More than Skin-Deep: Metaphors of Facials and Blemishes

“It’s a bug bite, not a pimple,” she insisted to anyone who would listen, referring to the large red welt rising on her right cheek.

“What does it really matter?” my thirteen-year-old self replied. “It looks the same either way.”

When she looked offended and walked away, I realized she’d missed my point. I was trying to ask her a philosophical question: If you have to suffer an unsightly mark on your face, why is it comparatively better to have a bug bite as opposed to a pimple? Why did it make her feel better if people knew it wasn’t a pimple? It must be that in some subconscious way we’d come to believe that pimples are blemishes that go deeper than our skin.

Blackhead Extraction
Blackhead Extraction: Photo from http://www.lydiasarfati.com/tips-for-exceptional-facial-extractions.php

Today, at age 26 (twice the age of the version of myself that asked that question and perhaps in possession of only half the wisdom), I had my very first facial. It was a surprisingly relaxing hour of waxing hair from my eyebrows and upper lip, rubbing bits of rhubarb, pumpkin enzyme, and birch wood on my face, and poking and prodding to extract blackheads and other “debris” from my follicles and pores. Perhaps the facial was so enjoyable because of the accompanying shoulder and hand massage or the foot warmer in the table where I was lying. But I think it was the feeling that I was being deeply cleansed.

I first got the idea that I “needed” a facial several months ago when I went to a salon to get my eyebrows waxed. As usual, I had gone longer in between waxes than the beauticians recommend, so I was already feeling slightly embarrassed about the untamed hair sprouting above my eyes. I lay down on the table, and the woman who would be doing the waxing started planning her attack.

“Would you like to get a facial today as well?” she asked.

“Uh…excuse me?”

“A facial. You should really think about getting one. It’ll help clear up your blemishes.”

“I’ll think about it,” I replied, trying to make sure I didn’t sound offended at her helpful, if also slightly self-serving, suggestion.

As she started to apply the wax to my eyebrows, I wrote a little speech in my head. I wanted to explain to her that I had never struggled much with acne before, even as a teenager. It had only started to be a problem since I became a long-distance runner, having sweat and salt and dirt and leftover sticky energy gels coating my face during runs that lasted 3-4 hours, and then getting home and having about a million other priorities besides immediately washing my face (such as eating, drinking water, getting warm, or collapsing in a heap on the floor).

“If you knew the journey I’ve been on to get these blemishes, maybe you’d see them more deeply,” I wanted to say. “Maybe you’d realize that they aren’t ugly; they’re actually battle scars, some representing victory and others representing perseverance in the face of defeat.”

“Maybe they are ugly,” I amended in my mental discourse. “But they’re a side effect of so many beautiful things that far outweigh their ugliness.”

And then I started thinking about the people I cross paths with every day, some of whom behave in ways that seem ugly to me. Maybe I should cut them some slack, I mused while the woman continued to rip off strips of wax from my face and tried to coax me into salon small talk. Maybe I should recognize that everyone is a work in progress. Sometimes ugliness reveals itself on the journey toward beauty.

This idea was further underscored during my facial today. The blackhead extraction hurt a bit, my skin is currently red and raw, and my blemishes are more pronounced than when I went in. The esthetician warned me about all of this. “Your skin is going to need time to heal,” she said. “When it does, it’ll be so much smoother than it was before.”

In order to get my skin healthy, she had to dig deep below the surface and unearth the grime that has made its home there for months or even years. (“This blackhead was nearly a quarter of an inch long!” she exclaimed at one point.) The process was painful and made the ugly blemishes even more pronounced.

Sometimes this is the case in life as well. I hope I am becoming a more mature, compassionate, wise person – but then I act in such a way that I begin to think I haven’t made any progress. In fact, maybe I’ve even gotten worse.

I need to recognize that unearthing character blemishes is a painful process that will sometimes make the blemishes even more pronounced for a time. Rather than measure my progress like a strict schoolteacher with a wooden ruler, I need to grant myself grace and time to heal. I need the opportunity to dig beneath my blemishes instead of concealing them with pore-clogging cover-up every day. I truly believe that until I learn how to think this way about my own journey, I will always struggle to be compassionate and understanding of other people.

So here’s to 2014 – a year of extracting blackheads and applying soothing balms!

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“George Banks w…

“George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”

– Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks, while trying to convince Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) to allow him to make a film of her book Mary Poppins

This is indeed what storytellers do. Sometimes fictional stories of redemption can give us hope when the stories of our own lives are too messy and our paths are too long and twisted for us to see that redemption is real. But it is real. The spark of hope we feel when reading or viewing redemptive stories, and the longing we feel for a better and more beautiful world, are not mere wish fulfillment. The understanding of how the world ought to be is written in our DNA, and these fictional stories are a way for us to experience tangibly the deepest truths.

