Make It Up with Makeup

In the summer of ’88, my mother handed me some Avon samples and told me to go put them on in the way she had instructed. Excitedly, I skipped to the bathroom. I was thirteen and not yet allowed to wear makeup, unattended. However, my mother was headed to the other side of town to sell quite a bit of eyeliner to my friend’s mom, and she wanted me to model “appropriate makeup for a young girl,” in case my friend was allowed to wear makeup before I was. (No fair!) It was for the sale, she said.

I liked seeing my mother bustle around the living room, preparing for work. She was a good saleswoman, talented at convincing people they could not live without summer’s citrus-scented lotion or a florescent, pink bangle. Unfortunately, she also struggled with mental illness, which usually caused her to oscillate between abusive behavior and unavailability. Sometimes, though, she was able to pull herself out of bed (a Herculean effort in her condition) and sell Avon. These were my favorite times. It meant that she was out of bed, talking to other human beings, and “fixing herself up.” However, for an “Avon lady,” she didn’t wear that much makeup, even when at a client’s house with her train case of nail polish. She only wore foundation, rouge, mascara (which she didn’t even need), and 80s bubble gum pink lipstick.

Sometimes, she’d allow my younger sister and me to play with the samples. We’d run off to our room, do something terrible to our faces, and return smiling in amethyst, liquid eyeliner and maroon gloss. My mother was never a tender woman, but she could, at least, deftly point out when you were wearing too much blush. It was in this manner that I learned to apply makeup.

Little girl smears red lipstick on lips while looking down into compact mirror.

My mother was a firm believer that makeup had only two purposes: to hide flaws and to accentuate natural beauty. I always wanted her to wear red lipstick, but she informed me that “red lipstick is for fun girls,” only she didn’t call them “fun girls.” Look, it was the 80s and “fun girls” were totally in! Stripper fashion and sexy, music videos writhed and tempted her young daughters, and she hated it. Yet, the legitimacy of red lipstick is the only makeup disagreement we ever had. I still think the right shade looks pretty on anyone, and with her pale skin; dark, brown hair; and green eyes; red lipstick would have made her look like a beautiful vampire from an Anne Rice novel.

Gif of Robert Plant's video with pale women wearing

Because of my mother’s attitude toward makeup (less is more) I never got that into it. I wore “cover-up” for my teenage acne and occasionally, bright, blue eyeshadow. In college, I used face powder on my oily skin, and on a pretty day or when I liked a boy, I’d don the forbidden, ruby lip. I’ve never owned mascara or blush.

I still normally wear very little makeup, although it is a comfort to apply a bit each morning. Growing up, I watched as my mother emerged, less and less often, from her darkened bedroom. She had blocked the windows with boards, and she ran the air conditioner—for white noise—all year round. Visiting her was like entering a freezing, black void. Since she rarely joined us, she also rarely got dressed, and years went by without a haircut. 

It became important to me that I get dressed in the morning and fix myself up a bit each day. It’s funny; some of my friends say that they love staying in pajamas or not showering because it makes them feel rebellious and satisfied, but these people all had parents who made them breakfast and were still awake when they got home from school. Lounging, unwashed, must feel like a forbidden freedom, but for me, remaining in pajamas feels depressing and uncomfortable, like I’m missing out. I felt so isolated in childhood; the last thing I want to feel, now, is unprepared for company. 

Super model, Iman, posing in pretty, purple makeup.

Recently, I’ve become more interested in makeup. Before the pandemic, I hardly ever wore eye shadow or lipstick unless I was teaching that day. (I think academia warrants an extra shield.) But these days, I find myself experimenting with highlighter and wearing tinted gloss. I recently found Jaime French’s YouTube channel where she does makeup tutorials and reviews. I particularly like “Makeup and Movie Mondays,”  where she pokes fun at movies with daft characters and extreme plot holes, all while she applies her makeup. I don’t know why, but it comforts me to watch her lacquer her lids with lily pad green and to watch how she transforms her fresh, natural face into a glimmering, cat-eyed goddess. 

