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Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
–Philippians 4:8, NIV
We made ourselves unlovely. We played the glamorous roles (princess, ballerina, movie star) only where no one could see. We sneaked our mother’s makeup but never learned how to use it and smeared it off before we left the house. We knew we were unfashionable and did not concern ourselves with name brands or hairspray, pimples or stains. Posing for the camera, we were quick to exaggerate our goofiest, our most ungraceful qualities. Lest we fall into the trap of vanity or trap others. Lest our concerns for the body rise above those of the soul.
My younger sister, Emily, and I have been talking about this a lot recently: how, in the Mennonite community, modesty was set up for us as an obligation and a virtue—uniquely ours as girls since our brothers were never cautioned on the looseness or length of their clothes or asked to compare themselves to paragons of virtuous femininity like Mary, the Mother of Jesus (possessed of extraordinary beauty and grace but so modest that it took a messenger from God to convince her that she was special, and even then she couldn’t stop carrying on about her “humble state”). I remember being a teenager, leaning across my dresser towards its large mirror and studying my face, wondering if I was beautiful or not. It was an indecent hope, and I faithfully dashed it whenever I could. It was easier to think of myself as entirely unattractive, hopelessly awkward. (Naturally, I worried that disparaging my body was an affront to my creator and repented this as well.) I tried to reconcile myself to the idea that, though I would never be pretty, someone might love me on the merits of my character alone. Any suggestion of vanity, then, was detrimental, since my goodness was all I had to recommend me. So I wore clothes that were too big for me and squirmed in front of cameras and simultaneously judged and envied the girls who dared to know they were lovely.
But I was a romantic child, and I could hardly let go of beauty altogether. All the beauty I could not own in my body, I found instead through visual art, acting, music, writing. Repeating a gorgeous phrase of “Claire de Lune” over and over on the piano, memorizing elegant speeches from Our Town, capturing the lightning in a poem, sketching my favorite view of the driveway curved between fields—there was no proscription against such things. Indeed, they were encouraged. We were taught to turn our minds to things that were holy, righteous, pleasant: unostentatious and simple goodness. Thus, I found beauty in myself the only way I could, by transmuting myself into image, character, sound—things that were not me.
This was safe so long as I avoided self-glory, so long as I accepted as fact that I would never be a pianist or flautist or singer or actor or painter or writer of any note. Calling it humility, I backed out of auditions and contests, ashamed to think myself worthy of celebration and prizes (though I wanted such things, I longed for them—a prideful sin that twisted against my modesty). In college, I made a conscious decision to become a teacher instead of a writer. It turned out that I did love teaching, but the fact is, I thought I had to make a choice, and the choice I made was to hide myself behind other people’s words and avoid the hint of boastfulness inherent, I felt, in seeking publication.
The young believe purely; the capacity for belief is in their bone marrow, I think; it is written in their DNA. My belief in modesty was like that—innate and irresistible. It overwhelmed me. “I worry,” I wrote in my journal once, “that I lead guys on just by being.” This is not the kind of thing that leaves a body all at once. I do publish, now, and my persistent modesty is appeased by the fact that my publications have not garnered much attention at all. I left my full-time teaching job and exposed myself as an artist, but whenever I catch myself hoping for any kind of honor or praise, it stirs up that old whiff of shame. Though I will confess (fleetingly) to my own beauty now, I am quick with a list of flaws and failings or a self-deprecating laugh to avoid the suggestion of vanity. Please do not think that I mean to be alluring. It lingers, this compulsion to unloveliness. Of the many ways that a person can be scarred by one’s childhood, this is not the worst. I am not complaining, merely explaining.
This is how I got here.
Unlearning modesty has been a slow process and incomplete. I must practice my pride. I read my work out loud (for an audience, whenever I can) for the sheer pleasure of it, to taste the gorgeousness of my own sentences. I wear low-cut tops. I dance with all the parts of my body in motion, right out there where people can see. Cringy? Yes, but it turns out I like wearing beauty and calling it my own.
