Over the row of sinks in the bathroom at my work, where I wash my hands several times a day, instead of the ubiquitous oversize mirror, there is a tall window that spans the length of the room and looks out on downtown Austin from eight floors up. The low canopy of trees, thick and green from a mild, rainy summer, strings along in clumps at knee height to the taller buildings and brushes the forehead of low-slung strip malls. In the distance, the freeway buzzes with the whirring of cars that seem like toys from this far away, always running in two lines, speeding away from each other. Just before the raised skeleton of the upper deck, as we call that particularly treacherous stretch of freeway, is the hospital where both of our boys were born.
As I wash my hands, instead of staring at my reflection and making quiet, critical huffing sounds over my this-or-that flaw, I stare out at the upper floors of the hospital and imagine myself back in the place where my life was irreparably changed twice. I remember being on that top floor for hours on end, that floor where they house the two pound premies and the babies, like ours, whose transition into this place of light and noise and oxygen is tenuous and bumpy. I remember standing in that NICU and looking out the window at the other side of the view I now have from my office bathroom, looking toward the spot where I stand now when I'm washing my hands.
And every time I'm standing there, looking out at the view, my first thought is not how beautiful, though it is. My first thought is how strange there's no mirror here. Of course, there's a mirror on the side wall that you pass as you leave the bathroom. But there's no giant stare-at-yourself-whether-you-want-to-or-not mirror to gape at while you're at the sink. Instead of a ritual of vanity and criticism, instead of the well-honed pairing of liquid soap with an overlay of self-deprecating inner dialogue, I have this beautiful, sun-drenched, loping vista to absorb when I take a bathroom break.
I am accustomed to using that hand washing time as an opportunity to remind myself of all the ways I don't look like the women I see on TV, and in ads and movies and at the gym. I am rather practiced at using those few seconds to tell myself what needs to be fixed.
Instead, I get to look out at this city I have adopted, at the place where I brought life into the world, the place where family and friends gathered around me, touching my sweat stained back, kissing newborn flesh that 24 hours ago had been in my belly, watching me grapple with fear and confusion and anger that coexisted, somehow, with a love that took the breath right out of me. I get to look at that view five days a week, and instead of staring at myself for those two minutes when I am washing up, I get to ask myself if the shape of my arms or the roundness of my stomach are really that captivating, really that concerning and all-consuming after all. I look out at that view, and I'm forced to think about what beauty really means.
"Beauty is not in the face," Kahlil Gibran said, "Beauty is a light in the heart." I happened on that quote one day after watching the most breathtaking beams of light coming through the clouds in a sky so blue its intensity hit me like a thud in the chest. And below that quote was an ad that said, "Drop a jean size in two weeks," above a picture of a pair of folded jeans, unworn, nondescript jeans, implying that the number on the tag, not the kind of jeans or the person wearing them, was the important part. It was as if that ad was saying that it doesn't matter who you are as long as you have the right number on the tags inside your clothes.
And what I realized, instantly, was that I'd spent my entire life looking inside my jeans at the number on the tag, expecting that to tell me whether or not I was beautiful. I had been comparing myself to other people to decide if I measured up. I had been thinking that I should look seventeen and waif-ish with long hair and high cheekbones forever, no matter how many times I carried a child or blew out my birthday candles or hurt and broke and then came back together again.
There I was looking at the size tag on my jeans for an indicator of beauty when all along I should have been looking for a light in the heart. And not just looking for a light in the heart but cultivating a light in my heart. What can a number on a little loop of fabric tell me about myself that speaks louder than the lines I have earned around my mouth from smiling? Or the little vertical line in between my eyebrows I have earned worrying about my family? Or the callouses I have earned on my fingers from playing guitar?
I think of the beauty worn into used skin, stamped on the face of a person whose softness has been stretched, dried, cracked, lined, moisturized, rested and worn out again. I imagine the lightning bolt shaped lines etched into broken bones that have healed. And the crinkled parentheses that bookmark happy eyes that have been beaming for decades. The hypnotic tone of words spoken by one who has lived them, the clinking of dishes being washed by a loved one while you follow dinner guests out onto the patio.
The beauty, the real beauty, of the people around us is ground in, tattooed on. I think beauty is earned, not happened into. I think it is found in the brokenness of our lives, in the hope that allows us to reach for more while still holding the ashes of the last heartbreak in our hands. Beauty is in the faces of those who, despite darkness all around, have a light in their hearts. And in the faces of those who recognize that true beauty in someone else.