On Beauty and Aging

A discussion of the article, “One Woman Discovered the Fountain of Youth — And It’s Closer to Home than She’d Thought” by Leslie Garret (Redbook Magazine, May 2016)

http://www.redbookmag.com/beauty/anti-aging/a44196/leslie-garrett-on-beauty-and-aging/

In just a few hundred words, Leslie Garret writes an article that wonderfully captures a profound truth about women and how we feel about getting older: that despite the fact that “our culture doesn’t encourage us to see beauty in aging faces, programmed as we are to speak of beauty and youth in a single breath;”  real women come to realize that we grow more beautiful with each passing year, not less.

Garret argues that as the years pass and the list of things our bodies have helped us accomplished grows — running marathons, climbing mountains, birthing babies, weathering grief — our pride in our bodies and ourselves grows. We come to learn that beauty only rarely has to do with our looks, but far more often has to do with our strength, our kindness, our generosity, and our humor.

Reading this article, I was reminded of a quote by Laura Stavoe I found years ago, when I had just started to work with pregnant women. The quote reads, “there is a secret in our culture, it’s not that birthing is hard. It is that women are strong.”* Leslie Garret’s article reminds me that our culture has another secret: a woman’s beauty is not in constant decline as she ages, women do not grow more and more unhappy with themselves as they get older. The real truth is the older we get, the more we come to appreciate our bodies and the more we see just how beautiful and amazing they are. We get to leave behind the insecurities of youth and accept that our uniqueness is an asset, not a liability. We learn to listen to the people in our lives when they compliment us and begin to let their positive messages sink in and become the truth. After all, what mom has not had her small children tell her — with absolute sincerity and love — that she is the most beautiful woman in the world?

As Leslie Garret says, beautiful is not something we are, “beautiful is something we become.”

*I feel that I must qualify that this quote is was never meant to suggest that only mothers who birth naturally are strong; rather than the birthing process for all women demands strength and courage that is seldom discussed in popular culture. Read the author’s explanation of the quote in context here: https://birthtraumatruths.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/laura-stavoe-speaks-why-she-wrote-there-is-a-secret-in-our-culture-but-it-is-not-that-women-are-strong/ of

Eat Pray Love Made Me Do it (2016)

Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert, A Compilation of Essays

“Despair is a social condition in which you convince yourself that tomorrow is going to be exactly like today. Once you fall into despair, you don’t even try to alter anything in your life, because why bother? You become hypnotized by your own stagnation. You resign yourself to sameness because that’s what you’ve tricked yourself into thinking life is: eternal, soul-crushing sameness. But that is a myth and a lie. The entire story of creation is a story of ongoing change. And the moment you wake up and you realize that you are allowed to change and are allowed to assert agency over the direction you go next…this realization is the end of despair.” Elizabeth Gilbert, Forward

In 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert published her memoir, Eat Pray Love, and it became an international best-seller, and achieved a cult-like following, profoundly changing the lives of men and women of all ages, races, and backgrounds.

This book, Eat Pray Love Made Me Do it, is a compilation of forty-seven essays from super-fans who consider the memoir their saving grace: a call to change their lives of despair and stagnation into ones of hope and action. The essays on these pages tell the stories of women leaving abusers; of people taking charge of mental illnesses or addictions that were ruling their lives; people changing careers (leaving priesthood in one, entering the seminary in another); adult children finally leaving home, and many, many people ending failing marriages with the hope of finding longer-lasting love.

For every fan of Eat Pray Love, their is a reader out there who absolutely hates the book; among them are several of my close friends. Those anti-fans call the Gilbert “selfish”, call her journey “unrealistic” and “unattainable.” However, I feel like perhaps they are missing the point of the memoir: it is an attempt to tell one woman’s story about her very personal transformation…it is not a self-help book meant to tell others to follow her lead. The people who found something of their selves in the pages of her book were not following Gilbert’s example as much as allowing themselves to see the possibilities of greater happiness that might exist for them. Sometimes, in order to lift themselves out of despair a person has to do something that is selfish or unrealistic; something that means they put themselves and their joy above others, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I know that I would never accept a diminished life just to keep the peace. We only get one shot at life and I would hate to think that I put off dreams or limited choices out of a sense of decorum or obligation. The people in this compilation do not all leave loved ones to explore the world alone: many of them ask their loved ones to support their transformations and come along with them in order to experience their own! We should all strive to live in a world where we all are encouraged to find our own best lives.

