The car pulled out in front of me and stood out from the rest of the traffic like the proverbial sore thumb. I followed it up the long road towards the village, conscious of how different it looked. Neither veteran nor vintage, it was simply an older model Volvo… nothing special, not that old either; but while all the other cars on the road, including my own display all the seductive curves of a beauty contest, the Volvo still sported the angularity of … well, not so very long ago, when I thought about it.
It struck me that it is only over the past decade, really, that cars have moved into this aerodynamic voluptuousness. Even then, the change has been such a gradual shift, with cars of all ages on the roads, that we barely take any notice. It was only seeing this one against the backdrop of so many others that made it stand out from the crowd at all.
I was surprised to realise that I had grown used to the seeing curves. I hadn’t particularly liked the design departure when it had been introduced. The rounded contours didn’t look ‘right’ to someone who had grown up in a world of automotive angles and fins. The only really curvy cars were things like the Morgan… or the E-Type… vehicles whose shape fills me with driverly lust. Most standard family cars were less wanton and more straitlaced in their proportions.
How long, I wondered, had it taken for the change to settle into our minds as ‘normal’? At what point had ‘novel’ become ‘usual’? And isn’t it incredible how adaptable we are as a species? Any one of us who looks back over our lifetime… whatever our age… can see how much the world has changed for us, even in a few brief decades. The lives of men are short, no more than a speck of dust on the evolutionary timescale, yet we handle the rapidity of change with barely a raised eyebrow.
I find that amazing.
I was born before Uri Gagarin went into space… before Armstrong stood on the moon. When most phone calls were made from the red phone box by using a round dial and long before modern computers changed our world. I remember so many changes… yet adapting to them seems to leave no trace in memory. We just do.
It was borne home just how quickly strange becomes normal as I started to set up my new phone. Very different from the last phone… it Does Stuff. I’ll even be able to access the sites my computer won’t let me! And it does it much faster. In fact, it appears to be faster than my PC. And I don’t have clue how to get it set up… except, actually, I do. When did that happen? How come?
I mean, I’ve always kept up with technology as far as my means would allow, ever since I got hooked on the possibilities. But when did being clueless become being competent? And I didn’t even notice…
That is pretty incredible. Not me being able to press a non-existent button on a flat glass screen … the human capacity to adapt to and benefit from change. Perhaps it is that, rather than our famously opposable thumb that has allowed our species such evolutionary success?
On the down-side, it does mean we are probably far quicker than we should be to ‘accept’ the negatives of our world… the political finagling, the socio-economic problems that ought to bother us far more than they tend to in daily life. We’ve got used to violence and to the dumbed down varieties of mass entertainment.
On the other hand, it just shows how quickly humanity could adapt to a better way of living, and how easily peace and equality could slip into the conscious mind as ‘normal’ if we can ever manage to attain it.
Either way… I was just another of those great realisations. Humanity has such potential…. I wonder what we’ll do with it next?
PROJECTION OF GOLD
In truth, it is certain and without doubt that whatever is above tends toward that which is below and whatever is below tends toward that which is above for the accomplishment of the One Perfected Thing.
As all things are discovered by one, alone through contemplation so all things are born from this one, alone by permutation: its Father is the Sun, its Mother is the Moon, the Wind bears it in its Belly, the Earth nurtures it in its Heart; Power of all powers it contains the subtle and penetrates the solid and is the progenitor of all wonder in the world yet its efficacy is only perfected through embodiment.
In order that the little world may be re-created in the image of the great world the Spirit must be separated from the Body gradually by the regulated heat of a gentle flame: it rises to heaven from earth and falls back to earth from heaven and thus it acquires the inferior and superior powers for the glory of the whole world and the dissipation of all darkness…
This is the Way of Perfection…
I alone transmit this threefold wisdom which is why I am called The Thrice Raised Hermes.
“…item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.”
