Tag: Beauty

13Oct

Body Renaissance

When the first line of this story swooped out of the sky at the running track and imbedded itself in my brain, my first reaction was NO. Out of all the personal topics I explore in my writing, body image is the hardest. It’s like an elephant with a nervous disorder standing in my kitchen; true, I would be unwise to ignore such a thing, but one wrong step or unmodulated noise on my part could trigger a rampage. Tiptoeing in wide arcs around the issue feels much safer. No risk of stirring up shame-based emotions.

That’s why I *had* to write about it in the end—because shame doesn’t get to call the shots anymore. I am participating in my own redemption story, and this is one chapter of it:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

No one told me that running a marathon would turn me into a Renaissance painting. Sure, I’d had a hopeful inkling or two that all those months of training runs would leave me with a model’s physique, but I’d been thinking more Bündchen and less Botticelli, if you know what I mean. I’d taken it for granted that turning in my couch potato card for a marathon medal would result in a slimmer, svelter me, preferably one with Gwen Stefani abs.

Instead?

Well, based on my experience, here’s an entirely subjective rundown on how the human metabolic system works: If you don’t exercise, your body won’t burn enough calories and your waistline will resemble a popular baked good. If you do exercise, your body will try to store as many calories as possible in anticipation and your waistline will expand in much the same vein as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. If you attempt to diet your way back to normalcy, your body will clutch every spare carbohydrate to itself (in the waistline region, of course) and defend its extra fluff to the death. And if you think you can use reverse psychology on it, put that plate of snickerdoodles down right now because it won’t work. Your friendly neighborhood muffin top is here to play. Forever, and ever, and ever…

I’m exaggerating, of course. Hyperbole is one of my great loves in life and pretty much the most fun you can have lamenting minor suckitudes. The honest truth though, the one that I’m plastering over with jokes and Ghostbusters references, is that within two months of running a marathon last fall, I had to buy new jeans. I couldn’t squeeze, shimmy, or pray myself into my old ones anymore… and if you think that prayer in this context is irreverent, then you haven’t stepped on a scale one morning and seen a number fifteen higher than the last time you’d checked. You haven’t found yourself inhabiting a body that feels as foreign to you as thrift-store coveralls. You haven’t seized a handful of your own flesh and presented it to God through tear-stung eyes as proof that fearful and wonderful no longer apply to you. Maybe just fearful, though “ashamed” would be the more accurate term.

I have spent the whole of this year in a body that feels like a mistake, something I should be able to backspace away. I have worn my new jeans as an act of spite. I have stocked my fridge with bitterness, resenting the daily recurrence of hunger, hating the familiar joy of ripe watermelon or fresh bread on my tongue. I have put on baggy workout clothes and run with a heaviness not fully attributable to extra pounds. I have hidden.

This isn’t easy for me to write. Exposing a source of shame never is. Shame thrives in the dark though, in the un-telling. It coaxes us into cellblocks of secrecy and grows in power the longer we let it hold the keys. I’ve let it hold many keys for me throughout my life, so I know what it is to cower against the lie of my own unworthiness, but I also know what it is to take back a key and let myself out into the light. It’s participating in my own redemption story.

I read An Altar in the World for the first time this summer and felt my breath log-jamming in my throat when I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on the spiritual practice of wearing skin:

“This [loathing and hiding from yourself] can only go on so long, especially for someone who officially believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.’”

Do I believe that God loves flesh and blood? I truly hadn’t considered the possibility before. Actually, I’d always been under the impression that flesh and blood were necessary evils in the divine scheme of things, our bodies meant as vessels for reproduction and mortification (in multiple senses of the word) and little else. I’d certainly never thought of a curve of skin as something holy. That God might treasure the freckle constellations on my arms, the set of my truth-telling hips, the fault lines of pregnancies past, the traces of age spots to come? It’s a notion at once sacrilegious and stunning to me.

