Photo: Stephen Driver
Photo: Stephen Driver

The Jagged, Gilded Script of Scars

I am drawing at the kitchen table, tracing the outlines of a dinosaur, when I find that my hand, in defiance of the vision in my mind, makes a line that ruins the dinosaur. There will be no dinosaur. I begin to cry. My mom, who is a weaver and works from home, comes over to see what I am crying about.

“It’s ruined,” I say as I start to crumple up the piece of paper. She takes it out of my hands and says, “Alice, there is no such thing as a mistake. Just turn it into something else. Look, this is just the beginning. It could be anything.

 

II.

The Nelson twins have a junkyard, or more appropriately, their parents do. They are chubby, pale teens taking care of me. Their house in rural Oark, Arkansas, is a small, one-floor blue-and-white structure. Their backyard is an open expanse of grass littered with rusty old cars, TV sets, tomato cages, and moldy sofas.

I am playing in their junkyard, climbing over a rusty car door, when I cut my stomach open. My parents, both artists, don’t have health insurance, but we are lucky enough to have a neighbor a few miles down the road who is a nurse, and she sews me up. As I grow older, the scar grows with me, and by the time I reach my full height of 5’10 at age 13, it stretches like a shooting star from below my right breast almost to my bellybutton.

 

III.

It’s the height of the Arkansas summer, and I’ve woken from a deep sleep with my face in a pool of drool. I’m hungry and on the verge of a tantrum, but more than anything I want to go swimming with my best friend Lucy. I am five.

Lucy lives down the dirt road at the other end of the Ozark Valley. My mom, who is in no mood for my mood, does not want to drive me to Lucy’s house. She is busy weaving, but I’m too young to understand how difficult it is to work from home with your children constantly interrupting you. Miraculously, Lucy’s mom Diane calls and offers to pick me up on her way back from Clarksville, the nearest town. I put on my pink bathing suit with diagonal blue-and-white stripes and ruffles on the side, and I wait out on the back porch.

Diane picks me up in her little red car, and I get in the front seat. I try to put on the seatbelt, but it’s not working. I sit in my bathing suit with a towel draped over my knees as we take off down the gravel road, cross the low-water bridge that sometimes washes out when it rains too much, and pass by the house belonging to Susan, the nurse who sewed up my stomach.

As we’re rounding the curve that comes just before her house, everything blacks out. A few seconds are snatched from my memory. When I open my eyes, I say, “My head hurts.” I raise my towel to my forehead. When I bring it down, I see blood and shards of glass.

The trip to the emergency room takes over an hour, and when I arrive they give me a shot in the butt and then sew up my forehead with so many stitches that, unbeknownst to me, my parents are told I will need plastic surgery later in life.

 

IV.

My dad, a potter, is an adherent of Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese aesthetic based on the beauty of imperfection and impermanence. Potters in Japan have historically translated this aesthetic into pottery, and – like my dad when he could afford it – would repair broken ceramics by filling in the cracks with gold, thus highlighting the beauty of their brokenness. Rather than throw away broken pots or try to put them back together and hide their scars, those potters brought them to life again with delicate veins of gold.

Wabi-Sabi runs in opposition to beauty ideals in the West, which constantly seek and demand perfection, symmetry, and the kind of perpetual youth that can only be achieved via plastic surgery. In the essay “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty,” Ursula K. Le Guin noted,

There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.

Part of the way the body and spirit define each other is in the lived experience of the body. Life and learning – of which failure is an inevitable component – are written on the flesh, sometimes in the impermanent purple blooms of bruises, sometimes in the jagged script of scars.

 

V.

In some ways, growing up in rural Arkansas was like living in an alternate universe, because I lived in the mountains, with artist parents who didn’t own a TV or buy into popular culture, and so I grew up free to form my own ideas about beauty with little input from the outside world.

It wasn’t until I was 14, when my family moved from Oark, Arkansas – population 233 – to Owensboro, Kentucky – population 56,000 – that I became aware of pop culture beauty standards and grew self-conscious of my scar.

Up until that point I my life, the scrawl on my forehead had gone largely unnoticed. But as I began middle school in Kentucky, I found myself the object of intense ridicule, for my scar and for all of my previously unperceived imperfections: worn clothes; lack of knowledge about pop culture, music, makeup, and movie stars; and the fact that I had never shaved my legs. My classmates spent a lot of time trying to convince me to go to the tanning bed, and eventually I did because I wanted to be accepted. But lying in that sweaty, coffin-like box, I thought, “what a waste of time,” and I never went back. For the better part of two years I felt intensely ashamed of myself, but unable to fully embrace my new friends’ standards of beauty and coolness.

Eventually I figured out how to avoid ridicule: I got bangs that mostly covered my scar, and I became an athlete, which provided me with a space where I could be judged for something other than what I was wearing. Le Guin writes,

Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves.

I learned society’s rules of beauty later than most, and although I didn’t accept them entirely, I didn’t reject them either. My desire to fit in during those years was too burning.

 

VI.

My scar was most visible when I ran, which I did throughout high school and college. My face would turn scarlet red, and with my bangs slicked back by sweat after six or seven-mile runs with the cross country team, the white scrawl of my scar stood out like a siren call. People liked to joke about it, and to read its messages back to me, usually something generic like “hi” or “love.”

It wasn’t until college, when I met Isaac, that someone would finally read my scar accurately. I had just finished a long run with the women’s cross country team when he came walking down the hill to meet the men’s team. He said my scar was the first thing that attracted him to me. As I got to know him, I discovered that he was an artist and a follower of the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic; at the time, he was in the process of creating an art show made up entirely of ceramics that he had broken and then reconstructed.

Isaac and I were married three years later in the grass in Oark, and his wedding vows began with a reference to my scar and the day that we first met: “Alice, you stand before me with your head tilted up and lids lowered – I think demure, but know better – passion burns, etched fiercely on your forehead.”

We visited Spain, Mexico, Morocco. I was able to go because when I turned 18, I had received a lump sum of money from Diane’s insurance company for plastic surgery. But I couldn’t imagine myself without my scar, so I kept the money. My scar was who I was and had been and would be, memory writ flesh.

 

VII.

By the time Le Guin wrote her essay on beauty, she was 63, and she knew that she was not the sum of her physical self:

There’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.

I am just over half the age Le Guin was when she wrote her essay, and I find some reassurance in my scars, and in the memories they hold. They tell me that I am more than my flesh, that I am also the sum of history and memory. Their asymmetry reminds me that, even though Isaac and I parted ways after a decade together, what we had was not a failure. To break is not to lose or destroy, to scar is not to make ugly, and to draw an unwanted line is not to ruin.

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