Of Water, Ice and Fog

In the water I am beautiful.
― Kurt Vonnegut

I grew up near Lake Michigan, although I really prefer to say that I grew up in Lake Michigan.  According to family stories, I swam in the big lake before I walked, and getting me out of the water at the end of the day was a challenge that often involved screeching, kicking, splashing and a basic all-around kerfuffle on all fronts.

On land, I was clumsy and slow-moving.  I tripped over my own feet and bumped into doorframes.  My family used to marvel at the way I managed to fall upstairs or stumble off the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit; I would skid on freshly-waxed floors or walk into low-hanging tree branches, and to this day I still cannot walk safely into a room with throw rugs.

But all of that vanished as soon as I hit the water.  I was in my element. I could glide beneath the surface, change directions, and stay under long enough to send my aunts into a panic.  When I dove and kicked in the water, my body would move along so gracefully that I felt long and lean and beautiful.  Strong.  It was the only place where I could be fluid and lovely in my movements.

I feared nothing in the water.  Oh, my aunts taught me early on to respect the Lake and all of its power, but not to fear it.  It was almost as if I had lake water in my veins instead of blood.

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But time passes.  Little girls grow up and have to come out of the water eventually, changing and growing just as the lake changes with each passing season.  There is less time to swim and play and be beautiful in water; more time to buckle down and find a job, face life’s challenges, accept a life on dry land.

In the winter, Lake Michigan doesn’t freeze over in a nice, smooth sheet like a pond or inland lake.  It freezes in great jagged peaks and mounds that hide dangerous crevasses and air pockets.  It is beautiful and sometimes deadly.  A hiker out for an adventurous climb can sometimes disappear without a trace, without a cry.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth and Haley Andre
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth and Haley Andre

It takes courage to tackle the lake in its frozen form.  Courage that I lack.  I’ve never walked the ice or braved the pier in winter.  I’ve stayed safely on shore, no matter how ugly and clumsy that made me feel.

WINTRY WEATHER MICHIGAN

If we’re not careful, we can spend too many years standing on shore because it is just too scary to take a chance on the unknown.  We can congratulate ourselves on our wisdom in avoiding those hidden hazards; pat ourselves on the back for being the smart ones who know better than to take a silly risk.  We may miss out on some of the fun, we say smugly, but at least we will never disappear through a crevasse or air pocket without a trace, without a cry.

And then we wake up one morning and face the fog on the beach, only to realize that the ice is gone and we’ve missed our chances.   Opportunities can evaporate like the mist that drowns out the sunlight, and the mournful wail of the foghorn sounds like a lament of “Too late!  Too late!”

I want to swim again in summer, and feel beautiful once more.  I want to take off my practical shoes and not worry about how I look in a bathing suit, and I want to plunge beneath the surface again. And in the winter, I want to bundle up and take a chance.  For once in my life, I want to take a risk and climb on the ice with everyone else, before I disappear without a trace, without a cry.

I am ready for the ice in my veins to thaw into lake water.

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Ice, Water, Steam.”

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Mirror, Mirror

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Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize the woman who looks back at me.

In my mind, I still look like someone in her late twenties/early thirties.   I never looked my age until recently.  People were always so surprised to find out my real age because I appeared to be so much younger than I really was.

I had good skin, ready access to hair color, and no need to lie when asked my age.   I knew I wasn’t a beautiful woman, but I also knew I had a good smile and a certain well-scrubbed, girl-next-door quality.  That’s the kind of corn-fed-maiden I still expect to see when I look in the mirror.

The woman who looks back at me instead is tired.  She’s got deep, dark circles under her eyes, which are red-rimmed as though she has cried recently.  She’s got my mom’s drooping right eyelid, which only lends to the overall look of exhaustion.  Her face is puffy; she has the appearance of someone who has gained a great deal of weight recently.  Rosacea gives her a constant flushed look, sort of like the red face that we used to call “Beer Cheeks” in college.

Her skin seems dry, especially around the eyes, where small wrinkles have begun to form.  She has acne scars on her chin that are dark enough to show through foundation and powder.    Her eyes are still her best feature.  They are somewhere between blue and green, almost aqua, and once in a while they still have the old sparkle.  It’s hard to see, but it’s there.

