Zits, Grace, and Healing

I don’t get zits.

I’m one of those annoying people to whom good genetics and unreasonably expensive skin care products can be credited with generally good skin. Even in high school when most of my friends were bleaching their faces and mothers’ towels with ProActiv, I rarely had a pimple.

But, as the saying goes, all God’s people got problems, and I didn’t escape my fair share of unfortunate genes. I have baggy eyes, crooked pinkies, and bunions.

My name is Rebecca, and I have the skin of a baby and the feet of an 80 year old.

Last week, as though the acne gods had been storing up their adolescent wrath against me and decided to curse me in one giant blow, I got the Zit of My Life. For days I studied this monstrosity in the mirror. Fortunately for all those around me, you couldn’t actually see it. It was a strange lump under my skin, painful, but invisible. I waited a few days and tried everything I could think of to make it go away.

Nothing worked.

I think my husband and mother got tired of my demands to Seriously, yall, feel this thing again and they suggested I call someone. I didn’t know which someone to call, so I contacted a local salon and described the utter ruin that was my chin.

I scheduled an appointment, swallowed my pride, swore at my new moisturizer, and headed to the salon. A woman named Nancy took me downstairs. I’d been to this salon before for a facial UPSTAIRS. I decided they send the pretty-skinned people upstairs, and the ugly-skinned people downstairs, the way valets park Bentleys and Aston Martins outside a fancy restaurant and take the cheap cars to the parking garage. My Hyundai face and I followed Nancy downstairs, down a long hallway to the very last room in the entire salon. Nancy took one quick look at my face, gave me the technical name of the growth on my chin which sounds far too repulsive to repeat here. She assured me that The Zapper would work. Before she got started, she offered a few name suggestions for my new facial frenemy. Eduardo, a little too steamy for something so unattractive, Herbert a little too dowdy. She said we really needed to find the right balance between European sex-appeal and you know, facing the facts. Luigi fit the bill.

Within seconds she was using some sort of torture device that felt like a mild form of electro-shock therapy. A few minutes later she Luigi with zit cream and sent me on my way. Luckily, I only owed her $15 for the complete crushing of my pride, and soon Luigi and I were on our way home.

I got home and looked in the mirror. Luigi was smaller, but now red. He looked a little unhappy. She shouldn’t have given him an Italian name, after all, Italians are known for their passion.

Years of pride in my good skin came to a crashing halt in one new moisturizer gone wrong, and it gave me an understanding of the great Zit of Life. I remember being fresh out of college, thinking the world was my oyster. I had a gift to offer the world, I was just sure of it. Of course I didn’t know what the gift was, but I. Was. Educated. And not educated like the old-folks who graduated eons ago. I was fresh from the educational womb, covered with the vernix of knowledge.

But here’s the thing about vernix. Eventually the protective barrier sheds and life kicks us straight in the ass. And that is the true beginning of our education. We find ourselves single much later than we thought we would. We find ourselves married, maybe with a child or two, our bank accounts more depleted than our energy. We find ourselves facing unemployment, or infertility, or approximately 120,000 loads of laundry, or addiction, or leaky pipes, or Calvinists, and it all makes us want to crawl back in our beds, curled in the fetal position to pretend it isn’t real. We want to go back to the safe protected world where our zits haven’t yet formed.

There are very few things I can say with utter certainty, but this is one: Top knots are the single worst fashion trend since jelly shoes.

Here’s another: Every single person in the world is in their own way profoundly and utterly screwed up. Grace is the promise that we don’t have to stay that way.

The Gospel of John tells a story of a man whose personal Luigi lasted for 38 years. We don’t know how he became paralyzed, but we find him sitting near the healing waters of the Pool of Bethesda. Of all the people seeking healing in the water, Jesus talks to him. He picks someone who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. Imagine the hopelessness this man must have felt.

So Jesus looks at him and asks, Do you want to get well?

Next, an excuse, as we would all give after 38 years of paralyzing sickness. He explains that no one will help him, everyone else is receiving their healing first. They rush to the healing waters, leaving him behind, curled up in his bed, begging for healing but unable to move.

Jesus looks him straight in his hopeless eyes and tells him to get up out of his bed and walk. And so he does.

And so can we.

Starshine

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I’ve started thinking about the past. Not just my past, but their past, for theirs is what made mine possible.

She was born in 1895 and named Isabel Hoy.

She was born in 1938 and named Pauline Dunlap.

She was born in 1958 and named Cynthia Patrick.

They all hail from the cotton-country of Fairfield County, South Carolina.

And then there’s me. I was born in the deep oil country of West Texas in 1986. Rebecca Brust.

