Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Face We've Earned

For most of my childhood, and a good part of my teen years, I drew faces.  Often, they were illustrations to whatever story I was telling myself, silently, at the time. I would see interesting ones in magazines, in stores. Beautiful ones, mostly. Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor. Handsome men, too, although my taste there tilted more to the rugged type. I would do my best to copy them.

I wasn’t very good, and after a time I switched to photography. Eventually, I set that aside to concentrate on writing, where the evocation of a face is less important than giving life to a character, from the inside out.
What remains, however, is my interest. Not in the beauty of a face. There are increasingly fewer beautiful faces around. But in the character of the expression. And often in what the expression reveals about the person wearing it.

There is some truth to the belief that, after fifty, we have the face we’ve earned. We have the mark of our smiles and frowns, of our default mode, at least. Does the quality of a character shine there, as well?
I do think that as one gets older, one becomes more adept at interpreting the total effect of a face, as it relates to character. Kindness, warmth, self-involvement, arrogance—all of these are visible on the face of the people possessing them.

Unless we interfere, which happens more and more in recent years.
A few of my friends have cuter noses now than they did at the beginning. Firmer chins, smoother necks, fewer wrinkles, as well. Once, at a Christmas party, I recognized a friend only by the sound of her voice. Disconcerting, and a little sad, because she was already very pretty. 

I have resisted the facelift trend, because I’ve found a kind of comfort in seeing, from different angles, my mother’s or my father’s face looking back. The visual connection, there, as I approach the age they were when I saw them last makes me happy. It helps me feel that they are still somehow with me, as I face rather fearful old age.

Our faces are so connected to our identity. I’ve wondered how a person could look in the mirror after a facelift and know that the stranger looking back is actually themselves. Doesn’t this promote a hint of dissociation? A wobble of uncertainty?

I think it would for me, and that is another reason I don’t find the idea of facelifts very appealing.

Injury and illness can combine to cause this dislocation, however. A woman I know--cultured, brilliant, at one time involved in films—suffered a severed facial nerve in a surgery, causing paralysis. What a devastation. A man I know well has lived his life with a rare bone disorder that alters one side of his face. Some people with that disorder die young, because the bone grows inward. He has been far more fortunate, but that doesn’t make him like mirrors.

The writer Jennifer Egan once wrote a novel, “Look at Me,” about a model whose face was ruined in a car wreck, then pieced back together, occasioning much intricate exploration of the emotions attached.

We ask a lot of our faces, the heart of the image we present, our armor, our vulnerability, the part of ourselves we arrange so much of our physical appearance—hairstyle, clothing, hats—to highlight or compensate for. It is such a small percentage of the human body, but the most visible, carrying the most significance, communicating when we do not even intend communication.
If we could see ourselves as others see us...Robbie Burns had that right. But, even in the age of selfies and videos, we cannot.

First published in the Fayette County Record, Nov. 30, 2018

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