The Other Side of Beautiful

She watched them head down the hallway and wondered what things would be like if Michael hadn’t left them. She wondered if Maisie even remembered the way things used to be.

This was an ugly time for her. The laundry lay in a messy pile, the sink was full of dishes. Her teenage son slept lankily on the couch, his limbs hanging off the edges. She cursed the tiny one bedroom but it was all she could afford. In fact she’d be lucky to make rent this month. She ran her fingers through her curly hair, grey at the roots, dark brown at the edges. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been to the salon. She looked at her hands, her bitten fingernails. She sighed and decided there were more important things to worry about. Like yesterday when she saw her son squeezing his feet into his shoes, wincing slightly. She’d have to come up with the money for new shoes and soon. She wondered if her boss would give her an advance on her paycheck. They could eat ramen and hotdogs for a month if they had to but he needed new shoes now.

She shuffled over to the coffee pot and pushed the button. The familiar gurgle gave her some reassurance she could make it through another day working the checkout line. She never thought she’d be scanning other people’s groceries at forty-one but life happens and she found herself with few if any other options. The coffee pot was full enough to pour a cup so she grabbed her favorite mug from the shelf and filled it with the hot liquid. After adding the milk she put it back in the fridge. The coffee was hot and perfect. If only she could stay there in her slippers and threadbare robe with the hole in the side drinking coffee at the tiny kitchen table. If only she didn’t have to change into the formless black polo and slacks, affix her name tag and drive her old, blue camry to greet the line of impatient shoppers.

”Mommy! I peed!” Her daughter’s voice rang out through the silent apartment.

“Did you pee in the potty Maisie?” She prayed for a yes.

”Yep and I wiped front to back!” Maisie’s pride in her accomplishment was palpable.

“Good job baby! Now go start getting dressed!” She looked over at her son on the couch starting to show signs of life.

“Luke! Maisie is up, she’s getting dressed. I need you to get her breakfast. Remember you’re on duty today. I have to work.” Luke groaned and reached for his cell phone.

”Jesus mom it’s Saturday.” He scrolled his Instagram, his eyes half closed. “Are they ever going to give you a fucking weekend off?” His voice was annoyed yet protective.

“Luke don’t swear! And I know what you mean. We’re short people right now you know that. There’s nothing I can do.”

”What about Dad why doesn’t he ever take her? It isn’t fair.” He threw his phone down on the couch in disgust.

”It’s complicated baby you know that.” Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment and anger. Life was a lot of things but fair was not one of them.

”I love you!” Maisie bounded down the hallway and jumped into her brother’s lap.

”I love you too Maisie girl.” Luke smiled at his sister. “Are you my supergirl?”

“Yeah!!” Maisie began jumping up and down on the couch. “Pow, bang!” Luke started laughing. “Supergirls need clothes Maisie! Not just underwear! Gross go get dressed!” He lifted her off the couch and led her down the hall to the bedroom she shared with his mother. “Go find a shirt supergirl!” She watched them head down the hallway and wondered what things would be like if Michael hadn’t left them. She wondered if Maisie even remembered the way things used to be.

The way things used to be. She almost laughed. She knew exactly how they used to be. She could forget a lot of things but never the afternoon she’d come home early from the caterer. She could never forget hearing the barely audible sighs and whispers from her bedroom as she made her way up the spiral staircase to the carelessly half open door. She could never forget opening the door the rest of the way to witness the rise and fall of a pale, freckled back in a swath of turkish bedclothes. Bedclothes she’d picked out; pale grey sheets and a deeper grey duvet cover with tiny, yellow flowers.  She could never forget that image, that moment. The slender, white back that wasn’t hers stretching and curving with an unfamiliar passion her bed had never known. She watched with morbid curiosity as her husband’s dark familiar hands held the girl’s hips gently, guiding them. They were oddly quiet, serious almost. Passionless but for the occasional sigh. Followed by a hushed reassurance as though they were both complicit in their lie. Their shared pretense that their orgasms held no consequences.

She closed the door gently and made her way back down the stairs. She set her single package on the counter and then her forehead, the cool stone stilling the the fury of betrayal thundering through her mind. Hadn’t she seen this coming? Could she truly say she cared? Their marriage had been dead long before this latest betrayal and she knew her husband cared even less about this woman- not even a woman- than she did. The thought brought her some comfort, but not enough to override the humiliation. She felt broken. It was only a month before that the IRS had started looking into their finances. She had seen the notices on the counter, by his bedside table. “Is everything okay?” She asked, knowing nothing was okay.

“Of course babe, they audit everyone eventually. I got this.” He had it or so he said. She had to admit she knew he’d had nothing. But she didn’t care. She knew that the car, the house…even the endless parade of women was merely a front. She knew he couldn’t let them see that barefoot boy he used to be and still was with his tightly curled afro and overalls two sizes too small getting knocked to the floor by his angry drunk of a father, glasses shattering on the dirty floor. “Get up and clean that shit up, you good-for-nothing excuse for a son!” White foam grew at the corners of his father’s mouth. “You heard me! I said get the fuck up and clean up this mess!” Through a swollen eye he watched his father loosen his belt and head towards the bedroom where he could hear his mother softly crying. He knew she’d be screaming soon after each whip of the belt. He cut his fingers on the broken glass on purpose each time she cried out. It was his penance for being born.

*To be continued*

An Ocean of Raindrops

Like a rainbow reflected in water, or the pattern of clouds across the sky, life as it is now is our gift. That there is nothing more beautiful for us to find.

