Real Simple asked six noted writers to share their surprising sources of inspiration.
By Anne Roiphe, Winifred Gallagher, Asha Bandele, Kathryn Harrison, Lori Leibovich, Jennifer 8. Lee
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
My late husband's words | Anne Roiphe
It was mid‑December of 2005. I don't know why he said it. I don't know if a shadow had fallen across him, something appalling he saw out of the corner of his eye. I don't know if it was just coincidence or intuition that prompted him, but about a week before my seemingly healthy 82‑year‑old husband suddenly died, he emerged from the kitchen ready to go to his office, his face clean‑shaven, his eyes shining, smiling shyly, holding the copy of the Anthony Trollope book he was rereading, and said to me, "You have made me very happy. You know that you have made me a happy man." There I stood in my work outfit, blue jeans and a T‑shirt. There I stood with my white hair and my wrinkles and the face I was born with, although now much creased by time, and I felt beautiful.
"What?" I said. I wanted him to repeat the words. "You heard me," he said and put on his coat and drew his earmuffs out of his pocket. "Say it again," I said. He said it again. "You've made me happy." We had been married 39 years. We had held hands waiting in hospital corridors while a desperately ill child struggled to breathe and thankfully recovered. We had made financial mistakes together. We had spent hours out in fishing boats. We had raised the children and then second-guessed our choices. We had stood shoulder to shoulder at graduations and weddings and we were well‑worn, but still I had made him happy, and I was proud and flushed with the warmth of his words.
I know I looked beautiful that morning. Perhaps not to the young man holding his toddler in his arms who rode the elevator with me; perhaps not to the friend I met for lunch, a true believer in Botox; perhaps not to passersby on the street; but I knew it for a certainty. I was beautiful.
I don't believe that inner beauty is sufficient in this cruel world. That's the pap one tells a child. I don't believe that positive thinking improves your skin tone or that loving or being loved changes the shape of your nose or restores the thickness and color of hair, but I do know that there is a way of being beautiful, even as age takes its toll, that has something to do with the spirit filling with joy, something to do with the union with another human being, with the sense of having done well at something enormously important, like making happy a man who has made you happy often enough.
Ten days after that morning conversation, my husband and I returned from a concert and dinner with friends and walked down our windy block toward our apartment house when suddenly he stumbled and fell and died within minutes. As I waited for the ambulance, I remembered his words, a beauty potion I would take with me into the rest of my life.
Anne Roiphe is the author of numerous books. Her latest,Epilogue: A Memoir, will be released in paperback next month.
Being Active Everyday | WINIFRED GALLAGHER
That exercise makes me feel beautiful struck me around age 40, right after I had taken a quick run. Just a half hour's lope eliminated puffiness, brightened eyes, and banished my most tense expressions. After a few more birthdays, I began to study ladies of a certain age and identified the quality shared by the most attractive: sheer liveliness, expressed by quick smiles and laughs, of course, but also quick, graceful movement. And according to aging's inexorable use‑it‑or‑lose‑it principle, the way to stay lively is to stay active.
When I turned 50, tricky knees persuaded me to change my beauty regimen, and I began alternating long walks with yoga. I found an hour's stroll remedied the pallor and the stiffness imposed by my tyrannical computer during the rest of the day. As for yoga, it not only lengthened and toned my muscles but also calmed my harried mind for a moment. Even a gray‑haired mother of five who can stand to lose a couple of pounds feels like a graceful goddess in the dancing‑shiva pose.
In 2003 my kinesthetic beauty routine assumed a new importance. During many months of draconian breast cancer treatment, exercise reminded me that 99 percent of me was still healthy. Staying active also set the tone for my "chemo look." Wigs don't lend themselves very well to uphill treks and downward dogs, so l adopted the mantra "Bald is beautiful." To this day, I think hair is somewhat overrated.
Recently I've added some weight training to my labor‑intensive beauty plan. My biceps may not be as impressive as Michelle Obama's, but they're strong enough to have allowed me to celebrate six years of good health by painting my house, a 105‑year‑old country schoolhouse. That old place and I have weathered plenty of life's ups and downs, but I think we both look pretty good for our ages.
Winifred Gallagher's most recent book isRapt: Attention and the Focused Life. She is also the author of It's in the Bag, House Thinking, and Just the Way You Are.
The power of my work | ASHA BANDELE
If you were to ask my friends back in high school, they would probably say I was one of the lucky ones. I had a face most people at least considered attractive, maybe even beautiful. And for much of my life I had an hourglass figure. But as 40 approached and my figure, um, filled out, I would look in the mirror and no longer see myself as sexy. Then one night that changed.
