How to develop skin so thin you start to see the bruises, feel the blood coursing through your veins. How to let air, light, and love break on through in both directions.
It’s a conundrum, the thick skin and the thin. Because what we’ve been told in that admonishment to develop a thicker skin is not take things so personally, not to take offense, not to react so violently. Rather, to let the water run off our backs. To let things go, and to move forward.
It seems to me what we often do instead is not to become more resilient and centered in reality but to become — with rhino-like armors so crusted over they’re impermeable — harborers and festerers of things that somehow made it through our thick skin and got trapped. Now the thick skin is holding it in!
From my point of view, we should be taking things very personally. Taking them personally by examining how they affect us and why; then with the most elevated personal viewpoint we can muster up, we can proceed to untake things personally, weapons down, heart open. Skin so thin, it can breathe, let things in, and let things out, hearts closer to the surface.
Before I start sounding too much like I know what I’m talking about, I’m thinking about the characters in Dreaming of La Sal and their direct relationship to me and the man I was with for 26 years, my daughter’s father, who died in 2011. Here the characters are, stepping away to solve their problems. Again. Marching off, slamming doors, taking a breather. Why wouldn’t they, if I created them? It’s what I’ve done since I was three years old, an imperious little boss who had regular tantrums so violent and long-lasting my mother had to put me in the shower and turn on the cold. (Not something I recommend for either parent or child, actually.)
At Gary’s memorial, after I’d spoken about our life together, the early sweet years, as well as the realities of being married for a long time, someone came up to me and told me I really knew how to tell a story. Well, when people die, emotions run high. Ultra-sensitivity to a friend’s pain and grief create a captive audience. But one thing I didn’t do was pretend that it was easy for us as a couple, that he was perfect or that I was, or that we knew what we were doing. We loved each other; but we didn’t have a clue about emotional intimacy, vulnerability, forgiveness, or anything else that would heal us or move us forward into the land of communicators. Maybe that’s what made the story so real.
Since then and since remarrying, I’ve many, many, many (can I reiterate this enough?) times wondered where the training is for people about to commit to each other and to their day-to-day life together. Why the County Clerk doesn’t have a checklist of things you need to clear with your partner, a reading list, five simple rules for effective communication, a shortlist of pitfalls and what to do about them — anything to light the way a bit and supplement our education on the subject. Oh wait a minute – there has been no education! We’re starting from scratch!
Then factor in the added challenges for people in their late fifties, whose brains and bodies and emotional terrains are rutted with bad habits. Who might say, “That’s just who I am,” or “I’ve always done it this way.” Who is going to intercede for the good of this couple, especially when they’re supposed to know what they’re doing at this point in their lives? What will drive them to do better, to drop their weapons, file down all their callouses, and slough their skin until it is so clean and soft they are actually standing there, present in the moment, ready to change?
I do believe there is a tiny place in the human heart that seeks healing, always seeks healing. Through occasional moments of grace, we are given gifts, lessons in humility and forgiveness; and if we persist in skin-thinning and opening up, we can avail ourselves of better communication, one essential step at a time, one essential lesson at a time. Not just with our partners, but with everyone in our lives.
Today riding my bike along the Uncompahgre River, swollen with spring runoff, I caught a whiff of juniper so fragrant, so evocative, it practically made me swoon. I kept inhaling, gulping at the air to keep that memory or whatever it was in motion. In the deep inhale, I swear I felt all the layers of every time I’d ever smelled that delicious smell, all the layers of years compressed into a single moment.
I know this much: from such a place of thin-skinned wonderment, anything can happen.