Reaching for the Sun

It appeared out of nowhere, like something from a modern fairy tale. As the sun began to rise it caught my eye. Well, how could I have missed it, really? Coffee in hand, I pulled open the heavy drapes to begin my morning meditation and there it was.

The stalk was more than four feet high and the golden petals circled a seed-pod large enough to drop a garden’s worth of seeds to spring to life in the coming year. It’s massive leaves, unfolded, sparkled a bit in the early light reflecting off the morning dew. I stood in awe, mug poised, paused, just before my parted lips.

Somehow, a stunning sunflower had sprung up in the middle of my roses–my carefully cultivated rose bushes. For years I have cared for and photographed my 24 rose bushes. Their fragrant layered petals and prickly stems have kept me company since we moved in more than a decade ago. I had dealt with the random stray weed, the circling bees, and cobwebs from friend and foe. But I had never had anything like this surprise sunflower.

Truth be told, I am not a huge fan of roses. They had been planted before my time but I cared for them. I loved their scent and their bright colors outside my window, surrounding my porch as I sat and studied. I would have planted wild flowers though, free, untamed, varying heights and colors and needs. But I live within the boundaries of my HOA and knew roses were manageable for this chronic allergy sufferer to care for with limited time and effort, and huge reward.

Roses had always seemed too predictable though, too typical. And those thorns! So uninviting to the photographer stepping in, leaning in for the zoom on a perfectly poised honey be in the center of the bunch when–“ow!” If roses were people, they would be the admired and cooly popular girl who didn’t want a hug or offer a smile to those she didn’t know. Not the type I would be friends with!

But this morning, in the midst of those cold beautiful roses, stood this reminder of not only the kind of person I would befriend, but the kind of person I want to be. This singularly strong and vibrant sunflower in a bed of roses, not looking down on them but looking up to the rising sun, turning to face it’s golden god-light breaking through early morning clouds. “Wow.” That was all I could say.

I don’t know for a fact that this sunflower was sent as a message to me, but that’s how I chose to take it. I sat and meditated on love, light, and the strength to grow into the fullness of who I am meant to be even amongst those who might prefer something more typical or traditionally beautiful, or something that seemed less out of place. I gave thanks as I watched the rays of light unfold from behind pale clouds. I felt a little taller, a little bolder.

I will never be traditionally beautiful or sweet but I have my own appeal. I am so strong. I am so full of life. And I refuse to stop growing, no matter where I find myself. I just keep reaching for the sun. sunflower-closeup-480x294

 

No Amount of Makeup Can Cover these Scars

“Now, girls, there is no way that this mascara is ever going to fully coat your lashes if you just put it on one side. You have to paint both sides of your lashes, like this. Close your eyes, dear.”

My friends and I looked at each other in shock and horror. “I never even thought of that!” I said, and was greeted with a murmured chorus of me neithers. We were thirteen and fourteen years old and we had been bravely, even boldly making up our faces before school, at lunch, after PE, in the bathroom before classes for which we dared to show up tardy. Just a month before, in fact, I had been re-applying my makeup in the bathroom before fourth period because I wanted to feel confident before our quiz; when the bell rang, I tossed my compact and brushes into my purse–yes, I carried a purse at all times–and ran to class, falling down the stairs and ripping all the tendons in my left ankle in the process. But my make up looked great.

The presenter continued and we leaned in to listen from our seats in the multi-purpose room. All 8th grade girls were seated in rows, surrounded by teachers and staff, as we were given instruction on how to apply our makeup and pick the most flattering clothes for our “season.” The guest speaker was from Nordstrom, an upper-end retailer most of us never entered. She had talked to us already about how to select our best colors and how to flatter our various body types.

“Now, you’re going to need to line your lips or you might as well not even wear lipstick.” This statement triggered my first negative thought of the hour. ‘I don’t have time for some of this,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I could do this just for special occasions like school dances,’ I decided.

I was an honors student, a spelling bee champion, a student of the month, and a tiny little girl living below the poverty line, walking more than two and a half miles to Shumway Junior High so that I could still walk to school and see my friends from my old neighborhood. And I wasn’t bothered by the presumption that fashion and makeup were not a luxury but a necessity, nor by the notion that it was deemed appropriate by the principal (whose name I never knew) to take time from our instruction to “learn” these things. I was bothered by the fact that I might not be able to live up to the standard being set in this assembly.

