Here's Lookin' at You, Kid

I don’t have writer’s block. I have writer’s fright. Nothing is permitted. Everything is true. I tell myself that I cannot lie in my writing. Is this what I’m afraid of? Why should it be any less easy to lie to myself than it is to you. To lie to you. This is my canceled confession.

I have rarely enjoyed looking at myself in a mirror but I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I don’t mean that figuratively. I recently shed my beard, my goatee, my goat song, my pretense. This is what I see.

I say that I don’t like my chin. I say that it’s weak. I say that I look like my father, that I don’t want to look like my father, but that I do. Am I lying when I say these things, and if so, to whom?

I have a sad face. My mouth lines turn down at the edges. I had the blues so bad one time it put my face in a permanent frown. Smile! they say. I am, I reply. I do look like him.

I once told Tom’s partner, Josh, that I wished my head was less round, more lean, like Tom's. He laughed. Tom says the opposite, he said.

I am bald. Losing my hair wasn’t a loss of virility. It was a loss of my beauty. I started to write that it was the only thing above my neck that I enjoyed looking at, but then realized that isn’t true. I also like my hazel eyes. I like that they’re hazel, a kind of green. As a kid, everyone else has some variation of blue or brown, so mine being green (ish) meant I was different. I liked that. I still do. I like my lips. I can’t say why, but I do. I like the shapes of the upper and lower. I like the shape of my bald head. It’s round like a dome.

You may have concluded that the loss of my beauty is why I am discomforted looking at my face in a mirror, but it is not. But oh, that hair. I remember girls wanting to brush it in high school. I remember twirling my banana curls around my finger. I remember how much fun it was to twist it, and pull it, and tie into different styles. My favorite style was a French braid, a variation of which I wore during my wedding.

It’s not my acne scars, no. Admittedly, I’d like for the worst of them to be gone, but I don’t despair over them. My ears are fine, if a bit uneven. My nose is not too big, not too little, not too red.

When I first started dropping acid, I was warned not to look at my face in a mirror. I thought, why on earth would I do that?

Shaving off my goatee a few weeks ago was only the second time I’ve done so in more than twenty years. The last time was for a purpose. I had an idea for a series of photos that required the absence of facial hair.

four small black and white photos of the author with varied facial expressions

As soon as these photos were taken I grew my goatee back. I don’t like looking at my face in a mirror, but I enjoy looking at these photos. I don’t like the sound of my voice when listening to a recording of it, but I savor it when speaking. In that way, my aversion to mirrors is opposite. I suppose my goatee is a prop, a disguise, a ruse, a statement.

I touch my goatee frequently. The tips of my fingers find the seduction of its curls to be comforting. There’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. I use my thumb and index finger to explore the curls and the whorls, seeking just the right level of springiness to dwell on, to caress. I mostly do this without conscious awareness or intent. I find myself doing it. During a playwriting workshop many years ago, I noticed the instructor doing this on a curl above his right eye and recognized myself.

I’m not naturally bald. I shave my head. But I only do it because of what my hair has become. There’s very little left at the top, and what comes is patchy and thin. There’s enough growth on the sides and the back that I could grow a tonsure.

A tonsure is what you probably know as a friar’s or monk’s haircut. I’m in Ireland as I write this and I had no idea when I sat down that I would make this connection between my (lack of) hair and my genetic roots or heritage. My mother was a MacNamara, all of whom are descended from a single guy who lived about thousand years ago very close to where I sit now. (I mentioned this Wikipedia fact to a local who was doubtful of its veracity.) She raised me as a Roman Catholic until my father gave me permission to quit the church when I was in third grade. I did so by ceremoniously dropping my catechism books into the trash bin as soon as I arrived at school. He told me that I was free while I was waiting for the school bus, but I waited until I had an audience before I tossed those books.