That’s exactly how it must have felt, I realize, to the long-ago woman who had been hemorrhaging for so long that her gynecological plight had become public record. By Jewish law, any person or even object she had touched over the previous twelve years had been rendered impure by association. Her body was socially toxic. When she snuck out to touch Jesus’s hem, desperately hopeful rebel that she was, and he not only healed but also affirmed and blessed her body, how sacrilegious must the encounter have seemed? And how beautifully, preposterously sacred? How must it have felt to learn for the first time in her shame-seeped life that God cherished her body as well as her soul?

Not too different from how I’m starting to feel, I expect.

The understanding that my body is loved by God is like a sun-shadow on the back of my eyelids that holds still until the instant I notice it and then flits toward my periphery. I primarily notice it in my reading, when Rumi writes to the “soul of my flesh” or Paul calls the body “a sacred place” or Ann Voskamp points out “Your skin is the outer layer of your soul,” and I glimpse the connection for a dappled instant. Every now and then though, I feel it in my body itself—a sudden physical inclination toward reverence, an impression fluttering across the surface of my skin that what I have here was never meant to be despised. In those moments, I can feel the thread count of Jesus’s hem.

I’ve debated with myself about whether or not I should scrap the earlier joke about turning into a Renaissance painting; the last thing I want is for my story to cause offense or hurt. I ended up keeping it though because it’s more apt an analogy than I gave it credit for at first. Botticelli and Tintoretto and Raphael and Michelangelo, like all gifted artists, kept their souls tuned to the frequency of beauty. Their sensitivity to it and ability to transmit it to others are why, five centuries later, we find ourselves vibrating at the same frequency when we stand before one of their paintings. We see the human form as they did, in all its vulnerability and power, its peculiarity and mystique. We see rolls of flesh celebrated in perfect brushstrokes. We see the contours of our own soul’s address right there on the canvas, and we call it what it is, what it’s been from the moment our Artist-God breathed life into clay:

priceless.

04 - Susanna and the Elders - cropped-001

image source

30Jul

Cracking My Shins on Wildflowers

This last Sunday, we went to our church for the first time in two months. “Are the Bassetts actually here today?” one lady asked us, feigning shock. “No,” I said, and we all laughed. I was only half-joking though. I was there, but not all there, and for that, I blame the wildflowers.

Wildflower altar 2

I started reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World on our vacation earlier this month, but I didn’t make it very far because I kept returning to the first chapter over and over for refills of the same heady draft. The chapter is about cultivating an awareness of God in the world, and in it, Taylor (Brown Taylor? BBT? B to the Bitty?) follows a line of thought that rang at the frequency of my own heart during our time in the Italian Alps:

“What happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls—even four gorgeous walls—cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees?… Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”

Wildflower altar 3

I cracked my shin on an altar pretty much the minute we stepped out of our hotel in Sestriere, an alpine village so far west of Turin that it’s nearly in France. I had to look that last bit up on Google Maps, by the way. My sense of geography is marvelously awful. All I knew of location while we were there was that we had stepped onto the dance floor where earth and sky practice sweeping each other off their feet, and that’s all I cared to know.

Wildflower altar 4

We hiked every day, unable to stay indoors a moment longer than necessary, and while the girls skipped ahead gathering bouquets and improvising marching songs to the tune of “Let It Go,” I planted myself in wildflower meadows. More accurately, my soul planted me there. It wound roots down through my kneecaps and into the ground, anchoring me in a posture to notice flower couture, the stunning individuality of petals, the communion of velvet-trimmed bees, and the extravagance of it all there, untended and largely unseen, the original guerrilla art knit across the mountainside.

Wildflower altar 5

There is no path to reverence quite like realizing you are it—the one guest at the gallery opening, the sole occupant of the chapel, the only human being who will ever brush against this exact strain of beauty. I am the only person in existence, past or future, to photograph those flowers above; even flopped there on my stomach with camera in hand, I couldn’t quite absorb the whole of it. I didn’t need to though. I didn’t even want to, truth be told. For all of my devotion to reason and fact, I still like to take a hit of undiluted awe every once in a while.

