The first part of this conversation actually happened, so I’ll reconstruct it here.
Mama: Do you still have that stretchy thing I got you from QVC – the thing to tone your arms?
Me: Yes, I do. It’s down cellar by the treadmill.
Mama: You ever use it?
Me: Not for a long, long time.
Mama: Well, you ought to. I saw Marie Osmond on TV today and she said she uses it. She’s lost a ton of weight. She’s really tiny now and her muscles look good. She said you only need to use it for 9 minutes a day and you shape right up. She looks great.
Me: I’m not really into self-improvement right now. I’m taking a little holiday from all that.
Mama: You don’t have to do it much. Just a little bit and you’d really see a difference.
For the record, my arms are not going to win any prizes, but in my book, they’re OK. They lift a gigantic harp and they carry a whole whack of gear up and down several flights of stairs every time I have a gig. They are not Michelle Obama-worthy arms – as in toned and gorgeous on TV – but they really are alright. Your standard-issue, do-the-trick, pick-things-up-and-put-’em-down arms.
No one will fall in love with me because of my arms (though honestly, they might because of my hands which are – boasting alert – pretty awesome as far as hands go in what they can do and create).
But as I step into the beautiful country of “I’m OK,” I am thankful for my arms. In fact, thinking about them right now, I am glowing with gratitude and love for them. I mean: how lucky to have them – toned or not!
But this is not part of the larger agenda that tells us to look microscopically at ourselves (even our pores, for heaven’s sake) and do something to fix the flaw or deficit. That “something” often comes down to a purchase of some kind – a program, a product, a “lifestyle,” or something else that involves your PayPal account.
My mother, though, is not that larger agenda. She’s my mother and she loves me. And she’s really one of the world’s best mothers IMHO. I always want to hear her words as words of love. So here is the rest of the imaginary conversation about toning and shaping my arms:
Mama: I just think people look better when their muscles are toned.
Me: You know, I’m a Poet. And I’m blessed that no one expects me to appear unclothed on television or film.
Mama: Well, that may be true. But don’t you want to look good?
Me: Of course I do.
Mama: People like people who look good.
Me: But are those the kind of people I want to like me?
Mama: Yes, they are. You need people to like you in order to survive in this world.
Me: But people do like me, Mama. And I like a lot of people.
Mama: Yes, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll keep liking you. And I’m your mother and I need there to be a guarantee that people will continue liking you.
Me: I don’t think we can get that guarantee.
Mama: Maybe not, but we have to try.
Me: But don’t you like me?
Mama: Yes, I do. I love you. But I can’t stand the idea that someone could be mean to you if you don’t have toned arms. So would you please just use the stretchy thing?
This, my friends, is the nub of it – the mother worry: I need to be sure you will be OK.
And of course, even with her beautifully sculpted arms, some people are not very friendly to Michelle Obama (though, speaking for myself: I ADORE HER).
And yet in mother philosophy – a philosophy which is picked up, amplified, distorted, “monetized,” and generally drained of its loving impulse by a gigantic industry that preys on our vulnerability – we have to keep trying to win that guarantee even though the sanest part of us knows we’re never going to get it.
Wacky, isn’t it?
I’d love to change the conversation. Given my druthers, here’s how it would go:
Mama: But are you sure you are really safe in this world because I love you so much and I want you to be safe. I need you to be safe. Are you sure?
Me: Yes, I’m sure I’m safe.
Mama: Even without toned arms?
Me: Yep. Even without toned arms. I love you for wanting me to be safe. Long ago, you held me in your own arms and kept me safe. You taught me to hold myself to high standards, to hold my heart open, to hold beauty, to hold out help to the ones who need it.
Don’t worry. These arms will keep me safe. Now, let them give you a big hug – and let’s say no more about that stretchy thing from QVC.