Be Still

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In the pre-dawn hours, the thunder snarled right above my roof. One of my dogs trembled and burrowed into my side. A particularly loud clap began with a boom and ended with a sizzle, and then my bedroom was suddenly darker than dark.

The power had gone out, taking with it the glowing alarm clock numerals, the lights on the box next to the television that does magic I can’t explain, the nightlights aimed low for our aging dog’s nighttime navigation.

And, with the darkness, a silence so thick it felt like another blanket on this summer night. Between the cracks and grumbles of thunder, it seemed as though even nature had paused to listen; no night birds, no wind to ring the chimes outside my bedroom window, no errant yowl of a night creature. Just silence.

Gradually, I could see the darker outlines of my two dogs, of the frame of the closet door. And, as my eyes adjusted to the black around me, my ears too adjusted. I heard the restless shifting of the frightened dog on the covers next to me. I heard the undisturbed breathing of my husband, seemingly able to sleep through the storm. And I heard my own breath, a lullaby of steady rhythm.

Sights too often overshadowed by electronics, and sounds too often drowned out by hums and clicks of our everynight life.

In an essay about the book called, “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere,” author Pico Iyer is quoted as advocating for, “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

So last night, between thunderbooms, I fell back in love.

lightning

Comfortable in Your Skin

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Quick, what’s the one thing you’d change about your body?

That was the question a young filmmaker from the Jubilee Project asked. The adults? They wanted better skin, smaller ears.

One woman asked plaintively, “Just one?”

The children? They wanted a shark’s mouth, a cheetah’s legs, a mermaid’s tail.

What if it didn’t have to be quick? Everything moves more slowly in the South; so with all that time to consider, what do Southern women want to change?

I talked with two of Charleston’s top makeover experts – the lead aesthetician at Cos Bar, and a makeup artist at Blue Mercury – about what it is that women my age want to change.

And the answer is that most of us want to change our skin: it’s dry, it’s lost elasticity, our neck is sagging, our décolleté is a mess.

“They want to take care of wrinkles, anti-aging, more firm. They don’t want a knife or needles. They want less invasive, but want more results,” says Jamie Biering of the Cos Bar.

Of course, not all women of a certain age have eschewed surgery.

“Some women come in to preserve plastic surgery” says Sara Nicole Massraf of Blue Mercury. “We sell them creams to make their injectables last, makeup to cover suture marks.”

She adds that mature women can get in a makeup rut and can be hard to convince to change routines.

But, according to Massraf, most Southern women don’t have to be convinced to have a routine, even if it is outdated.

“In the South, we’re the glamour culture, the pageant culture, the cheerleader culture. Our culture is slow and easy; we take the time to look good – like lipstick instead of just a dash of gloss – and we take the time for beauty sleep,” Massraf says. “The ladies of the South have the luxury of time to invest in themselves.”

I too want to look younger, firmer. But is it wrong that I also want a mermaid’s tail or cheetah’s legs?

mermaid tail

Are You Beautiful?

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So, are you beautiful, or are you merely pretty?

If you are like most women my age, your answer is, “Neither.”

Maybe I thought I was beautiful once, but I lost it somewhere along the path of maternal urgings to be modest, of Christian teachings that the meek were the ones who would inherit the earth, not the boastfully beautiful. Compliments were to be met with self-deprecating responses so I wouldn’t seem conceited.

I know my daughter thought she was extremely pretty when she was little. She would pose for herself in the mirror, beg her stepfather to take her photo. Until one day, she stared in the mirror and saw some flaw. Maybe it was a pimple; maybe it was some remnant baby fat. But it became all that she saw in her reflection. And with that transition, she joined women everywhere.

She joins a sorority of women who get a massage to deal with stress, and then find themselves worrying that the massage therapist is repulsed by the layer of fat over the muscles he’s kneading. Of women lured by the resurrection promise of a makeover, who apologize to the makeup artist for how they look. One makeup artist spoke at TED about how her clients invariably say they’re sorry for their nose, or their skin. The only ones who sit unapologetically in her chair have the kind of perspective that comes with facing down an adversary like death or cancer.

But somewhere before that showdown comes the in-between.

The aging that adds another insult to shaky self esteem. The sagging, drooping, where-the-hell-is-my-Spanx slide into un-pretty and un-young. Rare is the middle-aged woman who can stare her unmade-up face down in the mirror and say gravity be damned, she is beautiful anyway.

At best, they may say, as my friend Nikki Hardin writes, that they have a “patina,” a surface change that comes with age that’s usually considered of great value.

But the issue isn’t how we look. It’s how we see.

Another friend, author Laura Lippman, challenged her followers on Facebook to post self-portraits, un-retouched and unmade-up. She said that, after a while, the way she saw the pictures changed. It’s not that her friends were becoming more beautiful with each post, it’s that her eye had adjusted and the plain faces became plainly lovely.

This fits with a study that showed that people exposed to images of plus-sized models for only 60 seconds began to judge beauty based on those images and rated slightly larger models as ideally beautiful when asked, at least immediately after the experiment. The eye learned a different definition of beauty.

My daughter is still lovely at 24. I have no objectivity, I realize, but I am stunned at her sparkling eyes, and graceful movements. My mother, even in her deathbed at 72, left me breathless with her beauty.

As for me? I still see the flaws first when I look in the mirror, but I’m working on it. At least now, if someone compliments me, I can stop with a simple, “Thank you.”

So, I ask the question again. Are you beautiful? I hope you say yes.

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Marilyn Monroe at the mirror