What makes you beautiful?

I hate having my photo taken. I’m one of those people who either comes up well in a photo or very badly; if I have warning then I’m okay, but if you spring it on me I end up looking like Quasimodo. It’s worse at Christmas; there’s always some party to go to or family coming round, and there’s always someone with a camera lurking around waiting to steal my soul.

A lot of people feel like that with photos, but I probably take it a step further… what’s interesting though is that most people seem to come up better when it’s a spontaneous photo than when they’re posed. Catching someone in a moment just makes them seem more natural and it’s closer to the memory we want to keep.

I’ve been printing some photos for a friend over the last few days and the same thing’s true again. There are over 160 photos and most of them have come out well, but the ones which are stunning were all taken when they didn’t know they were being photographed. There was one photo of a couple of my friends that just jumped out at me; it’d be impossible to make them ugly but it seemed to capture the smile in their eyes, and that’s how I’ve always known them. None of the other photos caught that.

You often hear people say that it’s what’s on the inside that makes someone beautiful. It’s said so often that it’s become a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. When I think of beauty I don’t usually think of someone’s appearance… well, that’s not quite true. My first instinct is to look at that, if they’re presentable, attractive, but I’m more interested in their personality and who they are. I think someone can be very attractive but not beautiful. Someone who is a racist or have repugnant ideas could be the most fair person in the world but would still be undesirable and ugly in a much worse way.

That’s one reason I don’t like it when people say someone is sexy. Certainly someone can be sexy and it can be a compliment, but I’m not a fan of how it’s overused; sexy, sexed up, I find that’s more about lust and desire than anything empowering. Hearing that governments “sexed up” reports just sets my teeth on edge. I guess I’ve always thought of beauty as what we represent as a whole, while someone’s attractiveness (or sexiness) is more related to their appearance.

Those photos seemed to capture that beauty; more than just the appearance, it caught the light in their eyes, a smile, a laugh… it transcended the rest. Unfortunately it doesn’t work for me, but I think those kind of photos definitely seem to cast most people in a good light.

What all this makes me wonder, though, is how do we define beauty today? Has it changed, the definition evolved? I think the way beauty and sexy are used interchangeably now suggests that it has. One example would be Maxim’s recent list of the world’s 5 unsexiest women; Sarah Jessica Parker came first. I still don’t understand that. Maybe Jessica Alba is the current It Girl, but I don’t find SJP unattractive at all. I think there’s something to be said for having a little elegance and class; calling her horse faced is just cruel.

But that’s part of the culture we live in now. Appearances matter more than ever and our definition of beauty is skin deep. As long as we’re presentable and look a certain way, then someone will like us enough that we’ll feel good about ourselves…

I wonder what you think. How do you define beauty and looks? What makes you beautiful? I’d be interested to find out. 😉

Are you afraid of death?

I’m not sure why but I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Maybe it’s that we’re getting closer to Christmas and my mind’s been turning back towards the past, or that we observed Remembrance Day on Sunday and it’s been lingering in my thoughts. It’s not unusual for me to think about death; I’ve always thought that death, though sad, is a natural part of life and there is beauty to it, if you know where to look. But for some reason it’s been different this time.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve felt depressed, but my thoughts have lingered more on the process of dying than they usually do. I’ve had people I’ve known and loved in my life pass away before their time and it was painful; they didn’t seem like the same person and it was very difficult seeing them like that. Peaceful certainly isn’t the right word for their passing, but it was almost a relief to see them go in the end, their agony relieved. We had a chance to say goodbye, something a lot of people don’t have; for many people death comes suddenly and everything that they wanted to say or do is suddenly out of reach. That’s the kind of death I think must be the most difficult to adjust to, for everything to be normal, and then suddenly so different.

My poem from a few days ago is about death. I tried to write it in such a way that the reader could take what they wanted from it, but my inspiration was death. I had been thinking about what it must be like to know you’re dying, to know this or tomorrow will be your last day. What must that be like? Can any of us really know until we’re facing it ourselves? I think if it were me I would be trying to remember the moments of my life, perhaps the regrets as much as the achievements, the friends I had and hopefully would still have around me, and taking the chance to say goodbye.

I think under those circumstances death would be peaceful; perhaps still not something I would be ready for as I’m not sure I ever could be, but at least surrounded by family and friends I would hope it would be a time of remembrance rather than sorrow. Respectful. But to be honest I’m not sure if I believe that’s what would happen. I’m not sure what I believe any more.

