The Myth of Inner Beauty

Imagine you have a friend—a good, good friend who means the world to you. He’s devoted to his family and holds down an important job. He works for the betterment of his community, but he always has time for you and has always been there when you needed him. Maybe he’s even your best friend.

Imagine he comes to you one day, discouraged and depressed, and he says something like this to you:

“Some days I wish I had just been born white. My life would have been so much easier. People would give me a chance before they decided against me. They would judge me by my character instead of my appearance. I know I should be proud of who I am, and, usually, I am proud. But I just get so damn tired of the people judging me by the color of my skin over and over again. If I were white, things would be different.”

This man is your friend. He is in pain, and you are in pain for him. What do you say to comfort him? How do you try to make it better for him? Can you picture yourself saying something like this in response?

“Don’t say that, friend. You are such a good person! You are so important to so many people, including me—especially me. You’re always there to lend a helping hand. You’d give the shirt of your back to anyone in need. You, in fact, have inner whiteness. Your whiteness comes shining through to anyone who knows you, even if strangers can’t see it from the outside. In fact, honestly, you are one of the whitest people I’ve ever known. And I’m so proud that you are my friend!”

Wow, right? You were maybe right there with me until that “inner whiteness” phrase cropped up. Suddenly the whole response was tainted with the unmistakable stink of racism, more or less confirming your friend’s fear that skin color is, in fact, always going to be how he will be judged by others—exactly the opposite of what you had intended.

But wait—what if people who offer those “comforting” comments explain that they aren’t using the word “white” in the racial sense? What if they explain that “white” is merely a metaphor for “good.” That they are using the word “white” kind of the way we do in weddings or literature—as a symbol for purity and innocence and goodness and wholesomeness, and that race has nothing at all to do with it (even though the friend had clearly meant “white” in a racial sense in his original complaint).

We do use the word “white” in that way, after all, at least some of the time.

Do you feel better about those comments now? Do you?

Me? Not so much. And even though I could concede that the comments might have sprung from the best possible intentions, I suspect that they would be more likely to end the friendship than provide any comfort.

Now imagine this scene:

Let’s say you have a friend—a good, good friend who means the world to you. She’s devoted to her family and holds down an important job. She works for the betterment of her community, but she always has time for you and has always been there when you needed her. Maybe she’s even your best friend.

Imagine she comes to you one day, discouraged and depressed, and she says something like this to you:

“Some days I wish I had just been born pretty. My life would have been so much easier. People would give me a chance before they decided against me. They would judge me by my character instead of my appearance. I know I should be proud of who I am, and, usually, I am proud. But I just get so damn tired of the people judging me by the way my body looks over and over again. If I were one of those beautiful women, things would be different.”

This woman is your friend. She is in pain, and you are in pain for her. What do you say to comfort her? How do you try to make it better for her? Can you picture yourself saying something like this in response?

“Don’t say that, friend. You are such a good person! You are so important to so many people, including me—especially me. You’re always there to lend a helping hand. You’d give the shirt of your back to anyone in need. You, in fact, have inner beauty. Your beauty comes shining through to anyone who knows you, even if strangers can’t see it from the outside. In fact, honestly, you are one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known. And I’m so proud that you are my friend!”

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, it sounds pretty darn familiar. Because, after all, you’re not using the word “beauty” in the physical-appearance sense. You’re just using “beauty” poetically, as a metaphor for “good.” It’s a symbol for purity and innocence and goodness and wholesomeness, and physical appearance has nothing at all to do with it (even though the friend had clearly meant “pretty” in a physical-appearance sense in her original complaint).

We do use the word “beauty” in that symbolic way, after all, at least some of the time.

Do you feel good about those comments now? Should you?

So, as I’ve been pondering these two scenarios, I’ve been wondering why it’s so radically inappropriate to assure victims of racial discrimination that they are just as white as anyone else, only in a different way, but at the same time it’s okay—encouraged even—to assure women who have been unfairly judged on the basis of their appearance that they are as beautiful as anyone else, only in different ways.

This is part of what I’ve noticed:

When people stand up and say, “I’ve been a victim of racial discrimination,” certain things might happen. We might impose legal penalties on organizations that engage in discrimination. We might put social pressure on people who exhibit racially bigoted tendencies. Some of us, regrettably, might even say, “So what? Deal with it—everyone is some sort of victim, so get over it.” But I’ve never seen anyone rush to assure a person who says they have experienced racial discrimination that they shouldn’t talk about themselves that way—that they have an inner whiteness that makes them just as valuable as any Caucasian person. Never.

Never.

