Last week, I was on my way into work, driving the Pennsylvania turnpike as usual, when I pulled into the toll plaza and handed the tolltaker guy my cash, as I've done five days a week for a whole lot of years. He's a familiar face, and I've encountered him a couple of times a week for a good long while. Nice guy, smiles a lot. The usual.
Except - this time he asked me if I wanted a receipt. Weird, because I never do, but not a completely strange request. I said no, he hesitated a moment longer, and then finally confessed that he's seen me come through the tolls for years now and always meant to tell me that he thinks I'm beautiful.
I turned red, thanked him, and headed off to work, where I spent the day wondering where the hell that came from, and what to do with it.
Then I posted on Facebook and my Woman's Day blog about it. Some guy found me beautiful. Isn't that crazy! And very, very nice. But what do I do with that? I polled the masses.
And the masses that are my friends and readers wrote back to say "You're beautiful!" "Go with it!" "Enjoy the compliment!" and they're right, of course. I should just be pleased some guy said something nice that he didn't have to say and bask in it. But it was my old pal and frequent inspiration, author Suzanne Finnamore who grounded me with her remark:
"You take it to heart, and know yourself beautiful."
Suzanne is a friend of old, but no one I've ever met in person. She and I go way, way back in internet years, to a time when we both frequented a forum board for women who've been betrayed by their cheating husbands. At the time, she had a toddler at home, a best-selling book, and a life falling down around her. I was ten weeks away from giving birth to my daughter and working a full-time job with a life falling down around me, too. We clung to each other, and to the other women in our virtual circle. That board became our life raft during a time when we were totally at sea.
We lost track of each other, eventually. She went on to rebuild her life and write another great book and I went on to rebuild my marriage and have another child. Years later, she published Split: A Memoir of Divorce, and I found out about my husband's new girlfriend and my marriage ended. One sleepless, tearful night as I lingered on Facebook to keep my mind off the empty spot in the bed next to me, I typed Suzanne's name into the search box, just for the hell of it. There she was and one instant message later, there we both were, hanging out in cyberspace again. We catch up every now and then, and I'm thrilled to say she's got a new book coming out soon.
But, back to her comment. Know yourself beautiful, she said. It made me think, and of course, that's because Suzanne is a woman who wields her words with fierce finesse. Know yourself beautiful.
And I remembered being twenty years old, standing outside a building on my college campus in the late afternoon sun. He was standing before me, an apology on his lips - the same apology he'd given me over and over for his same brutish, controlling, manipulative behavior. The same one I'd taken with a self-deprecating shrug too many times, trampling over my true self in a rush to be back in his arms.
I stood there in the the sunlight, listening, and really hearing him, maybe for the first time. Hearing the hollow ring in those words. Hearing the smug assumption behind them that once he got this apology over with, all would be as it was. I turned my head away and the breeze lifted my hair and the sun splashed on my face, and he must've known his words weren't ringing true to me. I turned my eyes to him fiercely and he stopped talking, staring hard at me.
"You are so beautiful." He'd whispered. And it wasn't a platitude. I had literally struck him dumb for a moment. I had the sunlight turning my blonde hair into a halo, the wind lifting it slightly, my skin flushed with warmth and my blue eyes blazing fire and I knew - I knew I was beautiful. I was beauty incarnate in that moment and I was more than who I made myself be with him. I was more.
That particular boyfriend was history, not much longer after that.
I think about that moment still, sometimes. The years have gone by and I don't have that twenty year old body anymore. It wasn't my body I was feeling entirely in that moment, though. I was beautiful because I just was. Because someone recognized it, and made me see it and feel it and inhabit it.
A common toll-taker called me out on it last week, and my friends echoed his words. And Suzanne, you pulled me down and made me own it, and I thank you. I needed that. You can't know how badly. I am more than I let myself think I am.
I am beautiful, and I am more.
Why, as women, don't we feel our own beauty like we should? Maybe we don't have to feel it every waking moment (though we should), but we ought to.
We need to know ourselves beautiful a lot more often than we do.
More from parenting