I am not a girly girl. I have never had a manicure. I have never been to a spa. I have never paid more than ten dollars for a haircut. I do not care about shoes; in fact, I could happily do without them most of the time. I do not know what ‘color season’ I belong to or have a favorite designer. Unless there are special extenuating circumstances, I dislike bridal showers, baby showers, women’s retreats, product-based parties (i.e. Pampered Chef, Tupperware, and the like), rubber-stamping, scrapbooking with all the fancy scissors, stickers, and paper, and ‘church ladies’ events in general. In fact, even most books written specifically for women grate on my nerves. I do not make these admissions out of pride. In fact, sometimes I worry that all these un-girly attributes add up to some kind of basic failure of womanhood on my part.
However, there is one area of my life which allays my fears that I am defective in the being-girly department. I crave beauty. Here in this dusty, strict, Islamic country in Central Asia it can be a challenge for me to find beauty. When people ask me what my city looks like, I tell them “it is a different kind of beautiful.” What this truly means is that I find it really depressingly ugly, but I am trying to be open-minded. Everything is different shades of brown and tan. The houses are made of mud bricks, and the walls are also constructed from mud. In the middle of summer the few trees that exist get so covered in dust that you cannot even tell that the leaves were/are green. There are remnants of rusted-out tanks in random places. There are piles of rotting trash everywhere, and poo from sheep, horses, goats, cows, and the occasional camel is everywhere on the streets. As if all this were not bad enough, we are in the middle of a drought. I am a Seattle kind of girl, and I crave mountains, rivers, forests, and wildflowers. Camels are cool, but they just do not fill that ache for beauty in my soul!
Where I live, I cannot just go for walks outside. Most of the time, even in my own yard, I cannot sit outside with my hair blowing free. There are usually neighbors sitting on their roofs, and using discretion in how I conduct myself under their inquisitive eyes is wise. Seemingly innocent activities like singing or listening to or playing a musical instrument outside or even with the doors open are usually not a good idea if there is a chance that my activities are carrying sound past the walls of my home.
In fact, the very sound of a woman’s voice is considered seductive. Even if a woman is just placing tea outside the door for her husband to serve his male guests, she does not call out to him that she is nearby. Instead, she gives a little cough to signal her presence so that the sound of her voice does not accidentally arouse her husband’s guests. Daily, we dress and carry ourselves in such a way that will bring the least amount of notice or attention. Among the other women serving here in my city we make jokes about practicing our dead-eye stare, and the best way to swallow a laugh in public. When I go to the bazaar or other places where I might have to interact with a lot of men, I often wrap my chador in such a way that the only part of me that is visible is my eyes.
Circumstances like this hardly encourage one to desire beauty, nor do they encourage a longing to join in the creative process. Yet part of this journey for me has been to learn how to search for beauty in new ways, and also to create places of beauty that I can enjoy. When I first saw burqas, all I could notice was the blue or white ghost or ‘wingless bird’ walking down the street. Now I think about how pretty the color is in contrast to the solid black veils and all covering robes worn by Arab women. I see all the varieties and intricate embroidery on each burqa and have come to appreciate the little ways women find to make this garment unique. The fancy embroidery covering these garments serves no purpose. I do not know where it originated, but to me it speaks of the way women here have a gift for wiggling the margins; they are skilled at using the resources they have been given or are allowed in creative and unexpected ways.
Once my eyes were trained to look for it among the swirling dust and foreign smells, I began to see beauty in other ways too. Even the poorest women find ways to get their hands painted with henna, artfully do their hair, and have beautiful lace sewn to the bottoms of their tombones (the pants that are always worn under skirts and dresses). When serving tea, women creatively put together platters of varieties of nuts and sweets so that their guests get a colorful assortment from which to choose. Often when I sit down with a new group of women for tea, I find myself spellbound at the beauty of the girls and women around me. Amidst the drab browns of this land, their beauty shines like the hand-blown glass goblets I saw hidden away in dusty heaps in a local shop last year.
As women, it is part of our core identity to both long to be beautiful and to make things beautiful. Yet in circumstances like these, you would think that these desires would not have a fighting chance of survival. However, I find the desire to beautify springing up in the least likely of places, both in my life and in the lives of the women all around me. When I returned from a survey trip to a remote region in the mountains, I came home ready to see my surroundings with new eyes and with a fresh desire to make my surroundings a place of beauty and delight. I had bought a second-hand sari from the used-clothing bazaar in that far-away city, and I used that material as my inspiration.
Challenged by a conversation with another woman serving in this country, I began to cultivate a plan to incorporate funds in my relief-and-development-project budgets to facilitate local women adding beauty into their lives as well. We provide fuel to keep the homes for our literacy classes warm during lessons in the winter months, and a fan and water cooler to offset the intense heat in the summer. Why should we not also include a dollar or two to paint the room where the course meets, or to plant a tree and some flowers in their yard? We are human beings, not machines! We need bread, yes, but we need flowers and color and light too.
On one hand, it seems frivolous to even think of beauty in the midst of the vast amounts of suffering and need I see on a daily basis, yet I believe it is necessary and helps point us toward the Creator who filled the world not only with cows, chickens, wheat, and potatoes, but also with penguins, flamingos, lavender, and lilies. This morning, while reading The Journey of Desire by John Eldridge, a quotation stood out for me: Beauty and affliction are the only two things that can pierce our hearts. In a land where I daily see in a thousand different ways the effects of pierced hearts, is it any wonder that my soul thirsts for beauty to counter some of the sorrow and despair that so easily creep in and can create a stranglehold if left unchecked?
This ‘girly’ desire to make things beautiful is part of how I reflect God as Creator to those around me—and so I will continue to sprinkle my flower seeds in desert soil. I will continue to paint, decorate, play my violin, bake, and engage in a myriad of other projects that enliven my soul. All the while I will be reaching out to those around me by inviting them to join me not only in the creative process, but also in learning to fall in love with the Creator who has so wonderfully made us in His image.