It would be disrespectful. It would be a way of denying that the problem exists at all—at least outside of the victim’s misguided imaginings of their own self-worth.

Yet this is exactly what we women do to each other—and even to ourselves—when we notice that we’ve been judged based entirely our appearance. We are so attached to the notion that a woman’s worth derives from her appearance that we can’t say, “You’re right. It’s not fair. Let’s try to do something about it.” Because that would mean that we accept her premise that her appearance is less than “beautiful.” And we have bought into the idea that by denying she has beauty, we are cruelly denying that she has worth. So instead of addressing the problem head on, we repackage her best qualities as “inner beauty” as if they’re a substitute for physical beauty—with the good intention of not hurting her. Order restored; problem solved.

Whatever progress we’ve made toward racial equality has not been built on the premise that no one is actually black (or Asian, or Indian, or Latina)—that every member of every race is actually white in some way. And I can’t help but feel that no progress will be made in judging women on their true merits while we play silly semantic games, recasting our best strengths and finest qualities, to insist that every woman is “beautiful.”

negative-self-talk-picture

Short Story: White Bronze

White Bronze
by K.A.L.

1

Before we get into this, you’re going to have to endure a little background. It’s important that we be on the same page before we start. In this case, that means I need to clue you in on the story’s setting.

So, to remind you of some of the pearls of wisdom that your pitiful junior high English teacher wasted on you and her other undeserving students, the formula goes something like this:  Setting = Time + Place.

Let’s start with time:

The time is indeterminate. Sorry, it just is. That same hopeless English teacher probably led you to believe something about the omniscience of narrators, and I hate to disabuse you of that sacred wisdom, but, no. No. Omniscient I am not. Give yourself a moment to decide if we’re going to be able to soldier on now that you know that small, bitter truth about yours truly.

We good? Awesome. Then let’s talk about place.

You may end up thinking that I got confused because it will sound as if I’m talking about a thing rather than a place, but I assure you that this is not the case; it’s not the case because the thing is hollow and its interior is the place. Got that? Okay, I’ll say it one more time, just because you look a little confused. The thing is hollow and the place is its interior. That’s our setting. Capiche?

The thing that encompasses the place is a statue; a life-sized, hollow statue of a little girl. It could be a memorial statue, but we don’t get to know that for sure. All we know is that she—the statue—is the central feature of a circular garden bed that used to be lovingly tended at some point in the abandoned estate’s history. Now that the garden has gone feral, the girl—the statue—stands knee-high in weeds and brambles, growing ever more discolored in the shifting elements. She has one knee slightly bent as if she’s about to step forward; her right arm is raised, maybe to wave, maybe to hold an item aloft, kind of like the Statue of Liberty holding up her torch. We will never know if she was holding anything because that right hand was broken off at the wrist at some long-ago point in the statue’s past.

The statue was cast from a soft, gray metal that was marketed as “white bronze,” a substance made possible by some sort of patent-protected alchemy in the early part of the last century. We know now that White Bronze is really just zinc coated with a thick layer of marketing bullshit. Zinc has properties that allow it to fight off some of the effects of outdoor weathering, so the statue’s details are remarkably well-preserved. Tears of black algae track down her checks and the elaborate folds of her knee-length skirt; it speckles the tops of her ballet slippers and the ends of her braids, but, otherwise, the statue has endured splendidly despite the encroaching decay of the sad landscape over which it presides.

And, really, this is all you need to know about the statue’s exterior, which is good, because that’s basically all I got.

 

Okay, this next part always reminds me of one of those self-indulgent scenes shot by Hollywood movie directors with bloated special effects budgets. Calling it an overhead shot would be embarrassingly understated. We find ourselves in space, people—in the profoundly deep, proto-darkness of Genesis before creation. We’re immersed in blackness, but there’s a throbbing soundtrack to conjure an undeniable sense of speed and motion, enough to suggest we’re hurtling blindfolded down God’s steepest roller coaster. Finally, in the deep distance, the Earth rotates into view, anchoring our attention on the horizon.

You know what happens next: We start hurtling toward our home planet as stars trace comet tails in our peripheral vision. We pass into our atmosphere like a falling satellite. The continents assume their familiar shapes on the globe spinning below, and still we fall, rocketing toward a layer of clouds that briefly obscures our imminent landing place. Closer and closer, roads take shape and then buildings and then vehicles. We fall through the damp atmosphere directly above the abandoned estate and finally see the bulls-eye of the garden plot, the statue piercing its center like a dart. We speed toward it, plunging back into ineffable blackness as we fall through the chimney of the statue’s upraised, hollow arm. And then? Impact. Sudden silence.

