Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Here's a photograph of the mask I made as my final project for the course I took in Berkeley last week. We'd been working with Thomas Merton's ideas about the true self and the false self; each of us could choose which one our mask would represent, or whether it would depict a mixture of the two.
Making the mask was a two-day process. On the first day, Thursday, each of us lay on a table while two of our classmates covered our face with a protective layer -- I chose Saran Wrap, although cold cream and vaseline were also available -- and then applied moistened plaster strips. The nostrils were left uncovered, of course, so we could breathe. After several layers of strips had been applied and then hardened, our two helpers removed the mask and put it aside to dry fully.
The class met in the evening. During the day on Friday, as I went into San Francisco for lunch with my friend Beth and then did some shopping in Berkeley, I thought about how I'd decorate my mask. I wanted something that would look strong and powerful.
Well, as you can see, that's not what happened. On Friday, after a shared potluck meal, the teacher gave us a set of readings to use as meditations before we began decorating our masks. The reading that immediately drew me was Jesus' raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. This passage is one of the lectionary readings for Lent, and it was the Gospel I heard the first Sunday I attended St. Stephen's in 1999, on a day when I was feeling pretty buried myself.
Every commentary I've ever heard on this story emphasizes two things. The first is that Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, but Lazarus must choose to respond. And the second is that Lazarus can't fully return to life without the help of his community, the family and friends who've been mourning him. "The dead man came out, tied hand and feet with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, 'Untie him and set him free.'"
Writing this now, I realize that the first day of mask-making was a ritual reenactment of the raising of Lazarus. Each of us had our face wrapped in cloth, the same way the dead Lazarus was wrapped in funeral cloths by his grieving relatives. And then the cloths were removed when the mask was lifted: our classmates untied us and set us free. For all our cultural emphasis on the myth of rugged individualism and self-reliance, we really do need other people, especially during important life passages. We're interdependent, not independent.
None of that consciously occurred to me when I looked at my hardened mask after reading the meditations. But I had a very unexpected emotional reaction: a rush of tenderness towards the naked, fragile form of my own face. I lost all interest in a warrior mask. My other projects for the class had all been hard-edged and busy, in bright primary colors: now I wanted to create something soft, simple and muted, an image towards which I'd continue to feel wondering and protective.
The decorating materials available to us were a range of paints, several different bags of feathers -- some brightly dyed, some natural -- and glittering plastic jewels. Most of my classmates created very colorful, shiny masks in the Mardi Gras mode, which was what I'd expected to do myself. But instead, I painted the mask with a range of fleshtones (including a soft glowing gold that doesn't show up in the photograph) and then used earthtone feathers for the features. The plaster cast, with its ragged edges, looks like a broken eggshell; that fit the image of hatching baby birds I'd chosen (without really knowing why) for a collage I'd done a few days earlier.
I've dabbled with art for most of my life; this mask is unlike anything else I've ever done. I'm particularly pleased with how the brown feathers in the eyesockets look like closed, sleeping eyes. And the edges of the feathers move in the air, even in a seemingly still room, so it looks as if the sleeping face is breathing. One of our class readings had suggested approaching works of art as separate, sentient entities: looking at the mask after I'd finished it, I had the eerie sensation of seeing a creature with its own life, an existence apart from me. And I wanted to keep it safe. I cradled the mask in my arms for most of the rest of the class, and settled it among cushioning towels on the front seat of my car for the long drive home the next day.
I've believed for a long time that true vulnerability is taboo in this culture. The homily I posted yesterday reflects that idea. This taboo is precisely why we're fascinated with -- and simultaneously contemptuous of -- inner children and scandalous talk-show confessions: the forbidden is always both fetishized and mocked. We're taught that strong, competent adults keep their wounds and weaknesses hidden, which is probably why so many churches have replaced the broken Christ on the cross with a triumphalist, martial Christ: Jesus as X-man superhero, kicking ass. But one definition of "tabu" is "forbidden for profane use because of sacred status." Maybe we fear vulnerability precisely because it brings us closer to God: to a force infinitely bigger than we are, a power we cannot control.
Triumphalist, martial superheros terrify some people and rescue others, but they don't heal anybody. The best healers -- and Jesus was the quintessential healer -- confess to their own woundedness. They empathize with those who are vulnerable, instead of making them feel powerless, less-than, incompetent. (See Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer for the classic exposition of this idea.)
Even though I did a long stint of inner-child work in the 1980s, when it was all the rage, I've struggled with as much discomfort and shame over my vulnerabilities as anyone else. That's one reason I was surprised when I felt such tenderness towards the unadorned mask. My current therapist has been urging me to do more inner-child work, and my initial reaction was exasperated dismissal. Been there, done that. My inner child's grown up and gotten her driver's license, okay? Can we move on, please?
Yesterday I showed up in my therapist's office with a shopping bag. "You brought me goodies?" she asked, trying to peer inside.
"I brought you my inner child," I said with a sigh, and lifted the mask out of the bag.
She was delighted. She heaped the mask with praise. (Although, as Gary and I joked later, she is a therapist. What's she going to say? "Ewwww, that's hideous, why in the world did you spend time making that"?)
Gary wants to hang the mask in our front hallway, where it will blend pleasingly with some other artwork we have. I'm nervous about people knocking into her and crushing her, about the cats leaping up to attack the feathers -- she's currently in my study, on top of a bookcase they haven't been able to scale yet -- about visitors saying, "Ewwww, that's hideous, why in the world did you spend time making that"? (Putting her picture on the blog feels safer somehow, perhaps because any derision of the image can't harm the actual physical object.) But I suppose she'll have to emerge from the nest eventually.