“All the variety, charm, and beauty of life are made up of light and shade.”––Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina
During a writing retreat with my friend the poet I became entranced by her hands. Her fingers fluttered in the air like small birds as she spoke of poetry and politics and our work as teachers and writers. It was the first time since the birth of her son two years earlier that we’d spent significant time alone, and we celebrated in the old manner with cocktails and conversation.
The poet is petite, and maybe because of this and the fact that she grew up in a large family, she commands space with notable mastery. The gesturing hands increase her dynamism and charm, but until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much I enjoyed watching them.
As I sipped my martini the hands of another––a young woman's––flashed through my mind. She attends meetings with me, meetings where we talk about trauma and healing. Like the poet, the meeting woman’s hands are small, but their movement can sometimes mimic a stroke victim’s as she talks about life’s upsets, part palsied and part divine gestures of an Indian goddess.
The poet momentarily twisted her wrists in a similar manner, and I was overcome by an extended sense of warmth for the younger woman via the warmth I already held for my friend––a connection of unexpected, even delightful, association.
I felt no need to mention it to my writing companion. My pleasure was a private one. It was a quick, perhaps even strange, experience of another’s beauty, seemingly too small, distinct, and personal to share. It was the recognition of a beauty that existed independently of aesthetic standards we normally associate with women’s hands: the length of fingers, smooth, unblemished skin, a perception about their gentleness and restraint. In that moment, my friend’s hands were beautiful to me because they were familiar, and I had apprehended their familiarity with fresh surprise.
As it turned out, my writing that weekend, was all about pain that arises from delaying happiness until we attain some standard of physical beauty that mostly exists outside ourselves. I was filling out a survey for Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton's book project Women in Clothes, and the questions provoked much thought.
I’ve waited patiently to become beautiful my whole life, mostly believing it will arrive once my belly no longer spills over my jeans or perhaps I begin aging in reverse. That my slender friend, who is petite and younger than me by eight long years, could possibly feel something similar would have been unbelievable to me before our retreat, which was why the conversation on our way home stunned me.
The poet began speaking of a ring she and her partner had chosen for a wedding they might one day actually plan. As the couple is frugal, she wasn't sure a ring was even for her. Yes, it was something she'd been thinking about for more than a year. Still, she went back and forth about the whys and why not of it all. “You know,” she said holding out her left hand, studying it with at it with a sharp, appraising gaze, “it doesn’t make much sense to buy a beautiful ring for such stubby fingers.”
That even my pretty friend, a woman with lovely gesturing hands, hands that have provided years of visual pleasure and even a kind of associative solace in meetings that are sometimes difficult to attend, that even she did not feel at peace with such a powerful and important part of her physical being––it seemed so obviously, I don’t know––wrong!
None us should live like that. Not one minute more should we think about some wrong part of ourselves, a part that is only wrong because of our faulty perceptions, a lunacy that separates us again and again from our fellows. Not one minute more should we think we are not loveable until some part of ourselves is righted, and then compensate for perceived flaws by hiding any part of ourselves away in shame.
We cannot be privy to the things in us which allow others to experience joy, but it is just as likely to be those parts that cause us pain as those parts with which we are already in peace.