This week’s topic: beauty. A wonderfully subjective thing to think about.
In the United States, we have allllll kinds of ideas about what it means superficially. This is an entirely other subject. At first glance, I may loosely resemble a Disney princess. Talk to me for five seconds or ask me to pose for a photo, and you will meet a mashup of Mushu, Gus Gus, and Meeko. Try and cast me, people! You’re gonna get confusedddd. You want beautiful? I thought this was beautiful.
Anyway, I had a nightmare this week about Lurie Garden. I used to have frequent nightmares about the health of the Chicago River, but I thought that was because there’s plenty to currently be scared of in that waterway. Lurie Garden is beautifully maintained and protected by a diligent, caring staff. In my dream, it was completely destroyed. Baptisias were covered in garlands of torn plastic and human hair. Brides and recently engaged couples ran free, followed by crazed photographers. Monty Python-inspired rabbits met my gaze, sloppily chewing massive plants. I woke up terrified. Perhaps I am a person who fears the destruction of land more than most. Those themes are often present in my poetry. But then I got thinking. It has been a privilege to work so intimately on 2.5 acres of land. I have watched it shift daily as new things flower, grow and seed. After a few weeks of bright, showy performances, plants will slip into the next, often brown life cycle. Their beauty is so fleeting. Even more so than humans. (Of course, that’s assuming that you don’t see the beauty in decay. See poem below.)
A Failed Funeral
I saw her there, still and straight
Kinetic potential drained, so very still
And so was I, soles glued to the pavement
I passed the homeless today with only a silent prayer
This I could not move past
Nothing to be done as her eye hung from its socket
Nothing to be done as flies gathered on her corpse
Could I dig a large enough hole to give her privacy?
I had no tools but nails
I couldn’t pick her up without a barrier
It would be too intimate
A rusty flag laid nearby, marking a submerged pipe
I plucked it from the soil and wrapped my hand around her little body
It was still warm.
As I lifted her from the pavement, her neck bent too far back
Afraid her head would fall off, shocked by her softness
Convinced this movement of surrender was real life animation
I got close to a tree and put her down
Too hard. Too fast.
I tried to put a leaf over her as a blanket, but it fell off.
I didn’t replace it.
I walked away quickly, convulsing with tears.
Geesh, Gail! Downer much?! Back to beauty.
When a thing like beauty is so impressive, it seems to be a natural instinct for humans to get a death grip and protect violently. Some examples that come to mind: the violent encounters of colonization, the historical protection of virginity, a child’s reluctance to share a new toy. There are, of course, those who react peacefully during times of transition, but we notice them as the exception. Women who slowly let their hair turn silver and their wrinkles form without trying to hide the changes are called “brave.” Teachers who easily adjust to new administration and curriculum are called “fun.”
During a master class last year, Cameron Knight casually threw in the phrase, “You gotta hold on tightly and let go lightly.” The rest of the class nodded in calm agreement like they had heard these words every day before bedtime for seven months. My brain exploded. Obviously, because I’m still thinking about that gosh darn, apparently clichéd phrase today. For anything that involves passion, it is instinct to hold tightly. We use violent rhetoric all the time when referencing career success. People are to keep their nose to the grind, chase their dreams, climb social ladders, and beat down the pavement. Then, as beautiful things such as love, appearance and loyalty inevitably shift, it becomes surprisingly difficult to accept the change and let go lightly.
I’ve got the holding on tightly down like a pro. But letting go lightly? Nope. Not so much. More like, “letting go lightly as soon as I tell you all the ways you’ve wronged me. Yeah! I win! And look, I’m doing great at this new thing now and holding onto it as tight as a motherf*cker!” #workingonit
You wouldn’t think that humans would be such creatures of habit in the face of change. You’d think that adaptation would be our instinct because, well, DARWIN. Beautiful things are mercurial in nature, and I think that’s why we’re so drawn to them. They’re even more beautiful when we can allow them to ebb and flow in and out of our lives.
