She stands at my head, holding her warm hands over my closed eyes. I, under a tan velvet blanket, catch the scent of lavender emanating from her palms. “Inhale,” she whispers. My breath moves like the tide, undulates slowly through my nostrils towards the shores of my lungs and then back again to the great ocean of breath. “Again,” she murmurs. Deep and rhythmic victorious breaths, beads of life I string together as effortlessly as the snow that’s falling outside the picture window overlooking the mountains. She smooths potions of grapefruit and hibiscus into my cheeks, adds geranium and grapeseed oil, rinses my face with a warm washcloth, then rubs in more delicious-smelling product. Her long fingers caress my temples, my chin, my décolleté. “You have a lot of sun damage,” she says with no judgment. It’s just her job to notice these things. She paints product on my nose and around my lips. “This will definitely help. You are going to have skin like a baby when we are done,” she says. The table is so comfortable, the blanket so warm and heavy, and it feels so safe and comforting to be touched like this, that I drift off to sleep.
This is how it goes, I thought, this is how we start to know ourselves. By peeling away the layers, we begin to discover what is inside of us, what makes us tick, what is no longer serving us. The dead falls away, so that new life can bloom.
I remember learning about skin in anatomy class. How there are three layers: the epidermis – the outermost, waterproofing layer; the hypodermis – the middle layer containing hair follicles, sweat glands and connective tissue; and the dermis – deepest layer containing fat, more connective tissue, and the ridges that create our fingerprints.
I remember learning that the epidermis, the layer we show to the world, the layer that shows our freckles and skin tone, is actually comprised of four layers in most areas of the body, except the hands and the feet, which need extra thickness, so there are are five.
I remember learning the mnemonic Good Skin Gets Loving Care which reminded me that the layers are formed in this order from the bottom up: stratum Germinativum, Spinosum, Granulosum, Lucidum, Corneum.
I remember learning that the Stratum Germinativum (also called the Stratum Basale) is the base layer, and it’s a single layer that gives rise to all the skin stem cells. This is where the baby keratinocytes are born, cells that will grow up to form keratin, as they move through the layers of the epidermis. The keratinocytes are the most abundant of all epidermal cells. They provide physical and mechanical protection for the skin, produce antibiotics and enzymes that detoxify harmful chemicals our skin comes in contact with, and yet, we are shedding them every day. And what we are shedding is dead. The average time is takes for a young keratinocyte to make its way from the germinative layer is 35-45 days. And at 45 days, it’s dead, on the outside surfaces of the body.
There’s the rub. That which keeps us alive, is actually dead.
This strikes me as being very predictable from the tantric perspective: from the one arise the many. And as a corollary, the skin, which protects, insulates, cushions, regulates heat loss, excretes urea, salts and water through sweat, synthesizes Vitamin D, and allows us to sense touch, pressure, temperature and pain, our skin performs all these many functions in service of the one. Us.
From the one to the many, from the many to the one. It amazes me that what the yogis, the tantrikas, the kabbalists and the Buddhists figured out thousands of years ago by meditating, and thus becoming extremely sensitive to the body, is actually born out by what relatively modern science has also recently figured out. As a long-time meditator and yogini, when I was learning about the body, it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that every system of the body had its own specific sets of cells that performed specific functions, all in service of the one organ. Nor did it surprise me that within each organ system is usually a single layer that gives rise to all. What surprises me is that from the 19th century on, a new language has been developing to explain what we already know is true, if we can only get quiet enough to sense it.
She rubs flower acids into my forehead. “Does this burn?” she asks softly. It doesn’t really. It tingles. The skin is so incredibly sensitive. I think about the tiny nerve endings in contains called Meissner’s corpuscles that are sensitive to light touch, and another kind of cell, Merkel cells, that provide information about pressure and texture.
She continues to rub the acid into my cheeks and my chin. The sensation is pleasant enough. It’s like that glow you get when you have been in the sun too long and the skin tingles and feels hot. Somehow, the sensuous mind got so distracted by the coolth and the blueness of the water, that the cognitive mind admonishing you to put on more sunscreen got ignored. I’m here today because too many years of swimming in an outdoor pool without sunscreen have taken their toll on my face.
I later learned a more apposite mnemomic device, considering I’m here getting a chemical peel for the first time in my life because my skin has so much sun damage: Come, Let’s Get Sun Burned.
* * * * *
Thirty-six hours later, I started to peel. In the morning, I noticed a few white spots on my chin. “I must have drooled at night and this is a spit streak that has dried,” I thought to myself. “How embarrassing!” But when I tried to wash it off, the white spot just grew bigger. Soon my chin began to snow. Outside, it was snowing, too. It’s all part of the cycle,I noted, the water cycle, the skin cycle, the cycle of life and death. Clouds form, they release rain or snow, the water flows back to the ocean, the water evaporates and the clouds form again So it is with skin. From the inside out, it grows, from a single cell layer, into the protective, waterproof, sensitive, immune-rich blanket we wrap ourselves in our entire lives. As I rubbed my chin, soft pale flakes fluttered steadily down onto my dark shirt. I massaged in lotion, which was temporarily soothing, but soon the shedding of dead cells resumed and I resigned myself to wearing a coating of powdered sugar on my blouse for the rest of the day.
The reason a chemical peel is recommended for sun- and age-damaged skin, is because it accelerates the turnover of the top layer of dead keratinocytes. Friction accelerates cell production and keratin formation, so at the most physical level, this is an abrasive procedure.
And it works. By the end of the week, the skin on my face is baby soft. The sunspots are barely visible, the wrinkles less pronounced.
I am pleased with the result, and yet, I’m so aware of how this is just a temporary, external solution to the internal inevitability. Beneath the surface of my rosy glow, new baby keratinocytes are undergoing almost continuous mitosis and in a few weeks, those new young cells, so full of promise and life, will have risen to the surface, and will be shed. Youth is an illusion. Just like the skin, we are all dying and simultaneously being reborn.