Twice in my life, a stranger has commented that I’m a dead ringer for someone famous. This always fills me with dread. Let’s start with the basics. Is the famous person a man or a woman? How old?
Most recently, I was paying for a dress at White House Black Market, and the very sweet sales clerk said, “Oh my gosh! You remind me so much of someone—she’s an actress on a TV show, I just can’t think of her name.”
“Ready for my credit card?” I asked, nudging it toward her.
“No, wait! It’ll come to me…”
“Ha ha, you can just put the receipt in the bag,” I said, eyeing the store’s entrance back into the mall.
“Wait! You look JUST like her! It’s that show, Frankie and Grace! Have you ever seen it?” she asked.
The truth is no, I’ve never watched the show, but I’ve seen the promotions for it. It’s about two old-lady friends—which I have for real–and I know who the stars are.
I said a quick prayer and offered hopefully, “Well, one of the stars is Jane Fonda.”
“Nope,” she said, still searching her cheerful brain.
I looked at her sadly. “One ringy-dingy, two ringy dingies.”
“That’s it!” she chortled. “Lily Tomlin!”
“It’s my small eyes,” I complained when I got home. “They used to be bigger. I’m having them enlarged! Immediately!”
I grew up in a household where self-improvement was the main theme. So, though I do look in a mirror several times throughout the day, what looks like vanity is more like spiritual scrutiny—it’s not to admire myself—it’s to improve myself. Somehow, “How can I be a better person, (Mom’s message) got fused with “How can I be a better-looking person?” (Society’s message.)
So, here’s the tricky part.
If I am one of these things, which we judge to be superficial, I seem to automatically become the other, which is what it’s all about. Because on the rare occasions I feel pretty, I am a better person! I’m kinder, more generous, and present for those around me. I stop thinking about myself. I flirt with babies in the dog park. I contribute to St. Jude’s at every cash register, bring my neighbor’s trashcans in, and overtip at the Bistro. It’s as if happiness fuses with kindness and weirdly, they feel like love. And love is generative. Like radiation. Like light. In those brief moments of confidence, I’m a floodlight. And maybe that kind of unselfconscious love is also a searchlight. It illuminates any similar energy in your path.
I was looking for a gift in Anthropologie yesterday, and an appealing young man whose mother probably called him “pumpkin head” was holding his own 8-month-old baby boy in front of one of the mirrors while his wife paid for a pair of earrings. The baby was the picture of health—rosy cheeks, bright blue eyes, a head as perfectly round as a soccer ball.
I couldn’t stop smiling at them because they were beautiful, and with all the pain and violence in the world, appreciating beauty is a soul-healing prescription I’ve made as natural as breathing. Placing your attention on the gifts strewn in your path is like setting your energy dial to receiving the sacred.
But it wasn’t this pair’s physical beauty that was compelling. It was their joy. This dad and his baby boy adored each other, and my smile was for the existence of love itself. The baby caught my eye, and his face lit up. His dad brought him over.
“This is Troy,” the young father said.
“He’s precious,” I said.
“Thankfully, he looks like his mother,” the dad said. But that wasn’t true. I could see the mother. She did not have this dad’s crystal blue eyes and radiant smile. Love was making Dad happy, and happiness is always generous. They returned to the mirror, and I sent them a silent blessing –a wish for their continued well-being and delight.
We fill up in so many ways: romance, work, family duties, exercise, travel, philanthropy. We pour energy into the empty place and call it life. We call it “what I did today,” but we are almost always in acquisition mode. In the subtle search-for-meaning-mode.
But blessings flip the energy. They are a desire from the inside out for another’s good fortune. And what makes them more than a wish and closer to a prayer is that, in a way, a blessing says, “I’m asking that something bigger than I am protects you and grants you joy.” Do we have that ability? To bless each other? Without religion or rules? To say to the universe, “I don’t have any authority here, but could you please bestow love by proxy?” I hope so.
Because I feel it all the time, the desire to bless. The man on a rickety bike who looks like he needs a car. The woman fanning herself at the bus stop when it’s sweltering, the patient in the ambulance blasting by, the lumbering, overweight jogger doing his best. Bless you, bless you, bless you.
Does the bus come faster? Does the bicyclist get a car? Does the patient make it to the hospital? Does the runner get a second wind?
When I was very pregnant with my first child, it was time to say goodbye to a pastoral therapist I’d been seeing. I was done. He had been the first person in my life to identify the hole in my soul, and, as Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.” Although I still have much to learn, it was time to close this chapter.
He put his hands gently on my belly, held them there, and closed his eyes. “If I have a blessing in me,” he said, “it’s yours.” I was struck by the fact that he qualified his statement. “If he had a blessing?” He was an ordained minister. He wasn’t sure? But he was also just a human being with failings. And neither of us could know anything with certainty.
It was a hot August evening. The crickets sang as if song alone could delay the arrival of autumn, and the sweet, humid air was still. I walked to the car, gravel crunching beneath my sandals, heavy with child and slightly heavy of heart. I looked back at the little church with a sense of closure and accomplishment, but when something good comes to an end, it takes a while for “good” to outweigh “over.” As I started the car, I chose to believe perfection was neither possible nor required.
Joy is radiation. Love is a benediction. I pulled onto the road home, knowing I’d been blessed. The baby I would greet as the leaves turned gold had been blessed.
And if I have a blessing in me now, it is yours.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.