The map

by Jennifer on March 5, 2009

I sit in my office, at the  east-facing window, tweezers in one hand and a mirror in the other. The perfect light for some overdue eyebrow maintenance. Bright, natural light.

Forgiving, it isn’t.  (And talk about hairs apparent.)

After a few busy and painful moments, I finish. And then.

As I lean back from the mirror, I see what I missed with just an eyebrow at a time filling the mirror. The face reflected back at me looks tired and pale and…well, not young. (Don’t make me say it.)

In other rooms, where the light goes easier on me, I can look younger by a year or two, or even five if it’s late enough in the day and the sun not so bright. Or so I tell myself.

But in the light from this window at this hour, there’s not a single day shaved off my timeline. Every line, every shadow smudged there by the harder years – this last one among them – raises its voice. Here. Present, accounted for. You didn’t really think we wouldn’t show up, did you?

Well, I did hope.

And if one thing shows up, well, then you have to allow for every other damn thing, too. A faint but stubborn crease to the left of my nose from sleeping on one side of my face more than the other. A sun spot on the same cheek. Parentheses between my brows from giving stern looks to my children for lo, these many years. From stress, worry, disappointment.  Lines  that fan out from the corners of my eyes. All, things I’m not sure I’d miss if they disappeared.

But, this: If the tough parts of life take a stand around the eyes, how do you separate the worry lines from laugh lines? Part and parcel, I’m inclined to believe.

If that one hard year (or more) when you cried (more than you thought you ever could) can stake its claim at the corners of your eyes and in that spot between your brows, then shouldn’t all that was good get some credit as well?

Like the first time you saw for yourself the color of aspen leaves in the fall, when you squinted against the bright sun before it dropped low behind the mountains. Long days on the beach, when the sun was so bright that sunglasses and a hat (if you wore one) couldn’t keep out all the sun. First kisses, even the ones you can’t remember now, that left you smiling for days after. That full moon in Montana that lit up your brand new world. Laughing at your kids’ jokes when they’re funny and even when they’re not.

I’m not the first to compare a person’s face to a map, but today I couldn’t help thinking about an old Rand McNally Atlas that I’ve kept for years. Its pages are stained with coffee and scribbled over with yellow highlighter lines and red pen marks. I bought it when I lived in Connecticut, and used it for years as I drove all over the East Coast, back to the Midwest, and west to Montana. Around the edges, it’s as rough as rough gets. And that atlas is one of my favorite possessions. Every now and then, I worry (more lines) that I’ve lost it, and then it will turn up again.

It’s as true a journal of those years as anything I might have written in a notebook.

A detailed map shows the lines for all the roads, whether they’re sleek, well-maintained highways without bumps or ruts, or dirt roads with sections of washboard, or county roads with careless asphalt patches over potholes.

But if all of those roads lead somewhere new, they also lead back, sometimes very far, to other places. If  all the rough roads were closed to me, I think how much I would have missed. And if I’d only ever taken the smooth, easy ones? I’d be a little less road weary, maybe, but not me at all. I don’t think I’d like that girl as much. And if I have a few traces on my face to show for it? I’m not sure I mind.

And so, life. Impossible to separate what is from what might have been. No way to know if, had we lived a different life than this one – the one that gave us our laugh lines or our honest-to-god wrinkles –  whether we would have ended up with fewer lines to show for it or if we would have gotten quite lost.

Or, yes, found. There’s always that chance, too.

Unknowable things. None of which stop me from a close look in the mirror, or a gentle tug to see how this face might look if the lines were gone.

Or from looking backward down a quiet road, and wondering.

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