Now that I am old, the strangest thing happens to me sometimes in the street, or the subway, or occasionally even in the swimming pool. A stranger will come up and tell me something no one ever said when I was young: “You are beautiful.” I smile and thank whoever it is for this act of kindness and generosity, and sometimes they say, “You should share your secrets.”
Of course, I know that age is never really beautiful, and that it is only because I am old, and that the kind stranger knows I will not take his or her ( they are often women) compliment amiss. I understand that this is a compliment not so much on my appearance but simply on the fact that at my age it is possible to be striding in a hurry down the street, my unruly white hair, which seems to have thickened with age, in the wind. I am lucky enough to have been able to exercise daily and to eat a careful diet most of my life, and for today, I am in good health. I do not fool myself that no one can see the wrinkles or the brown spots or any of the other normal signs of age. Rather, I think of the old saying, “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder,” which is surely true.
I often ask my husband, who works in a geriatric clinic as a psychiatrist, if he doesn’t find the work depressing or discouraging. How much can one help people over a certain age, after all? Is he not faced by great suffering he can do nothing to relieve? Optimist that he is he says, “I do sometimes find the stories sad, but they are always so interesting. You have the whole story of a life, with an elderly person, or almost the whole story, and if you listen, sometimes, something simple can help.”
So with beauty surely. Of course, beauty is a gift given to the very young probably to insure the procreation of the species: the glowing skin, the firm figure, the glossy hair. Yet surely our opinion of what is beautiful has changed much over the years, judging by the large pink ladies one sees so predominantly in certain paintings of the nineteenth or eighteenth century. There are many different forms and shapes of beauty and our idea of beauty changes over the ages.
And surely, too, much lies in the expression, the story on the face which the lines have traced. Much lies in the goodness and kindness one can see so clearly reflected in a face, which may be simply a projection of the onlooker’s own inner self.
As Shakespeare says in “Love’s Labours Lost”
“Good Lord Boyet, my beauty though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise,
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues.”
Or more simply by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Beauty like supreme dominions
Is supported by opinion.”
With a beautiful drawing by Jean Marcellino.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.
She will be teaching a class at the Center for Fiction on "The Writer in Fiction" Sign up for the first class Sept. 17th.