Straight No Chaser – 12 Days of Christmas

Every year on Christmas Eve, my extended family sings the 12 Days of Christmas. Each person sings one of the days, and every year we ask things like, “Wait…is it ten lords a-leaping or eleven lords a-leaping?” As a group, we’re generally tone deaf and sometimes miss our cues, but we have fun. And even though every year we say we hope we don’t have to sing this yet again, that pretending is just as much a part of the tradition as the song itself.

Though a few iPhone videos of our family’s rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas have been taken in recent years, I decided instead to share this hilarious and amazing version by Straight No Chaser. If you haven’t heard it yet, or even if you have, you simply must listen. It will make your night.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Leading Lady of Your Own Life

Losing someone close to you can be an opportunity to rediscover that you are the leading lady (or gentleman) of your own life. When someone who has been a part of yourself leaves you, or your path diverges from theirs, or one of you changes so deeply that you can no longer occupy the same space in each other’s hearts, you can find a new kind of independence and freedom. It’s often painful, especially at first, but as they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

This scene from The Holiday reminds me not to see myself as “the best friend.” Even though there are amazing people in my life, I am not defined by them or overshadowed by them. We may have the providential blessing of sharing parts of our lives together, but if that chapter comes to a close, that’s all right because I am the leading lady in my story. Not him. Not her. Not them.

  • Disclaimer 1: I may be the leading lady, but God is the author, director, producer, casting director, etc. Roll credits now.
  • Disclaimer 2: I am not advocating carelessly throwing away relationships. On the contrary, relationships matter to me very deeply. That is why the loss of a precious one can be so painful, and sometimes so necessary.
  • Disclaimer 3: Some relationships, such as marriage, are meant to be lifelong, but even in that case, it’s important to remain oneself and not be wholly consumed by your partner. Though you are meant not to be parted until death, death will, in fact, part you.

“I want to die …

“I want to die as myself. I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not. I keep wishing I could find a way to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”

Peeta Mellark, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Sometimes I think the world isn’t all that different from the Hunger Games. We can give in to its pressures and respond out of anger, fear, and hurt when it lashes out at us — or we can respond as ourselves, or rather, as the people we were meant to be. We can let suffering produce perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-4). There are some riches that can only be found in the crucible.

Lady Gaga – Instrumental Playlist

I just wrote a blog post about why I write. Here’s a little sidenote on how I write.

I like to write to instrumental music because I find other people’s words to be distracting. Sometimes something classical hits the spot; Shostakovich’s Symphony 5 is one of my favorites. But this week, I’ve been writing (at work and these blog posts) to instrumental Lady Gaga. And it’s been awesome — lots of energy!

What This Blog Is About

I started this blog, not knowing exactly what I wanted to say in it, but knowing that I was going to deviate drastically enough from the types of posts I’d written on other blogs that I needed a brand new blog. I decided to go with my Twitter handle, @JypsyJBook, as the title of the blog, similarly not knowing exactly what that meant other than that it is a subtle nod to the concept of “literary journeys.”

Today I wrote to a friend of mine about this blog and tried to characterize what it’s developed into so far. I thought I’d share what I wrote because it might be interesting to follow the evolution of what this blog is truly “about.” Here’s what I said:

I wasn’t totally sure what the purpose of the blog was going to be, but currently I’d say the theme is focusing on the things that give me hope even in the darkness. I’ve been teetering on the edge of plunging into that state of darkness/depression a lot lately, but I am continually rescued from it after only a short period of time. And it’s often just by little things — a song, a brief conversation, a thought, a prayer. But I want to record these moments of hope. Often blog posts I’ve written in the past have been critical or complaining, but that doesn’t really bring much value to anyone, even if the posts do seem “intellectually interesting” to me. My biggest dream would be that someone else who is going through a period of darkness could stumble upon my blog and maybe listen to a song I posted or something, and even for just a moment feel the hope and love and peace that come from being embraced by Jesus.

Kafka's "My Destination" in Prague Frame

In keeping with the theme of discovering what my own blog is about, I also wanted to share a “literary journey” quote I recently discovered. I’d purchased a picture frame in Prague and was intending to frame a postcard of a Franz Kafka quote (he was from Prague and I loved the Kafka Museum when I was there). However, the postcard I’d gotten didn’t fit, so I decided to design a new one that was the correct size. In the process, I found this brief piece he wrote called “My Destination”:

I called for my horse to be brought from the stable. The servant did not understand me. I myself went into the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a trumpet blast. I asked him what it meant but he did not know and had not heard it. By the gate he stopped me and asked “where are you riding to sir?” I answered “away from here, away from here, always away from here. Only by doing so can I reach my destination.” “Then you know your destination” he asked. “Yes” I said “I have already said so, ‘Away-From-Here’ that is my destination.” “You have no provisions with you” he said. “I don’t need any” I said. “The journey is so long that I will die of hunger if I do not get something along the way. It is, fortunately, a truely immense journey.” (from The Kafka Project)

The seeming incongruity, but the actual harmony, between the purposeful journey and the unknown destination is also a theme of this blog. I hope you will join me in this discovery, this journey, this story called life.

Featured photo from escapeintolife.com