Beautiful little discoveries

I stumbled upon these words at the University of Arizona on Sept. 22, 2011. I found them on Highland Avenue, painted on the brick facade of the Koffler building. There they were, waiting for someone to see them, to read them, to believe them.

I took out my camera, knowing that I’d happened upon something special. For several days afterwards, I kept my eye out for these words and looked for them where ever I went on campus. I never saw them again, that is, not until yesterday.

I’d stopped looking for them long ago, and yet, here they were, sneaking up on me when I least expected them. Finding me when I needed them. You see, about 45 minutes after I took this photo, I walked into a hair salon and told the hairstylist that I wanted to cut my hair. Short. For me, those were bold words. In my mind, my long, golden waves have always been attached to my femininity and my self-image. Chopping them all off meant severing that tie.

But I did it! And I couldn’t be happier with the decision. I feel lighter, buoyant. I feel brighter. I feel new.

I also feel like I toppled straight out of The Great Gatsby

Cutting my hair has reminded me that beauty lies beyond outward appearance. It can be seen in smiling eyes. It can be heard in loving words. When jasmine tickles my nose and takes me back to my grandmother’s garden, I find beauty in childhood memories. When I hold my little sister and feel her warm body against mine, I find beauty in our sisterhood. When I wake up in the morning to the sound of singing birds and the aspirated sighs of wind, I find beauty in the music of the natural world. Beauty, as I was reminded this week, is everywhere, and I am blessed to have so much of it in my life. In the people I know and love. In the world I live in.

We don’t distinguish between external beauty and internal beauty in English. But in other languages, there are words to separate the two. One of my favorite distinctions comes from Swahili, in which beauty can be identified as zuri or ema. As I understand it, zuri refers to the physical, the tangible and the polite. If someone asks me how I’m doing, I may respond using zuri.  However, if I want to talk about something in the soul, something deeper, I use ema. Ema, internal beauty, defies what resides on the surface. Ema lies in the little things; the little things that have big, meaningful consequences.

Yesterday, I found ema on the steps of the Integrated Learning Center at the University of Arizona, and I took it into the barbor’s chair where I snipped away at a binding, personal norm, liberating something inside of me. And today, I carry it still.

May something beautiful find you this week.

Smiles and all the best,




Filed under Most Popular, Photos

5 responses to “Beautiful little discoveries

  1. Pingback: 4 Ways to Style Medium-Short Hair | Untethered as a Cloud

  2. I don’t see hair necessarily as a symbol of femininity – it’s a certain intangible, we just happen to try to give it physical characteristics in an effort to define it. I don’t think it really needs definition though, there’s a highly appreciable quality to the mysterious.

    English is useful, but it’s nowhere near as poetic as most other languages; and there’s nothing wrong with liking them, wanting to learn them, or incorporating them into our thoughts, and lives.

    You have a lot of both, ema, and zuri – neither of which would be negatively affected by the length of your hair! It seems fitting that you came across those words. I commend the ema of the person who wrote them, too! =)

  3. Cuntsparrow

    1) Using beauty as a measure of worth sucks. Stop.
    2) Stop exoticizing and fetishizing Swahili for your own purposes.

    Your hair looks great, though.

    • Now that’s a thought provoking comment

      On your first point, I completely agree, so maybe I just need to clarify what I’m trying to get at. Cutting off my hair reminded me that external “beauty,” the kind that conforms to certain social norms, doesn’t matter and should under no circumstances measure self-worth. I’m trying to distinguish between characteristics like hair, weight, whatever that we typically attach to “beauty” and those things that I believe are more beautiful, which we typically ignore– natural cycles, love for another person, childhood innocence.
      However, now that you mention it, the word I was searching might have been closer to “worth” or, instead of “beautiful,” I may have used “meaningful.” Neither of those quite get to the essence of what I’m trying to convey, though.

      So, onto Swahili.
      As a writer, I often find myself inhibited by the English vocabulary. There are phrases in all sorts of languages that express what I cannot in English.
      I refer to Swahili sometimes for several reasons: I’m studying it; I love language; learning this language has helped me understand the world in new ways.
      In this case, I’m using Swahili to explain a concept that my language doesn’t seem to have a word for.
      I had hoped this would make room for more understanding, rather than creating a sense of exoti-fication.
      Do I have to restrict myself to the expressions of my own language? Is using other languages that I engage with on a regular basis appropriative in some way? And if so, how else can I address the problem?

      I’d love to hear your opinion.

      And thank you, for both the comment and the compliment.


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