Growing up in the 80s and 90s in the Midwest, everyone wanted golden tan skin. My friends and I went to tanning beds to get a “base tan” so that we could then slather on baby oil and lay out on the beach during Spring Break and over the summer.
With my Filipina heritage, I have naturally olive skin that tans easily, yet I would participate in these rituals and more often than not, still get sunburned. My skin could only take so much and would eventually peel off, revealing a new layer underneath. (This was before the widespread understanding of the causes of skin cancer.)
Ironically, when I visited the Philippines, feelings about tan skin fell on the other end of the spectrum. The drugstore shelves were lined with bleaching products instead of tanning products. When I went up on the balcony of my Tito’s house to lay out, everyone thought I was crazy. My cousins were all trying to stay out of the sun and cover their bodies. They didn’t even wear shorts when it was over 100 degrees.
I distinctly remember a photograph of me on my first trip to the Philippines. I was four years old, swimming in the ocean with my cousins, wearing a turtleneck. My mom was adamant that I protect my skin (until I became a rebellious teen). She told me what had been taught to her, that dark skin symbolized being poor and working in the fields, and light skin symbolized being rich enough to stay inside a nice house or work in an office.
So much is wrapped up in that narrative, the beliefs passed down from one generation to the next across continents and countries, and when they are not disputed they carry on.
The ocean is where I feel most myself, and thankfully my last few sabbatical days were spent there, breathing in the salty air, soaking up the sun, and listening to the sound of the waves. Unfortunately, I got sunburnt. It was accidental this time (no baby oil involved), but for weeks after my return, my skin was peeling away.
It was symbolic of what was going on inside me. I was shedding things like ambitions, expectations, and dreams. I spent the month peeling back layers of who I had become over the last 10-15 years, not quite sure of what was underneath. The process wasn’t particularly enjoyable or comfortable, it felt freeing, but also like a loss and uncertainty. I couldn’t help but think about snakes who shed their skin. Without shedding (molting), they can’t grow.
I remembered experiencing a similar kind of shedding when I was in the NICU with my firstborn son about 12 years ago. The nurse looked at me and asked, “Are you Mrs. Fichtner, Cristian’s mother?” I physically turned around to look for someone else because my immediate thought was, I’m not sure, I know I’m Sara. Had I transformed into a wife and mother in a few short years? That was good, right? Of course, I was still Sara, but I was also someone else, someone I had never been before.
Somewhere along the way, I had begun to think of personal growth as something that, if intentional, would be seamless and beautiful. I imagined myself becoming mature and enlightened. I imagined that discovering inner truths would feel like clouds passing to uncover the sun. I know that hard things teach us lessons and change us, but when I imagined “going on sabbatical” or “taking some time” or “doing inner work” I didn’t think I would feel both loss and lost.
In May, I wrote a post mentioning The Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila and James Finley’s course about it through the Center for Action and Contemplation. In the book, Teresa talks about different “mansions” or dwelling places in our journey to union with God. What surprised me and gives me comfort is that it is not a linear path from the first mansion to the seventh. Sometimes we are in one place, sometimes another, and all have value.
Toward the end of the course, I wrote down this note.
“Come follow me…until the end, where there will be nothing left of you but love; there will be nothing left of you but me.”
What a beautiful place to imagine. I wonder how many layers of skin I have to shed to get there, and how many times I will have to get burned. I wonder how much I will have to let go and how much time it will take. Whatever the answers to those wonderings, it will be worth it. I believe in that final place, where there’s nothing left of me but love.