 

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

e & p

The love story at the center of Eleanor and Park is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking; with Rainbow Rowell expertly capturing all of the yearning, fear, and frustration of young love. Our two main characters are the charming outsiders Park — a small, half Korean boy more into punk rock than football — and Eleanor — a poor, overweight, woefully neglected girl, who lives with constant bullying in and out of school. Despite all odds, the two come together — bonding over their shared love of music and comic books — and begin to build a beautiful, tender romance.

For a few short months, the magic of their love makes even their worst days rosy; creating a force field around the two so that their tormentors are stripped of their power. However, soon their relationship becomes public knowledge and the magic surrounding them fades. Park’s parents are step in: warning him that mixing with a “not good girl” will bring him nothing but trouble. Eleanor’s family also warns her off. Her abusive and sadistic step-father turning her relationship into something torrid that he uses to taunt her about her (imagined) promiscuity; her mother terrified that Eleanor is bringing herself too much to the attention of her stepfather begs her to abandon Park. Even the other kids at school find reasons to try to stop their budding romance.

Even when it is hard, even when they both feel completely out of their depths, Eleanor and Park have each other and their small stolen moments: on the bus ride to school sharing tapes and comic books. Or in Park’s house (“Eleanor hadn’t known there were houses like that…families like that. They were the Cleaver’s! She worried she would never belong in Park’s living room. She felt like she would never belong anywhere.”) They become inseparable and wildly in love! “Eleanor wanted to lose herself in Park. To tie his arms around her like a tourniquet. If she showed him how much she really needed him, he’d run away.” “Park wondered how this had happened — how she went from someone he’d never met to the only who mattered…when Park hugged Eleanor he wished that they could go through life like this. That he could physically put himself between Eleanor and the world.”

Soon, the time Eleanor spends away from her dysfunctional family draws notice and the horror’s her parents inflict on her grow into something Eleanor cannot safely face. It is only with Park’s love and patience, the kindness of his family, that she can receive the help she so badly needs.

“I just can’t believe that life would give us each other,” he said. “and then take it back.”

“I can,” she said, “Life’s a bastard.”

“But it’s up to us not to lose this,” he said softly, “it’s up to us.”

The story is a reminder of many battles teenagers fight every day as they try to make a live of their own while still under the control of every adult around them; they are simultaneously limited in their choices and over-punished for their mistakes. Over and over adult insist that love is not real for teens, that it is something saved only for adults, which is as ridiculous as it is sad. Eleanor & Park is also a reminder of the power of love to lift up even the most downtrodden and give them hope for a better life, one in which at least one person treasures them above all others and just as they are.

The limitations and restrictions the characters feel themselves placed under — those draconian rules set by angry and misguided adults — made me feel overwhelmed with gratitude that my teenage years are well behind me and my choices belong to no one but me. I beg of you to read the book and then think of your own teenage self with love and kindness, for surely even in the worst of times, you were trying your very best…and then be thankful that the dark days of young adulthood have passed. Bonus points if you have created a life of love and happiness in adulthood.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011)

This is the fifth Rainbow Rowell book I have finished in less than two weeks. I think it is possible that I have moved from a fan of her work to a super-fan; a title I will gladly hold. Since I have reviewed all of her books on this blog, I am giving her her own tag “Rainbow Rowell” so that other fans of her work can find all of my posts in one place. (Note: I purposely decided not to separate out her adult novels from her young adult novels since — speaking as the mother of a teenager — I believe them to be mild enough for teen audiences.)

Attachments is the story told from the point of view of Lincoln, a twenty-something man in Nebraska living in 1999, who is deeply lonely and unable to find a path to happiness. After weathering a staggering heartbreak in college, Lincoln largely closed off from socializing, choosing to focus on school and work. After finishing grad school, he moved home to live with his mother (a delightfully funny hippie) and slowly let go of the things in life that gave him happiness: friends, dating, sports…in short, fun.

