Not since I was a teenager had I taken such care in how I looked. I was not able to completely dress my depression away, but when it—slam! bam!—returned each day, it had to tussle with a woman whose heels hoisted her high, who could confidently kneel and cup the faces of her children in her hands, who knew how to tend others because she tended herself. I washed my daughter's bleeding knee with the same cloth I swept each morning across my own dream-creased face, kissing her wound and leaving on it an impression of my lipsticked mouth, a mark, a stamp, proof not only that I was here but that I could care.
There are something like 148 species of large land mammals populating our blue ball, and none of them, excepting ourselves, so decorate their faces, their flesh. That we are the only animal that "dresses up" might suggest the action lies outside nature and is therefore somehow twisted, but I doubt that this is true. The Neanderthals are thought to have colored their bodies with red ocher pigment as far back as 164,000 years ago. Long before Clairol or Revlon or Clinique, the human animal was driven to decorate his surface, her surface, understanding that the sheath we wear suggests the soul beneath.
It's too soon to know whether my newfound belief in the power of beauty will become a way of living. But I can say, for sure, that entering into beauty did not in any sense diminish me as a woman, an artist, a mother, a wife. I did not become all preen and polish, with nothing of substance to offer. I look people in the eye. I dream I am 12 feet tall.
One day a friend suggested we hike Mount Caesar, not far from where I live. Previously I would not have accepted such an invitation, worried that depression would drag my steps down, but before I could even consider that as a possibility I found myself saying yes. Yes. So we went. And we made it. Huffing and puffing and streaming with sweat, we made it to the top. The wind blew. There was an old rusty trash can and a peeling picnic table and ground gone gold with pine needles. There was a rocky escarpment we crawled out on to look down into a lake so pure and blue it seemed to possess some sort of living intelligence, a huge eye of water beaming back at us. "Swim?" my friend said. It was a warm day, the temperature well into the 80s. My friend, who is thin, stripped off her clothes and, suddenly, even though I was fat, I followed suit, because I had some chutzpah now. That's what it came down to. Chutzpah. Dressing up gave me the confidence to dress down, to strip. My friend dove first and I dove second, feeling my body arc out over the escarpment and sluice through the summery air and enter the water as fast and fierce as a spear driven downward, everything gone green, and then finning fast upward and breaking the surface with a gasp and a shout: "Oh, my God!" We laughed and laughed. And then we treaded water silently and swam around. I could see the top of the mountain from where I was and also a field of wildflowers, lilacs and lupines in every imaginable color and great white wheels of daisies amid emerald spikes of grass, and it occurred to me that beauty is not outside nature; it is nature, the way the world is meant to be. As the sun started to set we climbed onto the shore and clambered back up the rocks, our clothes in sun-warmed heaps; we dressed ourselves and started back down the trail. Even though we were sopping wet we didn't shiver, our shirts and shorts still soaked in sunlight, the chocolate bar I'd stored in one of my pockets completely melted now so when I thrust my hand in, searching for the necklace I'd removed before I dove, I felt a thick warm gush and, laughing, lifted my smeared fingers and licked, savoring the flavor, grateful I could taste this good.
Lauren Slater is the author of several books, most recently The $60,000 Dog (Beacon).
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