I feel sorry for the woman in the mirror.  I want to reach through and wrap my arms around her and give her the hug she so desperately needs.  I want to tell her it’s okay to cry until she’s done, until all of the sadness and regrets are totally exorcised.  I want to tell her I love her because she really looks like she needs to hear that from someone.

Then I want to give her a stern talking-to.  “Snap out of it,” I want to tell her.  “Get a haircut, touch up your roots, and put on some make-up and jewelry.  Take a little pride in your appearance.  And for God’s sake, smile once in a while. People used to tell you that your smile was beautiful, remember?  So smile, damn it!”

Appearances shouldn’t matter.  I should be able to look in the mirror and take pride in each wrinkle and scar and gray hair.  I have earned every one of them, after all.  Considering some of what I have survived, I am lucky that I don’t look worse.  I remember looking up at my sister in the ER after my car accident and whispering, “Is my face . . . okay?”  And then feeling a really twisted sense of relief when she assured me that all of that blood was from my head rather than any part of my face.

So, yeah, appearance matters to me.   I wish it didn’t.  I wish the woman in the mirror looked more like the woman I see in my mind.  But the one in the mirror has been through a lot.  She’s a survivor, and she looks like one.

Luckily, the one in my mind learned how to apply make-up in beauty school.  With some mascara, mineral powder, and a helluva lot of eyeliner — along with a healthy dose of anti-depressants — these two ladies may someday merge into a woman who doesn’t scare me when she smiles back at me.

 

 

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Worth More than a Thousand Words

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As a rule, I don’t like pictures of myself.   I always think I look fat and my smile looks forced.   I am not now, nor have I ever been a photogenic person.

So it may seem odd that I would choose a picture of myself to write about.

This is one of the few pictures of me that I actually like, because of the smile I’m wearing.  For once, my smile doesn’t look forced and camera-fake; I look genuinely, eye-sparkling, on-the-brink-of-joyous-tears happy.

Of course, there’s a story.

With me, there’s always a story.

When I came home from the hospital after my car accident, my hair was red.  Not by choice; it had been an over-processed, porous blonde that became stained by blood from my head injury.  The ER nurse shaved an inch-wide swath across the top so the doctor could stitch my scalp, and someone else shaved from the nape up to my occipital so the surgeon had room to rebuild my shattered neck.  Three other round spots were shaved to make room for what we later referred to as “corncob holders” – metal pieces attached to my skull to keep me from moving during the surgery.

Afterward, they strapped me into a metal and plastic contraption that immobilized everything from the waist up.  It pushed my double chins up into my eyeballs; I think it forced cleavage into my earlobes and backfat up my nose.  Then they stood me up with a walker and sent me on my way.

It was not a good look for me.

Yikes!  Tina, of course, is beautiful as always
Yikes! Tina, of course, is beautiful as always

I am not a vain person, but I like to do my hair and make-up.  As a cosmetologist, it was always important for me to look finished: hair styled, make-up applied, jewelry in all of the appropriate orifices.  But in those first weeks, I couldn’t do any of those things.   No contact lenses, no make-up.  I couldn’t shower, and those “dry shampoos” didn’t do anything about the oil and caked blood in what was left of my poor, tufty hair.  I wore wrinkled hospital gowns or baggy clothes that fit around the brace, going barefoot or in worn flip flops.  Jewelry was out of the question; even my wedding ring had been removed at the hospital, and there was no suggestion of trying to force it back onto my numb left hand.

For seven weeks, I had to look at that.  I had to smell that.  In the face of people telling me how lucky I was to be alive, I had to deal with the guilt of feeling like an ungrateful brat for being depressed about my appearance.  I hated myself, my pain-wracked body, my lost career, the hot weather.  Everything.  Especially that damned brace.

I felt shallow and ugly and stupid.

When the brace came off, my former co-workers at DGist Salon took care of me.  They cut and colored my hair, shaped my brows, applied my make-up.   They pampered me and made me human again.

And they took that picture with my phone.

What was I thinking?  I’m pretty!  I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be okay.   There’s more than joy in my eyes in that picture; I see hope, gratitude, love. . . and a little spark that I thought I had lost somewhere in the twisted metal and broken glass.

What happened next?  Good days, bad days, everything in between.

Recovery.

Life.