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.


  1. I like the colors. She looks like her eyes and mouth are permanently closed. Maybe that ties in to the Lazarus connection, or with the definition of true vulnerability. Maybe it contributes to your feelings of protectiveness. She can't see what's coming at her, warn it off, or in any way defend.

  2. Wow.

    I never would have guessed it was you under there.

    Like lostcheerio, I notice she can't see or speak.

    It almost looks like the dark orange mouth feather is being held shut with a diagonal white bandage tape feather. Did you intend to do that?

    Have you seen the poster for that horror movie, Silent Hill, where the little girl's mouth has been airbrushed away? Scary. (Notice I ask whether you've seen the poster, not the movie, because the poster's the only part I've seen myself--never in a million years would I actually watch a horror movie if I could avoid it.)

    Do you think this has anything to do with your being so articulate as an adult? (Not to mention such a prolific blogger!)

  3. Anonymous1:54 PM

    I was surprised that for someone who has so much to say, and possesses the ability to write beautiful homilies that you choose to cover your mouth so completely. Yet your eyes can see though filtered (rose colored glasses of the world perhaps :-)).

    Thoughts like speak less, listen more; truly see another before speaking assumptions; think before speaking - keep coming to my mind.

    But that is what art offers us isn't - that glimpse into the artist's soul reflecting back one's own self.

  4. Aside from being beautiful - and does any beautiful thing need any more rationale to exist - it is a relinquishing of control thing, a symbol of the ritual. Why does it make me hear 'Into thy hands, Oh Lord . . .' It is very, very brave and makes me feel very humble. Were I to make a mask I would be much, much too scared and rigid to accept my eyes being covered.

  5. These are very perceptive and helpful comments; thank you all!

    I think of her eyes as being closed, not covered, but yes, it did occur to me that the mouth looks taped over. I initially wasn't sure what I'd do for the mouth: I put an orange feather there and it made me laugh, because it looked just right. But later I felt compelled to add the white feather over it. I think part of this is a matter of composition -- the orange and white on the bottom of the mask balance the orange and white on top -- but there's certainly also an implication of silence or silencing.

    I need to ponder this more, but a few things occur to me. One is that since verbal ability's where I experience most of my power, I'm most vulnerable -- or feel most vulnerable -- when I'm unable to speak. The preverbal or nonverbal inner child is the one with whom I've traditionally had the hardest time connecting, so getting her out into the open and feeling protective towards her is progress. (And wanting to protect her turns me into the strong warrior I'd initially planned to depict on the mask itself: interesting how that got turned around!)

    But I'm also in the process of recovering from a tough three-year stretch of life crud that landed me in a major depression (which is why I'm back on meds). Part of that whole mess was feeling as if various people were trying to silence me, or weren't listening to me, or didn't want me to pay attention to certain issues (which bounced me back into childhood "don't think don't speak don't feel" territory, which landed me back in depression).

    Mind you, the depression isn't these folks' fault -- they aren't responsible for my brain chemistry -- and their perception of the relevant events is very, very different from mine. But the mask may, in part, be my way of acknowledging and grieving how helpless and frustrated I felt while all of that was happening, and of nurturing the parts of me that felt ignored and dismissed then.

    And, anon, many people throughout my life have told me to "speak less, listen more; truly see another before speaking assumptions; think before speaking." Some of them were absolutely right, and some were just trying to get me to stop saying things that made them uncomfortable. Discerning which is which has been an interesting and continuing challenge!

    And Claire, I'll undoubtedly be a much less prolific blogger once classes resume in a month.

  6. Paul A.7:18 PM

    Another perspective: I looked at the pictures before reading the text, and my facial-recognition structures immediately decided that the gap under the nose was a mouth. Even after reading the text and agreeing that of course the gap was really for keeping the nostrils clear, it still takes effort not to see the mask as a little bird-creature with its eyes closed and its mouth open in a sigh of pleasure.

    I have spent too much time around Muppets in my formative years, perhaps. :)

  7. Hi, Paul! Thanks for the different perspective! I'm trying to see the mask the way you do and haven't been able to yet, but I may just be too entrenched in my own viewpoint.

    If you saw the nose-opening as a mouth, how did you interpret the feathers underneath?

    This is very cool. Mask as Roschach test!

  8. Paul A.9:05 PM

    I don't think I attached any particular significance the feathers under the opening, since they were outside the region I was thinking of as the face.

    The happy bird-creature may be easier to spot in the photographs than by looking at the actual mask, if that's what you're doing; the framing of the photographs and the dark background contribute to the effect, and I suspect I would not have seen it if I'd been looking at the mask in the, as it were, flesh.
    (I recently saw a film poster on which one of the stars bore a striking resemblance to someone I know, produced almost entirely by the confluence of lighting, framing, and facial expression - in every other picture I've ever seen of that same actor, there's no resemblance whatever.)

  9. Hi again, Paul! I'd been looking at the photos and it hadn't worked, but I just tried again, holding my hand over the mouth feathers, and this time it did work, at least a little. I had to de- and re-contextualize the image to see it differently, I guess.


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