Turning Our Scars to Beauty Marks

We have no scar to show for happiness. — Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

When I left the house with my ice skates, Mom told me not to stay out too long in the sub-zero temperatures. It was cold enough that my face felt like it might crack into a million pieces every time I smiled. But I was ten and my friends were skating so I skated. It was too cold for leisurely touring around the rink, practicing my backwards skating or making imitation figure-skating moves. No one had brought their sticks, so hockey was out. Which left speed races or whiplash – the two options that would keep us all moving briskly enough to stay reasonably warm in the bitter cold.

If you’ve never played whiplash on ice, you’ve missed out on a truly exhilarating, yet terrifying, experience. Everyone forms a line, holding hands with the people in front of and behind them. The “leader” skates around in whatever erratic manner s/he prefers, while those in the line behind attempt to follow suit. Invariably, the pace picks up, and the whole line is suddenly skating faster and faster. Those toward the end of the line begin to be whipped around at astonishing speeds. Their task is to hold on for dear life! When, inevitably, they drop hands or fall, everyone shouts “Whiplash!”. The game stops while the line re-forms, with the last person moving to the front of the line and becoming the leader.

It wasn’t much fun to be the leader. Even if you tried to be creative, there was really only one point to the game: get the whole line moving fast enough that those at the back would be whipped around significantly enough to lose their balance or drop hands. The fun, as every kid would immediately guess, was had at the back of the line.

Anyway, on that particular afternoon, it was finally my turn to be at the end of the line. I usually managed to keep my feet in the game, but that afternoon was epic. Our Whiplashes were phenomenal! We kept congratulating one another on the way we were whipping each other around on the rink. I took my place at the end of the line with great anticipation. We picked up speed, going faster and faster. Then, just as I began to be propelled at high speed, I hit a divot in the ice and my left skate stopped dead. I fell, launching forward like a projectile, my arms out in front of me. I heard it was breathtaking, the way I flew threw the air stretched out like a parka-clad superhero. I landed in a belly-flop on the ice, which didn’t hurt so much as it left me unable to catch a breath. What did hurt was my right wrist, which landed immediately in front of someone else’s moving skate. Their jagged toe-pick immediately sliced into my wrist, and a pile-up of memorable proportions ensued. Eventually, those on top of the pile of bodies were able to regain their feet, and those of us at the bottom began testing our limbs to make certain nothing was broken. There was a jagged gash in my wrist, which the others gathered around to gawk at. Finally, my cold-addled brain registered the pain signals being sent to it, and I quickly headed home so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by wailing in front of the whole neighborhood.

I remember every detail of that afternoon, although it took place decades ago. (I admit I may have embellished the story a bit over the years.) Every time I notice the tiny white scar on my wrist, it all comes back to me. I don’t notice it that often, but frequently enough to keep ahold of those details.

And that’s how it is with scars. They serve as life-long reminders of the events that caused them. We don’t forget. This is true with emotional scars, as well as the physical ones. We seem always able to touch the scarring event or experience with an immediacy that can take us right to that moment, directly to that emotion. Sometimes, we wear the scar like a badge of honor, the way I wear that tiny white patch on my wrist – a sign of my own badassery or resilience. Sometimes, the scar serves as a warning system, reminding us of the pain that can happen if we don’t protect ourselves. We wear our negative and painful experiences on the surface of our bodies and our psyches, keeping those feelings and experiences – for good or ill – always accessible.

Unfortunately, the same is not also true of happy feelings and experiences. They do not imprint themselves on our surfaces, with similar easy access to memory or the same immediacy of emotion that scars produce. This can lead us to a lopsided recollection of our lives – we readily see the times that scarred us, but have to work harder to recall the times of happiness or positive growth with the same detail.

I think this was the impetus that led me to get a tattoo a few years ago. I wanted a visual reminder of my own growth and the positive changes I was enacting in my life. It was the thought behind the social media campaign “To write love on her arms”. In some ways, it may be the impetus behind our need to document everything in our lives these days with cell phone photos, snapchats, instagrams and selfies. See? we seem to be saying. There was beauty today. Or laughter. Or one shining moment that deserves to be remembered.

Earlier this week, my dear friend Amy passed away unexpectedly. She was too young; her death is a shock to all who knew and loved her. First, there were the tears and expressions of disbelief. And while the pain of loss and grief is still fresh, I’ve been watching the steady stream of photos and memories being shared on social media. As friends and family have stopped to remember, it is the happy moments they are bringing forward and sharing: Amy’s beautiful and irrepressible smile, her positive energy, her kindness. I can’t count how many times in the past few days I’ve said to myself, “Ah, I had forgotten!”