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
Let’s be clear… fashions change, in beauty as in all else. Many of the celebrated beauties of history would not cut the mustard by today’s standards. Cleopatra had a big nose. Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson, was fat by the time they met. And Rubens’ Venus had cellulite. The list could go on. These women, accounted great beauties in their day, to modern eyes may lack that certain something we are almost indoctrinated to seek. Was it just fashion that gave them their place in history? Or was there more to these women? Charm, grace, laughter and intellect; or did they exude that sensuality that attracts regardless of face?
I was speaking with a woman today, very beautiful to my eyes. Just a chance acquaintance, but so much of her story was poured out in that brief meeting … a tragic one… and all rooted in a simple fact; she felt worthless unless she could feel beautiful. It made me angry and set me thinking about my own journey to being comfortable in my skin. Both men and women are too often made to feel they must live up to an aesthetic ideal, yet what really matters is what is under the skin.
I never felt beautiful. I was born several centuries too late to ever be the life model for a painting of Venus. I feel I would have liked Rubens.
Looking back now at old photos, I was a pretty child at that age when, as a child you really do not notice or care about such things. I was a ‘girlie’ girl, with pale curls and the big brown eyes I now love in my younger son. Though he has always had far more eyelashes than any man should lay claim to…
As a teenager I could ape, but lacked, the confidence of my peers. I never felt I matched up. There was no envy, no sour grapes… it was just the way things were and I admired my friends, envying only their confidence. I stopped growing upwards around the five foot mark and rounded out. The pale curls became an un-tameable mop of mousey brown. The nose, broken by this stage already, had become a family joke; kindly meant, but leaving uncomfortable bruises on the fragile surface of the fledgling woman. The legs were decent, but the ankles not quite as fine as my mother’s… nor the wrists… nor the cheekbones… or the dratted nose. And comparison was inevitable… we looked very much alike.
My mother had lovely hair, rich auburn… and better skin too. My teenage acne had me evicted from the doctor’s waiting room one day. “You can’t bring her in here with measles!” the receptionist had said. Which did wonders for my flagging self-confidence, as you can imagine! Yet the weird thing was, I never lacked a boyfriend back then. It certainly wasn’t beauty that attracted them… I made my own guess at the cause and did my confidence even less good.
I could always see beauty in others and have tried to find ways to have them see in themselves what I could see. Bodies are incredible machines, sculpted by a master in every conceivable shape, size and hue. I have never yet seen a face I find ugly or physically repulsive, only expressions … calculated nastiness, venomous hatred and coldness… have ever seemed ugly. People can be unattractive that way. But most are not. Most have similar issues of self-image to my own and, no matter what you say or do, few can accept their own beauty as it is in the eyes of another. Even my own sons will not accept what is mirrored in my eyes… I am ‘just Mum’… my opinion therefore counts for nothing.
Eventually, I was a wife, and could look in the mirror and acknowledge that the reflection was okay… not beautiful, not by any standard I knew. But okay, and that was good enough. The eyes were nice. The nose wasn’t too bad really and could have been worse. The lips a perfect shape. Even the skin was reasonable at last. Confidence began to build… till a drunk driver rearranged the face a fair bit and it was back to square one through the years it took for the scarring to settle.
That taught me a lot. Youth defines itself often by its appearance, but faces do not define who we are. To ourselves, we are more than just a face. To others, we are more than just a face… and if we are not, then perhaps the problem lies within them, not our appearance. It taught me too that if I looked at myself and saw only the scars, that is all others would be able to see too. If I allowed the scars to be at the forefront of my vision of myself, I would see myself only as a tragedy. And so would others.
But you grow up. Priorities shift. There would be jobs and perhaps children. You did your best with what you had, accepting the self-image, flawed or not. It becomes a habit. Years and a few extra curves will change everything anyway.
Confidence came from other things than face or figure. There were more important things than feeling yourself to be beautiful. Seeing a new life changing your waistline to whale shaped, holding your newborn babe and falling into those eyes… closing the eyes of a loved one for that final time. I did not feel beautiful, but I knew that in such moments I was living within beauty.
