by Elise Seyfried
About seven years ago, I chaperoned an elementary school trip to Robbins Park Nature Center in Ambler with my daughter Julie’s class. After a hike to Creepy Pond and a look at various shrubs and seedlings outdoors, we went into the cabin where the hands-on science projects were housed. Today’s lesson involved a special, super-duper microscope. The images could be projected onto a screen on the wall. The instructor showed us items such as a translucent moth wing and a slice of oak tree bark, magnified hundreds of times.
We oohed and aahed at the minute details unveiled. Then came the question: “May we have a volunteer mom to help us out for a minute?” Never one to heed
internal warning signals, I stepped forward. “Great! Mrs. Seyfried, will you please place your hand under the microscope?” Uh-oh. Oh well, how bad could it be? A hand is a hand, right? Well, the oohs and aahs were magnified hundreds of times as the children and adults got a gander at my epidermis. Surely there was a mistake.
Someone had slipped an old snakeskin under the lens instead! But no, it was me, in living color. The back of my hand was a veritable Grand Canyon of wrinkled skin and sun-damaged cells and age spots. My youthful and dewy flesh (an illusion, granted, born of my poor eyesight and very few mirrors in my house) was gone. There, in its place, was my 95-year-old Grandma’s hand! Curse you, super-duper microscope!
As a little girl, I spent much of each summer frolicking on the sand at Normandy Beach (New Jersey, not France). Or rather, I spent the first day frolicking and the next weeks recovering from my massive sunburn. When other children slept like angels after a day in the great outdoors, I was in much too much pain to doze off. “Warm” memories of those July evenings feature my mom soaking a towel in vinegar and applying it to my crimson back. Vinegar was supposed to absorb heat, and it seemed to work; within seconds the towel was so scalding hot that mom needed to remove it with spaghetti tongs.
For a relatively intelligent person, my IQ plummeted when it came to Sun Sense. As I grew older, I continued to cook myself in the noonday heat, turning over every few minutes like a roasting chicken. And, just like said poultry, I was coated with oil for maximum crispiness. I pitied the friends who wore hats and sat under umbrellas and sported pale complexions year-round. They looked downright sickly! Far better to TAN! Never mind that my snow-white Irish skin wouldn’t have turned brown in a jillion years. I would become a bronze goddess or die trying!
Alas, we reap what we sow. All the retinol and “age-defying” lotions and potions in the world haven’t made a dent in undoing my decades of self-inflicted skin damage. Mom endured four bouts of malignant melanoma, attributed to her own youthful sun worshipping. So far I have dodged this bullet (or so I assume; I stay far away from the dermatologist, preferring blissful ignorance as long as possible).
I like to think that my stupidity is only skin deep, that underneath I am a creature of great common sense and wisdom. The baby-faced me inside knows so much better than to make self-destructive choices. The real Elise always does the right thing. I take good care of my body and soul, and I don’t try to be something I’m not. Dig down beneath my surface, and you will find a gem.
But there’s a little problem with this perception. How far down inside does one have to go to see this wonderful person? An inch? A mile?
The microscope sees far more clearly than any human eye. It magnifies what is really there, and it exposes the often-painful truth. I saw my actual skin under a powerful lens that day at Robbins Park. It was impossible to escape the reality: I am damaged, largely through my own fault. If I am indeed different — and better — inside, it sure doesn’t show.
So is there any hope?
I think, I pray, that there is. The first step is facing the music. Until I acknowledge that my foolish choices are NOT only skin-deep — that indeed they go right to the bone — nothing will change. I need to acknowledge my deeply-rooted selfishness, my short-sightedness, my carelessness, the “burns” that hurt not only me, but those I love. I need to examine every inch of me with that super-duper microscope, without making any more excuses. Some irreparable harm has been done, for sure, but as long as there’s life, there IS hope.
The view of the shoreline from under an umbrella is lovely. May I learn to sit there, sink down to my core and work on improving my innermost self. In the cool of the shade, maybe the healing can finally begin.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She can be contacted through www.eliseseyfried.com.