The dress hung there like an underrated work of art in a hushed gallery–the type of art that a younger person may just glance at in passing, quickly moving on to something more provocative. But I stood there and took it in. It spoke to me in some strange way, not offering philosophies of living or deep truths of human nature, but more basically it reminded me that I’m aging. I suppose in that manner, the dress did present an absolute truth to me: we all get old, if we live that long. At times, my aging has produced in me a type of grief. I felt it in this particular moment. I grieved for the younger me who would have happily snatched that dress off of the rack and worn it without much thought for the freedom that comes with being young and pretty.
As I age I feel the constraints of a culture that equates youth and beauty with value. For women, an essential quality, desirability, is always at the forefront of our training as humans. It isn’t explicitly spelled out in most cases, but is more of an underlying current of subconscious understanding: to be admired and desired is one of the ultimate purposes of a woman’s life. This is a lie, of course, but that doesn’t stop us from devoting enormous amounts of mental space to the idea.
I found myself grappling with this notion as I stood in front of the dress. Here, in the middle of a department store, my eyes filled with tears, and I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that I cared so much that I’m never going to wear a dress like that again in my life. I was embarrassed that I haven’t transcended these ideas of what it is to be a woman, that I haven’t devoted more of my mind and my heart to purely spiritual endeavors instead of physical ones. I wondered why there is such heartbreak in something as inconsequential as crow’s feet, love handles, greying hair, and a particularly beautiful dress that I am too old to wear.
In some ways I understand that even my feelings about aging are a luxury. After all, I was in a department store, not a war zone. I was standing before a fairly expensive dress that I could afford to buy. I was shopping, not working in a mine or nursing a dying child or fleeing an evil government. Yet, I also know that I have a God who is intimately familiar with my every thought and who cares when I am hurting. As I fished a fast food napkin out of my purse in that store to dab at the tears that sprang up, I don’t believe for a second that God was rolling His eyes at me, although I may have been rolling my eyes at myself. I think He was ministering to my heart, reassuring me that He is sufficient even in this, in my letting go of what was and taking hold of what is.
A few weeks ago, we took the kids to an art gallery. We huddled together in front of different paintings and sculptures, and we whispered jokes and offered opinions about the meaning of the pieces displayed there. One painting in particular caused a certain sense of tranquility to wash over me. It was a simple painting by a Texas artist, a field of bluebonnets under a turquoise sky. I loved it so much that I went back to it before we left the museum and stood there alone, allowing myself to enjoy the peace as my eyes relaxed into the blues and greens that danced across the canvas. I didn’t want to walk away. But I did. Better things awaited me outside of the frame. It was pouring rain, and we bought six dollar umbrellas in the museum gift shop and giggled our way through the storm to get to our car. I soon forgot about the peaceful painting in favor of this chaotic, joyous, complicated phase of life.
I had no idea that just a couple of weeks later I would be brought to tears by department store inventory. As I walked away from the dress, I remembered the painting. Oh, what a different feeling it had evoked! But the end result was the same: real life beckoned. I searched the store for my precious college student, and I discovered her with arms loaded down, carrying all of the pretty things that she was set to try on. “I remember those days,” I thought to myself. I carried some of her beautiful things for her, and I thanked God that I am here to see her through these days. I stuffed the fast food napkin back into my purse. I felt peace.