My husband is an atheist. I asked him once, how can that be, that all we have are these moments? That holding our breath and waiting for true beauty to reveal itself wastes our only chance to experience the truly beautiful? He remarked without hesitation, “That’s what makes it so beautiful. It is just these moments.” I was stunned by his revelation and immediately the tears began to flow. In that brief second of time I could see the beauty of the world through my husband’s lens. Like a rainbow reflected in water, or the pattern of clouds across the sky, life as it is now is our gift. That there is nothing more beautiful for us to find. I also saw my husband’s true beauty. That here is a man who is good for the sake of goodness, not out of fear of some looming punishment.  A man who refuses to take any part of the great tapestry of life for granted. Because of that, he sees what God sees. He appreciates the hum of the elements coming together as one unending symphony of life, wherein Heaven and Hell exist only in the mind, as does our creator.

One can easily understand this philosophy. That rather than God, it is WE who choose how the brush strokes meet the paper to create the masterpiece that is LIFE, that we are as Godtruly choosing our own destinies, inventing our own realities, deciding how the masterpiece of the world will appear.

It is not a choice to love each individual raindrop of the ocean of creation. But what we do with that love IS a choice. Do we run from it? Do we throw it away by assigning responsibility for its care to some unseen deity? Or do we surrender to our love of the world and its many precious creatures? I agree with my husband wherein loving a collection of raindrops that when gathered together equal the water of life is an indescribably beautiful thing- A thing granted only those souls profound enough to accept it.

In this life, we choose our reality. We label our moments as either worthy or that which must be thrown away. But what if? What if we are throwing away the good stuff? What then? I’ve heard therapists and doctors talk about mindfulness as an antidote to depression and at first I felt confused by the idea. I didn’t understand how to be mindful on a level that would change anything about how I felt. But to view mindfulness though the lens of imagining that my raindrop and its role in the great art of the world is of the same importance as the ocean of drops surrounding it, I can then surrender my inner critic and experience each breath of life the way life is meant to be experienced. Without the constant editorial presence we develop along the road to adulthood. Great works of art are made up of elements. Artists realize this. That the individual brush strokes are what create the final image. That without each connection of the brush to the page, the image would be a different thing. Distinctly and irreversibly changed. We are each of us a brush stroke, creating the masterpiece of our world. We choose what our art becomes. The painting only God can see. God being the greatest artist and alive only if we choose Him to be for ourselves.

My daughter is sick. She has the flu and pneumonia. When my children are sick I always focus in on each tender moment with them, terrified of losing them to their illnesses. I watch the rise and fall of their chests when they breathe, I feel the dampness of their foreheads, the heat of their cheeks when they are flushed with fever. I listen to their coughing, analyzing the sound in case they don’t cough in the doctor’s office. I am completely aware of them, mindful of their existence. Their beauty becomes even more poignant because I am aware of how precious they are, and how vulnerable. I am not afraid to love them, even though to do so is to surrender myself to the possibility of loss.

Religion teaches us not to love the world, that there is a greater beauty beyond its borders. In the bible John 2:15 states:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.  If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

This is not the only example. When I was a bahai I was taught the same thing. The Bahai writings state:

O friend, the heart is the dwelling of eternal mysteries, make it not the home of fleeting fancies; waste not the treasure of Thy precious life in employment with this swiftly passing world. Thy comest from the world of holiness- bind not thine heart to the earth; thou art a dweller in the court of nearness- choose not the homeland of the dust.

-Baha’u’llah

In both of these messages there is a great emphasis on detachment as a means of coping with potential loss. It’s as if we are told to resist falling in love. A wonderful movie called Jack and The Cuckoo Clock Heart is almost an ode to this idea. Anyone who hasn’t seen it needs to. The protagonist Jack is born with a heart of ice and it is replaced with a cuckoo clock. He is told it will work only if he never falls in love. The moment he falls in love his life is over. The clock stops when he gives into his heart’s desire. He basically has power over his own life and yet he doesn’t because how do you control falling in love?  Again I think of my children. The fact that I could never accept that losing them would do anything other than rip a gaping hole in the world’s tapestry. That for me, the world would not be as beautiful without them. The image would be dramatically and irreversibly changed. I admit my love of them and of the world. I admit loving the details that comprise my reality in all of its diverse glory. I love them and the world because quite simply they are worth loving. I will forever rage against and mourn for their loss if they were to be torn away from the great work of art that is life. It is my right.

Esteemed architect Miles van der Rohe famously coined the phrase “God is in the details.” I love this saying because it attributes meaning to the small parts that make up the whole. It highlights the beauty of the elements that would otherwise be lost in the grand scheme. van der Rohe knew what atheists know, what other lovers of perfect situations and circumstances know. That beauty is what we say it is. That each moment is precious, but it is up to us to claim it. To emphasize the beauty of each individual piece of wood, metal or glass that fits together to create a building so beautiful it catches one’s breath. To fight for the recognition and protection of such beautiful things simply for the reason they are there, for us to love. It is up to me whether or not  to fight for my right to be thoroughly attached to the raindrop that is my child. To fight for the right to love the image of the world that is created with my child in it, knowing I will forever mourn the loss of it should that image change.  It is still worth taking that leap. Falling in love with your child, with your lover, with the world. Even though all things change and all things die, what we know of them will still exist if only in what they left the world and the memories they left the ones who loved them. It is up to us to be grateful that although the moments did not last, their memories will always echo through the chambers of our minds. That although the image was temporary, I was there and witnessed the harmony of the elements of the world through the lens of my experience. And the beauty of it did bring my to my knees and I felt blessed.