Ursula Le Guin’s Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty (1929) is the most spectacular write-up on “beauty.” We are left with a bone-deep awareness of “beauty” that rings true inside of us all. As I watch the greys become more pronounced than the blacks in my hair, and the traces of time draw deeper lines on my face, I look at the young and see how we differ in our versions of understanding what is beautiful. Or maybe time has helped me remove the veil and go into what is truly a bone-deep experience.
My first encounter with the dissociation of what stands on the outside and what needs to be visited on the inside came as I walked towards my English 101 class. That moment in time resembled a movie scene when there is an explosion, and for added effect, the director mutes everything on the screen and zooms in on the characters and the chaos that ensues. Everything is moving, exploding yet everything is quiet and still. You are on the outside of the screen experiencing everything inside of the screen. It’s real and yet unreal, and you know it. Time slows down! You take everything in including the broken shards and broken people.
Now that I’ve given you the analogy let me take you closer to looking at the experience of aging from my perspective. As you age, time slows down. Things begin to move in slow motion like the movie screen. You take everything in including the broken notions and past delusions.
We must play the part or as Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage. Men and women are but actors.”
Youth or youthfulness while we are in it, is stifling. It’s stifling simply because it demands from you an exuberance of perfection. Physical perfection.
Perfection looks lean, hard, taut like a twenty-year-old. I remember when I was in senior-high what that meant. Supple skin, voluptuous breasts, a lean waist, long hair, mascara, a hint of lipstick, and if all went well at home and at school, one could have waxed legs and arms. I was boney, athletic, dark and sported short hair. But that got me nowhere with the boys. The long-haired, supple-skinned girls did.
I hated the beauty game. I wasn’t willing to play it, so I got left behind. I saw what it did to me inside. I despised feeling that way. I saw what it did to the ones who held the power. It starved and poisoned us both. I was ruffled and riled by the constant nagging inside my head as it starved me of my true self. The ones who possessed the beauty were self-dissatisfied that they starved and deformed and poisoned themselves. I saw anorexia and bulimia, and distortion of real beauty. Something that lay within, and something that remained untouched.
So what does it look like? This whole notional thing called a beautiful being?
Well, to go to the end, one must start at the beginning. All of it begins at childhood. It is so easy to live as a child. All of us long to go back for it was a simple time. And before long, our bodies begin to transform into the freckle-faced or lanky adolescent to only change again into a slightly chubbier, rotund adult. The constant nagging question of who we really are never seizes to stop. Each time we look in the mirror, the same question haunts us. Am I who I think I am?
And in looking through the mirror through space and time, and over and over again, we begin the gradual process of looking beyond everything that is skin deep. Here is where Le Guin’s is at her poetic best when she says, “And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don’t affect what I think of them. Some of these people I consider to be very beautiful, and others I don’t. For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.”
When that moment arrives, where things fall into place, you see yourself for who you are. And you realise you are again where you were at 16. At 16 you look for your identity, and later, much later, you’ve lost it. Growing old is anguishing. You slip through the cracks of your own palms. You try to hold on and realise, your bones and knuckles can’t quite keep up.
So you sit with yourself again and try to find again who you really are. It is a confusing and complex phenomenon. You discard layers, and many different kinds of layers until you get closer to the naked truth. You discard along the way people, relationships, things, possessions and everything that kept you from getting bone-deep.
Here is when the radiance of the morning sun reaches you before the light. You commune with your aging body and a youthful spirit. Your spiritual self, you realise, has remained untouched and vibrant. So begins the journey towards discovering the beauty that is bone-deep.