I’ve often said that sex is the first thing you notice about someone and the last thing you forget. A few days ago I met someone who confirmed that assertion, but in an unsettling and disheartening way.
She was dressed neither like a man nor like a woman, in a shirt buttoned up to the throat, punctuated by a small bow tie. Her neck was slender and girlish. Her voice too was slender and girlish, sweet, like a bell. Her face was quite pretty, with the girl’s chin, not square like a man’s, but a sort of rounded triangle. She had thin wrists and slender fingers. Her shoulders were narrow and sloped, and though she was thin, her hips were wider than the shoulders, and she had that smoothness about her that even a skinny and unathletic boy does not have.
She had cut her hair short on the sides, but it was still thick on top and combed over to one side. Did you know that a forensic criminologist can tell a man’s hair from a woman’s hair without recourse to DNA? Hers was a woman’s hair. When she wrote out my receipt, she used a woman’s handwriting, such as I’ve known from more than thirty years of grading college exams. She walked like a woman. She carried herself like a woman.
She had no breasts. They had been cut off. On her chin there was the slightest poking-out of black stubble, as you might see on a teenage boy.
I felt sorry for her. She was a girl, but she had destroyed the girl’s beauty. She never would be a boy, and she never would attain to the boy’s very different kind of beauty. Not by miles. Not by a universe of miles.
The next day I encountered a woman on social media who boasted about her two abortions, and who said that when she was in her fifties and she found that she could no longer bear children, she cried “woohoo!” for joy. She is, by her own description, a philosopher, a novelist, a fornicator, and a witch.
I thought about the sheer beauty of a child, and recalled that though C. S. Lewis confessed that he did not enjoy the company of young children, he noted that it was a real defect, owing to the fallenness of his nature; and then he went and wrote a few of the most profoundly good books for children that you may find.
I thought also about Shakespeare, fonder of children than his contemporaries, who never leaves cruelty to a child unpunished, and Dickens, whose actuating verse from Scripture is the one we find Peter Cratchit reading to his siblings after the death of Tiny Tim: “And he took a little child and set him in their midst.”
Someone else, in a discussion about patriarchy, said that Jesus treated women very well (an understatement), and did not expect them just to “stay home and have kids.” I am trying to understand where 99 out of 100 people in the time of Jesus would go – to the beach for a holiday?
Home was a haven in a harsh world. Even the much-wandering Odysseus wanted to get there again and stay there. And why that sneer again, directed at “kids”? Until the Industrial Revolution, normal women wanted to have children, and were proud of having many.
See Leah, boasting of her fertility and making her sister Rachel miserable. Children were your strength. Home and children are beautiful things too. A good man works himself like an ox at the plow, or in fact hitches himself up to the ox and the plow, to bring good things for his wife and his children and their home.
We seem strangely numb to the beauty of men, the beauty of women, the beauty of children, and the beauty of a good noisy home. I don’t understand this. In the whole physical universe you will not encounter a more beautiful thing than what Milton called the “human face divine.”
The face is a man’s, rugged with age and work, bristling with hair below but not much on top. The face is a woman’s, smooth as a child’s, but etched with intelligence and deep feeling. The face is a child’s, fresh, glowing, sun-tanned, innocent of most of the world’s sin. And is there a more beautiful human face than that of a child in wonder?
Someone might accuse me of sentimentality. It is not so. Sentimentality is to deep feeling as a puddle is to the sea. The sentimental is cheap and quick. It demands a response that it does not earn. It is like annoying romantic music in a bad film: it says, “Here you must have a feeling,” and you may oblige with the pretense of it.
“How beauteous mankind is!” exclaims Shakespeare’s Miranda, seeing a group of people for the first time in her life, and she is right in her exclamation, even though she has had no personal experience of the sins that mar our beauty. Our problem is hardly that we feel too much at the sight of man, woman, and child. We feel far too little, if anything at all.
Shift your attention from the morally upright to the beautiful. Is it beautiful for a woman to rejoice over having murdered her children? Is it beautiful for someone to mutilate her body, to attempt a bad impersonation of a man, and to fail? Is it beautiful for a child to be born in an alley full of garbage, broken glass, and rats, when there was no need for that at all – to be born, I mean, in a chaos outside of wedlock and the home? Is it beautiful to foul the innocence of that child, as we do regularly in our schools? Is confusion beautiful?
The Church has been the mother of beauty. Is that one more reason why she is so hated in our time?
*Image: Parents’ Joy by Kirill Vikentievich Lemokh (a.k.a. Carl Johann Lemoch), c. 1890 [Kaluga Art Museum, Kaluga, Russia]