Trying to Look Good

By Judyth Hill

Making up: A life chronicled in looks.
Skin had hope, that’s what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers—silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin’s secret own.

—Naomi Shihab Nye

This morning, I applied Out To Sea teal blue eye liner, Aquadisiac eye shadow, Amorous Satin lipstick, a schmear of Goldigloss, and scooted downstairs to bake coffee cakes, simmer freshly made cream of asparagus soup, roast a chicken and make green chile for that evening’s chicken enchiladas, stir up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, and of course, a couple pans of Fudge Espresso brownies.

Do I even have company? Does it matter? Doesn’t this sound like something very to do with love?

I am a newly converted MAC cosmetics babe, though I have been seduced of late by Prescriptives—for the little pots of Cool Shimmer—silvery gleamy stuff, making you feel like a sliver of moon, and their Le Magic powder which gives your face the finish of a porcelain doll, and since I do seem to cry real tears, a doll feels very like an operative look.

And I am absolutely all about cream. In the kitchen, it’s organic, of course, in heavy and sour and 1/2 and 1/2, and skinwise, it’s Khiel’s, the very classic NYC apothecary, making me feel somehow spoiled and PC at the same time.

When, alone and at work in the kitchen, should I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I feel I am at least making a valiant effort at beauty.

And effort feels like the operative word.

I did my teen years marching against the War (Viet Nam, that time), and organizing grape boycott picket lines with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Workers. I went from grade school girdles (yup), Brooks Brothers’ man-tailored shirts and kilts (cum the de rigueur pin), navy knee-high socks and Bass Weejun loafers sporting shiny dimes, to high school years in overalls, frizzed out hair, and a horror of anything approaching “trying” to look pretty.

It felt like a betrayal of my values: of my desire to remake this country, my heart-breaking family, and my middle-class Jewish girl self.

College years were spent in black leotards, black suede boots and Levi 501s, very tight. I was pale, poetic and vaguely, pervasively, angstish.

The woman I was would have found this woman frivolous.

She didn’t understand that part of a woman’s re-making throughout her life is her way with beauty in the world. Whether politics, skin care, hair color, her garden, or her dining room.

When I was a very young, married, newly childrened woman, my mother died. I was devastated, and nearly inconsolable. In Jewish tradition, we sit Shiva, a mourning time, when friends bring food, mirrors are covered or turned to the wall, and I began to wear a line of dark blue drawn beneath my eyes.

Narayan Singh, noted Sikh “face reader” and psychic, told me, years later, “You are still wearing your sorrow; when you cease grieving, you’ll give it up.”

He was right, except as the years have clocked by, I’ve added, as age may, sparkle and dazzle to that sorrow. My glittery turquoise make-up has become a badge of courage, a way I stay in memory and balance, my own beauty way, both playful and faithful.

Same, and similar, I love tableware for any and all occasions, collect vivid linens, batiks from India, from Provence, and still have all my mother’s great ’50s florals. I do cloth napkins in rings, love silver sets and salt and pepper in my grandmother’s small crystal pots with tiny, intricately worked spoons. I keep a picnic basket in my van, stocked with the proper accoutrements for a full-on spontaneous moment of utterly festive feast.

I love perennials in their ceremonious, dependable bloom, also the quickie thrill of marigolds and zinnias, the circadian miracle of morning glory and four o’clocks.

And did I happily spend a small fortune for the privilege of having Santa Fe hair guru, Philip Atencio, make my hair look rather as if it just happened to come this way? You bet I did!

Let’s make up, we say, when we mean something combining forgive and start over. As in, invention, as in created fresh.

So I make this effort these days. In my unlovered, unpartnered life, I miss most being touched, being held, and being told I am beautiful.
I didn’t know it would be like this.

From those earliest little-girls-in-smocked-pinafore days, I always thought I would be a Wife.

When this boomerang of a thought comes round to hit hard, I call my gorgeous Girl-Child and declare it time for a “MAC Attack.” We motate straight to Dillard’s and hit that counter hard, trying on all the new seasonal colors, being expertly daubed and brushed and polished and blushed by saleswomen in great shoes, and delicious parfum. It’s Dorothy and the gang in Oz—remember?—when they get shined and gussied up to meet the Wizard.

If you’ve got to slay a witch, you might as well look good.

I recently spent 10 days, which I am privileged to do four times a year, with a community of people from all over the world, aged early 20s to way older than me, studying with Martín Prechtel, in his school, Bolad’s Kitchen.

On the last morning, as we gathered to make our formal thanks, I stood looking in my rear view mirror, applying color to eyes and lips. One of the women, exactly my age, said to me, wryly, but not unkindly, “Hey! That’s not fair! You’re trying to look good!”

“Yes,” I answered her, “Indeed I am.”

In the midmost of my 30s, when my once and no more beloved and I would disappear (our forte) on road trips of great and wild duration, no matter how deep in the woods, or long out in the mountains, I would peer into the rear view mirror and apply my eye make-up. “Dressing for the deers,” we called it.

And I always do. I dress for the deers, and I dress for the dear.

Only what has become dear is much, much larger and more mysterious than I ever guessed. I just re-applied lipstick to write this.  u

Judyth Hill is a stand-up poet, living at Rockmirth,  her 111-acre Eco-Arts Atelier in northern New Mexico. Her six published books of poetry include “Men Need Space” and “Black Hollyhock, First Light”; she is the author of the internationally acclaimed poem, “Wage Peace,” and was described by the St. Helena Examiner as “energy with skin.”

This article was originally published on December 31, 2006.