Jaime French, applying green eye makeup.

These days, I take my time blending eyeshadow and arching my brow. Now that I don’t commute much for work (or for anything, really) I have extra time in the morning. On most days, it’s likely that no one but my wife (who appreciates but wouldn’t care if I never wore makeup again) will see my curled lashes or berry lips, but I don’t need them to. This year has seen so much pain, it feels right—human even—to create something pretty and unnecessary. I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror or the reflection of a window—gold shimmer on my eyes, faint sparkle on my cheeks. I’ll recall my mother’s isolation, how often I would give her a mental make over (fresh haircut, form-fitting jeans, red lips) as I sat alone in the tension of our living room. Powerless. But I also realize then, with a subtle, satisfying flash, that I am an adult now, and I got up this morning, curled my hair and highlighted my cheeks. I brewed coffee and sat on my porch, greeted neighbors and their dogs. The air is crisp, and I am part of this world, of this neighborhood, of a story outside of my home. I’m alive, and I look pretty.

Cyndi Lauper, posing in bright makeup and hair color.

Today, I leave you with Dora Malech’s “Makeup,” which expresses the speaker’s relationship with makeup and with her mother. I particularly like the final image that describes nature’s cosmetics: 

Even the earth claims color
once a year, dressed in red leaves
as the trees play Grieving.

Haunting My Friendships

The month before I finished my BA, a friend informed me that I had become a ghost. He said that he could no longer see me as quite present nor as quite gone. He could not continue to invest in our friendship, but my lingering presence kept him attached. I think he was just bitter that I was leaving, but now, years later, his comment has me thinking. When it comes to friendships, do we all, eventually, become ghosts?

My freshmen have just turned in an essay assignment that asks students to analyze a group to which they belong and to discover what shared activities bond them. As I’ve been reading these essays, I’ve noticed a theme. After only two months of knowing their roommates or sorority sisters or teammates, they declare that they’ve made “lifelong friendships” and are experiencing “a bond that cannot be broken.” Perhaps it’s my own bitterness at recently losing a twenty-five year friendship that makes me cringe at these platitudes. How do they know whom they’ll be friends with until the end of their lives, and how do I know either? My friendship ended over seemingly nothing, and yet, looking back, it also seems obvious that the branches of that tree would have eventually, undeniably, grown apart. 

A lone tree against the horizon, growing in two different directions.

Losing friends in my 20s made more sense to me once I reached my 30s. In our 20s, we were still making deeply significant choices about how we would be adults. Habits were malleable and often remained undetermined until later. It made sense to me, in retrospect, that once the pieces of our adult personalities fell into place, some of us would no longer fit.

Girl standing at edge of water holding hand out. In reflection is another girl holding her hand.

Losing people in my 40s is also painful, but instead of confusion and regret at what might have been, it feels more like an intense awareness of reality. I can usually see clearly now, after years of watching patterns (both other people’s and my own) how thoughts, feelings, and choices shape our lives, together and apart. 

Now, I have all these memories of my former friend, an entire lifetime of them, fun ones like when we got lost in Redondo Beach, looking for the restaurant we had visited several times before. Bad memories of arguments and misunderstandings. And just the nice ones, walking along the beach, talking about our respective futures, whom we’d like to marry, whom we’d like to let go. But now it feels like I’m haunting these memories, as though I’ve regressed to a previous lifetime when I was inclined to walk with a dragon who would burn me if I was not charmingly demure enough, if I did not twist for him just right. The pleasant memories can only live in the context of who I used to be, and it’s a strange way to grieve, stacking memories in a cupboard I will no longer visit. 

Ghost girl sitting on park bench at night.

Today, I leave you with Cynthia Huntington’s “Ghost,” a poem that explores different phases of connection. I like the faint existence that the speaker inhabits in the poem, and the object of her interest’s distraction. Bit by bit, the ghost seeps into form until she finally states her name. The situation reminds me of how people become more of who they are, as time passes, and the unpredictable response of their loved ones to that strengthening identity. 

