Beautiful

It’s been a long time since I felt beautiful.

My hair is at an awkward growing-out stage ever since that shaving-my-head episode. I’ve worn the same shorts for days. There’s a stubborn pimple on my chin, and I can’t remember the last time I put on make-up or earrings.

Since I’ve been working from home and leaving the house only to pet my dog and learn karate—where, honestly, I’m going to be a sweaty mess anyway, so why try—this doesn’t bother me much until it’s time for a photo. I never notice how often photos happen until I actively dislike the way I look in them; then suddenly Snapchat is a hazard and those passport photos feel more threatening than usual.

Last night I hid in my room and spent probably ten or fifteen minutes working to get this selfie, because I thought the message was worth putting out there, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my face in the frame and still ever leave my room again.

 

I’m not particularly in love with my appearance at the best of times, but I’m not used to feeling unbeautiful. So last night, after the selfie thing (and after a shower, because I’m not kidding about sweaty), I stood in front of a mirror and gave myself a good hard look.

I did not suddenly realise that I’m gorgeous, but I did suddenly realise that I was looking for all the wrong things.

So I don’t feel beautiful. So what? Here’s what I do feel:

I feel strong. This summer has pushed me in ways I never expected. I’ve held a full split until I thought my legs would break, done jump squats until I couldn’t breathe, run until the world narrowed to the pain in my body and the desperation in my lungs and the zigzag cracks in the pavement. I’ve walked down a mountain and carried my sleeping niece and coaxed impossibly tight compression stockings onto my granny’s feet.

I feel healthy. Despite my natural bent toward a happy couch potato lifestyle, I’ve spent the summer taking care of myself, body and mind and soul. I’ve eaten fresh vegetables from the garden, gone on long walks at sunset, and paid uncharacteristically close attention to hydration. I’ve faced anxiety and given myself room to breathe, reminded myself to sleep and rewarded myself with hours upon delightful hours of binge-reading.

I feel brave. We all live with fear, but this summer I’ve decided to live past that fear. I’ve stood my ground in difficult conversations, applied for new jobs, and stayed with strangers. I’ve made scary phone calls and I’ve asked scary questions. I’ve faced the reality of my next two years and made preparations instead of hiding. I’ve begun learning the kind of thing you’re supposed to start as a child and, despite my fear, I’ve shown up to every lesson and learned to laugh when the five-year-olds succeed and I fail.

And after staring into that mirror and thinking about these things, I realised that it doesn’t matter if I feel beautiful, because beautiful was never the standard to begin with. Beautiful can be achieved any day with some cosmetic products and some time on my hands; Youtube has proven that.

Who I am is more fundamental than my skin tone or my hairstyle.

It’s in the way I hold myself when things don’t go my way. It’s in what I do when I’d rather do nothing. It’s in how I get back on my feet after a tumble.

Maybe you’re feeling beautiful today, and if you are, I’m genuinely thrilled for you, because there’s a confidence in that feeling. But if you’re like me, if you can’t remember the last time you felt gorgeous, take a closer look at yourself and decide what’s fundamental about you—what can’t be created with good contouring or a new outfit, and what can’t be taken away by a bad hairstyle or a few down days.

Because you are beautiful—but you are so much more than that.

On Spending Time

time

There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”

See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:

“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”

“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”

“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”

Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.

And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.

So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.

Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.

The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.

And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.

Breathing

photo-1439902315629-cd882022cea0

I can’t breathe.

I find myself pacing, restless, needing to do something yet having nothing to do. I have no deadlines. I have no commitments. I have no classes, no job, no rehearsals.

Is this what it feels like to be an adult? I wonder.

It feels aimless.

To be fair, I’ve submitted eight freelance job proposals, attended a wedding, read a few books, revised twelve chapters of a novel, and unpacked and repacked almost constantly since arriving home from university. I’ve played poker and gone hiking napped on a mountain. I’ve washed dishes, made pizza, and come close to dying because I thought I was in shape and tried to sprint a mile.

It’s not like I’ve done nothing since graduation—and yet I find myself still with these terrifying pockets of undesignated time.

It’s an hour here and three hours there, ten minutes while the coffee perks in the mornings and fifteen minutes while I wait my turn for the bathroom at night.

And suddenly, without more homework than a human being can possibly get through, without work to rush to or emails to answer or events to attend, I find myself hemmed in by spare time.

I’ve dreamt of leisure for years—while I was working during high school, while I was reading textbooks during university, while I was job-hunting and tax-filing and internship-applying and apartment-cleaning and…

…and I’ve spent so much time wishing for freedom that now, with time on my hands, I feel restless. What do I do with the moments, the hours, the days? I feel lazy if I sit for a few minutes and do nothing. I sleep badly because I must be forgetting to do something.

I’m free, but I can’t enjoy it. Like a scared dog released from a small cage into a new environment, I huddle, immobile, terrified in my spare time, certain the appearance of freedom hides some trap.