Survival? Unknown.

 

Light sifts down the statue’s arm into its interior—a light so weak that it flutters in flakes that you could almost catch on your tongue. As our eyes adjust to the uneven darkness, we begin to detect a shape through that soft, grey vesper-light. We see that it’s a body slumped on its side, its head pillowed on one extended arm. Tendrils of dark, damp hair curtain its face.

For a very long time there is no motion.

Finally a ragged intake of breath signals that life is present. The figure pulls itself, moaning, to a seated position. We see plainly now that this is a girl; she pushes her hair from a stained check, hugs her knees, and reclines her forehead against them as she rocks slowly, moaning quietly as she rides out some unknown pain.

Presently she looks up, scans the inscrutable “sky” overhead, rubbing her forehead beneath her bangs. Finding little to focus on in the vacuous darkness above, she instead looks around, surveying her more immediate surroundings. She can see a pool of darkness marking some sort of chasm in front of her. Another, similar shaft exists just beyond its far shore. She runs her hand over the gritty, cold surface on which she sits. She turns her hand and raps her knuckles against it, producing the sort of metallic gonging that might be used in Buddhist temples to summon the dead. There is no way for her to deduce what we already know: that she has landed on a flat shelf of metal that bridges the span between bottom of the statue’s skirt and the top of its knees. The chasms she has sensed in front of her are the wells formed by its two hollow legs. She landed on this somewhat precarious ledge with no memory whatsoever of how she got there.

 

Okay, you should be having a small but still satisfying eureka moment about now. At this point you’ve realized that one of two things has to be true: either the girl is a perfect and miniaturized human, no bigger than, say, a squirrel—or—what we’re seeing is instead a regular sized human being who has unaccountably found herself in the interior of a “life-sized” statue in a land of giants. Could I help you figure out which is true? I could not. See aforementioned disclaimer vis-à-vis omniscience, lack thereof. Do please, however, believe me when I tell you that some things just don’t matter. Including the resolution of this particular issue.

 

The girl continues to sit while she takes in her surroundings through narrowed eyes. The flakes of light falling from above gradually lessen and wink out piece by piece, one by one. The enveloping darkness becomes as smooth and even as the black velvet lining a jewel box.

Our girl slips back onto her side and falls into a troubled sleep.

 

I’m sorry to interrupt yet again, truly, but something has got to be said before we go any further. Namely, I know what you’re thinking. I know what you’re thinking, and that fact has far less to do with my omniscience than with your predictability. You’ve probably struck upon the theory that our story is some sort of allegory illustrating the inevitable conflict between our protagonist’s exterior façade and her private, internal life. People! Do you see your former English teacher anywhere? Do you think you’re getting an “A” by invoking words like conflict and protagonist and allegory? You are not. Trust me, deep down, we all had that same English teacher and SHE’S NOT HERE. There is no symbolism. You are looking at the literary equivalent of a Rorschach test, confabulating meaning where none actually exists. Trust me on this. You’re headed down the wrong track.

Just humor me—humor me by remembering what Freud said when it came to symbolism. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

 

The girl wakes, lying on her back, gazing up at a tarnished coin of grey sky framed at the end of the tube-like passage that extends upward from the irregular ceiling. It reminds her of something (the moon?) that she can’t seem to name. She can’t seem to name herself either. Whatever has happened to the girl has left her with an imperfect amnesia. It’s left her without a history or identity. It has left her with only a rudimentary language, but one that she can’t name or completely recall. Common words elude her grasp as if they’ve been greased—she can’t get a grip on them, no matter how strenuously she knits her brow and holds her breath. She hopes they will return to her without realizing that “hope” is the word for what she’s experiencing. She knows, however, that the round piece of sky overhead seems to be taunting her, so she turns onto her side to evade its presence.

The maneuver puts her face to face with a creature that has appeared within an arm’s length of her head. She props herself up on her elbow to get a better view of this visitor. The creature squats on a set of legs resembling bent fireplace pokers that extend like protective, metal wickets around a spherical thorax. Another ovoid shape is attached to this central section like the caboose on a short train. Its head hovers over the gritty floor in sinister silence, two fearsome mandibles reflexively scissoring the empty air in front of its morose, metallic face.

“Hey!” the girl says to this monstrosity, prompting it to crab-walk across the floor toward the first chasm. “Hey!,” she says again. “Don’t go!” She stands, and we see that the creature’s back is about knee-high to the girl. Perhaps because of its size, she responds to it as if it were a dog or a cat, reaching out to pet the coarse, brown hairs that upholster most of its sectioned back.