As my mother and grandmother before me, I attended a small women’s college in the Upstate of South Carolina. During homesick college nights I’d walk across campus to the library, walk up the flights of stairs and scan the shelves for yearbooks. All gathered, I sat with five yearbooks before me, each named Y’s and Other Y’s. The years: 1981, 1980, 1979, 1978 and 1956. One by one I’d open them up, scanning the pages for the faces that could ease my homesick heart. My Momma, the same spark in her eyes I see today, seated in her high heels because at only five feet tall she thinks she needs the extra height for people to take her seriously. I see her face and wish I could tell her, You’re captivating, shoes or no shoes, and everyone around you sees it. You shine. My grandmother’s class photo, looking somewhat sad and wistful. There was only one yearbook with my grandmother who only completed the same semesters of college, deciding instead to follow her heart and marry. Her heart, like her husband, betrayed her. I see her face and wish I could tell her Don’t do it, but if she hadn’t, my mother and I wouldn’t be.

I’m positive if I were to open those yearbooks in Mickel Library today there would be tear stains on their pages. Ritualistically I’d wipe my eyes, close the yearbooks, put them back on the shelf, and leave. Back outside in the cool Carolina night air I’d see the front of campus. When my grandmother attended, you couldn’t be seen in the front of campus without a skirt and white gloves. I’d think about how times changed, as I was almost never seen without jeans, a ratty ponytail and my flip-flops. I’d walk past the dorm buildings where they used to sleep. I’d laugh to myself as I remembered the stories my Momma told of her classmates who would sunbathe topless on the roof of one of the buildings, cotton balls strategically placed. To this day she swears she wasn’t one of them, but I’ve never believed her.

There was something comforting about just knowing I was walking where they’d walked, being connected to a time and place bigger than any of the three of us. Since 1889, students walked those sidewalks, slept in those buildings, and learned on that ground.

Seventy miles away sits another library with an even dustier yearbook on a shelf. In it, the following:

Ella Isabel Hoy: “Her eyes as stars of twilight fair; Like twilight, too, her dusky hair.”*

“Isabel reminds us of starshine, and as a graceful, dignified Senior she has proved that she will fit in well with the role of “Goddess of the Evening Air.” She is quite a favorite with the teachers, as well as with the students, and is our own steady Isabel at all times.”**

My great-grandmother. I see her face and wish I could tell her Your grace steadied all of us. Your starshine flows in our veins.

At one point, all four of us lived at the same time. One of my most precious possessions, a photograph of us seated around a table, three women and a little girl. Four generations together, now two of them are gone. My mother and I still carry that starshine, passed from one generation to the next, a treasured gift.

I look into the faces of my three sons, and although the female line has ended, the starshine remains.

* The Tattler Yearbook, Winthrop College, 1917, originally quoting William Wordsworth’s poem, She Was a Phantom of Delight
*The Tattler Yearbook, Winthrop College, 1917 (Author unknown)

On Death, Owls, and Remembering

Today would have been my grandmother’s 79th birthday. She died when I was 11, 19 years ago. She was 60. The year was 1998.

Have you ever noticed that numbers are often the only fixed facts about death as time goes on? Dates and ages are easily rattled off, but the stories of death are often more difficult to tell with the passing years. It seems pathetic that I can tell you those facts so clearly, but I can’t tell you the name of the hospital where she died. I can’t tell you what her last words were. My mother was with her when she died, the memory probably etched so permanently in her mind that she could retell it as though it had just happened.

I’ve been trying to write the story of the women in my maternal line, perhaps as a memoir of sorts; perhaps as a novel, filling in the gaps time has created with fiction; perhaps just for my own growth and clarity. The endeavor has cursed me with the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced.

How do you write the story of a life you didn’t live? How do you write the story of a life you didn’t even witness in full? Time steals from us the details and often the very soul of the stories we try to remember. Things that feel unforgettable in our own lives will one day be forgotten by all. If we’re lucky we’ll be remembered for a few generations, but even then, our very personhood will probably be summed up in one phrase. “The one who…”

Take my great, great grandmother for example. In my family she’s simply known as the one who said she’d come back as an owl. Through a bit of family research I’ve learned that her name was Susannah Scott Hoy. She and her husband had eight children, 3 sons and five daughters. She was born in 1866 and died in 1961. (Here we are with the numbers again.) That’s all I know about her. Well, her name, the numbers, and the owl thing. I have no idea if it was a one-time or ongoing joke, or if (gasp) she actually believed she’d come back as nocturnal bird. What I do know is that she’s the reason my mother shudders every time she sees an owl. Susannah lived a whole life, and all I know her for is one sentence. When I die, I’ll come back as an owl.

But this isn’t limited to my family alone. Think of the unnamed biblical characters, people known simply as Noah’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, or the woman at the well. We also have several examples of nameless historical icons: the soldier and nurse kissing in Times Square, the “babushka lady” in the photos of JFK’s assassination, a tomb holding an unnamed soldier. All of these people summed up with one identifying fact, but the true facts of their lives forgotten within a few generations.

This is a haunting reality. More haunting still when I consider the fact that I have three sons and many of my daily sentences include the words stinks, booger, or penis. Should the majority of my life story be summed up in one sentence for coming generations, my entire life remembered by one small phrase, I don’t want it to include one of those words. Can I get an hallelujah?

Whether or not we know the details, we are formed by history. This is especially true of our families. The writer in me sees the beauty of the stories, even in the most mundane daily occurrences. And so I write. I force myself to push through the writer’s block because their stories deserve to be told, and so do mine.