The tonsure was adopted by Celtic Roman Catholic priests. Some people attribute its origin to them, but it probably goes back a lot further. A lot of assumptions have been made about the tonsure’s purpose, but I’m inclined to take the Occam way of finding a simple explanation. I would look like a silly little rooster if I grew my hair out, but if I wanted to do so while minimizing that resemblance, I might shave it off the top and grow it where it grows best. But I don’t want to look like an ex-hippy dude who's grown a ponytail to distract from his baldness, so bald I shall be for the duration.

William of Ockham was an English Roman Catholic philosopher, aka an English Bastard, and he didn’t exactly say, “the simplest explanation is the best explanation,” but he said something close to it often enough to get the credit.

I turned sixty-four a few weeks ago, and while I lost much of my hair years ago, I am dismayed to have discovered the blight has spread to my chin. Yes, I now have a bald spot in my beard, and a growing one. So, fuck it, I said, and shaved it off. Hence began a lot of studying my face in a mirror. Can I learn to live with it completely exposed? My face? My chin? My father? My self? It is the only face I’ve got, so I might as well get used to it.

During the final session of my first Weekend of Recovery, which was an exercise called Shame Busting, I rediscovered in myself an ability to play. I mean that in the sense of the unbridled and joyful play of a child. Out of respect for my fellow Shame Busting playmates, and with a dislike of spoilers, I won’t descibe the workshop itself. But I will tell you I was transported back to a better time. I rediscovered in myself something that had been hiding. Someone who had been hiding.

When the exercise was over, and everyone was preparing to leave and say their good-byes, a counselor found me sitting alone, snot-nosed and balling. I was crying like I had never cried before. They asked me if I was OK, if I needed anything. In between sobs, I said that I was afraid. Afraid of what? they asked. Of losing again what I had just found.

One day while I was twirling the curls on my chin, I pondered why it was such an irresistable pull. I remembered the twisting of the banana curls around my index finger. I remembered something else from a long time ago. I remembered lying in my bed, one hand under myself, keeping warm. I remembered the other hand in front of my face. I remembered my thumb in my mouth. And my fingers stroking the soft sheet, seeking, and finding, the soft, supple, smooth, silky folds of that sheet. And caressing them. Taking comfort in them. I imagine that’s how some children felt in the embracing arms of their mother or father. Warm skin against warm skin. Comfort. Safety.

This is what my writer’s fright is. This is why it’s so hard to start again, every time. Because it’s me, sixty-four year old Eric sitting down to write. But it’s him waiting to be found. It's me looking in the mirror, but it's him looking back. I can’t tell whether it’s hime hiding from me, me hiding from him, or me hiding him under a bushel. But I lost him once. And I’m terrified I’ll lose him again.

We had a guided walking tour of Galway yesterday. Our guide was Brian Nolan and he told us fascinating stories about Galway, Ireland, and its people. More than that, he talked about Galway’s place in history and the world. Every time we stopped at a local attraction, he’d tell another story that brought the light of Ireland onto a global stage and culture. With every new story he told about Ireland, the story of the world made a little more sense. After our tour, Brian mentioned that he’d be telling stories that might in a pub in Salt Hill. Because he’s not really a tour guide, you know. He’s a story teller.

Sometimes I feel like I’m telling the same story over and over again. I don’t do it because I’m a writer. I do it because it’s an urge, a drive, a compulsion. I don’t even do it because of anything I want to say. I do it because it’s who I am. And I’m trying to hold on.

I still practice and teach Bikram Yoga. If you don't know, in Bikram Yoga we practice in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. A friend, who happens to teach Naked Yoga, once was quoted in an online article saying, "real yogis don't practice in front of a mirror," to which I commented, "real yogis keep their clothes on."

The mirrors in my yoga practice were second only to the heat in terms of causing discomfort and resistance to the practice. But I persevered, because I loved the way I felt after every class. Once during my training, Bikram said something that wasn't in his instructions nor in his book. He said it almost in passing, and apart from myself I've never heard it spoken in a class. Someone asked why we use mirrors. He said, "because I want you to fall in love with yourself."

After studying my reflection for the last several weeks, I'm letting my facial hair grow back, but with a purpose. This time, I'm going to see if I can learn to love my new bald spot.