A Different Story (from the ones you’ve probably heard)

I love spending time with people who travel the world–or people who come from other places and have traveled to the U.S. where, happily, our paths have crossed and ended  in a meal or a long cup of coffee.  Hearing their stories, flipping through their pictures, and comparing notes of my own travels, enlarges my view of the world and helps me gain perspective.

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Specifically, talking to people who go other places reminds me that the world is enormous and that there are a billion, ordinary, life-changing events unfolding on every continent everyday, even as I brush my teeth in the morning.  I may not know what each one is, but being aware that I am small in this vast universe, that my joys and sorrows are coinciding with myriad others across the globe, helps me to disengage from my toxic tendency to navel-gaze.

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And it helps me to reject the ubiquitous, Hunger Games media frenzy in our culture.

Because, again, my traveling friends remind me that many important things are happening all the time, and no one is reporting them.

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It’s life-affirming to remember this.

Just because the Internet screams at me, demanding that I watch the dickie-bird and react, doesn’t mean that it’s telling me the truth.  By that, I mean, the whole truth, the larger truth of life.

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My friends remind me, and I feel relief.

I think to myself, I am small, thank God, and there’s more to this story of the world.

An Addendum

People think that if you’ve been up close to suffering, human or otherwise, that it puts things into perspective for you.  That you pick your battles carefully, that you don’t get bogged down with petty sorrows because you know how bad things can really get.  They assume that you’ve had to grow a little tough, or else go crazy.

Maybe all that’s true, to some extent.  But I’ve found that experiencing the suffering of others (in India, and in other places) along with some of my own, has given my heart stretch marks, instead.  It’s made it baggy and soft and able to hold more–more sadness, probably, but I hope more love, too.  My heart’s weaker than it used to be, and less efficient.  I cry too much about things that used to escape my notice.

But that’s ok.  It’s a price I’ve been willing to pay in order to get down low, and I don’t regret it.  And, anyway, it just means that things like this,

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So here’s to those of us with worn, flabby hearts that can’t keep things in proper proportion.  I’m trusting there’s a reason for softness.

On Surviving the World With Your Heart Intact

There’s a lot going on in the world these days, as there always has been, of course.  Before the rise of the Great and Mighty Internet, we only knew those bits of information hearty enough to make their way across the ocean by mouth.  We digested them, sometimes with fear and trembling, in bite-sized chunks, and then folded our papers.

Now we know things (whether they are true or not is beside the point) before they’ve even happened.  And it seems that most of them are bad.

A person can only handle so many heartbreaks, hers or other people’s, before she begins to curl inward.  And this is what I’ve done when I’ve become aware of too much.  I’ve felt my insides folding up shop like those illegal vendors with their tarps spread on Paris streets.  I’ve gathered the corners of my heart, all its heavy trinkets sliding to the middle, and I’ve thrown it behind me, the weight now on my back.

And, of course, I’ve prayed.  But my prayers have often been breathless and tight, not made of deliberate words, but of bile, of pure acid.  And as I’ve waited for peace to alight, I have felt the locusts scrambling for dominance in my chest.

My prayers are different now, mostly.  I ask for the strength to bear what I’m meant to, those hard things that will bring honor to the Lord, and make a difference on earth.  And I ask for the courage not to look too long at what I’m sure will destroy me.

After I’ve prayed, I think about things that are right and good.  I do this with ninja-like intensity.  What are the beautiful things in the world?  Who made them?  He is the Ultimate Good, and He is here, remember?

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Finally, because I’m a writer, I write.

And, of course, the earthquakes keep coming, and the bodies continue to hit the floor.  The Thought Police wield their intellectual billy clubs, and our neighbors look sideways at us.

But there is Hope.  Emily Dickinson said it’s a thing with feathers.  I say it’s the One who made feathers.

Red Dawn

[I wrote the following essay for a medical journal.  I’m submitting it here in the hope that it might help some girl, somewhere]

I’d started judging the girls in my class according to the clarity of their skin by the time I was in the eighth grade. Before then other things had occupied my mind, things like which girls were tallest, and who could outrun the boys. But it was in junior high that my friends and I began to lose the smooth skin that had marked our elementary years, displaying instead the blotchy, hormonal foreshadowing of T-zones to come.

For me, there were only two kinds of girls—those with smooth faces, and those without. In a teeth gritting attempt to avoid finding myself in the latter group, I spread calamine lotion on my face before bed each night, sometimes even wearing it in the harsh light of a Saturday afternoon at home, because my mother had told me that it dried out pimples as well as insect bites. I was grateful for this secret remedy and hoped it offered me an edge over those poor wretches whose faces had become relief maps before my eyes.

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By the time I reached college my hormones had leveled out and, though I didn’t know it then, my face was the clearest and smoothest it would ever be. When my skin behaved itself, as it often during that time, I turned my attention to other, less pressing flaws like the size of my hips. Only when my face broke out occasionally did I fix my gaze on it again, engaging my old familiar enemy with perverse pleasure. I met my husband during these confident, mostly-good-skin years. My face had the decency to glow on my wedding day.

