When I was 19 years old and living on my own in Colorado, I saved up for a mountain bike, so that I could join the outdoor fanatics riding up to the peaks and down through the hills, on the bike trails all over town.
I lived adjacent to the Garden of the Gods National Park, a generous parcel of land full of bike trails weaving through illustrious red rock formations. After a week of rain, I headed out on my bike with great anticipation. Halfway into the morning, I found myself on a narrow ribbon of trail cut into the side of a steep hill. I was staring off to the left at the view, when my front tire slid off the muddy path. I yanked the handlebars hard to the right, which kept me from falling, but with the unfortunate side effect of pointing me straight down the steep incline. Before I could brake, a wild craggy tree growing out of the side of the hill loomed up in front of me. No time to turn; my arms went up to block the leafy branches from slapping my face.
The unforgiving bark of a jutting tree arm hiding behind the branches connected with my face – my arms otherwise occupied. My bike sailed out from under me, and I dropped to the ground, stunned; my heart pounding in my ears. My hand went to my face: dirt, wood chips and pebbles mingled with copious amounts of blood. Eventually, I stood, abandoned my bike and limped home, finding a friend who could drive me to the ER.
Four hours and forty-four stitches later, my face was furrowed red and raw, as much from the metal instruments used to dig out the foreign objects, as from the impact with the tree. The ghastly yellow-blue bruising emerged over the next few days, around my left eye, the tiny thread x’s holding things together. Months passed. More stitching; alternate patterns of bruising came and went as my cheek and eye tried to heal the glaring, jagged scars.
At 19, I was not much practiced in the discipline of gratitude. I had been living with clinical depression for a while, had recently moved away from home, and, like most young American women my age, I was well-acquainted with self-hatred: I despised my body and face – from my pale skin and too-tall frame to my freckled, zit-covered face.
But, the bike accident interrupted my self-loathing in a truly unexpected way. Now, post-accident, when I looked in the mirror, I realized with stunning clarity that all I wanted – surely all I’d ever wanted, was my own face back. The face I’d grown up with, had become so critical of over the years – the face I’d come to critically and ruthlessly despise…was now the face I prayed constantly would be restored to me. As-is. No alterations necessary. Would I ever look as I once had?
The bike accident – which nearly blinded me in one eye – taught me a lesson I’m reminded of every time I wash my face, put on makeup, tap my contacts into each eye. A lesson that broke through the self-hatred I’d put on each day, as a daughter of my appearance-obsessed culture. In a world that defined feminine beauty as waifish, sexless, underweight and voiceless…the beauty and worth of Kelly Walsh, 19-years-old, with nothing remarkable to commend me, suddenly flashed like lightning before me. A sudden appreciation and, yes, even a fondness for my unique features grew up within me as I realized that my face – eyes, cheeks, lips, nose, freckles…the face I had been born with, and the body that was attached, had been put together by the living God. Whatever it looked like in comparison to others – it bore the signature of the King. The mark of a loving Creator who had not only invested in the person I saw in the mirror, but apparently was crazy about her.
Gratitude welled up, overflowed as I took in the gift of my face, and with it – my particular gifts and failures, my victories and wounds, habits and handicaps. Thankfulness, suddenly borne, for everything that was uniquely me. I was awash in a garden of gratitude, seeing not only the beauty in my face and form, but in those around me, my friends and my family.
Over the next few months, my face gradually healed; the scar faded over the course of the year. And my new found attitude came and went, as I remembered and forgot what I had learned. As I continue to age in a culture obsessed with youth, even as I feel my inadequacies as wife, mother, pastor – I find I need to practice the lesson that was such a gift to my 19-year-old self. To remember each morning, as I run my hand over the ridged skin under my eye, that this is the only life I have, just as this is the only face I have. The scars and wrinkles are as much part of my journey as my face, part of what is uniquely me.
“For I have knit you together in your mother’s womb,” says the Lord, “and you are remarkable and wonderfully made. Your days are written in My book and planned before a single one of them began.”
For these days, this miracle, the gift of each unique child of God…I am awed, and grateful.