I should note to my followers that this post is neither ranch nor donkey related. This is a piece I’ve written as a way to look for answers for myself. After all, writing is a tool to discover things. Although I do personally journal things that never make it to the public, this one, I wanted to share.
Thick skin is an idiom used to describe a tool for survival. It’s something you’re told to have when someone insults your cooking or reveals that you didn’t make the cut for the dance team because well, you just weren’t good enough.
As a hyper-sensitive person who seems to be affected by almost everything, thick skin is both a foreign concept and a source of deep frustration for me. Thick skin has become this passing grade that most of my peers seem to have reached while I’m still shuffling through all my chicken-scratch notes trying to make sense of what the hell it even means and how can one create it if they’re not just born with it? It’s this idea that has turned into a solution for my sensitivity problems—if I can just cultivate thick skin, then life, as I have known it to unfold, will be so much easier. After all, my sensitivity, I’ve been told, makes people pretty uncomfortable sometimes. It’s a weakness I should work out.
It was 6:30 in the morning and in Texas during the summer, that means that it already approached 90 degrees outside. On my cell phone was a notification that I’d received an email from another publishing company to whom I’d recently submitted a short story. The subject of the email was too ambiguous to know its contents, but after many recent rejections, I decided to wait a while to open it. I didn’t want to risk starting off another day with a “no.”
These days, in addition to brushing my teeth and washing my face in the morning as the coffee is brewing, I also liberally apply SPF 50 all over my body knowing that any amount of time outside will result in a burn otherwise. I used to try to tan, but I’m a girl whose pink skin freckles. Tanning is a painful process that always ends in blisters that pop and peel. I also come from a long line of scarred, fair skinned relatives who warn me of the dangers of the sun. They ask if I can see their scars and do I know that they could have prevented it had they just worn sunscreen?
Of course, when you’re young, skin cancer is something that happens to people much older than you, so you don’t seriously consider the consequences. Two months ago, however, I noticed that one of the larger freckles on my right arm had grown and changed into a strange shape—more like a splat than a spot. And also, today, I turned 30.
I stood in front of the mirror in my bathroom topless and slid the sunscreen all over me. Despite my attempts at protecting my skin recently, I’ve still managed to form a farmer’s tan: a slightly more red than pink U-shape on my chest and fair caps on my shoulders. The farmer’s tan was inevitable living on a ranch because I spend most of my days working outside in the Texas sun.
In the middle of my chest, in this light, I can actually see my breast bone and the inside edges of my ribs. Skin is so thin there. Beneath the freckles are faint, blueish green lines pumping away in and out of my heart.
I think of my heart beating—blood rushing in and pulsing out. It’s been nearly 5-years since I had heart surgery. I’d developed an arrhythmia when I was 24 years old that the doctors said was probably a preexisting condition, although it was nothing I knew to run through my family. It had gotten out of hand for reasons that doctors could not figure out to the point where I’d pass out walking up stairs or if I got too hot. The morning I went in for the surgery was when I found out that I’d need to be awake for the procedure so that my heart would behave as “normally” as it had been—not affected at all by anesthesia.
It wasn’t open-heart surgery, luckily. Instead they’d go in through my femoral artery with a snake like tool and burn off the nerve endings in my heart that they found responsible for the arrhythmia.
I’ve been asked before if the surgery was painful and my response is always, shit yes, it was painful. It was beyond imaginable. I guessed that back in time, this was what it felt like to have a sword slide through your chest during a dual several times, only, I didn’t get the opportunity to protect myself. I just laid naked under stadium lights with 13 doctors and nurses around me as nerve endings in my heart were literally burned away. For days, my heart was swollen. I discovered that balling up pieces of bread into dense balls of dough and slowly swallowing them whole was a cheap and easy massage for the swollen walls of my heart.
I placed a hand over my chest, the sunscreen cool in my palm, and rubbed in circles. Since that surgery, I’ve kept an open dialogue with my heart. I have pep talks with her. I remind her what she’s been through when she’s down. After that procedure, heartbreak meant something completely different to us. I ask her sometimes if she’s doing alright. For the most part she is, but she worries.
For example, she worries about our kid and how we’re supposed to mother him in a way that sets him up for success. Her and I were bullied as children and we just took it. We didn’t like confrontation and I suppose we still don’t—us still avoiding it at almost any cost. Standing up to bullies or even telling grown ups about being bullied was a sure fire way to end up in a big confrontation. So we kept quiet and waited for the day to end when we could go home and play with our beagle and dig holes in the yard in search of dinosaur fossils.