Wildflower altar 6

“Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces?” BBT asks, prompting a little fist-bump of recognition from my heart. I realize that church is many different things to many different people, but I personally look to it as a mind-elevator—something that will draw my perspective back into the bigger but less visible realm in which God-with-us changes everything. Sometimes actual church accomplishes this, but other times it’s a meal with friends or an act of selflessness or a line of poetry said aloud under the stars or a line of music so lovely I fall straight into it. Or a field of wildflowers hidden up in the Italian Alps just for me to find.

Wildflower altar 7

10Jul

The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Bassetts

I don’t know if it’s because I so adored the book Heidi as a girl…

Running up the mountain

…or because the closest thing to a hill in my hometown was the highway Mixmaster…

Alpine wildflowers

…or because I was a mountain goat in another life…

Singing and hiking

…or because my soul was set to a frequency that comes through best at high altitudes…

The view from our hotel - Evening clouds

…but being here, in the Italian Alps, this week…

Mountain picnic

…with THIS as my waking view…

The view from our hotel - First glimpse

…is filling parts of me I didn’t even know were empty.

We four

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?”
– Mary Oliver

P.S. – You can follow our daily shenanigans over on Instagram (@bethany_bassett) if you’re so inclined!

P.P.S. – Credit for this post’s awesome and very accurate title goes to Dan. I’m adopting it as our vacation motto.

25Jun

The Real World: Italy

I know we’re no longer partying like it’s 1999 here, but I still cringe every time I catch myself saying the words “We met online.”

Others try to assure me that there’s no stigma to this anymore, that everybody and his uncle these days have a tribe of friends they’ve never seen in person. Even the fact that we now say “in person” instead of “in real life” should be a comfort. But whether it’s because I’ve never been to a bloggers conference or because I have truly cringe-worthy memories of defending my chat room “ministry” 15 years ago, I feel the need to hem and haw and issue disclaimers in triplicate before I admit that any of my friends started out as a URL to me.

The fact is that I have connected with some dear, dear people online, soul-siblings whose words and photos have integrated themselves into my own story. I count every one of these connections as a treasure, and I wouldn’t take it well if anyone implied that they were less valid for having been forged over screens instead of tabletops. (I owe it to humanity to admit here that no one has ever implied such a thing since… well, 1999. Clearly my defense tactics are aimed at the wrong decade.)

The most wonderful outcome, of course, is when screen-friendship becomes table-friendship. I live on the wrong continent to take advantage of that very often, but this last weekend came with a triple dose of magic, beginning with the arrival of this pair:

Erika and Austin on the gondola 1

Erika is one of my favorite people on God’s green interwebs, and now I can confirm that she really is that rad in person too. She and Austin made an otherwise ordinary day in Venice (said with tongue firmly in cheek) a feast, a party, and a pilgrimage all at once. Dan dusted off his tour guide badge, and the four of us wandered some of the most mesmerizing architecture on earth with no agenda except to be there—reverently, giddily, exuberantly there. If you’ll forgive my deviating into photoblog format for a while, I’d love to show you some of the trillion (give or take a few) pictures we snapped on Saturday. Because, Venice:

Read More »

30Apr

The Spiritual Practice of TED

I was not born with the gift of waking up. During the night, sleep clots in my veins while my eyelids turn into miniature lead aprons, and while I might be able to force uprightness on myself the next morning, I can guarantee neither alertness nor attractiveness. (Ask Dan sometime how he feels about The Walking Dead as a reality show.) However, as much as I may rage, rage against the dawning of the light, my best days are always the ones that start an hour or two before I absolutely have to be up.

I call that hour or two my Spiritual Recharge Time (SRT) for lack of a better term. I grew up calling it Quiet Time, but that now reeks of obligation and guilt to me—falling asleep over Bible pages I was too tired to make any sense of, Psalms about morning prayer wagging their fingers at me, preacherly voices admonishing, “You don’t love sleep more than you love God, do you?” Give me a break.

