Color Me Beautiful

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For a writer, I have woefully expensive taste.  I have always been this way.  If asked which of four silver bracelets, pairs of running shoes or pieces of china, I like best, I will, without hesitation, choose the most expensive of the bunch.  (I’ve tested myself on this several times, hiding my eyes from the prices of said items.)

I come by this honestly, right down the maternal line.

In the old days, my grandmother, Doll, drove an hour and a half from her Tidewater home to Richmond, Virginia to shop at a lovely department store named Thallheimers.  She had a weakness for fitted ultra-suede suits,  sleek Ferragammo high heels and well-tailored, stylish hats.  After buying three, sometimes four, hats from the department store’s millinery, she would return home – well before my grandfather – with booty in tow.  Doll would show just one of her day’s purchases to my grandfather and stash the rest of the big, round hat boxes beneath her four-poster bed.  After a reasonable amount of time had passed, she would pull another hat from her stash.  My grandfather never knew the difference.

My mother, too, has a weakness for beautiful things.  She loves new cars, bed linens made of high-thread-count cotton, good jewelry and dogs with distinguished pedigrees.  My father, unfortunately, did know the difference, so there were no hidden hat boxes beneath her bed, just as there are no hideaways beneath mine.

Nevertheless, I’ve maintained my penchant for small luxuries: pedicures; magazines; Mrs. Meyers geranium-scented counter spray; and good makeup.  Yes – makeup.  While I’m sure that Maybelline and L’Oreal make stuff of fine enough quality, I am drawn to the mall’s shiny, crystal clear makeup counters with an urgency that defies intelligence.  I revel in the sheer vanity of good makeup, the blissful thirty-minute makeover sessions, the glee reaped from new cheek colors and sparkling eye shadows, perfectly sculpted lipsticks and luminescent glosses.

Last week, this weakness got the best of me.  After a lengthy day of writing and tutoring, I had plans to meet a friend for coffee.  Only traces of the scant makeup I’d put on in the morning remained.  Dark circles, intensified by droopy mascara, ringed my eyes.  I looked this way partly because I’d applied my makeup while driving that morning, and partly because I’d recently run out of concealer.  But the mall was on the way, and I imagined I could pop in to Nordstrom’s quickly and solve two problems – the droopy circles and my need for new concealer – at once.

I’ve read enough copies of Allure magazine in my lifetime to know that a girl should never go to a makeup counter looking the way I did, and that, once there, she should say, “I need concealer number 3,” not, “I’m looking for concealer, but I’m not sure which shade.”  Yet, I broke both rules.  With raccoon eyes and disheveled hair, I shuffled over to the TM counter and asked for help.

Jeanie, a perfectly powdered saleswoman, took one look at my bulging belly and faded foundation and her eyes lit up.  She’d just hit pay dirt.  Before I knew it, I was in the midst of a hard core makeover.

“What kind of foundation do you use?” Jeanie asked innocently.  I explained that my foundation was actually a tinted moisturizer, made by TM Competitor X.  She rolled her eyes and shook her head, as if I’d just told her I put dog food on my face each morning.  When she asked how I applied my makeup (to which I actually responded “with my fingers, in the car”) I knew I was in deep trouble.

Jeanie assured me that after thirty minutes with her (and a hefty sum spent on new TM makeup) I’d become the most beautiful pregnant person the world had ever seen.  She complimented me on my beautiful skin (once “good” foundation was applied), my motherly glow (once brightener was applied), and she feigned disbelief when she learned I’d recently entered my third trimester (unfortunately, no high-end makeup to help the bulging belly, but she could probably tell I needed the compliment).

Under normal circumstances, I’d like to think I’d see through Jeanie’s ruse.  But, in the thrilling midst of the high-gloss makeover, I buckled.  Would I like the brightener?  Yes.  The concealor?  Certainly.  The new foundation?  But of course.  A professional brush with which to apply my high-end makeup?  You bet.  The kicker came when Jeanie convinced me I needed a new TM makeup case to help me stay organized once Baby K arrives.  I can’t believe I said yes to that, but I did. At least when Jeanie asked (with new urgency) if I needed any mascara, I resisted.  Everyone knows only the truly duped fall for makeup counter mascara.

I left the mall feeling utterly taken, but – now at least this is true – prettier than I have in a while.  Thankfully, Nordstrom’s accepts returns on unopened makeup (and overpriced makeup organizers), and Jeanie wasn’t there the following day to rebuke me.