She worries about men with guns because there are many days where that’s the only news story. She didn’t want to go to the movies to see the newly released Finding Dory with her husband and kid on father’s day because she just kept thinking about Pulse in Orlando—it having happened only a few days prior. She thought about Aurora. Sandy Hook. San Bernadino. She couldn’t shake the thought of it happening in the large theater in which they’d purchased tickets. She hurt for the young man who texted his mom right before he died. She used to hang out at clubs like Pulse with her friends. That was a safe spot to dance and drink and play and become lost in the sounds and light so that you could feel the pulse in your veins and beneath your feet as the music swallowed you.
She worries that things like mass shootings and bullying and distant wars are so common these days that we’re all becoming calloused to them and somehow, we’re supposed to raise a kid in all this. Thick skin, I suppose. Perhaps that’s the answer. But thick skin doesn’t take away the mother’s grief whose son texted her right before he was killed. Thick skin doesn’t feed and house and embrace the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from distant wars—wars that we could never, ever comprehend. But what, besides thick skin, can we do? What are Syrian parents doing for their children who don’t even know what home means? Bullying is the least of their worries. But then again, I’m sure it happens, still. And hurts, just as badly. All those hearts beating and beating.
I glided across the pale caps of my shoulders and down my biceps, which I flexed to remind myself that there was strength there. I avoided that little spot in the crook of my elbows where I can very clearly see my veins because for some reason, when I touch that spot, I feel a tickle deep down in my ears.
I don’t know how to make her, my heart, stop worrying. I don’t know how to grow thick skin. I’ve tried meditating. Medication. Therapy. Even prayer. But still, she worries, so I try my best to trust her strength and remind her of it when she’s lost sight of it. She has, after all, survived torture under bright lights in that surgery. Good girl.
In the bedroom, my phone buzzed with some new notification and that reminded me of the email I hadn’t opened. Every single aspiring writer on the planet who wants to make anything of it is told that they have to have “thick skin” and that rejection is all a part of it. They’re told that even J.K. Rowling was rejected with Harry Potter over and over again and now, look at her success! They’re told that you just keep going. Buck up. Move on to the next. They’ve all been through it and so will you. We all need to have thick skin. It’s good for you.
In my reflection, I remind myself of this. Buck up, girl. You keep going. Thick skin. Think of that anonymous message you got on your blog telling you that your words touched this random person you’ve never met and that she loved the way the world looked through your eyes. Remember how you cried in that grocery store parking lot after reading this anonymous person’s message and you called your mom to tell her about it? That’s got to mean something.
That was the same parking lot that I called my husband from a week earlier because as I walked out of the grocery store with my toddler in the seat of the cart—paper bags tumbling over with bread and vegetables and milk—my eyes were drawn to the large muscular calf of a man in front of me. He wore red and orange plaid shorts and a gray shirt that fit his muscular build too tightly. On his left calf, wrapping around the entirety of it, was a red and black swastika. It growled from his leg, flexing with every step he took. My kid was facing me, luckily, not that he’d know what it was anyway. But there it was, oozing out of his leg like oil pouring from a leaking rig in the gulf. I realized then that I’d never seen a swastika outside of books or films.
I stopped, there on the ramp out in front of the grocery store, and watched the four-legged creature attached to the man in shorts march angrily out into the lot. The hair on my neck tingled at the roots. I looked around nervously to see if anyone else in the parking lot had noticed it too, but if they had, I couldn’t tell. It, along with its host, cut through a few aisles of cars and sank down into a white Mercedes Benz. A new, stark white Mercedes Benz with chrome rims and a tall ornament on the hood. They drove away quicker than parking lots typically allow, the engine booming in my bones.
Into my squeaky, rusted truck I climbed—my kid in his rear-facing car seat. I called my husband and upon hearing his “hello?” I crumbled and cried heavy, heaving cries. It was painful to see—that sort of pain that makes you quiver under your rib cage. It makes the air heavy and that space where the base of your skull meets your neck tense. Then the nausea sets in. Then tears, when they feel safe to escape.
A real-life swastika on a real-life person. And he was displaying it. He wanted that tattoo to be seen. He wanted no confusion as to what his views on certain things were, so much so that he’d have it permanently illustrated on his body. And would then walk through a grocery store with it. And growl in his car with it.
In the bathroom, I tried to reach sunscreen as far down on the backs of my shoulders as my arms could reach. My rib cage lifted when I did this and I could see straight through it. Looking closely enough, I could see my pulse right above my collar bones—a tiny little bump, bump, bump.
The man with the swastika, from behind, seemed like a younger man. I’d guessed he couldn’t have been much older than me—today I am 30—and truly, I thought that that kind of hatred was dying out and that my generation was bringing love back into a torn apart world. I’d wanted to believe that so badly. My heart did, too. We were children after segregation. We were children who learned about the holocaust and about slavery and about how we’re all equal and how wrong humanity had gotten it before. We learned in school how power and money can corrupt world leaders and so it was our responsibility to do better. It was our obligation, as a human race, to love as hard as we could. Otherwise, we’d fail. That man in the parking lot made me feel like we were failing.