I was at a meeting in a small town with a group of young women who were reading from my most recent book, a memoir that discussed my history of depression and surviving abuse. After the gathering ended, one of the women approached me. She told me that while she was growing up, she had been told to shut up so often she just did it automatically. It felt good to hear someone give voice to how she felt inside, she said. We talked about all the things that kept us silent and shut down. She promised to speak out more from that day on. As she walked away, something came over me: I felt ignited, energized... yes, beautiful.
And the more I thought about that woman and our conversation, the more I realized that it wasn't just those instances of bonding or appreciation at public readings that triggered my inner glow; it was my own solitary engagement with language. Writing requires us to take the world on more slowly, to notice its harshness as well as its richness. Writing reduces the chaos in my mind. As the gospel song says, it orders my steps and makes me feel in control of myself and therefore appreciative of the world.
Women don't get enough credit for the amount of self we invest in our work. In the last year, watching some of the most talented women I know being laid off has been tough. Knowing that the work they loved — whether in finance, real estate, or writing — may be gone forever has been downright devastating, and their grief over this loss is boundless. "I feel like nothing, like I just want to disappear," said one brilliant friend. "Losing my job is like the worst breakup I've ever been through," said another. In the midst of this carnage, I've clung ever tighter to my work — not so much to the money-making part of it, which ebbs and flows (mostly ebbs, lately), but to the basic joy I've always taken in words; that at least doesn't go anywhere.
For so long I had measured my beauty (and, really, my worth) by my dress size. And, hey, I would love, I mean love, to be a size 6 again. Still, every time I give a lecture or teach a workshop and touch someone — or write a page and reach a deeper part of myself — I feel so useful and relevant. It translates to a more profound feeling of beauty than the rush I once got from someone admiring my breast size. I like superficial praise as much as the next person, but at 40 the love finally had to go deeper, didn't it?
Asha Bandele is the author ofSomething Like Beautiful: One Single Mother's Story, The Prisoner's Wife, and Daughter
Spending time with my kids | KATHRYN HARRISON
The first time it happens, we're out walking: my little boy holding my left hand, his older sister on my right, and the baby, six weeks old, asleep in her Snugli. We're still at the stage when my taking a shower seems like an accomplishment. I haven't lost all the weight I gained while pregnant; it's been months since I had my hair highlighted to preserve the conceit that I remain as blond as I was at 16; I look like I'm getting as little sleep as I am; and I am wearing a nursing bra — a contraption that, inexplicably, department stores categorize as lingerie. In short: not a glamorous moment.
Still, I feel — for the first time in my life — really, truly, I‑don't‑need-anyone‑to‑tell‑me‑so, drop‑dead beautiful. It has taken three children to deliver me to this state, this symmetry of boy on my left, girl on my right, and baby on my breast. Ridiculous, but as we navigate the sidewalk I feel radiant, as if I were wearing a dress encrusted with precious stones, reflecting the sun's light. Wasn't I supposed to feel this way on the day I married my children's father? Photographs suggest I made an attractive bride, but I was so overwhelmed by the momentousness of the occasion that all I felt was scared, not at all sure I was equal to the promises I was about to make.
Perhaps it's all the fairy tales I've been reading with the older children. The princess is always beautiful; she anticipates the arrival of her prince and their union — the point of which is to make a prince or princess of their own. Fecundity is her power.
Of course, many forms of power confer beauty. Amelia Earhart must have felt as luminous as any heavenly body, winging her way over the vast Atlantic. And Venus Williams, clocking in with a serve of 129 miles per hour: Is anyone more majestic? Most people would probably cite one of my other achievements before motherhood: I write; I teach; I'm a good wife, a generous friend. Each of these pursuits is gratifying. None of them make me feel beautiful.
My mother was 18 when I was born, an event she associated with stretch marks, varicose veins, and the encumbrance of a baby she didn't want — not with beauty, not at all. What little power she had had rested, she believed, in being desirable to a man, and I had stolen that from her. Tired, careworn, perspiring under the Snugli straps, I wouldn't expect to feel even presentable. But the consciousness of walking forward into life flanked by children is transforming; it is for someone like me, for whom motherhood has redeemed an unhappy past. Before children, I used to move down the street like someone who hoped no one would recognize her. Now, walking by reflective shop windows, I don't think to check how I look. I already know.
From this moment on, I never feel more beautiful than when I am with my children. Perhaps we've just emerged from the car, rumpled, cross, covered with dog hair — every mile spent together on the road undoes a minute of primping. New York to Philadelphia to visit the cousins: I might as well have skipped the shower, the mascara, the hairbrush. Still, when we walk through the door, I'm smiling from something cosmetics can't deliver. It's the consciousness of my good fortune.
My husband took pictures of me holding our first child; we were in a garden. It was March 1990, and the light had the tender quality of early spring, pulling forth pale green buds. I'm not looking at the camera; the baby has all my attention. Wow, I thought, when I saw those pictures — what a lovely face that woman has. It took 10 years, two more babies, and many more rolls of film before I understood: That's me. That's what I look like. I don't always beam at my children — what mother does? — but when I do, I'm beautiful.