Don’t worry – I kept the concealer … and the foundation … and the brightener … but I took all the other stuff back.  If Gay Talese could indulge in handmade Italian suits and leather shoes at the beginning of his writing career, a little good makeup won’t hurt mine.

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The Pilgrimage (or, the Longest Blog Posting Ever)

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One gorgeous Sunday in Italy, Andrew and I decided to go to Assisi. We were drawn there because of our guidebook’s glowing remarks about it, but also because of its sacredness. St. Peter’s and the Vatican are of course known for their outward pronouncements of institutional faith, but Assisi, made famous by St. Francis and his Friars’ gentle, faithful reverence, exuded – so we had heard and read – a different, more personal brand of spirituality.

After spending the morning in Perugia, eating chocolate, we drove thirty kilometers to Assisi. From the Autostrade, we could see the town in the distance, and it looked like it had been blessed. The old buildings, sitting high on a hill, gleamed white in the sunlight. Mount Subasio, behind the town, was shrouded in a God-like cloud, the shadow of which lent Assisi even greater gravity and promise.

After taking the exit for St. Francis’ homestead, we found a free parking spot at what we thought was the edge of town, and hopped out of the car, eager for enlightenment. As we approached what we thought was a former Temple to Minerva (converted to a Temple to Mary), we noticed a throng of young people carrying large flags and rucksacks. There must have been at least two thousand of them, hanging out around the “temple,” and many of them looked as though they’d just woken up. It was about 2 pm.

Upon closer inspection, Andrew and I realized that this was not the Temple to Minerva/Mary, but a regular cathedral, so we began walking past the throng of shabby, rowdy youngsters and toward Assisi, still far in the distance. As we walked along, we began to notice that the throng was not limited to the piazza/cathedral, but that it was traveling with us – or we with it.

I began to feel a very bad mood creeping in. The teenagers, all of whom were Italian, smoking cigarettes, and talking loudly, were ruining my deeply spiritual experience.

Andrew, as is typical of him, had a much better attitude. “We’re part of a pilgrimage, Towles!” he said. “I’ve never been part of a pilgrimage!” An image of the cook — with the oozing sore on his leg — from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales sprung to mind. I grimaced. “I’m not into pilgrimages,” I said. We kept walking, passing vendors selling t-shirts (one said “Enjoy Cocaine” in Coca-Cola script) and massive flags emblazoned with Fidel Castro’s face. A boy who looked to be about fifteen marched alongside us, kicking a soccer ball up the street. As the road narrowed, the crowd with whom we were walking began to close in; the flags, many of which were rainbow-colored and displayed the word “PACE” (peace, in Italian) in block letters closed in on us, too.

This was no pilgrimage; it was a peace march, and we were the only Americans in the throng. I felt like a yuppie at Woodstock. The HippieItalianKids (HIK) were all wearing t-shirts denouncing weapons of mass destruction or protesting “Dal Molin,” a proposed American military base on Italian soil, and carrying the rainbow Pace/Cuban Castro flags.

After walking about eight kilometers with the throng, the road began to grow higher and more narrow. The marchers slowed, and then stopped completely. At this point, we were about two kilometers from Assisi’s gates; on the steep banks around us had been planted beautiful, dainty, pink roses. Andrew (no longer as chipper about our Great Pilgrimage) and I (almost in tears) were hemmed in at all sides; the crowd had grown to what must have been fifty thousand smoking, flag-carrying, loudly-chattering people. A young woman in front of us fainted. Around us wafted the distinctive smell of pot. In a moment of panic, I imagined us getting trampled at Assisi, the sweet Franciscan friars charged with finding our next-of-kin.

Around us, in an effort to get around the bottleneck, rowdy (high) teenagers began to climb the lovely rose-covered banks, trampling both the flowers (ripping some at the roots) and the Franciscan’s irrigation system. A few girls slid down the banks on their backsides, taking foliage with them, laughing mercilessly.

Once we finally (FINALLY) reached Assisi, I thought we could salvage our spiritual journey and break free of the crowd, but there were fifty thousand more “pilgrims” in St. Francis’ square, jabbering loudly in his cathedral (despite the Friars’ repeated requests for silence), playing hackey-sack in front of the church and laughing loudly in the crypt holding St. Francis’ tomb. Worst of all, outside the lower chapel, someone had organized a Bike-a-thon for PACE, and there were at least two hundred stationery bikes set up there; on the bikes were Italians decked out in spandex, participating in what looked like an American spin class, complete with thumping bass and a militant, barking instructor.