I’m not afraid of death. If for some reason I learnt tomorrow that I only had a few days left to live, I wouldn’t fear it; I might be angry, or sad, or any of a thousand different emotions that I couldn’t possibly describe, but I wouldn’t be afraid. I consider myself a spiritual person rather than a religious one; I don’t know if there is something after death, but I would like to feel there is. But even if there isn’t that’s not something I would fear; death is natural and as long as we meant something to someone, that they held us dear in their hearts for a time, then I believe we live forever.

What I am afraid of is leaving people behind. Of leaving things unfinished… of starting down a path and finding I can only follow it a certain way. That to me is the scariest possibility of all. People say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I don’t believe that. Does anybody seriously believe that? It’s certainly better to have experienced than to have experienced nothing, but to have loved and lost is to have left someone behind… perhaps someone who depended on you, and needed you, and suddenly you aren’t there. Yes, if you’re the other person, you can love again and the pain will ease in time, but the relationship is different. Not better, not worse; just different. There’s something lost you can’t get back.

I suppose my one greatest fear in life is that I won’t measure up to my own standards. I look at myself and I’m relatively happy with who I am; I won’t lie and say that there aren’t things I wouldn’t change, moments I wouldn’t live again, or friends I wish I had stayed in touch with and miss dearly, but I take all that as a part of what makes me who I am. But no-one knows what their future will hold and I don’t know where I will be in twenty years. I hope I will be successful in the ways that matter; earning a respectable living, being a good person. I’d love to have a novel published, obviously, and to be secure in where I am. But I’m not sure I will be that. I feel like I’m at a stalemate right now that might last awhile. And if that’s true and I don’t achieve what I want, will it have been worth it?

I don’t know. That’s the one thing I can’t answer and that’s not me being negative, it’s simply that I do not know. How do you weigh what your mind says is possible against what your heart says it wants to achieve? By what measure do you weigh the soul of a man? By the life he has lived, the sights he has seen, the people he has loved? I would hope it is that, but is it really? I lost a friend when I was very young. It was a senseless death, just one of those things that happens for no real reason. I think she would have been a great person and I often wonder what she would be like today. We’ll never know, but I often think of her. And maybe I hold myself against that sometimes, even though I don’t mean to.

So I think that’s what I’m afraid of; not of death, but of what death represents, the measure of what you leave behind. Of course in the end there’s not much anyone can do except to live and value each moment, but I don’t think a lot of people do. I think a lot of people really are afraid of death, or if not death then of the unknown. They push it back as long as they can; they destroy their bodies in the pursuit of youth, they create conflict, they try to be remembered. We have an unhealthy relationship with death, particularly in Western culture; it’s a part of our lives but we try to ignore it or not think about it. And when we are touched by death, we grieve, which is natural – but we don’t always remember. We don’t see beauty, memory, life. And if we don’t do that, I’m not sure we really live.

My favourite poem is Kipling’s If. If you can dream-and not make dreams your master; if you can think-and not make thoughts your aim. I love those two lines in particular; I think they say so much about being creative, but also for how we should treat each other and value life. To dream, but not to dream so far that the dream becomes bitter when it doesn’t become true, in relationships, in life. I think that’s a good way to live and that’s what I try to do. I think most people probably would too, if they thought about it. It just saddens me when I turn on the news and all I see is… death isn’t the right word. Carnage. There’s nothing natural about what we’re seeing on our TV screens every night and that’s why I think it’s all the more important to hold onto some of the more peaceful aspects of death, if we can find them. That’s what I tried to represent in my poem.

Anyway, to anyone who’s got this far, sorry if this seems like a darker post… I’m just in a bit of a melancholy mood at the moment. I’ve said more here than I intended to, more about myself than I usually do… and that’s okay because increasingly this blog is becoming a window to my thoughts on life, and I can’t do that without investing some of myself into it as well. And it’s helping me sort through things more than I expected.

But I’ll have something lighter for you tomorrow.

Is beauty dying?

One of my favourite novels is George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. It’s one of the most beautiful, haunting novels I’ve ever read and it holds up amazingly well when you think it was published in 1949. Earth Abides is a post apocalyptic novel but it’s really more than that. It’s a lament for civilisation; human history unravels, devolves. But even as humans shrink, nature reclaims what it’s lost. There’s a wonderful scene at the end of the novel where Ish looks at the hills and knows that soon he shall return to the hills and the earth, and so shall his children, and the world they leave will be nothing like the one he knew. But life will go on; earth abides.

Reading all the posts about Blog Action Day has reminded me of Earth Abides. We seem to be at something of a crossroads right now about the environment ourselves. 20,000 blogs were involved in Blog Action Day and people are angry, worried about what world we’re leaving to our children. I’m concerned as well but I don’t think we’re at the final tipping point just yet; we have to accept our role in the problem, change our policies and the impact we have on the environment, but I still think if given the chance nature will reclaim what its lost. That’s evolution, the way of life; earth abides.