It is only after taking a job at a newspaper office that has just upgraded its staff to computers that Lincoln’s life slowly starts to open up. Night after night, Lincoln comes to work well after the reporters are gone in order to read all of their email and report to the boss who is misusing their work-site internet access. Without having to build relationships with his actual colleagues, Lincoln is able to build fictional ones with them; coming to know them through their emails and web searches.

It is the close relationship between two female employees at the paper that most intrigues Lincoln and, even well past the point of propriety, he finds himself drawn to their email conversations. Lincoln comes to “know” Jennifer and Beth as funny, loving, kind women and he comes to learn of their most intimate moments: loves, losses, and heartbreaks while never once even seeing their faces. He longs to meet them, but feels trapped. Getting to know them after reading their emails for almost a year, he argues to  himself, would be starting out their friendship with a huge lie: like making money “off insider trading tips.” So he witnesses their friendship from afar and soon realizes that he is in love with Beth. And then, the magic starts!

What follows are a beautiful, if nontraditional, love story where the universe (or at least, the Internet) brings two people together who might have otherwise worked side-by-side without ever knowing one another.

Attachments is classified as a romance novel, but I feel that perhaps it is better categorized as a rom-com. Although the book is undoubtedly a love story, one of its most charming characteristics is its delightful sense of humor; and its quirky male narrator, Lincoln. In addition to being distinguished by its humor, the friendship/love story between Beth and Jennifer, which is central to the book, also lends more heartwarming appeal to what is already a unique and lovely novel.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (2016)

Ca.0420.birds.

I have to admit that before I read The Nest, I judged this book by its cover (or at least it’s book jacket summary), assumed that it would be another overly melodramatic story of a rich family terrible at making good decisions. After finishing the book, I have to say that while it is melodramatic story of a rich family terrible at making good decisions it is also as well written, compelling and empathetic book, and I loved it anyway.

The story moves back and forth through the past and present lives (and points of view) of the Plumb family — siblings Leo, Jack, Melody, and Beatrice; their mother, their spouses, and their children and friends — as they struggle to find happiness and peace of mind; two things in short supply in the cutthroat world of the rich New Yorkers. Although they are adults, the siblings are presented to us as largely petulant children who want nothing to do with each other except when it comes to the money they are set to inherit from their family trust — “The Nest” — in the coming years. When the most selfish and self-destructive sibling, Leo, causes a terrible accident that nearly destroys the life of a young woman and ends his marriage, the Nest is emptied to pay to fix his mistakes and hide him from legal culpability.

Leo’s remaining siblings are stunned that their brother’s illegal and immoral actions are being swept under the rug, but even more outrageous is that their fortune has been sacrificed for their feckless brother. Hidden under their outrage is their crippling fear: the siblings have long lived their live well beyond their means, waiting for that magical day when their financial sins will be washed clean by the money in the Nest.

Balancing out these spend-thrift main characters are a cast of satellite characters who urge caution and thriftiness: the Plumb’s spouses, children, lovers, and colleagues who all stand in contrast to the selfish, self-absorbed Plumb’s. As the story proceeds, it becomes glaringly obvious that money does not buy happiness nor security. It is one of these characters, Stephanie one of Leo’s lovers, who holds the group together and reestablishing the semblance of a family from the wreckage Leo has left behind. In addition to displaying wisdom, caution, and scruples, Stephanie also becomes one of only a few characters who thinks of others. She reaches out to help improve the lives of people injured by the Plumb’s…something none of them think to do.

The story’s characters are largely unlikable but they are redeemable, and that makes it worth the time it takes to hear their story, all the way through, before judging them hopeless.  What their journey highlights in such dramatic fashion is the extent to which being rich — and growing up around only wealthy people, living in a city that worships wealth and living with the prospect of greater future wealth (via an inheritance) — causes the characters to become psychologically disturbed. They suffer from such severe cases of affluenza that they waste huge sums of money and justify their spending with the knowledge that “there is always more where that came from.” They spend their lives truly believing that having the exact right artwork or antiques, sending their kids to the most expensive private schools, will make all the difference. And it does, only not in the ways they anticipate…it means that when the money runs out, their houses of cards completely collapse and every single part of their lives must change.

