Seeing Sparkle As a professor confronts retirement, she looks back over several beautiful choices she’s made, and several lives she’s lived.



I’m not given to piercings—30 years had passed since my last. But there I was, at Black Lotus Tattoos, to have Kitty punch a hole in my right nostril and leave a little sparkly thing there.

One of my students had set up the visit, and now we waited together on a black leather couch. I had wanted to do this for years, but it took Rachel—in her early 20s with a newly pierced septum—to get me through the door. I was nervous. I was unsure. But whenever I leave my comfort zone intentionally, I turn on my Hell-Yes Cowgirl—the part of me that strides on through to the other side.

In the lobby, a young woman just out of high school asked for a tiny ankle tattoo. Another was celebrating her birthday with new ink. And a polite young man’s request to have his nipples pierced made me sneak a closer look at his round baby face. On this summer afternoon, we’d all come here wanting to decorate our bodies, satisfying needs we might not even understand.

My need? Probably it had to do with age and my looming retirement. Maybe I wanted to feel spunky again. Adventurous. That gutsy “Cowgirl” twin of mine had once set out to see the country in a Chevy van, later abandoned a high-paying East Coast job for the wilds of Montana and, in her 40s, married a much younger man. But maybe I just liked the idea of a twinkle on the side of my nose.

I’d felt bold before I came—I wanted a nose piercing at 66, big deal. But Baby Face, who wanted his nipples punctured? He made me feel like a pretender.

During the wait, I tried not to gawk at the rich display of tattoo art on the walls and the bodies of the employees. Skulls, flowers, snakes and owls. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, unicorns and curlicues—all in exuberant, popping colors. Kitty, the friendly piercer at Black Lotus, was abundantly decorated. At her throat, swirls surrounded a raven’s skull and climbed her neck. A snowman with a Friday the 13th mask waved from her right forearm. Silver balls dotted her lips and eyebrows. Both nostrils were pierced, as was her septum. On her right cheekbone, a blue stud sparkled beneath a teardrop tattoo. She had big plans for more. Her body, she said cheerfully, was an ongoing art project.

My grandmother had her ears pierced as a girl in the Netherlands. In a picture of her at 19 (closer to Kitty’s age than mine), her collar is fastened primly at her neck—no tattoos to show off. But a three-tiered trinket dangles from her left ear. By the time I knew her, she was in her late 70s and her lobes hung low from a lifetime of ear jewelry. Her pierced ears weren’t glamorous: They seemed a drab holdover from the Old Country, unfashionable in the way grandma things are unfashionable.

In high school, I had a friend who had come from Hungary as a child with her ears already pierced. In our junior year, Liz began wearing gold studs—the only student who did. How radical, I thought. How exotic! Pierced ears no longer seemed old-fashioned. Now it was the modern thing to do.

Along with my sister, I lobbied my parents. A few weeks later, we crowded around the kitchen table while my father, a doctor, numbed our lobes with ice cubes. A hypodermic syringe did the job. I remember blood and some fumbling for the right placement (my sister required two holes in one lobe). Then followed a needle and thread. We wore sewing thread in our ears until they healed. My first real earrings were a $5 pair of gold studs, which seemed a fortune.

I walked the halls at school feeling avant-garde, bohemian. It astonishes me now, in the days of permanent ink and tongue studs, that a small ear ornament could seem so audacious. But it wasn’t the bit of gold that made us bold; it was that we dared to be first. The other girls whispered about us.

And then, suddenly, they didn’t. It was 1964 and teenage girls all over America discovered pierced ears. Within three months Liz and I were mainstream. Cheap trinkets flooded the market: tiny daisies, butterflies or ladybugs that made pierced ears cute instead of edgy.

Fast-forward 10 years. By now my girlfriends and I wore danglers and hoops, moving on from cute to the Rita Coolidge look—R.C., the ’70s singer whose oversize turquoise pendants and silver earrings announced themselves. After that came the double-piercing era. I tried that, but the new hole in my left ear was so badly placed that I let it grow back. In the extra right ear hole, I still wear one of those first $5 gold studs. My husband wore the other after piercing his left ear, but lost it a long time ago.

One day, a student appeared in class with a dainty pink gem riding on her left nostril. Chelsi was the definition of moxie: confident, smart, determined. The piercing was low-key, didn’t demand attention and it was just plain pretty. I wanted one. But my cowgirl self was hiding and I lost my nerve, believing my students weren’t ready to see their professor with a pierced nose.

Now, years later, another student walked me into the Black Lotus. Change was coming and I felt ready for a go at something new. Not retirement, but a reboot.

I tilted my head back while Kitty marked possible targets on my right nostril and told me what to expect. She snapped on latex gloves, swabbed my nose with cleanser, and slid a hollow stainless tube into my nose. “Take a deep breath,” she said. In. Out. She plunged a needle through cartilage into the tube. A quick sting, a rip, and it was over. The traumatized tissue would take at least a month to heal, Kitty warned me as she dabbed the blood. Then she handed me a mirror.

My nose winked at me. I saw the high school girl I was. I saw my cowgirl striding on ahead. I saw the woman I want to keep becoming. Like Kitty: big plans, ongoing.

As Rachel and I left, the young woman with the new ankle tattoo was on her way out the door. Baby Face still waited. Kitty told him she’d check on nipple jewelry—but if he wanted barbells, she’d have to order them.

For the next month, I couldn’t stop fiddling with my new jewelry. The pretty sparkle was attached to an annoying, ill-fitting screw, and it was embarrassing to look like I was picking my nose. Finally, the thing just popped out and wouldn’t go back in. I was out of state, so I went to a local piercing parlor for help.

Too late. Two days, and the cartilage was already closed. “Wait a month,” the attendant said, and have it redone.

But a month passed. Then another. Fall came, and spring, along with retirement parties on the deck of a dockside bar. By then, marking change with a pierced nose seemed unnecessary. I was living the change, and what mattered now was how to navigate its uncertainties: Should I take piano lessons again? Finish writing that book? Explore new lands? Was there any road map for this?

Another summer came and went. This fall, I traveled to Michigan for my high school reunion. Most of the women had pierced ears; some men, too. An old friend approached, and I spotted the glimmer in her left nostril just before we reached out to hug.

Oh yes, I thought. I want that, too. Not the marker anymore. But I do still want that sparkly thing.

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