I wish everything I wrote turned out like this.
Notes on Beauty
I am getting older. If you believe in science, which I do, then I guess we’re all getting older. The aging process for me has been underway for 35 years now, but I’ve only really become aware of it recently. My hands are starting to look like my mom’s. Things that were once firm and fixed have begun to give way to gravity. The curves of my body have turned soft and squishy — even — gag — lumpy in places. Of all the bodily betrayals, the wrinkles buried into my forehead are the most focal point of my self-loathing — as if I did something specific to render them. Shame on me for emoting with every last inch of my face. And it’s only going to get worse. Like when I turn 36. The whole thing is egregious.
With this new attentiveness to my own aging, I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty. As much as I’d like to play the gal who is mysteriously aloof about her looks, I have to confess that I long to be beautiful. Specifically, I long to carry beauty into the world — like lavender brings calm — like a fire brings light. Be delighted by me. Be overcome by me. Be awed by me. Let me bring you joy. Let me put a smile on your face. I want to move through the world like a song. This longing seems writ into the twirling strands of my very DNA. Though it might be a broad-spectrum “woman thing,” perhaps men can relate.
Real, meaningful beauty has inner and outer dynamics at play. It’s a both/and. It’s a this/that. Like body and blood, the two cannot be separated or pulled apart.
If we believe in a Creator God, then we must also be convinced that he is deeply, prolifically, extravagantly concerned with beauty and the aesthetic. Look no further than the lily or the live oak, the sparrow or the sky. There is both a glory and a whimsy with which this world was conceived. And I keep thinking: that same glory and whimsy must apply to me, too.
If the created world is any indication, God’s idea of beauty spans a puzzling yet somewhere near infinite spectrum. The same God who created the gardenia and called it good also designed the duckbilled platypus. I wonder, did he giggle with delight at the genesis of the platypus? Or was he run through with chills at its spectacular splendor? God’s idea of beauty is stretched wide like open arms, in which all manner of odd creature — including me — is elevated and encompassed.
Romans 1:20 says this: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” The apostle Paul is saying here that the created world, the things God has made, tell us all about him, his character, his personality, his beauty. The wind, the fig leaf, the desert, even the Shih Tzu, they all communicate something about who he is — the boundless beauty of creation is designed to point us back to the boundless beauty of its Creator.
Paul Zahl once described grace as “love coming at you that has nothing to do with you.”
Grace, in some ways, is just a holy way of saying gift. And so all beauty must be grace; I cannot see that real, divinely inspired, inherent beauty has either strings attached or any convincing evolutionary purpose. Real beauty is to be received, enjoyed, taken in like a long-awaited house guest, worn like your most beloved piece of clothing, experienced. And God has continued to find me through the beauty of this created world — like love coming at me that has nothing to do with me — throughout my life.
As a kid outside, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I’d sit and daydream in a tree for an entire afternoon, or catch roly polies in the driveway, or tadpoles at the creek, or I’d lay on my stomach for hours making daisy chains and hunting for four-leaf clovers. Everything ordinary — including me — became extraordinary outside. The sweet churring of robins talking to each other in the pines, wind whispering through ancient oak limbs as if a living, moving thing; the smell of mowed grass and fragrant honeysuckle, a light layer of pollen and dirt covering every inch of my well-fed kid-body, and the warm embrace of the sun on my skin and clothes. Everything that had gone on the rest of the day — the demands of school, friends, my home life, the waif-like body standards of the early 90s, every thin line I wasn’t measuring up to faded away outside, overtaken by the glory of the ordinary world around me.
We don’t just experience beauty from places like treetops or wading in the froth of an ebbing ocean. We experience beauty person to person. A photograph or quick impression cannot offer real, lasting beauty (think of the Grand Canyon). Beauty in its truest form is found and kept by fully experiencing it — and in the case of people, experiencing it in the framework of relationship. For example, I don’t typically find beauty in other people’s children. But waking up in the morning to my own four-year old daughter tenderly rubbing my back – she may have been there for a minute or an hour — with her nest of tangled blond bed-head she’s the most beautiful person in the world. The gesture shows her heart, her already soft edges. Or my Kindergarten-aged son who will casually walk into a room and ask me curious things like, “Mama, am I outgoing?” The kid is a rare, outgoing delight. Or my mother who, in my direst hour, did not offer advice or a motivational speech but just sat with me — both of us barely squeezed into the same leather armchair — and cried; she glowed with something saintly. Or when my husband held my hand for the very first time as we laid on a Georgia beach that winter. It had taken me weeks or a few months to catch onto his beauty. We stared up at a boundless span of navy darkness with strewn bits of heaven bursting through its ceiling; every now and again, a shooting star. He said if he had to survive a nuclear apocalypse with only one person, he’d want it to be me. He had a dark hoody pulled up over his head. He wore thick brown nerd-glasses. And I wanted to kiss him so badly I thought I’d explode along with the stars.
