Every time I stood beside her, I wanted to hide myself. She was the kind of beautiful that emphasized my every flaw.
That’s what made me awkward around her. When I sat on her couch, I wanted to fold in my big ugly feet and my hands with their nails ripped off at the beds. I wanted to tuck in my broad shoulders. I wanted to pull my clothes around me, because my clothes were never right. Hers were.
She wore slight, dusk-toned cardigans with pearl buttons, and she walked easy like breeze in leaves. There was no effort to her. Calm, deep waters regulated her days, prepared her, made her unshakable. She was elegant as a dancer, calm, and weightless.
Pulling out of her driveway, I would sink into my car with one of those migraine headaches. I would get confused on the roads leading out of her neighborhood, rows of sweet matchy houses with drippy blue flowers in pots on the porches. Sunlight would stab me in the eyeballs.
I wanted to eat. I wanted a cheeseburger, one of those huge man-cheeseburgers with bacon, where you bite down and the tomato and mayo run down your chin. I wanted two of them. I wanted a Coca-Cola, too.
She ate nice things bought in designer grocery stores, little responsible portions of English cucumbers and goat cheese. My first lunch at her place, I thought maybe the food bits were a snack before the meal. I kept waiting for the real entree, but it never came. I left starving.
Headachy and stiff from trying to stay small for two hours, I wanted to roll in the grass. I wanted to cuss like a sailor. I wanted to blast Bon Jovi. I wanted to tear through the woods in a pair of old jeans, and ride a horse bareback, and kiss a beautiful man on the mouth.
I hated myself and all those things I wanted to do, because somehow she made me want to be her instead. Seeing who she was made me hate me.
I wanted to be lithe, reserved, and delicate. I wanted to know what to wear and how to speak. I wanted to be cool and articulate as Elizabeth Bennett.
My insides hurt. She made me ugly. She made me ignorant, hefty, and coarse.
When she talked about God, I tried to feel what she felt.
She described the glint of sun on her teacup. Each morning she unfolded the holy text upon a table prepared for it; she loved hours upon hours of studying God’s Word (her lips pronounced that perfectly. Gahd’s Word.) She told me that she lived to please an audience of One, and I listened thinking that God must be content to have her company alone.
She spoke of Him as if He loved her particularly, as if she had a corner on the market of His affection. I did not doubt it.
Her life was beautiful. It was decorated tastefully as she was. She painted her walls avocado and slate. She was thoughtful and tidy. Whimsical.
Her husband brought her roses. He planned extravagant outings to please her. Sometimes she was pleased, and sometimes he was foolish and chose the wrong surprise. She forgave him when he did that.
He seemed to love her nearly as much as God did. I thought it must have pleased them both very much to win her heart.
What would God want to do with me, anyhow? I was too big. Too greedy. Unrestrained. I was like that wild donkey of a man, the son of the maidservant.
My salvation was a token. I had made it through the gate.
I could imagine God looking at me and thinking, “Check. She’s in,” like the last kid who gets picked in gym class. I imagined He’d had to let me in, because I’d jumped the right hoops.
I wasn’t a treasure to be caught. Not like she was.
And so I tried to force God to change His mind about me. I committed to Scripture reading plans, house and chore renovation plans, fasting, and creative parenting. I discipled, shared, gave, and served. I did what Christian women were supposed to do. I tried so hard.
But I moved clunky. I could never make it flow. I was always too big, too stiff, too unnatural. I would collapse on my bed after all those women’s events, covered in hives.
There were places I fit, but they were not places where the religious people mingled. In art galleries I could suck the air way down deep in my lungs.
Or when we passed couples dancing in a bar, laughing, spinning round and round in the pink, steady light, I was transfixed. I stepped inside those rooms, and I leaned my head against the walls, watching. I saw that young man and woman, electric, swaying as one, making the world fade around them.
I fit in the garden, too. I could make things grow from earth. My nails grew black, and the sting of being born wild and sturdy diminished come harvest.
I listened to NPR, I read about physics, I read lots of books they said I shouldn’t have. I took in poetry and felt my soul lift with perfect diction.
The street music in Asheville made me throw my head back and walk free, because I grew some sort of beautiful when the world got wide and ugly enough, or at least I could pretend I was. We were all the same there, the undesirable ones.
When the dainty and the righteous rejected me, I took it as a sign from heaven. I’d been afraid all along that a holy God couldn’t care much about a girl like me. Still, it broke me way deep down. It broke me like a child left on the street. “Don’t come home,” they said. So, I didn’t.
I didn’t come home, because I understood why they’d cast me out.
Righteous people saw my heart destruct and they told me to forgive, as if forgiveness were something an ugly person could ever do. But when you’re ugly, there’s nothing good to work from. It’s all emptiness and anger.
You can’t forgive when you’re the one God doesn’t care much for. You just sit there wondering why He didn’t make you different to begin with.
Of course, every few weeks I’d get scared of hate or of hell, and I’d try to love. Problem is, trying wears a person out fast. A human being can only make one kind of love, and even that isn’t love if love hasn’t been made first.
We’re pretty empty, see.
It’s all got to start somewhere. It’s got to start with delight, and an awful lot of people haven’t any idea what it’s like to be anybody’s joy.
You’d be surprised how long you can live like this, without giving up, without throwing yourself face down on the earth, without crying out because that one thing you need is something you’re not sure you’ve got at all.
It’s a need that will scare you so bad, you’ll fight yourself to death trying not to need it.
Ugly girl, it’s a beautiful, impossible thing to be loved, isn’t it? You never can seem to make it happen.
Kings don’t fall in love with some she-toad.
Here is a story.
Lo, there is a wild, wild wood where a hideous creature sleeps, lost and leprous.
If you saw her, you would shriek. You would run in terror. You would suspect her of all manner of ill doing.
You would call her a monster.
Yet, a prince from a foreign land passes. He is wise, and brave, and kind.
He finds the forsaken, looks her over, takes up her broken body. She has been lost to the elements.
He kneels down to earth and kisses her forehead.
The good of that one kiss spreads over her skin, turns it soft, and clean, and supple. It grows her cool as the wind and fragrant as lavender.
It quickens loveliness in her cheeks and royalty in her veins, so that when she rises, she sees that her scabs and her scars are fallen away.
He is so near she can hear him breathing.
She cowers first, for she knows rejection best of all. But he does not flinch.
If she were to move closer, would he turn away? She leans in, holds her breath, feels his kindness warm round her, presses her ear against the heart thrumming in His chest.
His pulse is singing! “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”
He lifts a marriage cup to her lips, and she drinks it down.
For a thousand mornings she rises from dreams of the old days, fearful and fretting. For a thousand mornings, he collects her from sleep.
He carries her to the waters and bathes her in His love.
He spreads before her a table full of beautiful things.
He brushes her hair.
He spins her round and sings over her. “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful!”
On and on the story goes. The end is scrawled in at the beginning.
It is too good to be untrue, you know. Too good to be untrue.
So come ye, monsters.
Come ye, hags.
Come ye, brazen, awkward, wrinkled, and worn.
Come ye, ugly girls.
Come ye, hungry and aching.
Come ye, be made beautiful by Love.
It is too good to be untrue, you know. Too good to be untrue.
We will love, we will love, we will love at last,
because He first loved us.
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“The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
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Song of Solomon 1:15, 4:7
II Corinthians 11:2