And somehow, in the midst of newness and change, aimlessness and fear, I find myself breathing. I find that time is not, as I’ve been led to believe, a valuable commodity that I’m likely to fritter away.

I find it’s something bigger.

It’s the silence in which my heart beats and my eyes blink and a thousand thoughts race through my mind. It’s the chance to work, to invest, to learn, yes—but it’s also the chance to breathe. To look around me, to be caught up for minutes together in the beautiful flicker of leaves in the wind, to bond by lounging in aimless togetherness with my family, to sleep until I wake naturally and to marvel at the unfathomable interaction of my waking mind and my unconscious dreams.

Living, I see now, isn’t a matter of getting everything done before you die—it’s a matter of breathing.

photo-1465634836201-1d5651b9b6d6

Lessons From Failing NaNoWriMo

November ended last week, and my word count is 23,421.

See anything off about that number? Like, maybe, that the goal was 50k and I’m under half that?

Also, are you remembering that I’ve written twice about doing NaNo and how to write a novel in a month?

It’s time to follow up on those—because 23,421 words is the closest I’ve ever gotten to “winning” at NaNo, and I don’t regret that. I think I learn more from “losing” every year than I would from winning.

I learn that writing is not one word after another, but a hundred words after a hundred others, doubting each one but forcing it out anyway.

the_written_word_by_d_cubed90

I learn that writing takes time, which I scratch out of the walls of my schedule, stretching seconds like stiff muscles and borrowing minutes from tomorrow, next week, next month. It’s a sacrifice—to appease the writing gods, like some pagan ritual, I sacrifice my sleep, my energy, sometimes my sanity.

I learn that 50k is not a number, but a place. Not, as I thought, a palace for worthy writers place at the end of a torturous pathway, but instead a hut partway up the mountain, treacherous in itself because it tempts weary writers to sleep instead of finishing the journey.

I learn that each writer is different. Like runners who excel at different events, writers are unique, each most productive in a different setting—and “productive” is itself an arbitrary word whose meaning changes for each writer in each season. There are the sprinters, fuelled by enthusiasm, who write the first half of the novel before week one ends. There are the marathoners who put one word after the other, consistent, steady, who don’t look flashy but will reach the finish line as others drop out. And there are those who will never cross a finish line to cheers but will keep moving, not for the win or the applause, but for the love of the process.

I learn that something effective for someone else may be ineffective for me. Despite all the advice in the world, only your words can carry you from prologue to epilogue—one letter after anther, a cluster of curves and lines and then a space, and then another cluster of curves and lines.

And I learn that my purpose is not to follow great writers’ footprints and hope I end up in the same place, but to make my own footprints; not to reach some glorious peak, but to see the tiny glories around me with each step. My purpose is not to be one of the great authors—my purpose is to be me. A different me with every step, but still, in the end, me.

As long as I’m still me, one word after another, whether I write 10k or 50k, I win.

photo-1424878825877-7083ba5de185

Losing Diamonds

I lost my diamond somewhere in the crowded moments between stumbling to the barn in the stormy dawn and shuffling into rehearsal in the crystal cold afternoon.

It fell from my ring, gone before I ever noticed.

diamond

The ring is a narrow, graceful band of gold, delicately curved, unashamedly pretty in a way most girls today are afraid to be, set with tiny leaves of white gold, all curled around a chip of diamond. Now they curl around a blank darkness where minuscule prongs of gold reach upward toward nothing.

Their sharp bite first alerted me to the diamond’s disappearance. They scratched my bare skin just deep enough to hurt, and when I glanced down, the forlorn hole where the diamond should have been stared back up at me, accusing, like a puppy who hasn’t been fondled in a few hours. I experimentally put my fingernail into the tiny crevasse between the hungry little prongs, and then, a little horrified at the cold touch of the now-useless twists of gold, I pulled my finger away and looked somewhere else, pretending I couldn’t sense the dark cavity beside me.

My father gave me that ring one night as we sat in a restaurant booth, making slightly stilted conversation over steaming spinach dip–slightly stilted because we hadn’t talked in too long, because authenticity always carries that odd stiffness, like your neck when you wake up chilly. I don’t remember his explanation for the beautiful gift he handed me, but I think the feeling I’ve had ever since, that slight warmth in my chest and catch in my throat when I finger the ring these years later–I think I still capture the essence of what he wanted for me. There’s something to it, knowing that my father gave it to me, that I’m loved, valued–that no matter what I or anyone else feel about me, my worth is not in what I do or say or think–something of all that seems caught in the golden swirl of the ring’s filigree, in the minute glint of light in the diamond.

My diamond is gone–so many other things, missing before I knew it, valuable in a way I can’t define.