But a funny thing happened as I began unravel those old strictures. It was maybe the third time in a row that I had been composing a Facebook post announcing a recent publication and caught myself apologizing for the piece because it was a little macabre. First, it was a poem about the dry bones in Ezekiel’s Valley in which the dead are pleading with God to let them stay dead. Then came another poem, this time ruminating at length upon a beheaded snake. The third time it was a short story, a creeping piece in which all manner of constructed things (house, couch, cement steps) lose cohesion and fall into chaos. I was starting to feel like one of those people who says, “I never complain,” and then launches into a lament that so spectacularly self-pitying that it gives them away as a world-champion complainer. Do I, I had to ask myself, have a bit of a horror writer in me?
But that makes no sense. I can’t stand to watch horror films, action films, thrillers—really anything with the possibility of spattering blood and/or wanton cruelty. I am, in fact, a pacifist. I am barely capable of cursing with any real conviction or skill. In actual moments of crisis and outrage, I, like some country bumpkin in the big city, tend to yell things like, “Hey, watch it, buddy!” It can’t be that I, who was trained up on simple goodness and hope, produce work devoted to dread and ugliness.
But there it is. On the page. The mournful corpse, the bleeding and headless snake, the creak and shudder of a decomposing house. I do not write unalloyed ugliness, I’ll grant you that. I do have a deep vein of optimism in me and in my writing, but there are other parts of me that make optimism necessary. Because somewhere along the line I began to think about things that were untrue, ignoble, impure, unlovely.
Writing the unlovely is different, though, from putting on a goofy face for the camera, meant to preempt vanity. When I write about the weariness of dry bones called back to life or the severed head of a snake, when I write about diarrhea or body odor or gutting disappointment or drought-withered seedlings, I am not trying to prove how unconcerned I am with beautiful things (passionate love, the smell of cornsilk, the tiniest flowers of creeping thyme) because I write about those things, too. When I write the unpleasant and the pleasant side-by-side, it is a sign that I have gotten free, in some measure, from my past. I would argue that this new impulse is, in fact, futuristic, an effect of living in the new millennium.
I graduated high school in the year 2000. Before New Year’s Day of that year, we weren’t sure if Y2K meant that the world’s computers would tick over to the year 1000 (and our lives, accordingly follow) or whether the new year would launch our rapid trajectory into the technological future promised us in all the sci-fi stories that we had ever read. In the end, it was that uncertainty, not a definitive move into societal collapse or utopian innovation, that defined the coming decades. I released my belief in religious sin just in time to take up the question of civilizational sin, watching with grief and horror as climate change and colonialism literally destroy the world. My worldview swung wide open and I leaped forward into the open space, only to realize how ancient and immovable the world was. I was easier in my soul than I had ever been, but sadder in my understanding. What belief I have retained since then, it is now sober and mortal, qualified. Humanity might yet be capable of doing good and surmounting evil, but our survival will be fraught with suffering. To quote an Old Testament prophet, there will be blood. And it will be beautiful.
In my maturity, I find that I have lost a sense of that division: beautiful or not. Admittedly, I am still tempted by binaries, familiar and clear-cut as they are, but in writing, I have the space and inclination to knit them into something more complicated. Is this a love story or a eulogy? Body horror or transcendence? Not “or”—it is everything. I allow my writing this flagrant and immodest embrace of all of it, all at once. I remain conscious of the influences of my youth—which tell me to be beautiful but to spurn my beauty, to do everything to my best ability but to forswear pride, to put away thoughts of all but goodness. But these thoughts become easier and easier to clear away with the sweep of my fingers, leaving me with a clean and even surface on which to work. And whatever I craft there—lovely or unlovely, pure or impure—I do not hide it anymore.
Copyright 2021 M. C. Benner Dixon
M.C. Benner Dixon is a teacher and writer who lives in Pittsburgh.