Coming Home to My Skin. Becoming Shar Pei.

I didn’t fully believe, until my right inner elbow told me, that I would become crêpey and drapey —what my friend J calls “Shar Pei”  in honor of the wrinkly-bodied dog breed. I was 53, writing my morning journal entry per usual, when I noticed the skin above my elbow smiling up at me in a fleshy fold. I didn’t smile back. “Oh my God, is that my arm?” I immediately checked the left elbow, then corners of eyes, then chin and knees. I remember feeling scared. Existentially. Here was something else of me that was unfolding in my skin. Or should I say folding? This was a literal call to arms. I wrote in my journal that day: “I have wrinkles.  I have wrinkles. This is the first sighting. And you know what? I’m scared. I feel like Odysseus changing direction, turning his vessel back home after 10 years of adventure to go home and die. I’m becoming an old fart.  Who knew?? Yikes.”  

SharPei2.jpg
https://www.flickr.com/photos/waldopepper/514496008/in/set-665237/

Coming Home to My Skin. Becoming Shar Pei.

I didn’t fully believe, until my right inner elbow told me, that I would become crêpey and drapey —what my friend J calls “Shar Pei”  in honor of the wrinkly-bodied dog breed. I was 53, writing my morning journal entry per usual, when I noticed the skin above my elbow smiling up at me in a fleshy fold. I didn’t smile back. “Oh my God, is that my arm?” I immediately checked the left elbow, then corners of eyes, then chin and knees. I remember feeling scared. Existentially. Here was something else of me that was unfolding in my skin. Or should I say folding? This was a literal call to arms. I wrote in my journal that day: “I have wrinkles.  I have wrinkles. This is the first sighting. And you know what? I’m scared. I feel like Odysseus changing direction, turning his vessel back home after 10 years of adventure to go home and die. I’m becoming an old fart.  Who knew?? Yikes.” 

Truth be told, I knew; at least in a backhand kind of way.  Otherwise why would I have been thinking that my fitness  and lotion regimen would somehow temper or even prevent my skin and body from becoming like that of my 90 year old aunt’s or the TV newscasters I’d been watching for 20 years? Who, BTW, explicitly reveal what they are trying to conceal by nipping and tucking and making up their faces to look the same for two decades. Ironic, isn’t it, that those who serve up the news for us to face hide their own true faces?

Like most Americans, I had been adulting along making a living, mostly unaware of the meaning my body was making of those years. I was ‘busy’; amassing a family, a household, and a future that theoretically would unroll as a thoughtfully planned extension of the present. Except for a few sprained ankles or knee pains along the way, my body was my corporal conveyance. It’s palpable but undetectable here-ness had allowed me to move there and there and there. It was my yellow cab to the future. And now my skin was revealing that I was also taxi-ing toward somewhere that was entirely different than what I was thinking. 

Reflecting on this now, 12 years post skin epiphany, it’s so interesting, isn’t it, that when we’re younger we want to be considered older and then when we are older this desire folds back on itself? I remember in my teens standing straighter when others would comment on how mature I was for my age. And then at some point in my twenties and thirties, I wanted to be both older and younger simultaneously, smooth-skinned and wise, flirty and familied. Odd, isn’t it, that we don’t delineate  ‘adulthood’ into 12 or 15 stages in the way we do infancy, childhood, and adolescence? It’s like adulthood is some homogenized neighborhood you enter and live your own sameness over and over  with other’s doing the same same until it’s time for you to move out.  Wrinkles are a sign of readying for departure.

So, here’s the thing that I want to share with you that I didn’t (and couldn’t) know then but I do know now that I’m even more shar pei: This thing called living — which at midlife we re-label with the doom-and-gloom inflected term, ‘aging’ — is an atomic dance performed by the duplet of one’s physical body and one’s more-than-physical consciousness. And like all superb dancing pairs, one dancer’s show stopping steps bring out the best in the other’s. Each partner’s flair and forte emerges from being unfurled into a singular leap within the shared bounds of the pas de deux.  Neither dancer ever lets go of the other, ever, but the one who’s leading changes at different times in our lives. 

At 53, I thought “I” was leading the Adult Dance—and I was, and then it seemed I wasn’t anymore— and that was scary because there was a lot of dancing yet to do, and I didn’t know how to hand over the lead, nor to whom.  And like all the wildly improbable things that we first fear and resist but then take on, doing so turned out be incalculably rewarding. 

When my body took the lead at 53 by smiling a wrinkle at my elbow, it simultaneously deconstructed and reconstructed me in the same way that the rise of breasts on my chest had at 13.   I was being put on notice that there was a wrinkle in how I was living.  Whether —and how — I chose to respond to that notice constituted the choreography of my coming days, weeks, months, and years. That first wrinkle scared, depressed, and disabled my adulting-along “I”  and — and this AND is the essential part that was as yet invisible to my I’s eyes— it launched me into possibility.

