Beautiful

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My first Christmas gift this year was from Mike, who bought me a ticket to see “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. I have loved the title song since King’s “Tapestry” album was released in the early ’70s. It might have been the very first example in my conscious experience of what is now called “setting positive intent”:

You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You’re gonna find, yes, you will
That you’re beautiful as you feel.

Throughout my life, I’ve gone back to this song as a reminder that how I experience my day and the many interactions that take place is, to a large extent, dependent on my own approach and perspective. When I’ve fought through depressive episodes, when I’ve felt lonely, when I’ve been new and unfamiliar with my surroundings, I have often found this song on the tip of my tongue.

I remember one particular day in January 2014. In Minneapolis, we had been in the grip of the Polar Vortex for weeks. The actual temperature outside was -19 (and it didn’t feel much warmer in my frigid apartment). I was poor, underemployed, lonely in my first winter in a new city. I bundled up in my giant oversized parka, hood up with its fur trim cinched tight around my face. I felt like I was looking out at the world through a fuzzy tunnel. Scarf, light gloves inside heavy mittens, wool socks and plastic bags inside my boots – it was like girding myself with armor every time I left home. Glancing in the mirror before leaving, I thought I looked only vaguely humanoid.

As I walked the few blocks into downtown Minneapolis, I saw almost no one else on the sidewalks. The weather was “not fit for man nor beast” – except the occasional urban yeti, like me. In that low moment, as I walked simply because it was the only thing I could think of to do, I approached the light rail station on 3rd Avenue. There were a couple of miserably cold people waiting for the train, and I found myself quietly singing, “Waiting at the station with a workday wind a-blowing…”. Then I realized that literally no one could hear me anyway and, for the first time in my life, I decided to belt out a song in public – no music, no other voices, just me – the singing Sasquatch.

Crazy as it sounds, that made all the difference. By the time I turned back toward my own neighborhood, things didn’t look so bad. I stopped at the coffee shop, smiling at the other patrons as I peeled layer after layer of outerwear off and piled it on a table. Michael, the owner, asked if I’d like my usual. I said yes, then made my way to the restroom (where I peeled several more layers). I stopped at the sink to wash my hands and glanced into the mirror as I reached for the soap dispenser. My hair was full of static electricity and stood out from my head in a penumbra of excited strands. My cheeks were bright red, my eyes sparkled, and I was smiling. In that moment I felt two things: beautiful and happy.

Lately, since seeing the Carole King musical, the song has been on my mind frequently. It is often my mantra as I go about my days in the difficult first year of a demanding new job. Then, the other day, I happened to watch a video making the rounds on Facebook (below), in which a high school student asks others if she can film them. While the camera captures their reactions, she tells them her project is taking images of things she finds beautiful.

Each face transforms when the subject realizes that he or she has just been called beautiful. In that moment, each of those individuals does – in fact – become beautiful. Objectively, their features haven’t really changed –  they have the same lips, the same nose, same skin tone, they are the same weight. But their energy has changed. And that makes all the difference.

It got me thinking about the fact that it is really good to hear from others that they find you beautiful – to hear them compliment not only your appearance, but your beautiful qualities, skills, unique gifts. I should do that more often for the people around me whose actions, presence and care make each day and our world a bit better, more bearable.

More important, though, it reminds me that I can create a mindset of positive energy for myself, rather than wait for someone else to call it forth. When I make the effort to do this, I radiate that positive energy outward – something desperately needed in our world right now. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

Authentic Personas?

I read this piece on The Living Notebook blog about artists creating personas in their work. He discusses a number of reasons artists might work with a persona – from exploring a new voice to gaining some distance from their subject matter. We all know of famous, successful, uses of personas in literature, art and music (John Berryman’s Henry in The Dream Songs, or Nicki Minaj’s Roman Zolansky). There have been a few quite public backfires: Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines? Anyone?

Reading the article made me wonder: have I ever used a persona in work I’ve created or on this blog? Since I am on a quest for authenticity in my life, one part of me says a resounding no to this idea. If I speak in the voice of a created character, how can I also be authentic?

Then another part of me remembers picking Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me” as my 50th year theme song. The reason I loved that song was that it allowed me to express a side of myself that usually doesn’t see the light of day – audacious, self-confident, desirable. I would generally not be able to express these qualities in my own voice as I would be both too self-conscious and too doubtful of their reality. But when I sang along with Flo Rida, I became the part of myself that felt those things. I wasn’t Flo (or is it Rida?) – I was me.

Just for fun, I’ve been thinking about the various personas it might be possible for me to explore while remaining authentically true to myself – not overlaying an imaginary person on my frame, but drawing forth a piece of my personality not usually expressed openly. Below, I’ve dreamed up three candidates for my own persona, along with a little of what they might have to say…

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“Cheeks”: an athletic and geared-up woman. Outdoorsy. Her enthusiasm for life results in those who listen to her speak imagining lots of exclamation points and air quotes.

Dude! I woke up to the worst leg cramps EVER! I’ve been sore before but nothing like this! My first official endurance trail race totally took everything I had and then some!!! I can only say “WOW‘! My new motto: “If something doesn’t hurt, you’re not giving it enough!” I just didn’t expect “everything” to hurt this much. I thought I understood “discipline” and “hard work” before, right?! But now I know I’m capable of so much more. Man! I have to hold myself to even more stringent standards to reach my “athletic potential”. As for actually competing – Holy crap – what a rush!!!!!

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Sasquatch: Imposingly tall and muscled, S. is clad only in long, matted hair. She makes little to no eye contact when speaking. Her voice and demeanor are both disconcertingly soft and gentle.

I am here today to share my real-life experience of being a yeti among humans.

The first thing you need to know to understand the yeti experience in common society is this: yeti’s like people, but you scare us. We will do anything to maintain the safety of our solitude and to stay separate from those around us. We hide out. We keep to the shadows. Why? Because you people have great potential to hurt us. You get close and then you blab about us, exploit our vulnerability. And yetis do not like being hurt. We strike out in response – and we are powerful enough to really hurt you in return, which frightens us immensely. Hurt or be hurt – its a terrible choice. So, for the sake of all, let’s just stay apart, keep a safe distance between us. Let’s preserve our aloneness and separateness.

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Shirley: A middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair. She speaks only after taking a sip from the cup of black coffee seemingly welded to her hand.

I know what you’re thinking. I have the same name as Jenion’s mother. Well, too bad for me – that’s life. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t really matter what I say, I will end up being blamed for everything anyway. See? Life isn’t fair.

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Hmmm. Perhaps it takes a more skilled writer than me to actually pull off this persona thing. Jenion/Cheeks does not equal Hemingway/Nick Adams! On the other hand, as I said last week (here), we need to reclaim the parts of ourselves we’ve rejected, the parts we’ve disowned. That includes both the parts we are happy to reclaim (an idea of ourselves as capable of things we didn’t realize, a la Cheeks) and the darker parts we don’t like looking closely at (the inner yeti whose fear and shame makes us want to hide from others). Imagining these pieces of ourselves as various personas, we can learn so much about who/what they are. Who and what we are. My inner Shirley may be a bit cantankerous at times, but she is also realistic and practical – two qualities I’ve tended to shun in favor of projecting a more creative and airy self-image. Is that a trade-off I want to continue making?

Allowing these inner selves  to speak can be a very powerful means of working towards authenticity and congruence – a way of bringing the scattered parts of ourselves back together so that we see their gifts as well as whatever liabilities caused us to disown them in the first place.

For now, though, I think I’ll stick to a strictly internal dialogue with my personas!

P.S. Thanks for being a good sport, Mom!