Nowadays, I look in the mirror as rarely as possible. Not for fear of what I will see, but because I have better things to do with my life than worry too much about my appearance. There is nothing I could do that is going to make me fit the accepted ideal of tall, slender and youthful beauty. Other than perhaps a strict diet and fitness regime, being voluntarily stretched on some torturer’s rack and wholesale plastic surgery… not to mention a trip back a couple of decades in a time machine…
It doesn’t matter. The face that looks back at me is my own. It carries my experience, my joys and sorrows, old worry tracks my brow and laughter draws stars around my eyes. Our youthful perception of ourselves lacks depth. We see and judge ourselves on our surfaces, the sometimes brittle, sometimes bright reflection of our own image thrown back at us by the world like those fleeting glimpses in shop windows. We lack the experience to see deep enough to go beyond the outer shell and, we were to find a way in, there would still be a void the years had yet to fill.
When we are young we learn from others how to evaluate our world. It is all we have to live by until we can replace their teaching with knowledge of our own. It is easy to become stuck with those acquired filters; the habits that cloud our vision and our understanding with patterns that should have been discarded as obsolete and replaced with the rich texture of experience.
To my own eyes my features still seem coarse… but I know that I judge them by a standard learned long ago. To the cold steel of my only tape measure, my figure is not what it was. But it’s not that bad either. The hair is more unruly than ever and starting to be streaked with white. Which is fine. I have lived in this body for a good while now and done a lot with it. It’s entitled to fray a bit round the edges. I have lived, laughed, wept and more than anything, I have loved and been loved.
Looking back at old photographs, it is as if I am looking at someone I do not know. Were I to have met her, I would undoubtedly have told that young woman she was beautiful. She wouldn’t have believed me; she would have thought I was simply being kind. She would have had to learn to look out through my eyes… and her eyes were still too young and too caught by the vision of beauty she saw in others.
Today, those eyes see things rather differently. Although I can admire the aesthetics of youth, the people I would call truly beautiful are those who have lived a little longer. I see their lives in their eyes, their laughter and tears written in the map of their face, the confidence of experience and the wisdom of having learned from it… and an indefinable light within them that shines with a timeless and ageless beauty. And for myself? I live on the most beautiful planet imaginable, surrounded by wonders. I am part of the marvellous dance of creation that links every atom, every creature, each rock and wave. Why should I need to see a superficial beauty in the mirror when I can feel myself part of such living beauty?
There are too many tragedies happening quietly around us, from eating disorders, to self harm. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. It isn’t so much about how others see us, but how we are allowed, and able to see ourselves.
It wasn’t her real name but close enough. An author’s nom de plume. Still, seeing it at the end of the printed article gave her a thrill. Every time. I felt the same way when that first magazine dropped through the letterbox with my name at the end of the article. Like mother, like daughter. There was a pride in that, hard to put into words.
It was, for both of us, so many years apart, a small thing… but to a writer it means the world.
I am not a million-dollar author with a major publishing house, I am not even a respectably sized fish in that particular pond. But I am a writer.
It took me a long time to call myself that, to ‘own’ it, as a friend said the other day. My Mum was a writer…she had things printed all over the place. I just wrote things. Even when ‘The Mystical Hexagram’, written with Gary Vasey came out, published by a publisher, I still didn’t feel right about calling myself an author.
You see, I grew up in a house with an Author… one who actually attained the Holy Grail… she made a living from her work. I knew the system. Long hours hunched over the ancient Imperial typewriter, later succeeded by a more portable affair. Always coffee, occasionally turning the typewriter upside down to shake out the fallen cigarette ash and biscuit crumbs. Pages thrust at me to read… red pen…retype. Long, involved discussions… we’d call it brainstorming today… about how the plot should unfold. My mother, you see, is a storyteller.
She had always written. Starting with poetry, she had penned her first novel when I was very young, largely because the title came to her and she had to write the book. Two other novels followed. Stories I adored as I grew old enough to appreciate them. Later there were children’s tales. Each manuscript when finished would be placed in a big manila envelope, signed across all the seals and posted back to our home to get the postmarked date… the only way to protect copyright back then. Every so often, when she could afford the postage, she would duly type a letter to a publisher, package up a copy of the MS and post it off in hope with a stamped return envelope. And every time the book came back with a rejection letter.