At first, my Mona Lisa elbow smile was just dark and Delphic. It introduced an alien Grand Unfamiliar in my everyday life which made my existing uncertainties of appointments, flight departures, and meal times feel like long lost friends. I felt shadowed by my own specter. When I looked around me at my peers, everyone was experiencing the same thing but with different details, and no one would talk about it except to say vehemently, “isn’t it awful!?!!”, and then sputter into silence and/or quickly change the topic.  It was as though they were trying to be consciously unconscious of the obvious.  

For me, everything was so indefinite and desperately clear. Time and I were shrinking. Questions with no apparent answers posed naked in front of me —Just what was I doing? Where was I going?  Since I wasn’t willing to go the pretend-it-isn’t-happening route of many of my peers, there was only one way to go:  I had to trust fall into the arms of my invisible dance partner, my more-than-physical capacity to be aware, in a way I’d never before done. 

When I did, the first question I was forced to ask myself was: why am I thinking a wrinkle is a bad thing?  Why am I scared? I knew part of me was breathing the toxic atmosphere — atmosFEAR— pumped out by commercial interests who use the findings of neuroscience and psychology to craft infallible marketing campaigns that scare the bejeezus out of us about our older bodies/ brains so we will buy their products to save ourselves. But the larger part of me was having to admit that my physical body was changing, transmuting into air and energy, folding, graying, becoming dust.  No way around it.  My body taxi was palpably taxi-ing toward twilight. That was scary; especially to my grown-up, adulting-in-place ego. 

OK, so next question: What do I do when I’m scared?  I thought back to when my daughter was young and would call out to me because she was scared of monstrous ‘Dalmatians’ lying in wait under her bed. Did I tell her to jump out of bed and run somewhere far away she’d always wanted to go and never been? Did I have her immobilize under the covers and camouflage with make-up? No, I had her get out of bed, no matter how much she was trembling and resisting, and we would peek under the bed together. Having my eyes looking too gave her back her own courage and gumption to look, and what she saw when she did look under the bed was one of her treasured stuffed animals smiling at her — from wherever it had come to rest after I had quickly shoved it there a few moments before. Seeing her stuffed friend (instead of a monstrous Dalmatian) always dissolved her fear and tears into wet wimpers of relief. Grown-up now, she says she knows to face her fears because they may turn out to be friends. 

So how might I face my own monstrous wrinkled Dalmatian?  My 53 year old “I” just wanted it not to be there, but it was, and the fact that it was made me call out to my existential “I”. Together we looked at what was here. What my I’s  saw when we looked was a human Shar Pei in the making — and my very resistance to and fear of my own living process was my entrée into fulfilling more fully my breed standard. What if a shar pei refused to wrinkle? Who would s/he be?

It still blows my mind that being skinned-in could be a catapult to consciousness; that my cellular time keepers pulled the trigger that shot me into an ageless ‘bigger’. Whether it’s wrinkles or sore knees or hips that makes us slow down and notice, or cataracts that dull our vision so we have no choice but to look inward, or hearing impairments that leave us listening more to our internal voices, or a “bad diagnosis” that cruelly incinerates our current intents and makes us recalculate, we are literally made to slow down and consider — a word that means “to look at from all sides” —whatever our particular physical ‘happening’ is.  This change in our body makes us differently-abled. It disallows us continuing to do as we always have done, and in doing so, invites us to be more of who we humanly are, and can be. When I slowed down and actually considered my wrinkle(s) both physically and meta-physically, what I discovered was a whole set of untapped on-board, bred-in abilities to be more fully alive and spirited.

I am becoming human Shar Pei.  And within each fold is an unseen treasure to be mined, like knowing what is really important and standing for it, allocating my attention and effort  to meaningful things, feeling more emotionally comfortable in my skin, and knowing which humans and more-than-humans I really enjoy spending time with. My physical me and my more-than-physical me are dancing a dance as old as our species. It’s a slow, passionate pas de deux, called ‘Being Both at the Same Time’; and the steps to this dance are kept secret until you are old enough to learn them.  The fold in my elbow which at first felt like a call to capitulate was instead the condition for my becoming more consciously alive.  No wonder my elbow was smiling at me that day as it lead me out on to the dance floor for this new dance. I can even smile back now, albeit a little crookedly.

©robinrosesaltonstall2019

 

 

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3 Replies to “Coming Home to My Skin. Becoming Shar Pei.”

  1. Lovely discourse to wake up to this morning. As I am facing more than wrinkles this week, I am grateful for your shared
    Wisdom. Mahalo and Aloha. 🙂

    Like

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