I do sometimes read The Message for SRT, but I might read something else or journal or listen to music while the first cappuccino of the day warms my brain back to life. I have to figure out on a trial-and-error basis which practice will work for me on any given morning, and that’s not always easy. One morning, perusing the Bible will make my mind glow; the next morning, it will make me feel like stabbing something. Same with music and journaling and reading. I wake up (which in my case is always a euphemism, but still) with expectations of connecting with God, but sometimes trying to find the right spiritual practice feels like combing through a wardrobe of ill-fitting clothes. The frustration of this can leave me further from God and closer to zombiehood than I was upon “waking.”

I recently found a solution to this nothing-fits scenario though: TED Talks. It’s not that I’m just now discovering these “ideas worth spreading;” they’ve been on my radar since Liz Gilbert’s brilliant talk on genius in 2009. However, I never thought of them as spiritually relevant until one morning a couple of months ago when I gave up on SRT in frustration, opened my computer, and landed on Louie Schwartzberg’s presentation about nature, beauty, and gratitude:

“When people see my images, a lot of times they’ll say, ‘Oh my God.’ Have you ever wondered what that meant? The ‘Oh’ means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The ‘my’ means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And ‘God’? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life.”

I felt it. Watching his stunning time-lapse photography filled me with the Oh my God that had been so absent from my other meditative attempts that morning. It rescued me from the confines of my own small mind and replaced my frustration with wonder. Wonder. That was the missing piece, the perspective I hadn’t had the strength to conjure for myself.

The talk finished, and I clicked to another one. I watched Paul Nicklen befriend a dangerous leopard seal, Sue Austin go deep-sea diving in a wheelchair, Amy Cuddy prove that we can change our internal chemistry with body language, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discuss the power of our stories. Their innovations and perspectives helped me sense the scope of the universe a little more clearly. It felt like tapping into an existential undercurrent, one powered by creativity and open-mindedness and awe… and what was that undercurrent if not God?

Watching TED Talks has become my go-to spiritual practice when none of the conventional ones seems to fit, and I’m sharing this because I know I’m not the only who struggles to connect with God. Religious institutions have worked a number on many of us. The Bible has been used so often to manipulate and oppress that its words wound rather than heal some of us. Faith traditions straight-laced with rules and shoulds and penalties have convinced some of us that they control access to God, and why even bother trying when it’s all so hard and heavy, when all our attempts at devotion seem to turn our souls industrial grey?

This is why: Because God is bigger than the walls put up to safeguard religion. This I believe with all my heart. If we’re not finding God within other people’s traditions, that’s okay. In fact, there’s an expansive kind of joy in brushing up against the divine where you least expected to find it—in the zombie hour following dawn, for example, when all the usual spiritual channels have failed and all that’s left is the entire wonder-full universe.

28Apr

Greener Pastures

Come August, we will have lived in Perugia for seven years. This is liable to give me mental vertigo, all these days expanding and collapsing like accordion pleats in my memory. A trick of the light, and I am once again massive with child and complicated hopes boarding a one-way flight to Italy; the angle shifts, and my perspective accelerates through one baby, two visas, three homes, and the better part of a decade to where I sit today penciling summer destinations into our calendar. Time is often catalogued for me in terms of travel, and we’ve done so much of it in these seven years that my mind can’t quite grasp it all at once.

We realized on last week’s little excursion, though, that our view on travel could use some tweaking. We tend to think of travel as something grandiose and all-consuming, volumes of time propped between the bookends of journey. The farther we drive to get to a pasture, the greener it is, right? This is why we’ve spent Saturday after Saturday chafing against weekend chores and griping for want of air. This is why the idea of a staycation this Spring Break disappointed us. This is why, in seven years, we haven’t ever climbed the slopes of our own Mount Subasio.

Er, make that hadn’t.

Hiking Subasio - Victorious three

The forecast called for rain on Saturday, but we went anyway, the drive to explore our own backyard stronger than our desire to stay dry. And it was beautiful, all of it: the girls’ pride at making it up the mountainside by themselves, the clouds billowing like down comforters overhead, the wildflowers holding their own against the tide of grass and gravity, the towns laid out below us like stitching on a vast patchwork quilt. On the drive there, we’d listened to Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Two hours later, I knew exactly what that felt like.