If you’ve ever used something like Tinder, you know all this to be true. Real beauty must be experienced in order to be seen. No matter the filter, a photo or just a glance cannot suffice.
Only when Jesus himself drew me into relationship, where he once seemed withholding and rude, moody and judgmental, did he gradually come to be radiant with the most abundant, life-giving beauty.
Matt Capps says that “the revelation of beauty is an act of God’s self-revealing love… God alone is the source and substance of true beauty. And not only were we crafted in his image as aesthetic creatures, we were endowed with the capacity to enjoy and cultivate beautiful things.” But how far is too far when it comes to things like chemical peels or jade rollers or vampire facials? (I personally haven’t found the line yet.)
In the last year, I’ve begun to wage war on my own maturing body. I’ve dumped a truck load of money into things like collagen peptides, retinol serums, micro-currenting, and semi-regular hydro-facials. I don’t know half of what any of these things are specifically accomplishing, but I’ve been assured by the Instagram accounts of people like B-list celebrities that cumulatively, I will eventually, literally, turn back into a child.
All in all I’m a little worn out from the whole thing and feel nothing like a child. I’m still a 35-year-old who emotes with every inch of her face. I still jiggle and flop when I’m trying to be sexy. And while I can’t say I have any plans to let go of these semi-aggressive efforts, I think “the beauty regimen” is at its finest when embraced as a form of gracious and loving upkeep — like a gardener tending to her flowers. Flowers, like beauty, are pure gift. You cannot wrestle a flower up from its bed. You just water and weed and let the sun do its bidding. Overly manufactured beauty — beauty caught by strangulation — doesn’t ring with the same enchantment as a beauty who has grown and evolved with lovingkindness towards herself.
What’s my version of weeding and watering? Well, I do Pilates. I walk. I find a deep pleasure in taking the time to wash my face most mornings. I pay care and attention to applying all of my expensive lotions and creams, waiting a minute or two between each. I let my creativity come to life as I put on a bit of makeup. And before I turn out the lights in my bathroom I take one final look in the mirror. I stare myself right in the eyes, smile like I’ve got a secret, and quietly call myself the only thing I know to be true, with or without all that stuff: “beloved.”
The freneticism with which our culture demands we go about our physical upkeep is completely exhausting. I know this because (clearly) I get swept up in it too. But none of it holds up with real beauty because real beauty doesn’t exhaust. Real beauty invites us to come stay a while. Real beauty brings rest.
A few years ago, I learned a technique that aids in stopping a panic attack dead in its tracks: you take off your shoes and your socks, you open your backdoor, and you put your bare feet to the earth. Easy. Of course there’s something chemical that happens, like splashing cold water on your face. But note that a cool floor feels different on your feet than cool earth. After that first blessed shock when skin meets ground, I start to notice things. A warm, dry breeze blows my hair out of my face; the blooms of bougainvillea drift airily from their vines, and the smells — hickory smoke from the Naples rib company down the street, salt and oil from the offshore rigs, the sweet citrus of our young lemon tree out front; the sounds of car engines, boat engines, mourning doves, and kids shrieking with laughter over at Mother’s Beach. All this because of actual, divinely created and inspired dirt — cold, hard earth — connecting with the living soles of my feet. The tension peels away and I am overwhelmed by the bigness and beauty of everything else, the smallness of me, but affirmed more than ever that small and striving me is still deeply and distinctively related to the strangeness and wideness and wonder of the world.
Cheryl Strayed says in her memoir Wild, “… perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
The undesecrated beauty found in things like gardening, surfing, trail running, a night sky, or just standing in your backyard, speaks to and pours forth a sort of clarity, a clean slate, peace, soundness, and an invitation to receive it all. This is the gospel. That our sins — our massive failures, our disgusting habits, our inability to live up to all the many laws in life (including cultural beauty standards) — all of it has been atoned for, once and for all, on the cross of Jesus.
Stepping outside barefoot is a little like opening the plane window for the first time as you land in a foreign country. Or like running off of a cliff and then feeling that sudden pull of a parachute catch you from behind. In the most ordinary sense, putting my feet on the ground does something about shocking me into my actual life. It forces me to be present, in all my exactly-as-I-am-ness. All these sensory signs of where I am become the setting, the reminder of who I am — created. I, like the bougainvilleas and the sea have been drawn with lovingkindness, known and planned from the beginning, loved with an everlasting love. I can rest. I can pull up a chair. I can stay a while. This is exactly how I’d like for you to experience me, at both 35 and 85.
Revelation 21:5 says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” We know that God will one day, finally and completely make all things new. Yet scripture tells us here that His magnificent process of undoing — of perfecting and remaking — has already begun. Most days, this seems impossible to me. The idea that God could be in the full-fledged midst of performing a massive, upending redeeming act seems nearly laughable. How can we be in a resurrection cycle when the world around us looks like Isengard’s orc pit from Lord of the Rings?
