A Momentary Love

I hesitated before publishing this very personal vignette about a time in India when I actually did what I felt compelled to do–not because I’m ashamed of it, but because the topic of charity, especially among the poor in a country not one’s own, is fraught with landmines of misunderstanding.

We do what we do largely for ourselves.  Any good we accomplish is often as much for our own well-being as it is for others’, and is never quite enough.  It’s complicated by mixed motives because our souls are marbled with selfishness and self-aggrandizement.

On the other hand, for Christians, loving others is to be the outworking of God’s love for us (1 John 4:19).  It’s that simple, and that difficult to live out.

So I offer the following, not as a pat on my own back, or as an instruction, but as an introvert’s journal entry on the way to love.

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I sit in the coffee shop with my husband and kids and we’re spread out around a clean table, sipping lattes and lemonades. The air conditioning sends luxurious blasts of chilled air down onto us and I feel as if I’ve been wrapped in silk.  Opposite our table stretches a huge window out of which I can see the dusty Indian street we’ve just walked. I let my eyes slide over its endless clots of auto rickshaws, its streams of rainbow-clad humans. Then I see her squatting under the shop’s awning.

At once the still, small voice that compels me whispers His purpose.

Go to her.

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My heart beats hard and fast because I am a coward. Even in India, when offered a hundred grace-soaked chances to do what is right in the face of a thousand wrongs, I quake. I am the one who scrapes up the courage to speak ten seconds after beggars have pushed past me, one who is frustrated by her frozenness.

My children search my face. They aren’t facing the window like I am, and they can’t see the woman who crouches with her two small boys on the ground in front of it. They ask me why I look sad. I tell them that God has moved me, that I’ve determined I will obey him this time, that my heart is beating so hard it hurts. They turn in their chairs to look outside.

Before I can talk myself out of going out into the wretched heat to speak to a woman I don’t know, in a language in which I stammer, I shove my chair out from behind me and stand up. I walk out of the shop, and as I do I feel the eyes of the beautiful, shiny-haired Indians who have money to pay for lattes boring into my back.

The air outside is difficult to breathe. It’s dense with the fumes of diesel fuel, fried foods, and dank streams of liquid waste. I am instantly damp with sweat. I kneel before the woman. She stares at me with yellow eyes and an open mouth. I drag a quick breath through burning nostrils, praying in the back of my mind, and I say,

How are you, sister? in Hindi.

The woman sizes me up for a moment, then answers me with a thick accent I do not recognize. She tells me that life is hard with no husband. She is alone, from Bihar, she says, and has these two boys. She begs only because she has to. Even so, and she looks me in the eye when she says this last part, people are not kind.

As the woman speaks I realize that can understand her and I feel a kind of euphoria spread over me, though her words are hopeless. At the same time I notice that she is not sweating, even under this angry sun. I rest a hand on her desiccated arm.

Two shopkeepers have come out on their front stoops to watch us. I am aware that I’m facing the coffee shop window and that my children and the patrons are staring at me as if I’m acting in some strange silent film.

I tell the woman that Jesus loves her. That he sees her and her sons. I say this in childish Hindi. She nods and sways but I can’t be sure she has any idea what I’m talking about, and I beg God to fill in the terrible chasms I’ve already left in his Story. I hand her a bottle of water and she takes it, smiling. I am ashamed at how insignificant it is.

I ask her if I can pray for her and she nods again, but I don’t know the right words. I shift and hear my knees pop. I decide to pray in English.

Dear God, please. Please. Because of Jesus. Because you love her and her boys. Amen.

I’m crying now and can’t think of anything else to say.

I open my eyes and hand her a wad of rupees. She takes it cautiously, with the gentleness of a lady, and it makes me want to give her everything I have. But I’ve caused a scene and I have to go now. I stand up and clasp her hand. It’s rough and old, though she is still young enough to bear children. I offer a wobbly smile and walk back into the coffee shop.

I can feel a shift as I sit down at my table. Only God knows what he plans to write in her difficult story. All I know is that, this time, I was a little bit faithful. And I’m not the same.

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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 years. My skin even had the decency to glow on my wedding day.

But 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.