You know, I’m sure this all sounds very judgmental. And believe me, as I sat in St. Francis’ crypt praying that I would get out of Assisi without screaming at the top of my lungs at one (or all) of the HIKs, I also prayed I could find a way to appreciate them, and to believe they actually had a cause.

But that was the problem. The Italian kids, now wearing the PACE flags like Superman capes, weren’t serious. They were marching up to the gates of Assisi and trampling the Franciscan’s flowers and smoking pot outside St. Francis’ tomb because a friend of a friend said the peace march would be fun. They didn’t chant in protest of Dal Molin, or burn American flags, or sit, prayerfully, holding candles, for a peaceful solution to all the world’s heartache. They milled through the cathedral with passive, glazed expressions. They kicked around a hackey-sack and sang Italian love songs to some kid’s poorly played guitar.

I don’t think I have ever been so outraged – and not outraged for myself anymore, but for St. Francis and his Friars, and for all of the people who take, with dead seriousness, a place’s sacredness and the business of war protests.

After seeing all we could see in the midst of the PACE people, Andrew and I fled Assisi. On the way, to avoid the throng, we took an alternate road that cut through tilled fields now growing hazy in the setting sun. At last, it was quiet (except for the distant sound of pumping, spin-class-bass), and we could walk freely without stepping on any PACE flags.

In silence, I handed Andrew the last of our Perugina chocolate – the only thing that had saved me and Baby K. from expiring on the 10 mile trek – and sighed. When we reached our car, teenagers were piling into big, blue chartered buses covered in PACE flags, looking almost as tired and beleaguered as the two of us; acknowledging my own sore feet and back, I almost felt sorry for them.

Upon our return to the States, we would find that the march, as a whole, was composed of almost 200,000.

Interpreting Joy

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Earlier this fall, I founded a little artist’s group. I knew from previous freelancing experience how isolating (and depressing) it can feel to sit at home all day without access to humans except via email, and I was keen to find a way around that problem this go-round. At the recommendation of a knowledgeable friend, I picked up a book called The Artist’s Way, aimed at nurturing the creative spirit. The author, Julia Cameron, suggests readers form “creative clusters” for support and community.

My creative cluster consists of Kristina, a visual/decorative artist, Kerie, a photographer, Natasha, a graphic designer, and Laura, also a photographer – all women I respect and admire not only for their artistic talents, but also for who they are as people. Although we’re all in different creative fields, when we meet, we discuss the same sorts of things – how to balance art and commerce; what to do about taxes incurred by our small (tiny!) companies and how to bar against them; where to fill our creative wells, etc.

As I was leaving our group this past Monday, Kristina and Kerie began talking about the nature of their work. Kristina’s paintings are full of color, joy and life. She uses pink paint, often. Her work is bold, with a fun flare, and beautiful. Kerie does all sorts of photography (weddings pay the bills), but enjoys her work with children the most. She loves to bring out their liveliness and innocence, captures sly, mischievous smiles and quirky personalities.

Both girls talked about their peers from art school, who were so focused on finding reflective meaning within their paintings and photographs that they seemed to discount the value of something that was simply beautiful, or dear. I remember feeling a similar tension while studying poetry in college. It seemed all “legitimate” poets were writing about fear, death, longing or depression. With varying degrees of success, my peers there followed suit. I sort of tried to walk into the shadows, but always felt I came off as a sham, and there’s nothing worse than insincere poetry.

Still, the “true artist” stereotype sometimes serves as a deterrent to my own work. I imagine that I will not achieve real success with my writing unless I addict myself to an illicit drug (or maybe just some painkillers), go crazy or become madly self-centered. Unfortunately (I mean, fortunately), I’m just not wired that way, and I kind of like my balanced life as it is. I try to remind myself that there are plenty of wonderful, “legitimate” artists out there whose work has tracings of both light and shadow, who are not destitute, and whose lives are not in shambles.

But the question remains, can art be joyful and still be considered art? I think so. If all artists were tortured souls, searching for an outlet for their grief, the world would be in a very sad state, indeed.

FYI: The painting, above, is by my friend Kristina.  It is one of my favorites.