If we believe what scripture says, that God is making everything beautiful in its time, I think we have to also believe that God is using the aging of our bodies as a part of His redemptive movement in the world. That what plays out in our aging is not just a descent towards death, but instead a distinctive sphere where God is simultaneously undoing and redoing all the wrong and sad. That we really are becoming more beautiful with age (and not just because our husbands say so).
1 Peter 3:3-4 says, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” At first pass, I want to hate these verses. Like, barf-hate. But if I marinate for a while on “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit,” it starts to sound like peace, like rest, like surrender, like the swaying lilies of the field that do not labor or spin. The authentic beauty we reveal as a created people comes from our hearts at rest. And a heart finds expanding rest in the day-after-day love and delight of Christ.
Aging, in all its aches and pains, its griefs and hardships, can lead us right to the foot of the cross. Leslie Jameson said in her talk at the 2019 Mockingbird conference, “Grace has never lived in the unbroken parts of my life, but in the broken ones — the ones that still ached toward the possibility of beauty. Not possibility, actually, but rather acknowledgment — the awareness that beauty was already all around us. It never left.”
Like Psalm 51 implies, God sometimes breaks bones and bodies in order to heal hearts — nobody knows this better than Jesus. Which means that even my wobbly tummy and cavernous forehead creases are part of his plan for eternal beauty, like the scars on the resurrected Christ, marks of his faithfulness toward me.
A friend of mine says he likes to think of wrinkles like bodily Ebenezers. In 1 Samuel chapters 4 and 7, “Ebenezer” means “stone of help.” Samuel erected the Ebenezer stone as a reminder to the Israelites that “Thus far, the Lord has helped us.” Our wrinkles and lumps are, in a similar sense, reminders of all that God has already done for us — we are here, we have been rescued, and we’ve lived another year to tell that remarkable tale. In another sense, because no amount of Vitamin-C serum can actually terminate the aging process, age is a reminder of our total helplessness outside of God.
This is how our insides are tended and pruned. This is where our decaying turns into becoming.
There is a sublime grace in aging. It is not so much a loss or a lack but an abundance, each year another raised Ebenezer: a physical, in your face, minute-by-minute reminder of how otherworldly beautiful we are to Jesus, and of the stunning reality that he’d choose us again every time. This is redemptive beauty. That when we cast our broken, failing bodies into the arms of grace, over and over again, we are remade; we are stilled; we are quieted by his love, and quieted by his love, and quieted by his love. I have only ever found true rest here, on my knees, in that one-word act of surrender — Help — a beautiful invitation, the very utterance itself a gift.
Here, our fixation on the world’s standard of beauty falls away. And what takes its place is a reliance and dependence on Jesus himself as the ultimate beauty.
If our redemption is a sort of re-versing (like a poem or a song), we continue to bear the notes and marks of what has been. Like a map of our stories, we wear our past joy, our suffering, our great love, our grief, our strange adventures, our unyielding grace. Francis Spufford says that “Everything taken into the Kingdom becomes more itself, not less…” Over time, we become more of the quirky and particular people God created us to be as unique image bearers. By the second, we are perfecting reflections of his divine beauty. And divine beauty is a heart at rest, a heart that invites rest, a surrendered heart, a hidden heart, a kept heart.
Here I raise my Ebenezer.
One summer in high school, I went on a biking trip through the Pyrenees with twelve other kids. It was grueling. I was not prepared. Yet I don’t really remember all the tears, or the hormone-induced acne, or even the disgrace and embarrassment I surely experienced from being the caboose of the group every day. My failures and my physical limitations and my inability to perform well are not what stick out to me about that trip when I think about it now. What seems significant were the fields and fields of sunflowers, spanning the horizon like thick yellow paint strokes. How sometimes there would be a mile between me and the next person in the group, and the peculiar silence of a rural space — interrupted only by my own heavy breathing. I think of one downhill specifically that followed a particularly punishing uphill. As I eagerly tore down this mountain that had all but bested me just moments ago, an actual swarm of butterflies — the technical term for which is a kaleidoscope — a kaleidoscope of hundreds of thousands of small, delicate, white-green butterflies overtook me like a wave of lace. I could feel their wings on my face and my body as I pedaled freely, unhindered, effortlessly down this mountain, as if I were being carried. I laughed with my head thrown back. Nobody was around.
You are moving through this world like a song, Charlotte. I am delighted by you. I am overcome by you. I am awed by you.
It was serene, as restful as an inhale. A clean slate. Clarity. And outside, without walls, a temple curtain, or “the perfect skin tint,” I could see the moon, I could see creation, and I — a dirty, sweaty, mess — was a beautiful part of it all.