Hiking Subasio - Bethany on top of the world

Hiking Subasio - Assisi down below(That’s wee little Assisi in the center of the photo.)

Hiking Subasio - Sisters

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Natalie

Hiking Subasio - Wildflowers 2

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Sophie

I will never stop wanting travel on a grand scope—road trips and international flights and wildly new terrains underfoot. This weekend has convinced me though that we don’t need to keep holding our wanderlust at bay until schedules and finances align. We have a wealth of beauty close to home, perhaps even enough to fill the next seven years of Saturdays. The verdancy of far-off pastures may be up for debate, but I can say now with certainty that we’ve got a green worth experiencing right here.

Hiking subasio - Wildflowers 3

What’s your favorite “destination” in your neck of the woods? Or is there a place nearby you’ve been curious to explore? Where would you take me for a Saturday adventure if I came to visit? 

22Apr

Treasure Planet

 It’s Spring Break, but we have no tent in the trunk, no extra hundred miles on the odometer. We looked up at least a dozen possible destinations, but all of them said rain. Double-rain up in Cinque Terre where I most wanted to go. We’ve camped in the rain before, but none of us has the energy to face soggy sleeping bags this week, so staycation it is.

For reasons that have not only escaped us but are now doubled over laughing at us, Dan and I decided to allay our disappointment by watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it for your next rainy Saturday night; it’s the kind of film that makes you fall in love with the adventure of life, the treasures in the world around us, and Ben Stiller. One thing it does not do, however, is calm pangs of wanderlust. Just take a moment to soak in the screenshot below. That would be the open road in Iceland. Iceland! Can you imagine?

Walter Mitty in Iceland.png

Dan and I have been to Iceland… sort of… in the sense that we once spent a half-hour hour layover exploring the grounds of the Reykjavík airport. We couldn’t see any mountains or geysers or lagoons from where we stood, but the landscape fascinated us all the same. Each tuft of grass, each scribble of green or beige or wine-red against the volcanic gravel was like a character in a fairy tale. The sky reached all the way down to the ground there. Within a minute, we were cloud-damp and windswept and smitten.

(Please enjoy this high-definition, award-winning documentary we made there upon discovering how very similar the Icelandic turf is to a trampoline:

You’re ever so welcome.)

A piece of my heart is still there in that wild and wonderful country, and there is nothing for it but to go back one day. I won’t be able to reattach that part of myself, of course, but I can visit with it as we traipse among the fjords and up the volcano slopes. Maybe on the way home, I can stop by the Highlands to commune with the part of my heart forever rooted to its glens, then down to visit with the piece I lost on a Portuguese beach. I stopped checking items off my travel wish list years ago when I realized that each check mark represented a longing awakened rather than one fulfilled.

Beach toes

I wrote in my profile that I’ve got this whole colorful, spinning planet of ours under my skin, and that becomes truer the more of it that I see. I have room for oceans in here, for limitless hues and textures of sand, for all the forests and waterfalls and summits that I’ve seen, pressed cheek-to-cheek with all the ones that I have not. With so many types of terrain held in me at once, it’s no surprise that wanderlust can be a real, physical ache sometimes.

I didn’t realize when I started writing this post that today is Earth Day, but the significance is not lost on me—that I would feel tugged inside-out by the trillion different points of our planet on the day set aside for acknowledging and respecting her. I grew up thinking that environmentalism was at odds with human advancement, but now I believe the opposite. We need the infinite variations of green on a mountainside to stir our creative impulses. We need the roll of waves to smooth the sharp edges of our souls. We need the wind flying across prairies to reawaken us to freedom. We need the intricate art of flower petals to show us the signature of God.

Purple wildflowers

And sometimes we need the ache of wanderlust to remind us what a treasure we have in this place we call home.

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