Back when I was living in Connecticut, I discovered that whenever I did something special with my hair, tried a new make-up color, or found a pair of sensational shoes, one particular church friend would sidle up next to me and ask what I had done differently. Once when it was a hair-related inquiry, I replied, "It's the wonder of plastic. Rollers, that is." Then I launched into the minute details of shampooing, conditioning, oiling, twisting, and setting my locs on more than 50 rollers, sitting under the dryer for hours, sleeping in the rollers overnight, and removing them in the morning. It was a painful procedure, but well worth the many compliments and the undeniable Oprah-type glam of wearing my hair in springy curls for a week. My friend listened to my description with rapt attention, and then she said, "Well you know, you've gotta suffer for sexy."
I knew that she knew what she was talking about because that woman wore the highest heels, the most elaborate hairstyles, the most complex and color-coordinated make-up, and clothes that looked like they'd been made just for her curvaceous frame. I know that she had "suffered for sexy." The hours it took her to put that look together are certainly incalculable. But the look was indescribable. I would watch her prance up onto the church platform to sing with the worship group and mumble something under my breath like, "You go, girl."
I have thought of my friend Mary often in the past few hours because today is what I affectionately refer to as "beauty parlor day." I have gone through all of the aforementioned hair-raising antics and am currently sitting at the computer with white, gray, and pink rollers all over my head. I have spent nearly two hours under the dryer already and will spend a minimum of two more hours under it before I take the rollers out sometime late tomorrow morning. With my light blue nightgown and my black ankle socks on (trapping both the warmth of my feet and the soothing effects of the shea butter cream I've put on them), I am not anyone's picture of elegance or beauty. But tomorrow when I get dressed to meet Moneesha for lunch at Dean and DeLuca, when I drive my daughter over to her best friend's house for a sleepover tomorrow afternoon, and on Saturday when I stroll across the fields at my son's football, everyone else will see the benefits of my current suffering.
The only possible hitch in all of this will be when I have to take Daniel to football practice in a couple of hours. I'm planning to put on a hideous black satin cap over my rollers, don my grey hooded sweatshirt, and pull the hood over my head as I drive through the streets of South Charlotte on the way to the practice field. I will have on my darkest shades and I will not look to the right or to the left as I drive. On practice days after we drop him off to play, my daughter and I usually head to the pet store in search of treats for Maya, to a bookstore in search of treats for ourselves, or do something far more mundane like head to the supermarket - but not tonight. I will shove him out of the still moving minivan and race straight home - hoping and praying not to run into anyone I know. I may even try to outrun any police officer who should try to stop and ticket me due to my haste.
About halfway through the first hour under the dryer this morning, it hit me. This current suffering is remarkably parallel to the suffering of athletes in training, musicians practicing, and highly accomplished writers toiling away at their computers. The sweaty workouts, the grueling runs up 45 degree hills, the many hours of playing and singing up and down the scales, and the countless drafts of crappy stories are the steps up the ladder of success that no one sees. The restrictive diets, the secret hideaways for late-night jam sessions, and the tears over approaching deadlines and receding imaginations - that is what success demands of all who seek it. You've gotta suffer for sexy - and for fitness, for being in tune, and for producing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. What we see on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, on the grand stages of domestic and international opera houses, and on the tennis courts of Champions are the results that came at a great personal cost to those performers who make it all look so beguilingly simple. There is nothing simple or easy about what any of them do.
Much closer to home, I find that I too must restrict my intellectual and emotional intake by cutting out junk-food television. I must stretch my heart and soul by reading and watching painful news broadcasts and listening to the tales of woe suffered by friends and family. I must force myself to acknowledge my sedentary lifestyle and make a plan to improve my spiritual fitness when I am feeling unfit, over-weight, and poorly nourished in that area of my life. When I wake up an hour before everyone else in my house and open my morning pages journal, when I read and reread familiar Scriptures and meditate on them, when I sit at the computer keyboard to write, erase, rewrite, and re-erase - all of that adds up to an increasing fitness of heart and mind that doesn't come easily or simply.
I would hate for anyone to see me on the floor of my study room poring over old journals, flipping through study books, breaking the points of colored pencils, or weeping in prayer over the broken hearts and shattered lives of people I know and people I know of. I keep the door to my study/workout room shut when I am working out the kinks and cramps in my attitudes towards those I long to despise but I know I ought to love. I grunt with every set of lunges and squats, lifts and pulls to fight the cellulite of self-pity and false humility, that cottage-cheesy stuff that everybody sees in me but I don't want to own up to. The flabby underarm waddle that keeps on shaking long after I stop moving - that's my self-righteous indignation, and I've gotta be persistent in lifting the barbells of humility and grace in order to keep it at bay.
It's the behind the scenes work that makes the most difference. Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, and Ben Bratt make it look too easy. They show up on our movie screens fit and gorgeous, sleek and perfectly coiffed. Venus, Serena, Andre Agassi, and Roger Federer sprint and hurl themselves across the court only to place the ball in a far-off corner of the box; they are like powerful modern dancers out there. What we don't see are the trainers, the massage therapists, the cooks, the clothing designers, the make-up artists, the beauticians who make them look like pure perfection. And that doesn't include the graphic artists, air brush artists, and computer animators who put in the finishing touches that make us all feel nothing short of ashamed of our flabby, unseemly bodies and our wrinkled, pock-marked faces.
Unfortunately, I don't have a team of magicians to put me together every time I make a public appearance. I have to do all the hard work of physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation myself. I wear my shoulders out taking care of all this hair, build them up again sweating, kicking, and punching my way through Tae Bo, and drinking enough water to float a small boat. I sharpen my communication skills by writing so much in my journal that I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in my right wrist. Here's the truth: I am willing to undertake this afternoon's clandestine drive to football practice and the painful night of sleeping in rollers in order to receive the many compliments I'll get on my fancy new 'doo tomorrow and for the next few days. I am also willing to forego an hour or two of sleep every night in order to build my faith, deepen my satisfaction and contentment with this amazing life I live, and figure out ways to share my tales of the journey with all those patient and trusting enough to return to this blog over and over.
Mary was right; sometimes you've gotta suffer for sexy. And for joy unspeakable full of hope, for wisdom, knowledge, and depth of insight, and in order to attain the peace that passes all understanding.
At the moment, however, I'm off to sit under the dryer for another half hour or so.