On Karen

My gift, I think, is to help people feel less alone in their messes.  To remind them that we have all cried in the dark, avoided our reflection in the mirror, ruined someone else’s day, and lived to tell about it.

All, as they say, fall short of The Glory.

I’ve always considered it an honor to be able to help people feel more comfortable with their shortcomings.

But last weekend I met a woman whose gift is… I don’t know, more.  I hesitate to use the word more, because it’s ridiculous to compare the things that God has given us in terms of more or less.  I know this.  But her gift, what I saw her do for people, it was…  It was next.

It was the thing that comes after you stop beating yourself up for being imperfect.

Last week I met a woman named Karen.  You may know her online as Chookooloonks.  Perhaps you’ve seen some of the amazing pictures she takes of people, or maybe you’ve ordered her book The Beauty of Different.  I have, like many people, admired her pictures and marveled at her talent with a camera.

Meet Karen. She took this picture of herself and said I could use it.

But what she does with a camera pales in comparison to what she does with a woman’s soul.

Karen was part of an interactive art exhibit at BlogHer, which is a fancy way of saying that she stood in the middle of a room and painted words on people.  I’d read about people having words painted on their bodies before, and I was intrigued by the idea.  I got in line at Karen’s table.

“What do you want me to write on you?” she asked when it was my turn.

“Uhhh… I don’t know.”

“It should answer the question – what makes you different?”

I laughed a little too loudly.

“Uhhh… my hair?”

I knew it wasn’t what she was looking for, but I was suddenly extremely uncomfortable to be standing in the middle of this hotel ballroom underneath a microscope.  She didn’t respond.  Or laugh.  She just stood there looking at me, waiting for me to answer her.

“I have to choose?” I ask.


I stuttered and stammered a bit and looked intently at the white paint tray on top of the white linen tablecloth.

“What makes you different?” she asked again.

“Uhh… I’m loud?” more uncomfortable laughter.

“Are you proud of that?” Jesus, this woman wasn’t backing down.  She hadn’t cracked a smile and her steady gaze was searing a hole into my he he he I’m just a fuck up defenses.  I hung my head in reply.  ”Do you want to be proud of that?”


“What makes you different?  What’s the compliment you most often receive?”

“I’m honest?”

“Is that what you want me to say?” She wasn’t going to be tricked into answering this question for me.

I thought about it a little more.  What did people say about me?  What did I say about me?  How is it that I wanted this woman to define me with her black paint?

“Genuine.” I said.

She dipped her brush and got to work.

My Word

I found myself staring at the letters on my skin all night.  Genuine.  It wasn’t perfection.  It wasn’t never having told a lie.  But it was something I felt comfortable claiming.  Something I became more proud of, more in love with, as the night wore on.

I watched Karen do this for other women over the course of the BlogHer convention.  She refused to let women stay stuck in that place of simply not being a fuck up. She insisted that they push further, push past being comfortable with their flaws and into embracing and loving who they are.

I was in awe.  I don’t know if she even realized how stubborn she was being with some of us or if she appreciated what she was giving us.  You kind of got the sense that she was just old enough and wise enough to no longer put up with women talking shit about themselves in her company.  She doesn’t coddle or coax you into loving yourself – or at least, that’s not what I experienced.  Rather, she stands up tall in front of you and says “well, are you coming?”

I’m trying to clamber up the hill to catch up to her.  I want to be where she is, past acceptance and in the land of truly loving who I am.  I want to walk past the backhanded compliments to myself and the self deprecating humor that hides the things I’m most ashamed of.  I want to, I’m going to keep pointing myself in the direction of embracing the wonderful things that make me different.

And I hope someday to be able to turn around and say “well, are you coming?”

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