Friday, June 20, 2008

Self-Portrait: Ecce Homo

Full frontal nudity. Still not quite drawing-room respectable, no? I bring it up because… Well, it’s a story. Suitable for The Buddha Diaries? We'll see.

It started out with a participant at one of our artists’ support group meetings the other night, who was speaking about the need for an artist to take risks, and what she believed to be her own deficiency in that aspect of her work. We talked a bit around what might constitute a risk, and I eventually offered her this challenge: to do a nude self-portrait, full-length, full-frontal. Well of course she turned it right back on me, and in so doing brought me face to face with all the ego investment I have in “looking good” in the eyes of others, along with the memory of all the fears I nursed, for much of my younger life, about being seen naked and exposed to the scrutiny of the world, and the attachment I have to this physical body I inhabit.

Well, I can’t draw for toffee—and more’s the pity, since I tell myself that it might be the easier way to make a true self-portrait of this kind. And a photograph would be a risk too far! But I can write. So here we go: unable to resist the challenge, I stood naked in front of a full-length mirror for a good half-hour this morning, examining what I saw before me and taking notes, which I will here transcribe—and perhaps elaborate as we go. It’s a risk. But it will also be a good Buddhist exercise, if I manage to use the process to free myself further from attachment by keeping in mind that what I see will continue to age, quite possibly sicken, and most certainly die. This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am.

So bear with me. Or should that be “bare” with me…? If you dare.

To start at the bottom and work up: toes, nicely formed and evenly spaced. Today, as is often not the case, the nails are reasonably trimmed. Nice feet, I think. Just a slight tendency for the right one to turn in, nothing serious. I note that the veins stand out a little more than they used to these days. Ankles narrow but not delicate, well-shaped, not too knobby. The muscles of the calves are better defined than most others elsewhere in the body. Same goes for the thighs, where the quads are nicely rounded, firm. Knees, again, not too knobby, though there’s some wrinkling of the skin just above the kneecaps, a sure sign of age. All in all, though, examining them now, I still consider the legs to be one of my better physical features, and attribute their muscularity to nearly a decade of long-distance running as a teenager, and a good deal of jogging in later life. They are not hairy-hairy, but boast a comfortable fuzz, masculine, in my judgment, without regression to the ape.

(Note the value judgments: what I like, and what I don't. This is where the attachment shows itself! This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am...)

Now, ahem, the genitals. If you’ll excuse me. I did say this was a risk, and it is supposed to be a nude portrait. But this is the hard part. We all know that these critters shape-shift according to the circumstance, from teeny-tiny, shrunken after that cold dip in the ocean to, well, the nobler and infinitely more impressive look under arousal. Here, in the mirror, this morning, let’s use the word “modest.” That feels honest. Circumcised. I’m not sure why. I never asked my parents while they were still alive. It did not, frankly, seem like a topic for family discussion. The attack on the foreskin may simply have been in fashion in the year that I was born. I don’t object. I feel comfortable with the appearance. I note that the testicle on the right (let’s be clinical here) hangs slightly lower than the left. The groin hair is abundant enough, without being thick. As with the legs, I am not, like Esau, “an hairy man,” but neither is the hair unduly sparse. Kind of a middle path. (This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am...)

The pelvic area recedes concavely, these days, from the lower belly—undoubtedly because the latter has expanded in the opposite direction. The lower part forms a kind of boomerang shape, its top right corner punctuated by a mole. The lower belly itself—and I blame my mother for this, she had it, too, as she grew older—has grown big and, not to put too fine a point on it, a wee bit flabby: the conventional “spare tire,” which comprises those “love handles” around the waist. There’s another mole, I see, on the left side, where the lower belly rises to meet, yes, the slightly more protruding mound of the upper. It’s what’s called indelicately a pot. I’m not proud of it. I carry my weight there, and I cannot blame anyone for the excess weight I carry except myself. It reaches from the sternum to the navel (oh, an innie, by the way, since we’re baring all,) ballooning out, if I relax the muscles, and dwarfing everything below. Not an elegant sight, in my own judgment. It also has a diagonal, almost foot-long scar extending downward from the center to right side, where surgeons opened me up and removed a couple of polyps from the duodenum and, for good measure, while they were at it, without asking permission from their anesthetized victim, the gall bladder too. Ah, well.