Rituals for Meaning: Community Bliss or Groupthink Tyranny?

My wife and I are fairly nerdy. Often we spend our days off reading together and reading to each other. She recently read to me an article called, “God Is Dead. So Is the Office. These People Want to Save Both,” by Nellie Bowles, which discusses how working from home through Zoom (among other contemporary culture shifts) has supposedly created a need for group rituals in the workplace. In the article, Ezra Bookman (founder of Ritualist) poses the question “‘How do we help people process the grief when a project fails and help them to move on from it?’” Ritualist’s Instagram account suggests “‘A ritual for purchasing your domain name’” and “’A ritual for when you get the email from LegalZoom that you’ve been officially registered as an LLC.’” 

Later in the article, Bowles claims that she is “hungry for ritual….If my boss said we would be instituting a one-minute group breathing exercise in the evenings to mark the closing of our laptops, or beginning each meeting by all smelling a clove together, would I like it? I would.”

Four people fist-bumping above a work station/desk.

Now, because Postmodernism and contemporary society have conspired to kill satire, and because I sometimes cannot differentiate between my wife’s sarcasm and her charming southern accent, I finally interrupted and asked: “Is this a joke?” “No,” she replied, “it’s from The New York Times.”

I won’t get into the fact that, for Gen Xers, a “good” job meant that you could afford some of what you wanted and weren’t coming home in tears every night. I won’t get into it because I’m not completely sure it’s wrong to expect more out of life and work, and I’d be hypocritical to suggest otherwise since I gave up a corporate job (that often had me in tears at night) to earn a Ph.D. in poetry and live happily lower-middle class ever after. 

I do require meaning in my work for happiness, and I’m glad that I picked writing and teaching. However, the idea of sniffing cloves together with my colleagues gives me the creeps. I feel certain that they, too, would share in my discomfort. It also seems forced, and in fact, Bowles even mentions that “many workers are already devout on their own terms, on their own time, and are not at all hungry for soul-based activities between 9 and 5,” not to mention the problem with asking “workers to give their professional activities transcendental meaning when, at the same time, those workers can be terminated.” I’ll skip over my cringe at the term “soul-based” (whatever the hell that means) and just reiterate that in this sense, I am old fashioned: I believe work is work and spirituality is private.

Still, there is a place for shared rituals. In March, just as my university shut down, due to COVID-19, my mother passed away. I had not spoken to her since I had moved to Alabama in 2008. It’s a decision that I still don’t regret because I made it out of the desire to thrive and not out of anger. My mother experienced many problems in life that prevented her from living well and maintaining healthy relationships. 

When I first found out she died, I didn’t know what to do with her ashes. I had no experience planning death ceremonies, and the additional obstacle of pandemic travel restriction meant that her ashes sat on my shoe shelf for four months. We ended up taking the ashes to some woods that belong to friends of ours,  who also run Wild Ground, a “creative project dedicated to the cultivation of sacred spaces, joyful connections, intentional living, and earth healing.” 

I wrote a eulogy and picked a poem for my wife to read, and together we made a space for the ceremony we created. I don’t want to discuss details of the ritual, which brings me back to my leanings toward privacy around such matters, but I will say that my friends were very good at listening to how I wanted to honor my mother and finding ways to make meaning through ritual.

In some ways, rituals can express creativity and healing. Perhaps the best shared rituals are, ironically, spontaneous. Although I had put thought into the scattering of my mother’s ashes, and had written, prepared, and packed important items that I wanted to include, we mostly created the ritual on the spot. It was not prescribed by an institution. No one needed permission to invent or to improvise. The ritual was uninhibited.

Trees in forest with

Alternatively, though, rituals can sometimes morph into formal, rigid expectations. I’ve often thought that my mother would have been happier if she had been born later. Contemporary times could have provided her an easier path to live the life I think she would have preferred. I picture her skipping marriage and children. I think she would have enjoyed boyfriends or lovers or maybe even a partner she didn’t have to live with. Maybe she’d have chosen a career that would have never crossed her mind as possible, as a woman in the 1970s. Maybe she would have been a writer.