Kathryn Harrison is the author of 12 books, includingWhile They Slept, Envy, Exposure, andPoison. Her daughter Julie (seen here) is nine.
A glass of wine | LORI LEIBOVICH
here's what used to make me feel beautiful: my skin, bronzed after a languid afternoon lounging on a beach towel. My eyes, sharp and ready after eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. My hair, tangled and damp after dancing madly to a favorite band. These were simple, sensual everyday moments in an unencumbered life. Now there is a family and a house and a job, all of which need tending to, and beauty is harder to come by. My scheduled‑to‑the‑minute existence means I'm often frenzied, pitched, worn‑out. Like so many other mothers I know, to stamp out those feelings (at least temporarily), I often reach for a glass of wine. The first few sips have the same effect on me as a long, deep inhale. A few more and my shoulders migrate from their daytime hangout near my ears back to their proper place. Still more and I start humming.
I'm not talking about getting drunk. In fact, I rarely have more than one glass — that's enough. Most of the time, that single pour is enjoyed at home, where it gives my evenings shape. Just as my children have their nighttime rituals — Go, Diego, Go! followed by a book and a piggyback ride to bed — I have mine. I wrestle with the cork and listen for the pop and the clink of the bottle against the glass.
I take a second to admire the luscious color and breathe in the scent. With that internal to‑do ticker no longer running roughshod through my mind, suddenly there's room for free associations, for thoughts of food and books and distant friends.
Wine doesn't simply soothe me; it opens the door to intimacy. At a party, a few sips of Chardonnay are enough to make me peel off some of my protective layers and reveal something about myself to a stranger. It helps me connect with my husband after a long, challenging day, too. Sometimes, once the kids have succumbed to sleep, we put on music, sit at the kitchen table, and relish a meal. At first we check in, sometimes about the business of schedules and finances; other times we don't say much at all but simply revel in the food and our still house. As we pour some wine, the conversation may take a deeper turn. Sometimes we talk about the freedoms we once enjoyed in abundance and wonder why we didn't take more risks when we had the chance. Other times we look to the future: how liberating it will be when the children don't need us so fiercely, and, of course, how devastating.
In these moments, when I'm raw and questioning, nostalgic and a little melancholy, and he's sitting there, listening, I feel beauty coursing through me again. I realize that freedom still makes me feel beautiful. But now I have a different understanding of the word. It's a moment or two of space, my goblet of wine, and being understood by someone I love.
Lori Leibovich is the editor ofMaybe Babyand has written for the New York Times, EIIe, and Salon.com.
My ugly feet | JENNIFER 8. LEE
Growing up, I was embarrassed by my feet. They were ugly: wide and flat. They had no arch; my footprints in the sand resemble caveman tracks. They bulged out every which way, refusing to be contained, refusing to look slender or elegant. There were rough patches on the heels and sharp calluses on the fourth toes. (Can calluses be sharp? On my feet they were.) Pedicures were the podal equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. I couldn't wear Manolo Blahniks or anything with stilettos or straps.
So when I started dating, I thought of my seriously unsexy feet as a liability. I was reluctant to take off the clunky shoes I wore, which, in turn, gave guys the impression I was ready to bolt for the door. On the rare occasion I took off my shoes, I would tuck my feet under my body when I sat down, so that my thick, knobby toes would be safely out of sight.
What makes this more tricky is that I am descended from a culture that obsessively prizes dainty feet, in which small feet are equated with femininity. My mom wears size 5 shoes, and my grandmother's feet are so small that I once thought her slippers belonged to a child. Me, I wear size 8: a Chinese‑scale girl with American‑scale feet. It was not until I was an adult and paid a visit to my father's mom in Taiwan that my feet's provenance became clear. I had her feet! I felt a brief flash of resentment upon the realization.
But my boyfriend turned my relationship with my feet around. He loved my feet and found it amusing that I hated them. They had character, he said. Their nooks and ridges gave them interest: a diversity of texture and shape. So I would put them in his lap while we were on the couch or even having dinner. He rubbed my flat arch. He played with each of my toes. He fingered the craggy corners. Their imperfection, to him, was the source of their beauty.
And after some time, I had this thought: Although I had always prized my other eccentricities, I had never embraced my feet — which were, inarguably, unique. So one day, not that long ago, I took a deep breath and dug out a pair of delicate flip‑flops from the bottom of my closet; I had bought them on impulse and never allowed myself to wear them in public. I slipped them on and walked down the street with feet uncovered and unadorned. Padding down the sidewalk, I felt euphoric — less from the breeze and the sunlight on my toes than from being, finally, unashamed.
Jennifer 8. Lee is a reporter for the New York Times and the author ofThe Fortune Cookie Chronicles.