#126 [05.05] (Self) portraits

I got my hair cut today, before Jess left for Europe for six weeks, and as usual, our talk was theory and relationships and community and meaning and self and joy. I had her take my photo when she was done, so I could show Finch, and when I got home, I looked at it, closely.


Technically, the list checked off – hair colour good, glasses still spectacular, sloppy haircut tshirt not as unflattering as it could be. Smile tentative. And, for the first time, I notice, visible lines under my eyes. I’m not so sure those have ever shown up in photos before. Not sure I even had them six months ago.

I noticed them in the mirror in the restroom of the service station when we were driving to Ottawa last week. It was a hard work day, the most tiring of client days, where the group’s anxiety and acting out clattered at us like woodpeckers all day (a big pileated woodpecker, not those little sweet downie ones). And I noticed I was looking lined, and I went back to the car. “Do I look older?” I asked Finch.

Ever the scientist, he scrutinized me. “You look older when you look tired. And longer hair doesn’t really do you any favours. It doesn’t make you look younger.”

It’s a good thing I love him ;-).

But he was right. I do look older, and the longer hair wasn’t helping. I notice the structure of my face gets more French Canadian as I get older, more like some indelible stamp of me, different genes coming out. I was noticing my nose getting more beaky, then noticing the noses of my sisters E and M, and of my youngest niece. Descendants of filles du roi all of us, solid noses tracking us back centuries.

I was contemplating this photo, these lines, how I’ve always flicked away concern about wrinkles as self-hating, as a betrayal of the history and experience that carved them. I was sitting in the coffee shop in the main lobby of the Bell Lightbox the other day, typing away and working, and glanced up as the building filled with Hot Docs go-ers. So many women with stretched out faces, that telltale thin-skinned-around-the-cheekbones look of some kind of intervention. They all the look the same to me, those women, the same kinds of shared traits as any other tribe. Not my tribe, the stretched out ones.

Jess and I were talking about tribes in a sideways way, about belonging. About her search for peers, for seeing herself reflected. I have the same quest, seeing myself reflected in so many different places, but always parts of me.

Half the time, Finch leaves the bathroom in the morning with shaving cream or toothpaste on his face. He doesn’t even see it. I see him more fully in some ways than he sees himself, chide at him to wash it off. Thinking of this, I wonder which parts of me I see clearly, which parts I don’t notice.

I didn’t take this photo of myself — I handed the camera to Jess to capture the haircut for Finch — but somehow, it felt more like a self-portrait than any other shot of me this year. And that reminded me of my favourite piece of art, also a self-portrait.

The Jane referenced here is not a person, but Jane station, a stop on the Bloor Danforth subway line. This image was painted by a woman called Ilene Sova, and it’s from a series of women at subway stations she painted. This one is the artist’s self-portrait, and it was the one I was most drawn to.

I bought it when B and I first split up, and I was furnishing my own place for the first time. I went to the art show at Nathan Phillips Square on a blaring hot day, and bought this and two other images that hang in my bedroom. I negotiated to pick the Jane portrait up later, and carried the other two awkwardly home on the subway, along with a ceramic dish that was a gift for friends who’d helped me move, tears leaking as I tried to hold myself together. It’s not too hard to understand why I was so drawn, then, 7 years ago, to someone able to paint herself as clearly as others, craft herself with strong bones and a wide, capable mouth. Look directly at herself as she crafted herself.

I’m a different person than I was then, the lines around my eyes holding stories I’d never imagined when my marriage ended and I was on the subway myself — Uganda and accountability for 52 kids with stories I wouldn’t have wanted to imagine, testing myself in love and lust not always so widely, plunging under the sea with equipment I don’t fully understand and only myself to trust, polar bears and photography and learning something about grief, and a phd. Moves and jobs not got and work more layered and complex than I’d thought possible. Love spread across an ocean. Worry and hope and an entire relearning about what I believe.

The lessons of Jane, of self-portrait, are about looking directly at yourself, knowing when to look squarely and quietly and when it’s like looking straight at the sun, too intense, and when it’s navel-gazing and self-indulgent. Finding that moment of straightforward, direct peace with ourselves looking outward.


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