Late yesterday afternoon I had an early dinner in Langley at Prima Bistro. If you're ever on the island, I highly recommend this sweet spot. The bistro sits on the second floor above the Star Store and looks east over Possession Sound toward the mainland. If you get a window seat, as I did, you can also look down on First Street and the Boy and His Dog Park (a thorough history of this gem can be found here), which is decorated for autumn and Halloween at the moment.
I was by myself and had the rest of the evening to do as I wished, so I lingered and people watched. All of this is a descriptive lead-in to the small marvelous thing that happened while I watched folks coming and going, gazing over the water, taking selfies with the Boy, and chasing toddlers as they dashed from pumpkin to pumpkin.
A family walked into the park—the park is not what you would necessarily think of as a park. It's a small square of concrete with benches. So the view is unobstructed by trees. The woman was youngish, maybe in her 30's. I could not see her face clearly from my vantage point, so I do not know if she was "pretty" or not. She was a bit on the heavy side. She wore jeans with a tee or sweatshirt and a flannel shirtjacket. Her hair was a dull orangey-red. Her jeans were obviously a tad too big for her because she kept pulling them up with one hand, the other hand held a pizza box. The man carrying the child was equally nondescript. There was absolutely nothing exceptional about this family. Nothing.
But when she tugged on her jeans for about the 4th time, I was flooded with a deep love and compassion for her as I sat in the window watching. She was just so human in that moment. I fell in love with her flawed, imperfect, nondescript, ordinary humanity. As I write these words today, I still love her.
Learning to love the Ugly
I began training to become an Internal Family Systems therapist this summer. Since that journey began, I have become intimately familiar with some difficult, unwelcome, vulnerable, angry, and deeply wounded parts of me. Some of them are ugly. Some of them are covered in shame. These are not pretty parts. I have grown to love them deeply. It is extraordinary work which I understand will be lifelong.
Learning to love the ugly. That is what I'm doing these days.
Mia Mingus, a queer Korean disability justice writer and organizer, writes:
"We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty. Our communities are obsessed with being beautiful and gorgeous and hot. What would it mean if we were ugly? What would it mean if we didn’t run from our own ugliness or each other’s? How do we take the sting out of “ugly?” What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel? What would it take for us to be able to risk being ugly, in whatever that means for us. What would happen if we stopped apologizing for our ugly, stopped being ashamed of it? What if we let go of being beautiful, stopped chasing “pretty,” stopped sucking in and shrinking and spending enormous amounts of money and time on things that don’t make us magnificent?
"Where is the Ugly in you? What is it trying to teach you?"
This work of turning toward those parts of me that feel undesirable, that don't stack up against ideals, that are socially unacceptable (envy, jealousy, greed, laziness, rabid ambition, lack of ambition, judging others, and the list goes on), that I have worked so long and hard to disclaim has become a work of building relationships with the Ugly in me and finding stories, connections, and redemption. And compassion. A self-compassion I did not think I was capable of.
In the past I would have looked down upon the woman in the park—literally and figuratively—and been critical of her appearance, knowing absolutely nothing about her life, her circumstances, her struggles or strengths. I would have judged her because I live with an inner Beauty Pageant Judge that works hard all the time to get me to match up with culture's beauty norms. I'm never going to win the contest. Ever. I have been on the receiving end of the critic most of my life, and I have always fallen short. If we judge parts of ourselves, more than likely we are judging others. And vice versa.
Yesterday I looked at the woman in the park and fell in love with her. I recognized in the simple gesture of tugging on too-big jeans an element of essential humanity. I loved that she seemed fully herself, lacked any self-consciousness, and was fully present to the day. She is still a stranger, and now she is magnificent, the kind of magnificent that I think Mia Mingus is trying to convey.
There is magnificence in our ugliness. There is power in it, far greater than beauty can ever wield. Work to not be afraid of the Ugly—in each other or ourselves. Work to learn from it, to value it. Know that every time we turn away from ugliness, we turn away from ourselves. And always remember this: I would rather you be magnificent, than beautiful, any day of the week. I would rather you be ugly—magnificently ugly. ~ Mia Mingus
So I'm aiming for magnificence these days rather than beauty, obedience, order, and acceptance. I'm aiming for something more compassionate, honest, and fierce. Like my dear friend in the first photo above. She and I have been friends for 30 years. She has always been these things—compassionate, honest, and fierce. I always know where I stand when I'm with her.
I'm aiming to be "magnificently ugly."
[Note: Mia Mingus' powerful speech speaks to and from a place that I, as a person of privilege, cannot know. I apologize if I offend by using her words and message here out of the context in which they were written. Please read her speech, Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability. I consider it vital reading and one that I will return to again and again.]