You know what I’ve been finding really beautiful lately? Old people. It’s gonna be so great to be old. I’m going to be strutting around with long, white hair, you bet your ass. I’ve been spending a lot of time with older friends, and I’m just so amazed by the freedom that comes with age. This is harsh, but people (except for other old people) stop perceiving elderly folks immediately as sexual beings, so they can do whatever the hell they want. Of course, there’s frustrating physical limitations that sometimes come with age, but otherwise, I’m super stoked. My granny was without a doubt one of the most beautiful people I have ever known. I only ever knew her as an older person, but she was direct proof that age is just a number. I knew the Betty whose peaceful heart was the same at 7 and 87. When I asked her to teach me how to hopscotch, I was surprised that she couldn’t jump. I told her rather aggressively, “Just jump!” I watched as she bravely and calmly accepted the changes her body demanded. I’m going to share a creative writing piece that she inspired below. It’s written imaginatively from the voice of a post-mastectomy breast. My granny had a double mastectomy before I can remember. What I do remember is sneaking into her room to poke the squishy inserts of her post-surgical bra. I mean, sometimes I wish I could take these puppies off to run, jump, and descend a whole bunch of stairs. But there’s a whole demographic of women who are stripped of breasts--one of the most potent symbols of womanhood. I have witnessed many of those women accepting that trauma with astounding grace. To any of those individuals who may read these words, you are truly beautiful. And shoutout to Ann Wakefield for a fantastic class.
So much time was wasted. If there’s a promise to make, it’s that a day will never pass when you don’t feel my absence.
Before the ink dries and the next chapter begins, I must ask a few things of you.
My kindness was passed betwixt our shared blood. An elegant serpent elongating into the back of your throat until the whiteness spurted and you swallowed. Over and over. With anticipation and glee. You asked for it. You begged for it. And then, never again.
When we next united, you had long since forgotten. You poked and prodded me, anguishing over my presence. Questions were denied as you flushed crimson and burned holes down below. And then confinement. Binding. Squishing. Never open air. Why must I be watched by many, yet seen by few?
There remains an echo in my tissues—a remembrance from moons ago. When my sisters rested in silence without a shroud. When their cries were public and rewarded the way you know I like it. Cradled with circular rhythm. Engulfed with wet warmth until the sucking makes me ache. Sometimes bruised with a cosmic spattering of yellows, reds, and blues. Chilling attentiveness and especially the heat.
When you are gentle, I sweat. When you are not, I sweat. Sweat sliding down that narrow alley until I glisten.
I am so much more than you allowed. The most alluring mound to grace this un-hallow ground. A rare depiction of holiness in a region of bawd.
Your other knows now. Can you hear the mourning moans?
The turbulent times were worth their salt (as I’m sure you very well know).
But this malicious malady has claimed me once more.
Perhaps never again? If you pass on this message, I may retain some hope. Tell them I’m poisoned. Let the chemicals be. With caution, caress me with sunlight. Expose the others to flesh, pressing with conviction. Maybe one day I’ll surprise you and melt right in. Inside for once, curiosity sated.
Drink me in because it’s natural. Wear me proudly. Never wait for the other half to satisfy. In the violet silk of evening and the dripping honey of day, hear my swelling as an invite—my quivers as a dare. One last cushion guarding the gem. The pulsing drummer you still retain.
I forgive you for ripping me; it’s what had to be done. As the battalions march on, we’ll heave in solidarity.
Are you starting to feel like this blog is a trap to get you to read my poetry? You’re not wrong. Here’s a nugget to think about. Jane Brody told my classmates and me to “look and expect beauty” on a day with this same crisp weather four years ago. I didn’t fully understand then, but I’m starting to get there. If your life is a plant (because everything is plants to me right now), there are long periods of healthy, natural growing. Then, sometimes, it’s necessary to cut out a decayed or diseased offshoot. It’s ok to let go of relationships that aren’t feeding you. They may grow back differently later in life. And if you’re expecting to see something, you’ll see it literally everywhere. If your daily energy is full of stress and anxiety, guess what’s comin’ down the pike for you? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not beautiful.