Friday, January 07, 2005
Balm for a Bleak Season
It’s that unforgiving time of year again when furnaces bake our homes and our skins drier than Death Valley and the frigidity outside finishes us off. Children’s lips flake and crack like sad, busted accordions. And when I glance around at a gathering of grownups, I see that most folks have the same split thumbs and raw knuckles that reveal us as a community of fragile creatures barely contained within a permeable shell. I think of the grammar-school vocabulary joke: “Hey, aren’t you embarrassed? Your epidermis is showing!” But in a harsh Midwestern winter, our epidermis does show, through its cracks, more than we might like about our vulnerability in a harsh world.
Our skin literally holds us together; it cannot hide its true nature, because “skin deep” is all there is. It’s our largest organ, at about two square yards, spread out (which is not an image to dwell upon); it conducts pleasure and pain quite impartially, and tells the truth about how we really are. Think of Viktor Yushchenko’s boil-pocked face, speaking a martyring truth – poisoned! Or even a run-of-the-mill blush that exposes our embarrassment or confusion. Our skin may reveal most when it fails us, as when tested by winter’s brutality, giving us a peek beneath the surface at the messy ooze of our inner selves.
While twenty-first-century technology and fantasy allow us to soothe our skins with Cucumber Mousse lotions and Hydrating Coconut Mango Chutney Body Washes, it’s comforting to know how many antique remedies survive – hardy reminders of our agrarian roots. I think of Corn Husker’s lotion, for example, in its snake oil bottle, or heavy cubic tins of Bag Balm, filigreed with red clovers, smelling sheepishly of lanolin and made for rubbing on both cow udders and the hands that milk them. My grandfather swore by Barielle cream, meant for horses’ hooves but wonderful for fingernails and cuticles. And my mother used to smooth delicious squares of cocoa butter over her face, leaving her as glossy and fragrant as a Hershey bar. My parents’ medicine cabinet still contains a squat green jar of cure-all smelly ointment whose shelf-life expired 30 years ago, with a name that I used to think was elegance itself: Campho-Phenique.
While I spent my childhood winters breathing through cracked lips reluctantly coated with classic black-and-white Chapstick’s weirdly antiseptic wax, I tempt my own children with colorful tubes of “Berry Explosion” and Tangerine Blistex and adorable tins of Badger Balm loaded with so much olive oil that one daughter sighed while sniffing it, “Ohh.... it smells just like noodles!” But the tubes and tins disappear into the ether of lost things as fast as I buy them; caring for one’s skin is not high on childhood’s list of interests, maybe because children are accustomed to skin’s failures. Scrapes and cuts and blood and weeping and recovery and interesting scabs – these are simply facts of childhood’s painful and exciting landscape.
We grown-ups are less hardy creatures, I think, and so we spend much more effort fighting nature’s brutality with balm. It really could be a full time job these days, staying moisturized. I feel like calling in to my office: “Sorry; can’t come in today; I’m lotioning ...”
The two cures handed down from our doctor are equally untenable to me, unfortunately. One is to bathe only in tepid water. Now, the single thing that gets me to crawl, muttering, from beneath my comforter on a wintery morning is the promise of standing for a good long time in a stream of nigh-unto-boiling water – its drying properties be damned. The second cure is the timeworn remedy of slicking one’s hands with Vaseline at bedtime and pulling on white cotton gloves. But going to bed with one’s beloved, both chastely be-gloved like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, is so weirdly off-putting that it’s immediately clear why Mickey and Minnie never produced offspring.
Maybe the best our cracked winter skins can offer us is a somatic reminder of our shared vulnerability, our shared humanity. In the aftermath of the recent devastation caused by the earth’s cracking in the Indian Ocean, we might well wonder if there could ever be a balm powerful enough to heal all those who hurt. Beneath the icy crust of this bleak season, we might call forth the sleeping sap of spring ... remembering that healing and rebirth always follow.