But having said that, responsibility is key. We need to understand that we all have an impact on the world we live in and accept the responsibility to make changes in our lives. If we all put off the changes, say someone else will do it, then the effect is negated. Likewise we need governments to be responsible for making changes, for making industries to adopt more environmentally friendly policies. And the only way politicians are motivated to make changes is if they know it’s a community issue, something they can’t ignore. That’s why Blog Action Day was a great initiative; it got us talking about the environment in ways that matter to us, and hopefully we’ll keep talking about it.

Blog Action Day also got me thinking about something else: Beauty. It was MusEdition’s great post which started it; she described her surroundings and it sounded so beautiful, to turn and look out the window at mountains and birds. Then I read Sulz’s entry and I knew just what she meant about walking through the woods or a park as the sun rises; one of my favourite pastimes is to walk along the beach, see the tide and the sun reflecting off the ocean. It’s something I take for granted sometimes and I shouldn’t; I’m going to try not to from now on.

But then I looked out my window. I don’t really know how to describe it; I live in one of the nicer residential parts of Sydney but I’m surrounded by cakeboxes. The street is filled with blocks of flats and the occasional house; I live near one of the largest parks in Sydney but I can’t see it from here and I’m high up in the flats. In fact, I can’t see trees at all; it’s just a concrete and brick jungle. Well, there is this one scrawny thing opposite that looks like it should be put out of its misery, but I don’t know whether that counts or not.

I live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities (and I do mean that) but today it just struck me how manufactured a lot of it is. And how manufactured our society is. We seem to have this idea of beauty that nothing can really live up to; a person has to look a certain way to be beautiful, our clothes are in fashion one minute and ugly the next, our homes have to have the latest trends, our gadgets have to be new and shiny. If something doesn’t match our standards, we don’t just get it fixed, we remake it in our image; cosmetic surgery, makeup, renovations, there’s always something which can make us or our possessions more “beautiful”.

I’ve never been someone who buys into the whole idea of image; I’m not going to say I don’t care how a person looks, but that’s not everything. I care more about personality and if the person is interesting than their looks or if they’ve got the latest iPod. I think at heart most people would say the same thing. But we still cling to this modern ideal of beauty just the same. And I’m wondering if this is spreading to how we think about the environment as well. When was the last time you saw a natural feature that made you stop and appreciate it? Not something you planned for, but just saw by accident? I know the last time for me: it was a sunset that caught my imagination just the right way. I took a picture of it. But before that I’d gone weeks, maybe months without even thinking about it, without even noticing what was around me. I think that’s true for a lot of people living in large cities.

It’s so much easier to turn a blind eye to the environment when you feel like it’s just your surroundings; when you’re so busy with your daily routine that you barely notice anything outside of it. That’s apathy and that’s the biggest danger of all, that we just exist and don’t care. We don’t see it so we don’t care that cities are taking over more and more land to cover growing populations; we don’t see that animals are being displaced from their homes by bulldozers for a new shopping mall to go up.

That’s why Blog Action Day was a good initiative and hopefully will continue to be; it’s got people thinking about it, noticing again. And as I said, I believe that if we play our role, nature will recover, and that’s why having a message of hope is a good balance. But something which concerns me is the thought that we might save the environment but replace the beauty that surrounds us in the process, and we might not even know what we’ve lost.

One of the biggest problems we’re facing now is overpopulation and crowding. How do you deal with it? With an ageing population and a steady birthrate, how do you extend a city and manage resources without impacting the environment? You can’t spread out further; you can’t take over new sites. The only viable option is to build up and make better use of the space we have; for more apartment blocks to be built, taller and with more vacancies, and for more people to live together, sharing costs. I think that’s the only way we can do it… but it means knocking down more houses, replacing them with flats. It means in 30 years that cities would become much more uniform, dominated by cakeboxes and dull towers, and what beauty we do have around us would be even less noticeable. I find that a very sad thought.

Perhaps it won’t be like that; perhaps I’ve simply used my imagination too much and envisioned something more like Blade Runner than a realistic future. But with the way we value our own ideal of beauty and the trends that come with it, it seems like something that might happen; that we’d place even less value on real beauty, artistry and design. That’s probably a worthy trade, but I find it sad just the same.

Still, life goes on. And earth abides; that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s what Blog Action Day was all about, spreading the message and making people think. It’s certainly made me think and I was proud to have played a small part in the day. Congrats to everyone. 🙂