Their inheritance evaporates and panic ensues. They siblings are practically crippled when faced with making good economic decisions: they purchase ridiculously expensive items on credit; agree to ponzi schemes and adjustable rate mortgages without ever considering the risk; they justify spending to “look the part” and to disguise their failing good fortune. Even worse, they begin to lie to the their loved ones, conceals expenses, sabotage recovery efforts…they become like children who are willing to destroy all the fun if they cannot be a part.

The resulting story is one of the tortoise and the hare, the characters who plan, work, and save weather the storm of economic downturn and uncertainty; and those who spend (and spend and spend) end up losing everything, or almost everything. But despite their fall from grace, the family finds something even more valuable: each other and a life of support, love, and friendship that all the money of their youth concealed from them.

oriole

Landline by Rainbow Rowell (2014)

“Things did not go bad for Georgie and Neal. Things were always bad and good. Their marriage was like a set of scales constantly balancing itself. And than, at some point, when neither of them was paying attention, they’d tipped so far over into bad they’d settled there. If Georgie could talk to herself in the past, before the scales had tipped, what would she say? Love him more.”

Landline is the story of a marriage between Georgie and Neal from its first, heady moments upon meeting in college (“Neal didn’t take Georgie’s breath away, but the opposite, he filled her lungs with air”) until the moments right before Christmas 2013 when their marriage appears to be ending.

Georgie is a headstrong, outspoken comedian and writer who wholeheartedly pursues Neal from the very first, “she had added Neal to this list of things she wanted and needed and was bound to have someday. Georgie had decided, cocksure, that Neal was what she needed to be happy.” Neal is a soft-spoken, Midwestern boy, unclear of what the future had in store for him, a boy in love with Georgie and willing to make her dreams his own without any thought to what that would mean in the future.

And so their life begins, Georgie charging forward toward the life that she wants — working and writing for television in LA — and Neal, aimless and in love, along for whatever ride Georgie took him on. “Georgie had tied Neal to her so tight…because she wanted him, because he was perfect for her, even if she was not perfect for him. Because she wanted him more than she wanted him to be happy.” As the years pass, Georgie needs more from Neal (to care for the house, to raise their daughters, to smooth out her sadness and failures) and needs Neal, as a partner, less and less. She has ignored his growing unhappiness, his sadness at always having to take a backseat to her goals and dreams, and hoped that his love for her would be enough to keep the marriage together.

Finally, Neal has had enough and tells Georgie that this time she will have to choose Christmas with the family or work, that he will not cancel the holiday and disappoint loved ones to accommodate her work schedule. Georgie choose work, Neal goes. Only hours later does she begin to realize that Neal might have left forever. Frantic at their miscommunication, she tries repeatedly to get in touch with Neal on his cell but no calls or texts will go through. Only when she calls on her mother’s landline to his mother’s landline can she reach him…and when she does it is not the Neal of 2014 that she reaches, but Neal circa 1998, the Christmas before they married.

Fearing a nervous breakdown Georgie ends the call and tries to ignore the rising terror she feels at not being to get in touch with Neal. These fears force her to really look at the past sixteen years — really look, no rose colored glasses, no “I’ll deal with this another day” — to see if she can find what went wrong. As the days pass, the only version of Neal she can reach on the phone is the one from 1998, so she engages him as best she can in a dialogue about their marriage. A marriage she is desperate not to let go of, and one he does not know yet exists. In Georgie’s darkest moments, she has to admit to 1998 Neal that choosing to marry her will make him happy at times but also very, very unhappy at others. Present day “Neal was not happy or unhappy…he never pushed or pulled, but he was pissed, resentful, tired, bitter and lost.” Georgie had allowed him to be so, “because she had come to need Neal, he had become like air to her” and she would not let him go, even if it was best for him.