I chose not to have children and didn’t even marry until my forties. These decisions provided me with the time and energy to live the life I had dreamed up since childhood. I was not the little girl who played with dolls. Oh, I had some, but even before I was old enough for kindergarten, my “play” was to leave the “kids” at home with “Dad,” so I could go to work. That was my fun. Sure, as a young adult, I still experienced aggression from people who condemned me for not marrying and having children, but at least I didn’t need a man to co-sign my apartment lease.

Black and white photo of young woman in 1970s, on phone at work desk.

I’ve never been one to romanticize the past, nor do I begrudge my mother for the possibility that another life would have made her happier. Unfortunately, the tyranny of cultural demands lead her to the rituals of “traditional” family. Society convinced her that marrying young and staying home with kids equaled fulfillment, even though she  clearly found no pleasure in either. 

I suppose what bothers me about Bowles’ article is the thought of a person’s workplace (already greedily absorbing employees’ personal lives through their smart phones) would seek to maneuver itself even deeper by invading the spiritual realm. 

Life’s situations always provide two sides: the simple and the complicated. If attentive, one can always locate both. Bigotry is simple: it’s cruel; don’t do it. Bigotry is complicated: it comprises the very root of our culture in ways so normalized that many can’t even see it, even sometimes those who directly experience it. But while working to dismantle the sicknesses of our world, one might consider the simple ritual of paying attention to day-to-day life. One need not work at creating meaning for such simplicities. There is no need to analyze, daily, what activities count as “soul-based” as though our consciousness checks out every time we forget to mindfully eat our cereal. It’s usually enough to pay attention to what our bodies tell us about the actions we’re performing. I feel that if my mother had had enough support to do the latter, she might have thrown caution to the wind, remained in her single-woman Hollywood flat, and discovered her own path to fulfillment.

Photo of my mother in the 70s,
Janice Weiland 1950-2020

I leave you today with the poem I chose for my mother’s ash-scattering ceremony.

The Laughing Heart
By Charles Bukowski

your life is your life.
don’t let it be clubbed into dank
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
be on the watch. 
the gods will offer you
know them, take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death
in life,
and the more often you
learn to do it,
the more light there will 
your life is your life.
know it while you have
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight

The Comfort of Bad TV

Recently, I OD’ed on darkness. Sometimes, I cope with life’s terrors by watching horror movies and listening to true crime podcasts. There are many theories regarding the therapeutic nature of horror, some of which I discuss in my post “The Murder Ballad, True Crime, and Why We Need Horror.” But this month, I dove a little too far into the abyss (and it did not help that I had also read the beautiful but depressing books, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.) I was in desperate need of an overcorrect. I have read that type 2 diabetes can be cured with veganism, and I, too, needed an overly pure, difficult-to-sustain treatment, in order to counteract the narratives of serial killers and demonic influence that danced in my head. 

Then, as though sent from above, I received a notice on Netflix that there was a new season of the Hallmark Channel’s Good Witch. A few years ago, I had watched the first two seasons of the show but figured that it had been cancelled. As it turns out, there are now SIX SEASONS!! Thank the goddess!

Cassie, in her beautiful, twinkling shop, advising a customer.
Cassie, working in her shop, Bell, Book and Candle

What is Good Witch about, you ask? Well, it’s basically the witch-version of 7th Heaven. Remember that gem? I do, because I used to watch it every time I craved outlandish optimism and the absence of long-term struggle.

Usually, I like some juice in my stories, something at stake. It need not be literal life and death, but I want a reason to continue. Recently, I watched The Great, a series loosely based on Catherine the Great, and although it is a comedy, I felt compelled to watch as the teenage spitfire fights for education, feminism, and the American dre—oh, whoops, I mean the Russian dream. (It’s ok, Russia, it hasn’t exactly worked out for America either.)

Catherine the Great and her lover, in bed looking as though they've been deep in conversation.
Catherine the Great and her cute lover.