Done with my application, I pulled a shirt over my head, walked into my bedroom and glanced over at my phone—the green light in the corner calling me to come check the notifications. I thought about just getting it over with, but decided I wanted my coffee first.
Thick skin, remember? Just keep going.
But I don’t have thick skin. I can see right through it.
I sat on the velvet, purple couch in my living room that an old friend who no longer talks to me gave to me several years ago. The pillows match it and over the back of it, hangs a quilt that was made by a friend’s mom: another friend, to whom I no longer have a relationship. I sipped my coffee and watched hens peck for bugs in the yard. They scratched and nibbled and I wondered about those two, old friends: the purple couch and the mom quilt. Neither of those relationships ended well or mutually. Then again, when friendships are declared over by either party instead of naturally decaying with time like a browning banana, it’s usually not for peaceful reasons.
At the bottom of my cup of coffee, a few coffee grounds looked back up at me. I wondered how they’d gotten through the filter and felt bad that they seemed to be hanging on for dear life. They were so vulnerable there in the bottom of the cup. Damp. Cold. Confused. With the tip of my finger I wiped them from the bottom of the coffee mug and onto my shirt before heading back to the bedroom to check my phone.
I looked at my home screen momentarily—my phone’s background being a picture of my wide-eyed donkey named Bunny—as the email envelope in the corner called for my attention. Bunny, I’d decided, was smiling in this particular photo. On the other side of that picture was probably me dangling a carrot that she could already taste, although I can’t quite remember. So close.
I clicked the notification.
“Thank you for your submission, however, this piece is not for us…”
I stopped reading. I closed the email and looked at Bunny. I imagined she said, “It’s okay. Buck up. Be better. Be stronger. Keep going.” Tears stung my eyes, but quickly, they stopped, as the reel of “you already knew this would be the answer” ran through my mind. I did. I did know it was the answer. Buck up. Thick skin.
From his nursery, Little Foot started to whimper, so I tossed my phone onto the bed and went to pull my kid from his crib. He smiled at me sleepily when I walked in, reaching his arms for mine. I picked him up and he rested his curly head on my shoulder. I still love his smell. It’s no longer new-born. But it’s Little Foot. Just caring for him sometimes makes me cry, although I couldn’t tell you why. He’s just so…so….gosh I don’t think there’s a word. He’s my son. A piece of me. The very best and most beautiful piece of me.
My heart reached for his, as she always does. Sometimes, I think they actually communicate through our chests. I carried him back into my room and stood over my phone. It no longer blinked green in the corner, but instead was black and blank. On my shoulder, Little Foot started to fall back asleep, so I laid on my bed, holding him against my chest. His breath moved quicker than mine, yet deeper. His breath moved all the way down to the bottom of his belly and I wondered at what point we, as adults, stop regularly belly-breathing? It’s just so shallow these days.
I forced my own breath down into my belly, allowing the heart to thump three full times before I’d start to exhale. She liked it after she got used to it. So did I.
I reached for my phone and opened the email again.
“Thank you for your submission, however, the piece is not for us. Don’t feel bad, though; this is a reflection of our aesthetic, not your quality.”
I laid back then, tossing my phone to the side. It slid off the mattress and landed on the carpet with a soft thud. I laid there and I cried, although I wasn’t sad. It was just another no and one that I expected, anyway. But still, I cried, wishing I knew how to form thick skin to make the disappointment go away,or at least, not sting so much.
My heart played in the depth of my deep breath as Little Foot rose and fell on top of them. I do not have thick skin and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will. I still don’t like confrontation and I am intimidated easily by things like hateful tattoos and guns.
I suppose I do have a strong heart, though. I know that because I can see right through my skin and into her. I can see all her scars from all those burns and she really does wear them proudly. They’re the strongest part of her. And I suspect, they’re the strongest part of me.
She worries, but she hasn’t stopped yet. And she hasn’t stopped enjoying things like deep breaths and donkeys and writing and hard work. And the things she loves, like Little Foot and King Ranch, she loves fiercely and infinitely. She keeps going. My god, sweet heart, am I grateful.
30 years, little heart. It’s you who’s brought me this far. It’s you who’s held onto the relationships that matter. It’s you who doesn’t lose hope even when we’re hurt, when we’re rejected, or when we’re intimidated. It’s you who reminds me that there are good people in the world and that fear is only what you allow. It’s you who is the strong one and who will continue to lead the way. I’ll follow wherever you go just as I always have.
Little, strong heart, perhaps if I’ve got you then I can stop worrying so much over thick skin. Maybe we can rest softly in our sensitivity and be grateful for the depth in which we feel things there. At the very least, if we’re still around 30 years from now, we can revisit the topic and see what you’ve learned.