I’m playing a sort of three dimensional Tetris as I squeeze the last of the Christmas decorations into the closet under our stairs that also holds a Rubbermaid box of hand-me-downs, some sleeping bags, an air mattress, various lengths of extension cords, and all our suitcases. Those suitcases catch my eye–they sure have been through a lot. We bought the current set six-and-a-half years ago, just before our initial move to Korea. They were dragged behind us as we stumbled into our hotel room in Busan, exhausted, jet-lagged, bewildered, and caught the first glimpses of our new home, jewel-toned neon lights outside the plate glass window.
Now they’re covered with scratches and scrapes, a dent or two, and stickers from a dozen airports. Not cute stickers that show something of the destination either, but the kind the gate agent slaps on as he checks the bag, with bar codes and names making them more reminiscent of hospital bracelets than travel souvenirs. We packed those suitcases for our trips back to America every summer, and frantically re-packed them at the airport in California, tossing things from one to another (usually lots from Trader Joe’s treats) so that they would all make the weight limits. When we moved to the States for a year in 2020, we actually lived out of them for over four months. I’ve vacuumed sand out after Thailand and Vietnam, and if I opened them right now, I’d probably find a leftover “Paris Visite” metro card and a few random euro coins after our last trip, the dream vacation we took Thanksgiving week.
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The sight of those suitcases reminds me of a Facebook ad I saw this past fall. Somehow, the algorithms got me so very wrong that they actually put a photo from Ryan Gosling’s Gucci campaign on my page. In it, a tanned Gosling wearing a suit pushes a luggage cart piled high with Gucci bags of all shapes and sizes through ankle-deep water.
I literally laughed out loud when I saw it. First and foremost, I’ve never bought a luxury brand item before, and if I had the money to, I would probably spend it a thousand other ways. My actual thought when I saw it was, Dude needs to learn how to pack! Has he never traveled before?! If I saw someone–yes, even Ryan Gosling–wearing a suit and pushing such a heavily loaded luggage cart with suitcases that cost as much as Gucci through waves down the beach, I would just about die laughing at him.
Okay, okay. I like to think I’m enough of a decent person to go over and offer to help, but as I played the scenario out in my mind, I saw myself rendered useless due to the fact that I was doubled-over with laughter. If I could control myself enough to speak, I’d desperately want to know: “What were you thinking? How did you get yourself into this situation? Why did you think any of it was a good idea?”
Clearly, I digress.
I shove the last Christmas box into the closet and catch myself oddly smiling at the suitcases and thinking, “You’ve done a good job.”
A couple weeks later, I’m in the locker room of one of the spas here in Korea. I went to this one today not for the jimjilbang (Korean version of an onsen), but for the other facilities–a sort of hot-spring water park with therapeutic pools. Jets pounded water on my shoulders that seem to have permanent knots in them, and I soaked in a variety of tubs of different temperatures. Aside from changing out of my street clothes, though, I had my swimsuit on until I got out of the pools and showered. The spa doesn’t want you to walk dripping wet from the pool to the locker, so they have signs and rolls of plastic bags like what you’d put apples into at the supermarket, except these are for your wet swimsuits. Towels are provided, but they are what we would call hand towels, maybe even washcloths, in America.
Anyone who knows me well would never call me a prude. But every time I’ve gone here, I’ve found the level of ease these women display strolling around the expansive locker room impressive, if not downright inspiring. All ages, shapes, and sizes walk comfortably and confidently, not even folding an arm across their chests.
“This might sound weird,” one of my daughters said once, “but it’s kind of how I think heaven will be.” I know what she means; the lack of shame or effort to hide calls to mind the Garden of Eden and what we hope for in heaven.
Still, as I turn around from washing my hands in the toilet area and almost run into a beautifully pregnant woman, I think not for the first time that it would be nice to at least know something about each other if we’re going to be like this–a favorite color, maybe, or the three things we’d take to a desert island.
And the mirrors! Everywhere I look, there are mirrors! The afternoon sun slants unrelenting light through the high windows. Right next to my locker, there’s a huge mirror. I’ve caught a few unwilling glimpses already and almost shuddered at how in this merciless light, every freckle, dimple, wrinkle, and bump is brought into sharpest relief. So as I dig around to find all my clothes, I’m trying to avoid the reflection, dreading what I’ll see.
What are you afraid of? A quiet voice asks.
Finally, I take a moment and turn toward the mirror. It’s just all so big and bright, so in-my-face. My heart sinks a little.
Scars. There are just so many scars. Chicken pox scars long since turned white, acne scars gouging my face, thin raised lines across my knees and a thick one that runs up my left leg almost to the hip. Dark red cherry angiomas dot my abdomen and back, stretch marks spread their webs on my hips, and spider veins hide behind my knees. My abdominal muscles have a certain irreversible lean. I see softness where I wish I saw only firm strength or solid proof of fitness.
Then I remember a day this past summer when our family went to the red carpet premiere of Top Gun Maverick at the Lotte World Tower in Seoul. We saw most of the male stars, but I wished that Jennifer Connelly was there. Everyone was talking about how good Tom Cruise still looks, and having seen him in real life, I can assure you it’s true. But when I saw the movie, I was at least equally impressed by Connelly’s real beauty, that she had actual wrinkles and they made her all the more lovely. Similarly, when I saw a recent interview with Kate Winslet, I noticed the lines on her face and how they did absolutely nothing to detract from her beauty—how if anything, they added to it.
Here in this unrelenting light, I hear the whispered stories of all these marks and imperfections. Despite how it ravaged my skin, my bout of chicken pox, is a mostly happy memory because my friends and I all got it at the same time, and we spent the week playing and scratching together. The acne scars tell more painful tales of when I prayed desperately it people would look further than skin deep. That long scar up the side of my leg reminds me of the hike to a remote beach on the Malaysian island of Penang, of seventh grade and the boarding school I attended there. Cherry angiomas, a dermatologist once told me, are especially common in women of Scotch-Irish descent. This isn’t a story that ever played a prominent role in my life but is nevertheless still part of who I am. These abdominal muscles, stretch marks, and veins tell of carrying five beautiful babies, two that were notably “large for gestational age.”
The people I’ve always found most beautiful weren’t the perfect ones. They were, and still are, the ones that are interesting, that have obviously felt all the emotions–even the hard ones that feel like they’re breaking us–and thus, as the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit says, “become real.” I think of our old suitcases, of their scratches, dents, and stickers, and turn away from the mirror.
But not before I say to the reflection, “You’ve done a good job.”
So here’s to those old, beat-up suitcases. May they stand as reminders of the bodies that carry our souls so far, through the treacherous terrain of Barbie doll expectations, filters and fillers, scalpels and knives, and touched-up “realities.” May they always remind us that stories matter more than labels. May perspective gained from miles traveled become far more valuable than perfection.
This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series "Cheers!”
After reading this, I appreciate the closet that holds those suitcases and decorations and hands-me-downs more, as well.
I love this so so much. I was almost reading it like a prayer towards the end. I just want to give my hearty AMEN. Stories>labels 💛