Meanwhile Mum was writing articles and short stories, trawling through the Writers and Artists Year Book that was renewed every year and sending them off. Sometimes there would be a whoop of excitement as she opened the envelope that held a cheque. Most times she packaged the story back up for its next tentative voyage.
This went on for years… most of my childhood in fact. Over those years Mum wrote several stories in Yorkshire dialect; amusing pieces showing the archetypal character of our home county, entitled ‘Dahn at t’ Pig and Whistle’. One of these pieces landed on a desk and there was a letter… an invitation to write and record a Radio series for the BBC. Those were exciting times for my mother and we all gathered round the radio for each broadcast in shades of an older time.
But the series ended all too soon and she was back to the typewriter once more. More articles were sent out, tons more rejection slips were received. Still her novels had not been published and gradually they were sent out less and less often. She had tried for ten years with no success. But she didn’t give up.
One day, she had a letter. One of her stories, sent to a women’s publication, had ended up, quite by accident, on the wrong desk. The letter was from the occupant of that desk, Ian Forbes. The content of my mother’s article was totally unsuitable for the publications he managed… but he had read it anyway and liked her style. Would she like to try something a bit different?
Mr Forbes… or Uncle Ian as he became affectionately known…ran publications many of my generation may remember. He had sent samples scripts of what he would need. My mother sat down to study them. She didn’t write romance… it wasn’t her thing, but, she decided, she’d give it a go. The fee was too good to refuse.
For the next few years, until I left England for France, we would sit every month batting ideas around like tennis balls, backwards and forwards. Every month a cheque and a copy of the latest Love Story in pictures would be delivered. The author’s names did not appear on these little magazines. I only have one copy now, stored amid the family papers… a supernatural tale set in Egypt which we had written together.
I learned a lot about the writer’s craft back then, some of the stories she wrote were even my idea initially and my first bit of design was featured in one tale called, I believe, Lucky Blue Dress. I learned how to collaborate back then too, I suppose, as well as how to tell a complex story in few words and images… which has served us well lately with the publication of the new graphic novel, Mister Fox.
I learned other things too.
My mother had spent a lifetime following her dream and when it finally arrived, bringing that monthly cheque equivalent to a woman’s wage back then, it did not resemble the dream she thought she had. I learned how little it actually matters whether or not you get public recognition…like your name on the cover… as long as you have put your heart and soul into what you do, because you love what you do. I learned that you could take an unpromising vehicle… for so my mother saw love stories… and incorporate something meaningful; her stories always had a moral and the type of motherly teaching that young people need woven into them. Even a lightweight love story could have depth.
I saw that it wasn’t enough to have talent, nor a gift for the use of words. Nor was it enough to be patient or to be doggedly pursuing something for a decade with single minded dedication. You could do everything right and still not succeed. You also need that single stroke of luck… and the persistence and faith to keep on keeping on so that if it arrives, you are ready to seize the opportunity. Because one thing is certain… had my mother stopped writing the opportunity would never have arisen.
My mother’s novels have not yet been published. But they will be. I’ll do it myself. One of her children’s stories, Monster Magic, is now in print and the phone call I had when she received the first copies in the post was as full of excitement as I can ever remember. It was the very first ‘proper book’ she had held in her hands with her name on the cover. And when I told her she had to send one to the British Library…! She has waited all my life and most of hers for that.
My mother stopped writing many years ago. It doesn’t erase a single word of what she has written. Her stories may be from an older, gentler time. They may never sell a copy except to the family. But that really doesn’t matter. She wrote because she loved what she did. She wrote because the words inside her needed to find the page. She wrote from the hidden heart of her even when the vehicle wasn’t what she would have chosen. She made it hers. For some years my mother made a living as a writer. But more importantly perhaps, for a lifetime her writing has made her live.