7th Heaven and Good Witch offer little to bite at, which is perhaps why they provide such a soothing balm. Both shows center around easily-resolved family issues, under the umbrella of watered down religion: The Camdens are Christian because they go to church and try to be nice to people; the Merriwick women are witches because they’re intuitive and drink tea. This dash of religion presents both stories as palpable to a mainstream audience, which traditionally opts for vanilla. 

7th Heaven does confront some legitimately stressful problems such as spousal abuse, gun violence, racism, and slut-shaming. (The latter ironically co-exists with the show’s human chastity belt, eldest son, Matt, who obsesses over his younger sisters’ potentially budding sexuality. This behavior is encouraged by the father, Reverend Camden, and it makes me want to wretch every time I think of it.)

Mary and Lucy looking off camera with frustrated, "I'm not having it" expressions.
Mary and Lucy: “What now, patriarch?”

But what takes the sting out of each trouble (even the waves of nausea triggered by creepy Matt) is that the problems are more or less resolved within an hour and often times, are never seen again. If we’re being honest, true issues are  rarely seen once. Most of the time, 7th Heaven problems are not actually problems. For instance, after the family doctor mixes up test results and incorrectly tells the Reverend and Mrs. Camden that Mary is pregnant (poor Mrs. Camden and her ever-fertile womb) Mary scolds her parents for thinking that she would “betray their trust” by having sex out of wedlock. But in case that’s not enough fantasy for you, there’s the episode that contains the least problem-y problem, “No Sex, Some Drugs and a Little Rock ‘N Roll,” where little Ruthie must come to terms with her gum-chewing vice. Seriously. 

Little Ruthie, looking seriously into the camera while drinking from a pink, toy tea cup and wearing a pink boa.
Little Ruthie: Trouble

Nevertheless, I am unironically fond of the episode, “Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion” where the (mostly grown) kids go to great lengths to hide their tattoos. At the end of the episode, the parents— alone in their bedroom—reveal that they already know about the kids’ tattoos, as they pull down their pajama pants to reveal their own ink—mark of the beast be damned!

When I was younger, I’d fantasize that I was somehow the long, lost daughter of the Camden’s and got to be a part of their family (whilst keeping my distance from purity-ring-Matt). I can’t say how my life with the Camdens would have worked out, though, as I am uncertain of how the characters’ lives actually function. I also don’t know if they accept non-heterosexuality. In my recollection of the show, no one ever asked about it. They did accept Judaism, though, so mazel tov to progress!

Matt and Sarah on their wedding day.
Here’s ol’ chastity belt himself, marrying a Jewish woman— officially—after secretly marrying her 24 hours after they met. Seriously. 

Meanwhile, in Middleton, the witches experience a similar dearth of painful problems. The protagonist, Cassie, does deal with the haunting presence of her late husband and lightly mourns her troubled childhood; however, the appearance of the handsome doctor, who moves in next door, at least gives her something pretty to look at. And yes, of course, they find love. Maybe the most vexing issue for the couple is their tendency toward mild arguments regarding western medicine versus herbalism. Here’s my interpretation of such a debate between them:

Sam: No! But…SCIENCE!
Cassie: Well, we’re both right, but mostly, I’m right. (knowingly smiles)
Sam: (thinks: She’s so pretty in that tight dress. Too bad sex does not exist in Middleton.)

Cassie and Sam, with jars of herbs in the foreground.
Cassie and Sam

Oh, that’s the other thing, as of Season 3, sex does not exist in Middleton. Nobody’s weird about sex but nobody’s having it, either. There is sex on 7th Heaven, but everyone gets all excited about it and not in a good way. 

Middleton is an entire town of people who cannot solve their own problems, without the Merriwick witches and essential oils. One can tell that they are definitely witches because they rarely charge anyone for their merchandise, and yet, Cassie maintains a beautiful, witchy shop, as well as an impeccable, mansion-sized bed and breakfast called, Grey House. 

This magic apparently rubs off on everyone because the town routinely joins together to produce extremely expensive, large-scale festivals and parties, all within around three days.