Like that crazy sense of optimism I had as a kid– the certainty that life would always somehow right itself, like those inflatable punching bags that bounce upright when you knock them over. That crazy optimism somehow disappeared into a vague certainty that I’ll eventually manage to fail colossally and live in my parents’ basement with a lot of unfinished first drafts and a secret case of clinical depression. It disappeared somewhere between the empty bank accounts and full sermons about trying harder, smiling bigger. I noticed it was gone one day when pessimism scratched just deep enough to hurt, that whisper that really, in the end, it’s all futile, and life isn’t a faerie tale, and probably Cinderella was miserable after “the end” anyway.

Like that hope in rightness– that right answers existed, that we could ever fix the world instead of damaging it further. It dropped away somewhere between the depressing headlines and the ubiquitous, petty infighting that stripped away my hope in people and change. I noticed it was gone when fear scratched at me, promising hopelessness and loss.

Somehow optimism and hope disappeared, and I didn’t know it until flat pessimism and cynicism cut at my frail surface, just deep enough to sting.

sidewalk crack

Funny to think, isn’t it, that my diamond’s probably gone forever. Somewhere, nestled in the warm, soiled bedding at the barn or wedged into a deep crack in the sidewalk- somewhere that little chip still glimmers, catching the light, keeping on being itself whether it’s set in gold or rendered anonymous by the earth.

 

And you know, somehow, even without those things I’ve lost, with fear scraping at me, with cynicism and pessimism staring up with hollow eyes like the diamondless cavity of my ring–still, somehow, I’m me, and still, somehow, that graceful curve of gold is shamelessly pretty; and still somehow, in the subtle glimmers of the worked golden leaves, something whispers just under the surface: “Someone loves you. No matter what you lose…you have value.”

Musing on Meaning

I stare at my hands. Uncomfortable silence is not improved by the comfort of solidarity–none of us has an answer.

 “This is an important question,” my professor urges.

The first answer is too loud against the heavy quiet: “I feel called to include ethnic diversity in my writing.”

Like the first drop of spring rain, one brave answer starts a flood. Hands shoot up. Everyone feels called to write something: encouragement to the weary or a voice for the marginalised, clean humour or food for thought.

typewriter

I don’t feel called. Neither do they, the cynic inside me snickers. We’re writers–fiction is what we do. But not in this. About writing we must be absolutely honest: writing is the solid thing in our grey worlds of shifting realities.

“Because I like it.” My fallback answer for people who made that face (you know the one: eyebrows cocked and mouth pursed as they think, “You want to do self-assigned homework for a living?”) and asked me why I wanted to write. It seems inadequate now. Other people write because they feel called. I write because if I don’t turn fiction from smoke and shadows to solid print, it clouds my thinking and colours reality. I write because if I don’t narrate someone else’s life on paper, I catch myself narrating my own life aloud. I write because my mind, like a neglected attic, is unnavigable, cluttered with boxes of stories and trunks of ideas and unravelling characters shoved like so many unwanted sweaters into paper bags.

boxes

Because loving to read at an early age shouldn’t mean learning to skim around adult content, learning to see the signs of it and flip the page because you’ve already finished your library’s collection of clean books. Because opening magical worlds is just as important as planting deep thoughts and asking hard questions–because people need escape as much as they need engagement.

So I inch my hand up, and I lay my humble ambitions among the lofty callings of my classmates:

“I want to write good novels–not about God or anything, just engaging stories that follow my values and entertain people.”

That has to be enough. I tried for two years to feel called to a more glorious message, and still, deep inside me, with every spark of my imagination, I just want to write good fiction.

In the held breath behind my words, my professor nods. But the tension in my gut stays. No matter the approval in her eyes–somehow this answer is still not enough for me.

I put the important, unanswerable question out of my mind and turn my energy to passing my classes. I pay my dues: I write devotionals, radio scripts, news pieces. With my leftover energy, I pour my imagination into fiction.

And then another question rises, a dark tollbooth on the road of life, and I must pay an answer to continue my journey: “What unites your writing?

My writing is diverse. Lush fantasies bump up against factual articles. Blog posts settle among drifted short stories. How can I unite them? Again, I sit in humble silence, listening to others’ answers, mortified that, again, I have no calling. I review my writings: misplaced faerie-tale heroes questing for “happily ever after;” secret agents fighting to reconcile past and present as they hunt killers; memoirs of my childhood struggle for identity; Bible verses explained with children’s activities and fun-facts. And a light in my mind illuminates a single thread, glimmering like spiderweb at sunrise.

spiderwebw

And again, slowly, I raise my hand.

“I want to emphasise the worth of individuals.”

That’s it. One single, tiny idea. A seed of a reason to write. It isn’t grand. It doesn’t seem high or holy. But it’s genuine.

So what about you? What is your reason–the real, true seed of a reason deep inside you, the one that seems insignificant and small, the genuine desire that feels too humble to share? Because I promise you, whatever it is, it is not insignificant. You are not insignificant.