Skinstory- a Homecoming by Ella deCastro Baron
“Skin has three layers: The epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone. The dermis, beneath the epidermis, contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands. The deeper subcutaneous tissue (hypodermis) is made of fat and connective tissue.” (WebMD)
Epidermis. This layer is a shivering, goose-pimpled skinny brown hand, waving others away from eye contact. I am a child whose parents came from the Philippines—an archipelago flooded with millions of rootless, mixed blood Pacific Islanders, known by some as people of “bastard identity.” In my bloodlines is the question of, “where is home?” The question pigments my skin. My writing is, at the core, a magnetized compass, trying to orient True North, to point at the ‘right shade’ of brown. Filipina-American. What currency is that here in the “land of milk and honey”? As many “hyphenated Americans” understand, I don’t know how to feel settled in my skin. Being a brown, “exotic” girl in our exiled second home, America, I hardly felt welcomed.
Dermis. In my twenties, an inherited skin affliction began to eat me alive—yes, of hearth and ‘home’. These bleeding, itching, infected rashes forced me to change everything I knew to find healing. I had to subvert and reinvent everything that I adopted as markers of safety and home; what I ate, where I lived, my job, my friends were all sacrificed to survive. I became vegan, left my jobs and school, moved to coastal cities with fresh trade winds and salt water. A girl in an invisible bubble.
The gift of chronic illness? The plate is wiped clean. I can choose to put back only what works for my health and wholeness. Home became a welcomed simplicity. Barefoot in the sand, deep breaths marked by long walks, and when my skin could take it, dips in the sea to get its healing power.
Years of healing, protected by salt water, second skin.
In time, a new layer grew. Not thicker but more resilient in the way of scars: I could bear witness through writing. Finding meaning, usefulness (beauty maybe, or something close to it) at the extremes of sickness and as-yet-resolved identity, buoyed me. A memoir, Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment, a crosshatch of imperfect revelations scratched and tattooed on pages. From one skin to another.
More years later, another chronic onslaught, like second degree burns on 90% of my itchy, brown self. I hit another wall. My body became ineligible to take the long walks at the beach. The movement and water seared lightning through me. I could not even raise my arms or turn my neck without the fire. Was this another forced diaspora?
The body remembers. My husband—proxy for my broken one—remembered how to find Home.
He exhorted, "find a way to move your body—to circulate oxygen—so your skin could heal." We knew the body could heal the skin if it could breathe, turn the cells over, calm them. I googled “hula dance San Diego” and found Makani Kai Polynesian Dance Troupe, the halau (school) that coaxed me back to myself again. Something about the music and movements captivated me; I still wept, tormented, but my body wanted to dance more and was willing to keep moving. Hula, I found out, is story. Words failed, so I began to tell stories with my hands, arms, swaying hips and bare feet.
Hypodermis. This layer strikes, then separates bone from marrow. In my mom’s emigration, her baggage carried one legacy, her Christian faith. This discipline exposed me to Jesus. I have little faith in human systems—especially now, I’m holding my breath or spitting, arm’s reach away, from American Christianity (the colonizer’s taste in the back of my throat). Being sick catapulted me to the Bottom, open-handed, completely defeated. I met the genuine character of what I had learned to resent in religion. Yahweh means, “I will be what you need me to be when you need me to be it.” Home means being known—cell by cell—intimate and vulnerable, where everything I require to be safe and whole is offered. My faith community became the sanctuary. They tended these most profound wounds. If God is Love, and God lives in people, then Love is available to me. As cliché as it is, “Home is where the heart is” was a welcome mat.
Our pastor asked how I see myself with God. It becomes my prayer. In a dream, I am at the ocean, not yet wet. I am parched. So thirsty. But I'm used to this dryness. I hold out a tea cup ask with a meek nod, a gesture, May I fill it? Take a drink? Do you mind? My skinny brown hand, shivering, timid. God’s response: You have a tea cup. It’s too small. Who told you that’s all you’re allowed? You don’t need any container. Dive in. All of this is for you. Do you want it?
Do you want it? Tell your story. Dance the story. Walk it bare. Dive in.