But before she can actually make contact with those enticing, brown bristles, the creature slips over the side of the chasm, rappelling down its vertical face on a glossy rope that appears magically, as if out of nowhere, allowing the creature to quickly lower itself into the camouflage of total darkness.

“Kie vi estas?” she shouts into the dark hole, instinctively returning to a language she learned during her un-remembered past. Just as some adults will speak baby-talk to a puppy or a kitten, it seems perfectly natural to her to use this primitive, long-ago language when addressing the creature. “Kien vi iris?” she asks mournfully into the blackness. Where did you go?

The loss of this potential companion—coming so soon on the heels of its appearance—is devastating to the girl. She crawls carefully backwards from the abyss until her heels bump the wall. She curls into the crease where the cold floor of her new world meets its stark, upright boundary. Again, she falls asleep.

 

The days and nights chase and run and pile onto each other. The girl is aware of their passage only because of the changing view through the coin of sky suspended in the ceiling so far above. Some days that small piece of sky is as gray as dishwater; others it’s as tranquil and blue as Mary’s robe in a stained glass window. Occasionally, globules of water shoot through the opening as if to punish her, and she crawls around the margins of the twin chasms to what she now thinks of as The Dark Side. She lies there on her back, drumming her heels against the metal wall to answer the drumming of the water falling both without and within the statue. The percussive concert usually lulls her to sleep and, when she awakens, she negotiates the narrow path back around the chasms, pausing to peer into the murky depths where her one-time companion disappeared. “Se vi revenas, mi nomos vin Ludvichon…” she whispers into the blackness. If you come back, I’ll name you Ludwig. There is never a reply—not even the distant tapping of the creature’s many legs.

The small view of sky invariably darkens and disappears, and our girl again sleeps.

 

She is suddenly awakened by a sound so overpowering that it vibrates the very hollows of her bones, a sound so loud that it precludes comprehension. Overhead, beating wings ignite the air with thrumming vibration. Ludwig, invisible to the girl, waits in hungry anticipation for the owner of those wings; he lurks at the edges of a gossamer web he’s woven across the interior of the statue’s neck.

The girl screams and covers her ears against the loud assault, panic overtaking her.

2

A young couple walks arm in arm, surveying the grounds and imaging their future in the neglected home. They left the estate agent back in the kitchen to smoke her cigarettes alone, smug in the knowledge that if the couple needed time to speak privately, it could only bode well for her commission.

“Can you see it? Can you imagine?” the man asks his companion, pointing excitedly across the treetops that border the fields behind the house, lost in the possibilities of their future in this place.

“Of course!” she agrees as she squints at the horizon, happily joining his fantasy of some imagined scene from their life ahead. He squeezes her arm and steers her around the trees. They arrive at a small, round garden plot, complete with a white bronze statue presiding at its center. He stops short, taking in the statue’s broken hand, its discolorations, its nicks and flaws. “She’s beautiful,” he whispers to the woman. “Look at her.”

The woman’s eyes are already locked on the statue, but her head is cocked slightly as if she hears it speak. “What’s that sound?” she asks the man, unconsciously wiping a smudge of dirt from her cheek as she speaks. “Do you hear that?”

The man steps forward and lays his hands on the statue’s torso, both front and back. “It’s some sort of tapping. I can hear it—and feel it. It’s coming from inside.”

“Is there something trapped in there?” the woman asks with growing alarm. “We can’t leave it there, whatever it is. It’s frightened—we have to get it out.”

The man looks at his companion, and back at the statue, gripped by the same sudden need to liberate whatever life lies within. “We will,” he promises the woman. “We will.”

And finally, eventually, they do.

New for the website (the other website)

Okay, getting a little fancy with the slideshows. Let’s see if this actually works…

http://www.auburnpioneercemetery.net

Moving On

Most of the country is, of course, preoccupied with election returns, but I’m far too distracted to pay any sort of attention. I got a call on Friday from my realtor. We had made an offer on a house literally weeks ago. I mentally moved in and completely redecorated the place, but since the seller seemed intent on playing some sort of sick cat-and-mouse game, pitting us against another bidder, I wrote the place off, mentally packed up my imaginary boxes, and proceeded to torture myself by pretending to live in at least two other houses I’ve seen since then.

But about this call on Friday: Evidently the other buyer on that long-ago house also got tired of the seller’s gamesmanship and pulled out of negotiations. Suddenly we could have it—at our original price—if we still wanted it.