What follows is an amazingly unique and magical story of one woman’s attempt to examine the past and present of her marriage to determine whether or not clinging to Neal, circa 2013, is what is best for him. She must confront her own selfishness, her demons about whether she worthy of love, her fear of abandonment, and what is means to be in marriage that is truly a partnership. Georgie realizes that she has allowed the everyday to obscure the magical parts of her marriage; she has allowed Neal’s unhappiness to stretch too far, allowed too many to go unsaid…and now she must face the truth, have they strayed too far from loving one another to recover?

Georgie comes to realize that her marriage is not a place she and her husband reside, but a connection they have forged to one another through seventeen years of love and commitment. “You can’t know what it means, really, to crawl into someone’s else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin. When Georgie thought of divorcing Neal, she imagined them on two operating tables with a team of doctors trying to unthread their vascular systems.”

Astonishingly touching and so, so tender, this is a novel that I felt deeply moved by…not only for Rowell’s wonderful characters, not only for the magic she weaves into the book with skill and humor, but also for the wonderful examination of love and marriage. As a woman who met her husband in college in 1998, I cannot but feel drawn to her story  because Georgie and I share the same cultural frame of reference. In fact, she specifically mentions the first movie my husband and I ever saw together, Life is Beautiful….not to mention umpteen CD’s I also had and shows I watched and loved. Far more importantly, this story touches me because it reminds of what a beautiful, amazing gift a marriage filled with love is and how important it is for us to nurture and care for it so it can thrive.

swatch-phone

My all-time favorite ever landline phone. My see-through Swatch Watch double talk phone.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2015)

“And it was a happy ending — even if isn’t the ending I ever would have dreamt for myself.”

carry on

WOW! I absolutely loved this book! I gobbled it up, I inhaled it, I devoured it! In fact, if there were not two wonderful people in my life dying to get their hands on my copy of the book, I would have finished the last page and immediately restarted it. Rowell has truly accomplished something magical (no pun intended) with this book…she has made a fantasy story that is quality parts Young Adult romance and whimsical fairy tale. If Fangirl and Harry Potter had a love child, it would be Carry On — it is that good. While Rowell’s Fangirl is not a prequel to this book , the world of Watford was born within the pages of Fangirl and it really is a worthy place to start this journey. You can read my review of Fangirl here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-kf

I hardly know where to start in reviewing this novel. It is a fantasy story set in a magical school in England for teenage magicians learning to use their magic. There are posh uniforms, spells to learn, enemies to thwart, and evil plots to unveil. Even if it sounds like it poor version of Harry Potter, it totally works. The world Rowell creates is just different enough that while you are reading about Watford School, you feel like you are reading about Hogwarts hipper counterpart, not its replica. In a way the story is freer than HP, because the characters do not feel compelled to be so proper, nor their relationships so chaste, and the result is a funny, sexy, and thrilling book…one that gives us spells and epic magical battles but with a much more teen twist (meaning cell phones, drinking, and sex.)

Carry On is presumably book eight in a non-existent series. However, Rowell writes the story in such a way that you learn the entire backstory, the author filling in the blanks along the way so that you feel as if the other six books do exist. The effect is miraculous: readers do not feel cheated, instead reading Carry On gives you the sensation that you have read seven wonderful books, not just one. (More bang for your buck!) As you read, you are pulled into this story and you are given glimpse of all the stories that came before it.

Carry On, at its heart, is a love story. Rowell is doing something profound with this book. In the process of telling us a really good fantasy tale she is also telling us a love story about two young men and defiantly refusing to call it a “gay love story.” It simply is a love story — no qualifiers needed. And what a fantastic love story it is: filled with all the angst and drama and power of any young adult love story but infused with a real sense of tension. As we all know, while most heterosexual relationships are given cultural permission to exist, it is often the case the those for gay men and women are deemed completely taboo. Thankfully that is starting to change, and books like Rowell’s are a reflection of those (slow) changes. She is writing a love story about two men and in no way giving readers the impression that it is off-limits or unallowable. All the characters in the book accept that being gay is just part of their lives or their loved ones. Rowell makes sure that we all know she believes who you love should never matter — only how you treat them.