you are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

I’m 21 today. Here begins a long period of denial that my teenage years are over. It’s true what they say, that we long to grow up and the moment we do, we wish we could go back. I’m not yet grown up but I have this sinking feeling that this is the beginning of the end of my carefree days. I can no longer so freely use my youth as an excuse for stupidity and poor behaviour. It’s kind of sad and yet I know, I believe,  all that is yet to come is infinitely better than what I leave behind.

I’ve been working on this post for some time now. I employed a bit of a different writing technique to get here, courtesy of my wildly creative and helpful boyfriend, and I’m thrilled to say, it temporarily cured my writers block. It’s about beauty.

(If you care: instead of setting out to write perfection on the first go around, I simply scribbled down all the words and phrases that were burning holes in my brain. I wrote disjointedly, without sentences, without structure, until my brain was satisfied that it had been thoroughly emptied of all emotion and intent. I came back to it after some time and rewrote it all into coherence. Then I sat down with the original chicken scratch, the first “draft”, and my laptop, and picked it apart until I was satisfied. Why? Because it matters to me. The process is part of the joy and the joy is worth it in the end.)

Here goes.

I don’t know how to be this woman they all keep talking about. This ‘real’ woman. Seems to me we’ve been trying to define her for so long now that we’ve lost all track of ourselves along the way.

I can’t make it all make sense.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when we fell, flailing wildly, from what it means to be beautiful. Full of beauty. Beautiful. When did the curves of my body become the pinnacle of my beauty and the features of my face my ticket to acceptance? When did the forcefulness of my will become the only hope for my future? As if I can never be anything unless I cling to this thing called feminism – a movement that assures me that unless I scream at this world for respect, I can never be respectable. I don’t know why we ever allowed this devouring culture to tell us that our bodies, our faces, our success, our skills, are our only shot at living as a woman should. We have lost what it means to be full of beauty; beauty not of mere adornments or outward blessings but beauty of the soul full of love and peace and hope. Can we hope yet for a culture that treasures women of integrity? Women of pure soul and women who choose to love all things and all people of good and noble and true being?

Everywhere I look, I see aesthetic beauty elevated above all else. The beauty that means the very least, the kind that fades and changes and hides self serving intentions and laziness, is the kind we most value. But that woman? The woman plastered upon every front page of those empty, senseless, pedestals we call magazines? She flees dependence and she loathes to be led. Her body is her salvation and her portion is his perusal. She aches to be skin and bones and the quest leaves her heart stripped bare as the skin she shares with the world. And when skin and bones fall out of fashion, she turns to false measures to be ‘real’ once again. To be a ‘real’ woman.

Can we find our way back? Learn to love those pieces of ourselves that will not be what we wish they would? Can we embrace the silliness, the neuroticism, the bumps and rolls, the guffawing laughs that don’t trill delightfully and ladylike? Can we hold sacred again the innocence of a pure mind that dwells on true things?

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Innocence. She is an angel flung violently from our person just as soon as we become aware she’s even there. I remember this urgent need to strip myself until the innocence fell to the ground; to know, to learn, to claim experience and understanding, never knowing how I could never not know again and how much I would wish I could. You can’t unlearn what your probing 14 year old eyes probed to find. Innocence back then? It was a sin and experience the most sought after prize.

I’ve spent so long trying to be this unattainable woman that I’ve forgotten how character, not aesthetics, truly speaks to a soul. Beauty – the kind you can buy – does not have the power nor the wherewithal to change the world. A heart full of beauty lights the soul from within; it shines on the truth and it covers the ugly and it changes the world every.single.day. with all the force of sound character.

Can we stand up? Can we teach ourselves to cherish the pieces of truth that speak louder than eloquent words and brazen leadership? Can we commit ourselves – hold ourselves – to something greater and truer and far more admirable?

My favourite kind of book often tells stories of women who braved the open frontier decades ago, who worked hard, honestly, unceasingly. Their men praised them for their integrity, their strength of heart, the strength of their hands that provided and nurtured, and for the fullness of their unadulterated beauty. I’ve lost count of all who have laughed at the books I choose but the truth is and always has been that my mind feasts on this purity. My heart longs for purity of life. And yet, here and now, the standard slips further and further from our grasps. Why are we letting it slip? I feel the loss so keenly, every day, as my eyes wade their way through a shallow pool of what it means to be a woman today.

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I read once that every time we choose to forgive somebody, the world is never the same. Having a pretty face or being my ‘own woman’ will not give me a heart strong enough to forgive others their wrongs or to forgive myself of all my failure. Beauty – the kind of beauty this world values just as they value money – cannot change the world. To change the world is to change your heart, one day at a time. To change the world is to love it so deeply, slowly unraveling with the tenderness of your heart, the fabric of this shallow, barren culture.

A long time ago, somebody asked me to tell them the things I found beautiful. I didn’t have an answer for them. How positively cowardly.

You. You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Calloused hands. Laugh lines. The stretch marks of a mother. Forgiveness. Empathetic eyes. Grey hair. Little ones arms wrapped around your neck, trusting you will hold them fast. Licking the brownie bowl clean and not caring for one second about what it will do to your figure. I think the muscles of a hard worker are beautiful and you know what? I think jutting bones and flat chests are pretty gorgeous too.

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When I woke up this morning, I thought about how 21 would be different than all the years before. I thought about grand changes, life changes, and I thought about the quiet, imperceptible changes in the person I’m becoming. I think that maybe 21 is about looking in the mirror and trying to love what you see, even if what you see isn’t what you wish was there. Maybe becoming a grown up, becoming a woman, is going to be about learning to value the parts of me that will not conform to an ideal, no matter how painstakingly I try. Becoming a woman cannot happen until you discover what womanhood – what beauty – truly means. Not what it looks like but what it means. And it is so much greater and lovelier a thing than all we’ve relegated it to in this world. More than any of this, 21 will be about finding with ease the beauty in the souls around me. The kind of beauty that you cannot put a name to or a price on and the kind that changes the world with its fullness.

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