Skin: our thin animal hide. An organ on the outside. Our blood running in blue rivers just below the surface. How vulnerable we are. We blister, burn, cut and heal, stretch and scar. From excess of elbow, to thin skin of forearm, to the relative roughness of the palm—note how this word echoes in the trees—to the eddying swirl of thumbprint. Eyelids, slack and practically translucent, the drapes that hide the windows to our soul. (A friend once told me about a guy he knew, whose laser eye surgery went south—he blinked, the machine lasered his eyelid—and the docs took a graft from his penis foreskin, apparently the eyelid’s closest epidermal relative. In horror, we jest, and the joke wrote itself: “So he’s been a little cock-eyed ever since?”) Plump butts, scarred kneecaps, and all the way down to the roughest, toughest of us, our thickest skin: the sole.

How these varied terrains recall the animal kingdom: elephants, chickens, chimpanzees, snakes shedding skins in the grass. We shed ours, too, though less like snakes, more like stones eroding over time, leaving invisible selves and cells behind.

*

In 1969, Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust/we are golden/and we’ve got to get back to ourselves/back to the garden.”

She was writing for the times, for Woodstock, but scientists later proved her right. Karel and Iris Schrijver—Stanford astrophysicist and molecular pathologist and husband-and-wife team, respectively—detail the connections between the human body and the solar system, proving that we are walking repositories for galaxy, moondust, magnetic fields, dead stars, solar winds—all of us caught in a candescent web that stretches across the universe, linking us to one other and every living, dying thing, past, present, and future.

“Every year of our lives,” they write, “we purge and regenerate a cell mass that is about as large as our body weight, involving millions of cells each second.”

A cell mass as large as our body weight. Every year. Within us—without us—a brilliant equilibrium, the death of cells in balance with the creation of new ones. Every day, we grow new skins. Thicker ones, maybe. Cosmic ones. Because that regeneration is, among other things, made of stardust. Our bodies: celestial.

*

Recently I read an article about the first person ever to receive a face and hands transplant, a twenty-two-year-old from New Jersey whose old body was scarred beyond recognition in a blazing car accident. His new face was a gift from a dying man (organ donors of the world: Earth angels who walk among us in the afterlife). The surgery took twenty-three hours and eighty people, six surgical teams. They reassembled this kid from the bones up, laced muscle with tendon, nerves, blood vessels, veins. With careful hands, they attached his new hands. I imagine them draping the dead man’s old face—the boy’s new face—over the bridge of his nose, the raw red meat of his cheeks, like a mother would drape a blanket over a child. Imagine grafting the subcutaneous tissues of his forehead, chin, jaws—every inch carefully, lovingly tended to. Imagine this feeling, the lick of new lips. The refreshment of eyelids, of blink and shut-eye, and seeing stars behind them.

*

I have always thought of red as the primary color of a dying star, gas flaming out like a fireball. But in 2018, the Hubble Telescope captured an image—NGC 6369—that revealed a more complex picture. NASA and the European Space Agency, scientists schooled in linguistic restraint, called it “a cosmic ghost,” an “apparition,” a star’s “glowing remains.” In the photograph, the dying star looks like a diamond inside a dark pupil, ringed by a wide band of teal flecked with violet and gold.

The dead star looks like a universal, all-seeing eye.

*

“Nature,” Karl and Iris Schrijver write, “is not just out there to be looked at or exploited by us as unattached bystanders, but is inextricably linked to our very well-being and survival.”

I will never get tired of hearing this. The sun has a magnetic heartbeat. We are inextricably linked. We are stardust, Joni Mitchell’s voice rocketing from twinkling falsetto to resonant lower register, across keys and octaves, trying with all her vocal muscle to convince us, to wake us from the dream.
___

Anna Vodicka’s essays have appeared in Best of Brevity, AFAR, Electric Literature, Guernica, Harvard Review, McSweeney’s Internet TendencyMs., Best Women’s Travel Writing, and elsewhere. She teaches generative writing workshops in Seattle and online. Find more at www.annavodicka.com, or on Twitter @AnnaVodicka.

Photo by Amy Selwyn