On the meaning of real beauty

It’s both cool and dark out right now, ten after six about four hours north of Nairobi. The restaurant light is on but breakfast won’t be ready until eight. Last night the tall cook sliced up a fat, thick, in-season mango for my growling stomach, and delivered it to the door of my thatched hut here in Ol Pejeta, one of the world’s great conservation facilities, and the last home and hope of the black rhino.

Black and white rhinos, happily, are beginning to thrive again here, having gone from barely twenty to more than 100, which for the rhino population is the number where they are considered a “key” population.

Simon, my E-Trip Africa guide and driver who picked me up in Nairobi yesterday to deliver me here, was following one of Ol Pejeta’s trucks as we were about to visit the resident veterinarian when we passed two rhinos: mom and baby. We slowed to a stop, the road’s dust swirling around us, the high grasses waving in the wind. He took my camera and took several shots for me.

Rhinos are beautiful.

They are squat, horned, wide, chubby, barely able to see.

And they are beautiful.

Let’s talk about beauty.

This morning fellow Medium peep Trude Diamond sent me the above line that I stole for my title. A lifelong friend had sent that to her in a birthday card, and I liked it so much that I stole it (and warned her). I am struck, as I recently passed the 67 mark, at how much more beautiful I am now than ever I was as a young woman. This, of course has, nothing whatsoever to do with the patterns and webs of encroaching wrinkles that inform my face, the slight sag of aging skin on my once-taught calves and thighs. Those things could drive me mad, should I let them, and for some whose sad comments I read on Medium, they do indeed.

I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit at times to thinking that the turkey gobbler neck that has begun to show, a gift from my sainted mother, would look better if it were tightened up. If the slight droop and deepening lines at the edges of my slightly-askew smile, also a gift from my sainted mother, would look better if it were snugged a bit. I don’t know too many aging Western women who don’t lift their faces a bit to see what a lift would do for lifting their spirits.

How unfortunate that we don’t take the same assessments, which are often far more honest and far more fair, of the state of our souls as opposed to the sad state of our skins.

Part of what inspired my thoughts this morning was Trude’s comment on an article I wrote about how a trainer had shamed me about a preference in music. She wrote:

“Mensa! My IQ got me in, and my EQ got me out.”

Some many years ago I was drawn to the idea of joining Mensa if for no other reason than I was terribly insecure. For so many years, thanks to my brother’s nighttime assaults and my father’s verbal viciousness as my hips began to grow in their inevitable, genetically-driven horizontal expansion (from his side of the family, I might add), I felt stupid, fat and ugly.

My IQ, which had been measured at 132 at an early age, made me just barely able to squeak in to Mensa, had I desired to apply. However, once there, I’d likely have been regularly faced with IQ giants, and people whose low EQ would more than likely have made them quite happy to remind me that I had barely, barely qualified to become a member. Compared to them, stupid.

Yah. I need that like I need colon cancer.

I have worked with such people in the form of brilliant engineers, scientists and technicians at companies like (then) Martin Marietta, McDonnell-Douglas and Rockwell International.

Assholes. Smart assholes, but still assholes.

Not beautiful. The rescued chimps that the good veterinarian just introduced me to have higher EQs than those professional jerks. And as a result, they are beautiful. Much more so. While they, too, get involved with internecine warfare, they spend lots of time tenderly grooming, caring for, protecting from bullying and touching each other to ensure community. One aging mother has adopted a very young chimp orphan whose food is regularly stolen. Boy does she weigh in when that baby is either attacked or bullied out of her bananas. That’s beautiful.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Crow’s Feet, a Medium publication that I contribute to regularly, has an ancient woman that I find lovely, her face at rest. Her visage is storied. Someone commented that the woman would “look better were she smiling.”

No. This woman doesn’t owe us that. Like the rhinos we passed yesterday, in all their craggy grey glory, she is glorious.

Beauty is all too often wasted on those of us who worry so horribly about losing it to age that we become ugly.

I walked into a Costa Rica plastic surgery office some years ago (long story). The place was jam packed full of gorgeous, flawless women. They were there for procedures to fix what was already perfect, terrified by time into spending their treasure to keep what had been given them to enjoy in the moment. Yet they couldn’t. I see the same worrying and compulsive wrinkle-hating on Medium, even as time inexorably carves that worry into the very youth that we are losing by worrying about losing our youth.

In my case, have lost. But not my youthful soul I haven’t. That’s expanded exponentially, in direct proportion to how much less I give a flying fuck about looking young and having people compliment me on not looking my age. Really. Kindly. How meaningless in the greatest scheme of our humanity.

Our faces are the blank stones into which we carve our character. Thank god mine reflects the internal work I’ve done. How I behave (or do my level best to anyway): the compassion, empathy, personal responsibility, the willingness to care, to listen, to hear, all give you and me far more grace than having an angel’s face.

I’ve lately had cause to really enjoy who I have become and am becoming. The older I get, the less I worry about whether my makeup is perfect (that’s if I have any on at all, which is rarely called for when you’re in the African bush or the Patagonian high country) or whether the skin on my knees looks like an elephant’s ass. It does. Get the fuck over it.

The older I get, the more time I will spend with animals that have also gotten old, or are injured, or are slow. While so many around me will flock to the babies, and who doesn’t, the old horse with the bum leg is just as deserving of love - if not much more so - for the work he has given us and the price he paid willingly for that hard work. Such as it is with all old things. They deserve even more care and respect, for they have put in the time. They bear the scars and pain of long life, losses and what wisdom those experiences might have conveyed. If we’re fortunate, we get to learn from them.

If we’re stupid, we shove what is old away and out of sight. For they are reminders, the great sign posts, of where we must all end up, if we are so fortunate to have long life. In our society, they are instead a source of terror. We read aging as deterioration, rather than the vast opportunity to evolve that it truly is.

Youth may have unlined beauty, and as with all young things (other than newborns, who have the distressing characteristic of looking like a beet-red Winston Churchill) they express an ideal. They are largely unsullied by life, and in our imagination, I think that there is yearning that if only we looked young, we might return to some semblance of innocence. That somehow the appearance of youth might deliver us to what we imagine as a better time.

But I wouldn’t trade my barking back, my barked shins, and my skin that looks like bark on a bad day for my 18-year-old face for anything.

Because beauty is earned. On her better days (and she could be a right bitch) Mother Theresa was beautiful.

Like the great rhino is beautiful. She is fully herself, as are we all, especially when we age without apology.

Part of the wisdom of encroaching age is the ability, should we care to grow it, to see beauty in endings. In losses. The pain of passage and the inevitability of death. The great gorgeousness of age, as I add more years to my ledger, is that increasingly I see the beauty of simply being. The need to bolster my self-image with titles (member of MENSA!!!) or accolades (FIRST PRIZE!!!) steps aside for the greater need to make a difference, leave a legacy, and lean into the great life lessons of deeply appreciating a cool morning, birdsongs and a hot cuppa joe while iridescent African starlings dance around the table looking for crumbs.

What you and I trade as we age is, with any luck at all, the ability to deeply appreciate what it means to accumulate years as opposed to accolades, experiences as opposed to personal effects.

That’s beautiful.

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash