Saving Face

November 26, 2012 at 11:52 am (Uncategorized)

I recently changed my profile picture on Facebook. After a couple of years of using pictures of beautiful landscapes or of me literally hiding behind my son, Andrew—and one unmemorable attempted arty shot of my foot in a field of wildflowers—I decided it was time to put my face with my name.

The problem was that I didn’t like any of pictures of my current face. Nearly nine years on sometimes staggering doses of prednisone have left me with the bloated “moon face” characteristic of corticosteroid use. All the weight I’ve gained (partly because of the prednisone, partly because I’ve been bedridden too often, and partly because I used food to soothe my anxieties about my strange new life in Chronic Town) hasn’t helped in my quest for definable cheekbones.

But I’m also trying to live the life I have now in the body I have now, and cringing from my own round visage was doing nothing but ramp up my cognitive dissonance. Saying that I accept myself as I am now, and then cringing from any photograph taken after 2004 was beginning to feel hypocritical. Plus, what kind of message was I sending to my soon-to-be nine-year old son? Unless they look like Uma Thurman, women should shun the camera?

So I scrolled through the few dozen photos of me I’ve actually allowed my husband, Jay, to take in nearly a decade. There weren’t many to choose from, but I found one. Before I could think about it too long, I slapped it up on Facebook as my profile picture. And because I am lucky enough to have the kind of friends I have, several people wrote to say how much they liked the picture. Funny what happens when you show your face.

Mine is the face of a woman with a young child, the face of woman who gets chemotherapy every month. Mine is the face of a writer, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a friend. Mine is the face of a woman with sarcoidosis. I don’t want to hide from it any longer. My face shows my strength, my kindness, my life.

I am not giving up my attempts to lose weight, nor my constant effort to chip away at my daily prednisone dose (without setting off a disease flare-up). But how can I move forward if I don’t accept where I am now?

I don’t think I’m the only woman in the world who hides from the real beauty of her own face. I’ve heard of women using decades-old photographs on Internet dating sites. I’ve heard friends say the nastiest things about their own faces. I’ve been in houses where the mother’s presence is like an invisible ghost. Everywhere there are photos of her children and her husband, but not one of her. She has cut herself out of her own life story.

We live in a culture that bombards us with images of young, beautiful, and thin faces. Flip through any women-oriented magazine and you’ll get saturated with ads that promise to take away your wrinkles, your fat, your dark circles.

I still sometimes pass a mirror and come to a lurching stop. Who is that strange woman in the mirror? Certainly not the person I expect to see. But instead of scurrying off, with my head bowed, I am stopping and taking a long look at the face looking back at me.

I don’t want to participate anymore in erasing my face from the universe. I am here now.

What does your face show? How do you feel about pictures of you?

Permalink 4 Comments

Dead Heading

November 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm (Uncategorized)

We raked up the rest of the leaves this weekend. We ended up with seven huge garbage bags of golden, russet, and red leaves. The trees are down to their bare branches now. We also shuffled out to the trash the skeletons of my tomato and pepper plants. The soil left in the pots is desiccated. And today, I finally began to deal with the remnants of my first ever flowers—two giant planters of marigold and dianthus, which I chose with my mother because they were deer resistant and promised to be hardy.

When I bought the two dozen small cartons of flowers, I quizzed the nursery owner about how to take care of them. As a novice gardener, I was anxious to do everything I could to keep these pink and orange plants alive and well.

“I usually kill plants,” I told him. “But I’m trying to do better. Last year I kept a bunch of tomato plants alive, so now I want to grow something beautiful. But I don’t know how to do flowers.”

“Doing flowers isn’t too hard,” the weathered man told me, with a smile just on the other side of sly. “Providing you water them, give them access to sunshine, and deadhead them.”

“Deadhead them?” I asked, feeling instantly overwhelmed. I conjured the image of some complex and toxic fertilizer, branded Deadhead (maybe it would have a nice, humanistic tie-dyed label). I would need some serious gloves and protective eyewear and, and and …and maybe I wasn’t quite ready for flowers.

“It means you pull of the blossoms when they’re dead, young lady,” he said.

The “young lady” bone he’d tossed me on a day when I was feeling every one of my forty years helped me get over feeling stupid.

“Oh,” I said. “And how do I know when the blossoms are dead?”

“You’ll know,” he said. “And if you’re careful to deadhead them regularly, they’ll blossom for you until the snow flies.”

Back home, I followed his directions and planted the dianthus close to one another, around the perimeter of the half barrel. I clustered the marigolds in a tight ball in the center. Since marigolds stink, both to humans and to deer, they should keep our neighborhood herd (of deer) clear of my flowers. The deadheading lesson went to the back of my brain. I didn’t remember it until a few days later, when quite a few of the once-perky pink dianthus sagged, dried up, and looked like miniature dried corn silk. The flower man was right – I did know. I tentatively plucked off a defunct blossom. Then another, and another.

“What are you doing?” Jay asked me later in the week, when he found me hunched over the plants, furiously picking off dead blossoms.

“I’m dead heading,” I said.

“Oh,” Jay said, and snuck in the front door behind me. He claims to still be traumatized by forced childhood weeding. Any time I do anything with a plant, Jay makes himself scarce, in case I decide it’s time to weed ourselves into a frenzy.

Contrary to my early doubts, I loved deadheading. I couldn’t walk by the planter without plucking off the shriveled blossoms. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. The activity tapped into the same OCD behavior I display when I start cleaning a shower, or sorting through the papers on my desk, or scouring the stove. But with deadheading, I was laboring in the service of beauty. And it really worked.

A handful of dead blossoms

If I consistently cleaned away the used-up blossoms, the plants kept flowering. When we went away on short vacations and the plants were left untended, I’d come home to find fewer new blossoms—and an hour’s worth of curiously satisfying deadheading to get them back on track.

One summer evening, when dusk was first slipping into the sky, I had a moment of clarity. I glanced down at my handful of dead blossoms, and then at the new blossoms that were nearly bursting into bloom. And it hit me. We are not so different from flowering plants. We need to clear away the used-up bits of our lives before we can allow new growth. If we hang onto dead blossoms—in our souls, in our hearts, in our minds—we make it impossible for new ideas, new inspirations, new loves to find us. To put it another way, we have to close a door for another to open, or shed old skins to weave new ones.

All through my years in Chronic Town, I’ve been holding on—desperately—to the “old” me—the woman I was before I became ill. I know why I was holding onto her. I didn’t want to let her go. I wasn’t ready. For years I told myself that if I just kept a firm enough grip on her, I could slide back into that old life when I was well again. I could pick up where I left off. But it doesn’t work that way. I don’t have the same body, soul, mind, or life anymore. Those expectations, past dreams, lost visions have become dead weight. They’ve prevented me from moving on, and moving into the new person I am becoming every day. It’s time to let the new blossoms flower.

Have you ever gone through a process of internal deadheading? Was new growth more possible after you cleared away the old stuff? Or am I wrong? Is it important to keep our old dreams alive too?

New Growth

Permalink 3 Comments