theater front doors and the sun is high and bright. It must have been the spring for how we are basking, eking out all the sun and green and warmth we can. In the instant just before, he has said something--not cruel, just gentle teasing--and I have turned away in feigned hurt. (This is a move I have seen in the stories, and it always plays out well for the girl.) There is a beat where I regret sliding away from him, chalking another tally for life falling short of the story--and then a hand has curved and tightened around my side and his head is on my shoulder and his voice floats just under my chin. "Aw, no," he says with my name. "You know I love you."

His hand holds and does not slide to curves north or south. The pose is held two, maybe three seconds before he pulls away to look in my face and see that no real hurt hides there, and the film roll flaps abruptly and I don't remember what follows.

It is such a tiny thing, but I held it so many times in my hands that I now, as I sit here in the clouds, it speaks to me in very simple truths:

That there are many loves in the world, and English faults at having only the one word for all of them.** I was cherished and loved and even held in that moment, and it was all meant fully, nothing withheld. Thorough friendship, solid and smooth. It isn't worth less because I wanted it in a different color.

That even for this woman who loves them, words are not enough. He followed the script to perfection, even to gesture and tone, but they didn’t serve. He was another's then, and has long since gone to be others' since, but never mine.

That memories can lie. It was in fact cold, gray November, or I had pizza sauce dropped on my shirt, or others in the circle rolled their eyes and murmured to each other--it's virtually certain. The photoshop of nostalgia, the softening and refocusing of self-preservation and pride, shines the memory the way fingertips polish a stone. I’ve just been reading C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: "By remembering it too often, I have blurred the memory itself."

But lastly, that in between the lies, memory holds purpose. There was truth and reliability in that moment that I didn’t see for a long time. Though we left each other's lives and are now different people--strangers, in fact--that afternoon ended up serving as a litmus test for me for years. Not a line of unattainable perfection like those other stories, but a way to see counterfeit more clearly and leave it more quickly, no matter the mood, the loneliness.

I guess I lied, too: I have one other memory of him. Two years later, I am visiting friends and without warning he is suddenly there, nearly as close as in that spring-November moment. And I see him and smile and hug and there is nothing remaining in me but the platonic, the love he had held me with once upon a time. I had been so far from him that I hadn't felt the release until it was long-done, without bitterness or ache.

No fairy tale, that. Not what I wished for as I waited at prom tables and backstage opening nights. But he gave more than he thought, and more than I knew at the time. Some lessons are fought and earned in tears and passion; others are slower and quieter in appearing, the stone turned over and over in the hand. 

*English nerd and librarian to the core, I had to look up the episode for the real credit--and of course, that was written by Aaron Sorkin, the man himself. (The West Wing, Season 3, Episode 11.) 

**without fail, this thought makes me think of Anthony Abbott’s "Carrot-Colored Words" (scroll to the second poem). Oddly, I found out this week that my father had similar feelings, choosing the made-up word "verg" instead of using one so unclear, worn out, and misused.