We proceed northward to the area of the chest. If I raise my arms above my head, the contour of the rib-cage shows. Otherwise, forget it. The pecs are in fact quite muscular, and can be made, with express tension and intention, to look pretty “manly,” in the Schwarzenegger sense. Relaxed… well, less impressive. Small, tight brown nipples, surrounded by slightly thicker hairs than those that fuzz the rest of the chest. (I have noticed recently that they have increased a bit in number and density—is this, too, something to do with age?) Sloping shoulders, fairly prominent collar bones on either side. A few more moles, scattered here and there. The top of the chest—the part most often exposed to the Southern California sun—is reddish-brown in hue, contrasting with the relative pallor of the rest of the torso.

(This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am...)

Arms. I have always been a bit self-conscious about my arms. They seem to me skinny, un-muscular—no matter that I have been working out in my latter years, and have succeeded in strengthening them. The biceps share something of the pallor of the torso, but the lower arms are brown from the sun. Here, too, light hairs, evenly spread, from the elbows down. The wrists are narrow, even delicate; the hands unusually small, the lines in the palms indeterminate, a bit scattered, divergent—not unlike the path my life has followed. The effects of age are noticeable here, too, in the veined backs of the hands and the creases that encircle the wrists. And the skin is noticeably less resilient than it used to be in younger days.

I flatter myself that my neck has a certain elegance. The Adam’s apple is visible, but not prominent as my father’s was, always bobbing angularly north and south. Many lines here, though, many creases. And skin that, when plucked between the fingers, does not snap back into shape quite so easily as it once did. A light shadow of shaved beard, leading to the (mostly salt now) salt-and pepper beard that disguises the very slightly receding chin that is another family heirloom, and surrounds the mouth, covering the upper lip and the full area of the nether chin. The lips, less prominent in this undergrowth, are not so full as I would like, since I associate full lips with the kind of full-blown sensuality I have always aspired to, though never quite, I think, achieving. They turn down slightly, naturally, at the corners—but the beard does much to disguise this feature, too.

My cheeks, this morning, show a little silver stubble. They are brown, and creased with deepening lines that follow the natural contour of my face. I think it’s a nice face. (This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am...) The nose is well-shaped, neither too long nor too short, not turned up, nor heavily broken in the middle like the “family nose.” Eyes blue, and though small, soft and kind. Again, my judgment. I know that people respond to them when they feel me looking at them. (I would like to think that I could actually bless people with my eyes, they’re that important to me.) Forehead, lined horizontally, with crows’ feet protruding from the corners of the eyes, and vertical slashes where the brows meet. Ears… well, Ellie complains that they stick out and make me look “nerdy” when my hair is cut too short, but usually I manage to grow enough of the silver stuff around them that they lose their prominence.

Does that do it? Have I met the challenge? I notice that the “self-portrait” in words is pulled almost inevitably into the area of judgment, and wonder if this is also true about a drawn or painted image of the self? Would it be easier, painting or drawing, to remain detached? Of course, in those other media, there’s an element of judgment in the way it’s done, but the verbal, narrative version does seem to me, by its nature, less open to the objective gaze, more unavoidably judgmental. I can’t just “photograph” in words.

I also sit here wondering whether I can post what I have written, whether exposure of this kind is appropriate on my Buddhist blog. And yet as I say it’s a very Buddhist exercise, just gazing into the mirror and acknowledging what I see there, in the knowledge that it will further age, and sicken, and die. It has to do with being real about myself, and realizing how very many are those attachments from which I seek to free myself. I realize that what I've written is full of contradictions. But in some ways, perhaps, it’s just as valuable to take that unblinking look at the outer "self" that I aspire to when looking within. If I do take the risk and post this study, I’d love to hear what—if anything—it might mean to others to read about another human body in this way.


robin andrea said...

I think it is an incredibly interesting exercise to write this self-portrait. I'm fairly certain I would not undertake such a thing, but I'm not sure why. I'll have to think about it.

PeterAtLarge said...

It was quite a challenge, Robin. But a rewarding one. On the first pass, I completely missed the "attachments", and had to rethink the whole piece a second time. My vanity works in subtle--and not so subtle ways!

Paul said...

I think you're on to something here, Peter. You could start another blog dedicated to the self-portrait essay. There is a lot of potential here, and I bet it would be popular. Maybe too popular. Who knows? There may be a book in all this as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I could not describe myself without judgment. And, in spite of the fact that I frequently post photos taken in the mirror,I don't think I'd want to publically post a self-description. However, I think it absolutely fits as an exercise on a Buddhist blog.