Applying my makeup this morning before even stepping out to get my coffee and the paper, I am reminded of that moment in junior high when I felt not demeaned, but motivated. I increasingly improved in my make up and hair and fashion skills. I grew to love getting ready in the morning. I found cheap ways to emulate the look I was supposed to create. I studied the styles of the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna and Susanna Hoffs to develop my own look–that, we had been told, was very important. I convinced my mom to help me buy Seventeen and Young Miss magazines so I could research the latest trends and learn more fashion tips each month. And, in our home of liberal political activists, no one questioned this or felt it inappropriate not just for society to set such standards, but for my school to have done so.

I had actually been told, since my first day of kindergarten, to hold in my stomach, stand up straight, and smile whenever I entered a room. It’s funny how it never occurred to me to share this advice with the children I later nannied or raised. But I still think of it ever time I enter a room, just like I know to apply my makeup and fix my hair before leaving the house–to go to the supermarket, even.

As a high school principal, I  rarely found girls in the bathrooms applying make up or fixing their hair. They’d be late because they were standing in one of those circles all fiends make when sharing stories and gossip, but  never because of hair or makeup. I wonder what they would think of my friends and I. Were we more vain, more superficial? Was it just the 80’s? I don’t know. But, even at 42, I hear the voice of the stunning fashionista telling me, each morning, to make sure I coat both lashes fully with mascara.

Even today, I recall that day I sat listening and learning how to make my lips look properly pouty and my eyes to look sufficiently sultry. I should have been listening about how to report the acts that I was being put through by a trusted adult male each week, or how to feel strong enough to run away, or how to study for the SAT so I could get the education I so desired so I could escape from the life I feared I was being sucked into. But I wasn’t taught these things. And I wasn’t questioning why. I was just worried about my makeup.

I’ve come a long way since junior high. But I still have the scars. And, try though I might, I can never cover them all with makeup.

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Look Up

She was walking alone. The silky black hair falling forward would have hid her small round face were it not bouncing and swaying in the slight spring breeze. She was beautiful, but not in the way that would be idolized in her high school yearbook. She had a grace she appeared to not even know existed. Her eyes downcast, her face down, I worried she would not even see a car coming as she crossed the street. My soul cried out to her soul, “look up, sweet girl, there is so much to see and do, both for beauty and for your very survival; look up.” I’m sure I imagined it, but her chin did seem to tip up and the sun caught her soft features and her bronze skin glowed.

I caught my breath as I was transported back in time to see the other side of the image, the yin to her yang.

*     *     *

A slight young blonde took purposeful strides as she rushed home. She had to walk fast since she chose not to deal with the drama of the bus ride but had to be home in time to greet her sisters when they got home from school. She had to let them in and make sure they did their homework before she settled in to do her own hours of studying.

Her head was down as she walked. She refused to make eye contact walking through the city, it wasn’t safe to draw attention to oneself, she thought. The Portland sky was mostly grey but bits of what she called “godlight” poked through from time to time to keep her going as she peered through the long bangs and swishing hair in her face. A shock of sunlight caught the edge of her hair as she stepped forward. “Wow, my hair has gold highlights, fiery gold.” She was surprised to realize she thought it was pretty. She wondered if she was pretty. She lifted her chin and bobbed her head up and down subtly in a few different directions to admire the sparkling highlights from different vantage points as she walked, still careful not to move too much or draw attention to herself.

When she made it home, she had a few minutes to herself before her youngest sister arrived. So she stood before the bathroom mirror, in natural light then electric. “My hair is pretty,…” she didn’t know what to do with that thought and it didn’t change anything, she knew. She was still the same quiet, smart, shy little girl no one at school even wanted to know. She knew she had talents and skills and dreamed often of showing these, but never did. Finding something pretty about herself did not change that. She would keep to herself, it was safer that way. And she had too many responsibilities to spend time with anything but schoolwork and family duties. More important than talent was dependability. She was and always would be dependable; let her sisters get the attention, grow their talents, receive acclaim. That was the way it should be.

She turned off the light above the mirror and went to prepare the afternoon snacks. No more time for self-indulgence.

*      *     *

The light changed from red to green. The girl had crossed the street and it was safe to turn and continue the drive home. “I wish she knew how beautiful she was; I wonder if she’ll ever know, ever learn, like I have, to finally love herself.”

How do we teach our girls to love themselves? How did I learn? How did I go from lonely dreamer to beloved leader and empowered activist? I don’t know if it was just time and maturation. I love who I am though, and I love my life. I still retreat to that shy quiet girl from time to time, like when I received a life-altering diagnosis last year or when I hear a song from my childhood and remember…

Maybe this is why I went into education, for all the little girls who needed someone to tell them, you are beautiful, you are powerful, you are a gift to this world. Look up, sweet girls, there is so much to see and do.