Not only that, but many of us have reconnected over our shared grief and our happy memories. It is so easy to forget, in the busyness of life, the people we’ve loved with and laughed with, the moments and experiences that have fed our souls, the happinesses that enhance our lives – they do so without leaving scars behind to keep them available to us, to remind us to touch them with the same care (and reverence) with which we touch our scarred places.

Was that cold afternoon on an ice rink in Hastings Minnesota really a defining moment in my life? No. What did I learn? I learned that there’s a down-side to being the last person in a Whiplash! line. I learned that injuries in bitter cold don’t bleed as profusely as they do once they warm up. Conversely, were the many happy and laughter-filled moments with Amy defining experiences? I believe they were – I was reminded to take myself less seriously; I discovered that it is possible to work to physical exhaustion and still be enjoying the moment; I learned the fine art of the inside joke from a master. And I learned that happiness is something we have to work for, to take risks for – Amy taught me that through the example of her life, not because she died.

If happiness leaves a scar, it is only when we realize we’ve not attended to it as fully as we ought to have. Perhaps that is just the way it is. But what if we practiced holding happiness at our surfaces, the way we hold our painful scars? What if we looked for ways to write/imprint love and joy on our bodies and our psyches so that we have inadvertent and regular reminders to attend to them? We could call them beauty marks and it wouldn’t be a euphemism! What if, every time we saw or felt a scar or scarring memory, we taught ourselves to also recall a happiness or positive growth moment? Would this help to correct our lopsided vision of ourselves, our capacities, our realities? All I know is that I’d like it to. And that most of us could stand a little self-correction toward a more positive vision of ourselves, our experiences, our lives.  Here’s wishing us all plentiful beauty marks!


The Wonder Years

Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge (Day 2, #30daysofbiking)
Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge (Day 2, #30daysofbiking)

Tonight I started thinking about the television show “The Wonder Years”. I loved that show, including the way it always left me feeling slightly melancholy with nostalgia for the early ’70s. I know exactly what triggered it: on my afternoon bike ride I crossed the Mississippi River by bridge twice, reminding me of how central a character the river has been in my life. I thought about the towns I’ve lived in along its banks, including Hastings, Minnesota.

I never think about Hastings without thinking about my yellow 10-speed bike. I miss it, and that makes me feel a bittersweet longing for my preteen life. Hence, “The Wonder Years” (“The series depicts the social and family life of a boy in a typical American suburb from 1968 to 1973, covering his ages of 12 through 17.” Wikipedia) Each episode was narrated by the adult that the lead character, Kevin Arnold, eventually became. In the series finale, the final narration goes:

“Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back… with wonder.”

Cue one lone tear, gently gliding down my cheek.

1968-73 were some pretty great years in my own sepia-toned memories (though at 7-12 years of age, I was a bit younger than Kevin Arnold). It is easy to look back at those years with both nostalgia and wonder. But as I started down that memory lane one more time, a thought stopped me in my tracks – “NOW – these years – are the real wonder years”.

What?! These are the wonder years? Although the thought was my own, I questioned it. Truthfully, childhood is easy to idealize in its remoteness from our adult lives. And while our teen years are, indeed, full of discovery, they are characterized more by self-consciousness than by self-awareness. Most of us only feel the wonder retroactively, as we look back later, seeing the things we learned and discovered from the vantage point of understanding. The years themselves are anxious and angst-y. We learn by trial and error, we don’t actually understand the ramifications of much of what we do – we barely comprehend that there ARE or WILL BE ramifications, which allows us to experiment. In retrospect, this process of self-discovery seems wondrous.

Compare that with the reality of adult life, when we know that there will always be costs associated with benefits, when knowledge of our limitations tempers our vision of possibilities. When caution often precludes change. Suddenly, the wonder all seems to be behind us.

Unless we get lucky. For several years, I’ve been thinking about the changes that have taken root in my life as somehow unique. Unusual. A mid-life transformation that I was singled out for, gifted with. Admittedly, it began with a literal message from God (a fellow retreatant saying, “In prayer, I was given a message for Jenifer: God says he has a new path for you. Be ready.”) I am grateful, and still feel amazement at the changed life I am living and creating. But I’m also looking around me and seeing some truly incredible transformations in lives other than my own: Kathe has created a happy second marriage, moved from the suburbs into the city, and begun a career she loves, finally working for herself. Sue returned to her hometown after surviving a frightening end to her marriage and an actively malicious end to her job; she faced the demons of depression, and has created a life that includes a fierce passion for serving adult learners and the grace of time and closeness with her family. And then there’s Mike.