After the birth of my third baby, I noticed that I’d begun to look like I had a perpetual sunburn across my face. Then, at three months postpartum, my cheeks broke out in scores of tiny red bumps that reached clear into my hairline. I’d never seen anything like them, not even in middle school, but I dismissed them, hoping they were the natural (temporary) result of creating three human beings in less time than it took to get my bachelor’s degree. I bought a drugstore cream with alpha-hydroxy in it to show my skin that we couldn’t go back to the old way of doing things, but that—relax–I was wiser now and less judgmental.

I smeared it on my face one morning while the baby slept. It felt cool and refreshing, as the packaging promised.  Three minutes later, however, I knew that something was dead wrong. During that short time my cheeks had bloomed red as plums, concealing their former bumps beneath a creeping, fuchsia wasteland, and under my eyes little water pillows formed so that I stared at my reflection through slits. I curled over the sink and frantically washed the cream off, but it didn’t help. My scorched-earth face remained electric for days.

Two weeks later, when the dermatologist looked at me, he sucked in his breath.

“Oh, you’ve got it, bad,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s Rosacea, but I don’t think it’s going to scar. We’ll try and straighten this thing out.”

I hated him for saying that. I’d suspected it might be Rosacea. Not one to sit at home and let the professionals handle things, I’d Googled every possible explanation for my skin’s hideous new state-of-being, whittling down the possibilities to, a). A prolonged allergic reaction, b). Lupus (why, God?), or c). Rosacea. But in all my research I hadn’t once imagined that my skin might scar.

The dermatologist didn’t help me ‘straighten out’ my newly irritable skin, though not for lack of trying. First he suggested that I smear sulfur cream on my cheeks. When that didn’t improve things, he prescribed a gel that was supposed to reduce inflammation on the my skin’s surface, which, he reminded me, would have to be good enough since there’s no cure for Rosacea. But when I slicked it on, using my ring finger for the lightest possible touch, my cheeks burst into metaphorical flame again.

After topical creams and gels I tried oral therapy, swallowing low doses of antibiotics that gave me yeast infections and made me dizzy. Then I underwent laser treatments that were painful and expensive, and, in the end, left me squinting in the mirror for signs of improvement. After that I became a vegetarian, to the existential sorrow of my husband and chicken-nugget-eating kids, because I read that giving up meat can reduce skin inflammation. When that proved ineffective I decided to fast, going for days on nothing but purified water, to offer my digestion (related to skin!) a rest. But that provided only temporary relief, so I purchased nutritional supplements off the Internet. I swallowed one gargantuan liqui-gel after another, checking ten times a day for signs that my skin was returning to its blessed, occasionally-broken-out state. I saw little change.

This is what I now know: My dermatologist was right; there’s no cure for Rosacea. I’ve been down each quixotic therapy road and its end is the same burning face and a flabby wallet. For ten years I’ve lived with paper-thin skin, skin that can’t handle summer heat, sharp winds, my husband’s three-day-old stubble, my children’s hands. By now I’ve learned to anticipate the onset of neural pinpricks, the ones that light up the surface of my skin just before a spectacular facial flush. I’ve made begrudging peace with the small, red bumps that linger for days after the flush has died down. I’ve become an expert at reading people’s eyes as they talk to me. Has she been in the sun? Does she feel nervous or shy? My morning routine now includes only tepid water and tinted sunscreen. The sunscreen doesn’t offer enough coverage to hide the red underneath, but it’s the best I can do. I glow, but it’s the ghostly glow of zinc oxide.

Sometimes I think about the days when my skin was imperfect like everyone else’s, when the worst thing to happen to me was a pimple on prom night. I’m sad that I didn’t appreciate the normalcy of that time, that I wasn’t comfortable being flawed. It’s too bad, really, because now I’m uncomfortable in a physical way, and I won’t outgrow it. Ten years of managing a condition I can’t hide has finally given me a legitimate reason to think about my skin, and I’m trying not to. If this condition has taught me anything, it’s this: There is no perfect anything this side of Heaven. The pursuit of physical perfection is its own kind of prison.

And we are always the wardens.

Sisters

DSC_0219I wake up to a fast heart because there are minutes over coffee that I’ve already wasted,

and I can’t remember what day it is.

So I hurry on a wrinkled cardigan I grabbed off the floor (I’ve stopped picking up around here),

and I find you in the middle of the kitchen, with crazy hair and childhood eyes, and

you’re sipping my memories with careful lips.

You see that my face is blotchy, that I look like something from the future, but I don’t mind,

for once.

Because my future will have you in it, and we’ll sink together as we listen to

Dvorak and watch Wheel of Fortune, in three of those gliding chairs.