The carousel during the light festival.
Middleton organizes an ornate, expensive light festival within a couple days.

I fantasize about moving to Middleton. I can easily imagine the magic of fantasy-television, bestowing on me what would be, in real life, quite a chunk of cash, and then, mostly just milling around in Cassie’s shop, drinking tea, and taking long walks in the beautiful town. But what about the people? Would Cassie be my friend? Would we brew tea together? Or would her know-it-all sorcery grate on my nerves, like the mayor’s dissonant “yoo-hoo!” that slices every conversation. But I can hover in brief daydreams, imagining the beautiful vintage clothes I’d don on my way to meet friends at Middleton Microbrewery.

Mayor Martha Tinsdale, arms outstretched.
Mayor Martha Tinsdale

Middleton has also found its way into my sleeping-dreams. The night after the peaceful protests in my city (Birmingham, AL) turned aggressive, I dreamed that a few people from Middleton and I circled a crop of beautiful, six-foot-tall flowers and gently shoveled garden soil unto their base. I could not understand what, exactly, we were doing, but it felt correct. 

Cassie, holding an old book and gazing lovingly at the Middleton Merriwick flower.
Cassie, observing the famous Middleton Merriwick flower.

Nevertheless, as with any dream, one eventually wakes up. The world is a mess and always has been. Often, it’s hard to know how to change it. As I have yet to see systemic racism in Middleton (or actually any BIPOC at all) I assume that Cassie does not possess a tea remedy for four hundred years of oppression.

In Sammy Rhodes’ book, Broken and Beloved: How Jesus Loves Us into Wholeness, he laments the success of 7th Heaven, claiming that he’s “convinced that Satan loved” the show because “When there is no real sin to repent of, there is no need for a real savior.” I see what he’s saying, but as a non-Christian, it baffles me to abhor good behavior for any reason. In contrast, Diana Tourjée’s article, “‘Satan’s Favorite TV Show’: The False Moralism of 7th Heaven,” ponders the show’s legacy after the sexual abuse allegations against Stephen Collins emerged in 2014: “So what does a show like 7th Heaven sell to its consumer? We already know that faith can be a mask to religious leaders whose personal lives are wicked. The series feels desperate in its attempt to reconstruct an American life it felt was in jeopardy. While much of religious media feels like it consists of caricatures of real families, 7th Heaven felt exceptionally crude—so clean it was obscene.”

For me, the hyper-vigilant peace and community of these television shows is both what provides an escape and what eventually annoys me. It’s a tease. First, I want to live in that world of puny struggles and gorgeous homes. Then, I realize that the majority of my friends nor I could possibly live there, and even if we could, it would mean the end of growth. There is more to give the world than well-rested smiles and wholesome advice. There is also more to receive and to learn.

I am reminded of the Good Witch episode (“In Sickness and in Health”) where a grumpy painter blows into town and is given a magic brush. (Seriously, Cassie sells magic paintbrushes in her shop.) He finds inspiration and paints several pieces that predict the bland, near future of the characters on the show. He leaves feeling better, inspired by a new perspective. But the point is, he leaves picturesque Middleton for a world where chaos and pain, and yes, also love and peace, intermingle and co-exist. Middleton is no place for an artist, unless he’s able to unhook the town’s snow-white bodice and reveal the dark contrast of human existence: we only know happiness as deeply as we know grief.

Today, I leave you with a simple haiku by Hokushi about a small moment that contrasts joy and loneliness:

for that brief moment
when the fire-fly went out…O
the lonely darkness

UPDATE: I finished season 3 and here are a few observations.

  1. POC siting! She buys valerian root for her sleeping problems. Hmmm…
  2. Someone (who lives in Chicago—not Middleton) finally tells Cassie to lay off the predictions.
  3. More mild trouble between Sam and Cassie: Sam doesn’t want to get married again; Cassie does. This conflict, expressed in near whispers, ends two tv-hours later with a horse-driven carriage ride and Sam on one knee. Huzzah!