A place for everything and everything in its place. That is my mantra. In my home, short-sleeved shirts and long-sleeved shirts do not share the same pile. Random kitchen paraphernalia, like apple corers and pate knives, go in the second drawer down. Do not put the dessert forks with the dinner forks. They each have their own space.
I want life to be like this, too. I want everything that happens to fit neatly into its assigned drawer or cupboard or shelf. But, as we know, this doesn’t happen.
Not long ago, I read an article about maps that astounded me. Cartographers reveal that it is incredibly difficult to distinguish between mountains and valleys on a topographical map. Something akin to an optical illusion occurs when we view them from an aerial perspective; from too far away. It takes getting closer to a mountain to know it’s a mountain. It requires proximity to a canyon or valley to identify it as such.
The same can be true in our lives. So many times, from an aerial view, I have faultily categorized experiences as “bad” or “good” only to realize on closer inspection that the hard thing was actually a good thing, rich with meaning. And sometimes, the thing I’d deemed good wasn’t.
I’ve thought about this a lot this year. It has come up in my conversations. It resurfaces in my journal. It gets referenced in my writing. And I feel that I have finally grasped how simplistic and errant this good/bad analysis has been. While it works for us occasionally, it fails us regularly. There is not always a place for everything, and everything isn’t always in its place. I’m learning that most experiences in life can be assigned to either column, depending on how we look at them; how we frame and re-frame. And weirdly, many things can find their home in both columns, concurrently.
Our bodies are marked with memory and story. We are physical records; living artifacts. Some of the marks have pleasant memories attached. Some have painful memories attached. Many fall into the “both” category; things that hurt so much at the time, but that somehow became lovely. Our scars tell stories.
I have a shiny, circular scar on the inside of my ankle that has been with me for thirty-three years. It reminds me of the summer I was first allowed to venture out on my own to the busy, tourist-filled streets of Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. I would leave my home, high on independence, and scooter alone toward the Tourist Mart where I would buy a root beer flavoured popsicle or maybe a Fun Dip. For a relatively flat province, there were many long hills that challenged my ten-year-old muscles. As I pushed my scooter along with my right leg, my bare ankle would often graze the brake; so regularly, in fact, that it didn’t heal all summer long. And I still have the mark. It was worth it.
There are marks on my body that speak of embracing my individuality and coming into my own. Some of the choices made can still be seen and some are ghosts. You can see the faded tattoo that remains from a visit to a random basement (I don’t recommend this), but you can’t see that I once had a buzz-cut (I, also, don’t recommend this). While my nose still bears the piercing that my Doc Marten-wearing self sought out in Toronto a hundred million years ago, I have other empty holes on my body; left-over piercings no longer filled with jewellery. But I remember the rush of every single one. It was worth it.
My belly looks like a treasure map with X-shaped scars literally marking the spots. These faded scars can still make me weep fifteen years later when I remember the life that grew in the wrong place and the rupture that necessitated emergency surgery; a surgery that saved my life, but that removed a tiny life from my body. I remember my first baby and I am filled with gratitude that my life was spared. Though it hurt so much, I grew in trust and character. It was worth it.
I have a scar on my knee that still turns pink after a bath almost ten years later. I’d been boating with min venner (my friends) in the fjords of Norway and we pulled up to the rocks to barbecue steaks on an engangsgrill (a one-use grill). Afterwards, we launched ourselves into the freezing cold water for a swim. It was so shockingly cold, that I scrambled my way up a rocky ledge to escape imminent hypothermia. Frozen, I didn’t feel my knee being shredded on the razor rocks. It hurt like crazy later and it took forever to heal, but the scar still fills me with warm, sun-burned memories of being in one of my favourite places in the whole world. It was worth it.
When my children were younger, they remarked regularly, whenever they saw the stretch-marked skin of my abdomen: “Mama, why does your belly look funny?” I always answered: “Because you grew there. And you were so worth it.”
And now, as I’ve pushed further into my forties, I notice other marks on my body. I see evidence on my skin of time spent outdoors. And my eyes bear witness to many years of smiling. And it’s been worth it.
But the external marks are not the only ones we bear. I have soul scars that can still be painful when pressed just so. Things that maybe didn’t heal quite right and left an ugly scar; something I’d rather not have as a part of me. But even these scars carry stories. If we accept the invitation, even these can produce character in us.
The painful ache of loss was because I loved someone deeply and I don’t regret it. It was worth it. The sting of humiliation was because I attempted something brave and failed. But I’m still glad I did it. It was worth it. The sickening shame of self-awareness, realizing I acted selfishly and immaturely taught me to own my weakness and rely on God for help. These were all hard lessons that were worth it.
We get to decide how we read situations; how we view our scars. Are they evidence of damage done or evidence of healing that occurred? Are they painful reminders of regret or are they experiences that have added valuable patina, contributing to our character?
These lyrics by artist, Sara Groves, articulate this idea that a same event or experience can be viewed in different ways:
Less like tearing, more like building
Less like captive, more like willing
Less like breakdown, more like surrender
Less like haunting, more like remember
Less like a prison, more like my room
Less like a casket, more like a womb
Less like dying, more like transcending
Less like fear, less like an ending.”
We hold physical, spiritual and emotional records in us and on us; our own personal patina. It’s inevitable. So, while some may see stretch marks, creases, aging skin and soul scars, I’m choosing to see the story of where I’ve been so far. I’m looking carefully at the perceived good and the perceived bad. I’m treasuring all of it, recognizing that, sometimes, the parts I thought were valleys were actually mountains. All of these stories have contributed to who I am and to who I’m becoming.
As time passes, the marks are looking less like scars and more like character.
It’s all worth it.