On Sunday, just a year after beginning his journey toward health and wholeness, Mike began the day running in a 15K with friends. The man who specifically told his trainer he wouldn’t run, voluntarily joined new friends to run further than he had ever attempted before. After the run, he changed into different spandex and we hopped on our bikes for 16 miles of riding, joining a community of friends for the afternoon. On Monday, he blew past a personal goal he was fearful he wouldn’t achieve.

I stand in awe, or as Rabbi Heschel called wonder: radical amazement. These stories and transformations (and others) have prompted me to think that perhaps that point just after the middle of our lives are the wonder years. The years when we wonder, “Is this all that I am meant to be and do?”, or, “What would it take for me to truly live a better life?” and that wondering leads to change.

Change is hard, and later in life – unlike in youth – we undertake it knowing it will be hard. Transformation requires commitment, tenacity, a willingness to follow through on actions that scare us. Transformation is work. Childhood and the years immediately after it have taught us this. So the real wonder is choosing change and transformation anyway. The real wonder years are the ones in which we keep choosing to change and grow despite having already experienced life long enough to know how it can test us.

Part of me will always wax nostalgic about my childhood. I’ll always miss that yellow ten-speed. The Mississippi River will flow through my veins no matter where I go or who I become. But I think the part of my life I will invest with the most awe and, yes, with the most wonder, is NOW.





Internal Landscapes, Part 2: Maps of Meaning

I am sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown of Dubuque one frigid January Saturday. Outside, the wind howls and the temps have dipped to -30. Inside, I look around at this shop I have never entered, but which is in a room familiar to me all the same. It used to be Theresa Delaney’s living room, when we were in grade school at St. Raphael’s. The entire neighborhood in which my friends and classmates lived has been turned into boutiques and shops of one kind or another. As I sit there, thinking about how surreal it is, the front door keeps opening of its own accord.

The barrista comes from behind the counter to slam it shut each time. The third time he says, “You probably think its the weather, but trust me, we have ghosts. This happens no matter what kind of weather we’re having.” As he returns to his post, I find myself wondering, “Are these ghosts anyone that I know?”

I start thinking about this small midwestern city, my hometown, and about how so many things about it are familiar to me despite the long years in which I have only visited. Much of the city is imprinted on my soul. Thinking about it, though, I realize that what I carry within me isn’t so much the actual city, as it is my version of it.

I remember learning about “memory castles” used by great thinkers back in the days before the printing press or Moleskine notebooks were invented. In their minds, these intellectuals (mostly members of religious orders) would build a castle with many rooms and specific features. Each thing they wished to remember, they would carefully place in a specific location or superimpose on one of the castle’s features. This allowed them, once proficient at the technique, to remember and retrieve huge storehouses of information.

I think, “Like a memory castle, there is a map of Dubuque that I carry within me that bears only minimal relationship to the actual city’s map.” This map contains my memories and my memories of emotions. Attached to each site on the map are sensations, values, concepts experienced or learned throughout my formative years. My spiritual self is intrinsically tied to this map, as is my understanding of self in relation to the larger world.

The map in my psyche looks something like this:

Each location on the map is both a real place (the Fenelon Place elevator, the bank weather tower, the Carnegie-Stout Public Library) and an icon for the meanings I have associated with it (examples listed on the map above).

I carry this map with me, wherever I go. But when I return to Dubuque, my personal map and the actual map, while related, don’t actually match. My brain wants them to align, and I find myself playing a mental game much like alternately closing my right eye, then left, while looking at a stationary object. The object always appears to move slightly, although I know it doesn’t really. This quick perceptual shifting never works – the alignment will not happen. I have to choose each time to be in the exterior city or in the interior city – I can’t fully inhabit both at the same time.

For this reason, I treasure the small pieces of time I am alone in Dubuque. These turn out to be moments when I can sit in an actual physical location and touch the wealth of internal information I’ve stored in its metaphorical twin. Its a bit of a deep moment — like sitting in the coffee shop that used to be Theresa Delaney’s living room. Whatever keeps blowing the door open may be the wind or a ghost — but I can’t help thinking it might also be my other self (the self who has continued to inhabit my internal Dubuque long after the external self moved away) coming to join me for an Americano, extra-hot.

(Note: this post, and the map drawing it contains, are adapted from a journal entry I wrote several years ago)