Blood red tomatoes and the gorgeous generosity of Being

No mud, no lotus. — Thich Nhat Hanh

You are damaged and broken and unhinged. But so are shooting stars and comets. ― Nikita Gill

Beautiful people do not just happen. ― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

The tomatoes of my suburban childhood were uniformly round, sallow, and mealy. Plucked from a pile between the bags of carrots and heads of iceberg lettuce at Safeway, I do not recall that they tasted of anything whatsoever. The first time I took a bite of a real garden tomato, then, an enormous, scarred off-kilter sphere, still sunwarm, and obscenely red, I was startled and put off by it. It tasted of sunshine, yes, but also of shadow and struggle. That is, the flavor of its own fight to survive and to thrive. Because this bold tomato withheld none of its Being, it was too intense, too acidic, too REAL for a kid who’d been raised on tightly sealed jars of peanut butter and boxes of macaroni and cheese lined up on the shelf like little soldiers.

But this is not an essay about tomatoes. Nor is it a dig at my parents’ food choices, or a critique of the industrialized food chain. It is the relationship between beauty and Being that I am thinking about right now, of the ways that reality seems to stubbornly keep wanting to truly show itself to us and through us, and of the many ways there are to try to push it underground. I am thinking about a reality that sometimes seems to be so papered over that, even though experiencing it is our birthright, it sometimes feels like it has been stolen from us and spirited away. I am thinking too about how we deny ourselves these encounters with Being — perhaps most especially our own Being — due partly to the culturally conditioned poverty of our own seeing and our muddled relationship to sickness, aging, and death.

Come with me now to the mid 70s. I am a quick little learner, precociously skilled at carving up the world into what is acceptable and what isn’t. For the first time ever, my dignified, aloof grandmother has been called to stay with my siblings and me for a few days. This is because, unknown to us, our volatile parents have gone off to get married. Remarried, that is, after years of being successfully divorced. I sit with my grandmother at the kitchen table where she has propped up her mirror. She removes her makeup, rolls her graying hair into bristly black curlers, and wraps a scarf around her head. Then she catches my gaze directly, unapologetically, and I can see her seeing exactly what I see as I look at her. She couldn’t have been much more than 60-years-old — just a few years older than I am now — but I have the clearest memory of being both fascinated and frightened by this naked encounter with an aging woman.

My grandmother died just a few years later and, in the many years since, I have often been struck by her beauty in the few pictures I have of her. What caused this change in my ability to see, I have wondered? As a child, I saw in her only the ravages of time and struggle through eyes that had been well trained by Coca-Cola commercials and the Brady Bunch. Was my ability to see her transformed, in part, through my recognition of her life textures? At some point, for instance, I learned about the utterly precious one-year-old baby boy she’d lost to meningitis in the early 1940s. And there were the brutal mastectomy scars she had acquired back when “breast cancer” was whispered shamefully and usually heard as a death sentence. I’m not suggesting that her suffering made her beautiful, still less that her “imperfections” did. I mean, rather, that having the opportunity to see more fully into her Being, even in this limited, indirect way, made it much harder for me to miss her beauty.

The beauty I have in mind here, then, is really just a side-effect of the generosity of Being, available to us when we are available to it. It turns out, I think, that it’s easiest to notice it in those relatively rare people who are becoming unafraid of their own wounds. I’m talking about folks who are cultivating a relationship to their own damage that is honest and straightforward enough that they feel less and less compulsion either to hide their “imperfections” or to indulge in performative, sentimental stories about them. It’s not, then, that such people are more broken than anyone else — we are all damaged goods— but, that, for whatever reason, they are less invested in hiding either behind a sanitized version of themself or behind a sentimentalized rendering.

The grocery store tomato makes many promises: “I will not disturb or challenge you. I will demand nothing of your tastebuds or your sensibility. I will not remind you of your dependence on the earth, or the chain of human hands that brought me here.” Ultimately, it is the same promise that most of us make to one another. At work, on social media, and at family gatherings: “I will protect you from the marks of my sickness, aging and suffering so that you will not be reminded of your own. For one more minute or hour or day, I will conspire with you to hide this reality well enough that we can pretend not to know what we know all too well.” The price we pay is, of course, very steep. For, in agreeing to hide our damaged selves — both from one another and from ourselves— we must, at the same time, agree to cover over the one thing most likely to reveal our true, irresistible beauty.

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