That was Friday. I had both an inspector and a contractor at the place on Saturday morning—and accomplishing that small miracle of scheduling serves, I feel, as an affirming omen about my future at this place. Furthermore, these professionals didn’t find anything catastrophic, only the problems which my realtor and I had already spotted on our previous visits. Those problems are too many to list, but none of them appear to be beyond the repair budget that we had figured into the deal. Long story short? We close a week from Thursday. I’ll be moving in as soon as the place is minimally habitable—probably soon after Thanksgiving.

This is a bittersweet development and stage of life. After 25 years, my husband and I will be living apart. I don’t wish him ill, but I can’t continue in the circumstances that I’ve been enduring for too many years. Ironically, the only hope that things will ever change is if I move out and force him to decide if we are to pull together or pull apart. Otherwise, it will just be the status quo until death us to part, and I just can’t face that possibility.

I am, however, terribly excited about the new possibilities of this place, be they temporary or permanent. Unfortunately, I’m unable to share that excitement around any of my family at the risk of hurting someone important. But I’ll tell you all here. I am. Excited. I hope some of you can be excited for me.

I’m Taking a Survey

Each of the photos in the attached PDF represents a biography that I either have written, am in the process of writing, or intend to write (sometime before I die, but that’s as precise as I intend to get regarding the timeline). Here is the question. Looking at the photos and knowing nothing about these people, which story would you be the most interested in reading?  (Yes, this is all an elaborate way to help me end procrastination. Thank you for your assistance!).

Choices

Accidentally Published

I wrote about Soile almost two years ago, back when I nurtured the illusion that there was such a thing as an anonymous blog. Ha! Not long afterward I had a message from my friend Hoss in my email inbox. He had deduced that the post had been written by a Washington based, female Esperantist. Knowing that it wasn’t Ellen, that pretty much meant it had to be me (we are a microscopic demographic, we are)! So, at his suggestion, we reworked that post into a version for more polite company, and he published it in American Esperantist Magazine (did I mention that Hoss is the editor?).

Be careful what you write, people. You never know who might be listening…

Real Estate Follies

Brady Bunch HouseI spent Saturday morning looking at houses, because I don’t have enough frustration in my life. Same old story: the houses available were drunk and derelict and listing badly to port—buying one of those would be as foolish as marrying a man in the hope that you could change him. The best of the bunch had the sort of ugly-puppy-in-a-shelter appeal that’s hard to resist. I could work with this, I thought. But that one, as it turned out, already had an offer on it.

The only house that was both truly available and livable was the sort of soulless 70’s rambler that was so generic as to make the Brady Bunch house (the seminal icon of 70’s architecture as far as I’m concerned) seem as ornamented as an Italianate mansion. The only visions it brought to mind were of television commercials for prescription depression medications. The cessation of joy. The extinguishment of the will to live. “So that’d be a no?” my still hopeful relator asked. That would certainly be a no.

Isn’t this supposed to be a buyer’s market? 

I’m not ready to give up the hunt yet. Something is out there, waiting to be found.

Seriously?

Look what I found posted on Facebook today:

Well. Maybe under different circumstances…

The Ides of September

Well, that was fun! For me, at least. It was good to reach into the dust-filled depths of my brain for those handful of memories of Deen—to pull them out and polish them up before they become hopelessly lost in the dryer lint and Beatles trivia that has otherwise claimed all unoccupied corners of my long-term memory. They are valuable because they are the only things that make me at all cool to my nieces and nephews (although they don’t rise to a level that would make me cool to my own children, oh no!). I was gratified to see that they could even be strung like beads onto a necklace of connecting narrative in a way I would not have predicted. We, Deen and I, overlapped in school for just a single year and I haven’t seen him in person ever since. That doesn’t leave much room for storytelling, but those memories, coated with a liberal dose of the reinforcing glue of hyperbole, seemed to have done the trick!

Hyperbole? What?

No….no hyperbole here! NONE.

Anyway, you’ll notice from the date stamps that the last episode of the series took a painfully long time to publish compared to the first episodes, all of which flowed from my pen as unimpeded and easily as idiots going over Niagara Falls in wooden barrels. That last episode, however, I literally got to within two paragraphs of the end before September dropped me down a well of stultifying despair, as September often does. Writer’s block was the least of it, really. For the first time in my life, I ended up seeing a counselor—an experience every bit as rewarding as having to endure a weekly root canal. But that, coupled with some casual light therapy, seems to have made a difference. I’m feeling so much better. Finally I tapped out those final sentences, baked the resulting batter at 350 degrees until a toothpick came out clean, slapped it up on WordPress, and called it a day.

Moving on.

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