Sitting Shiva for Lent: Through a Glass Darkly
I believe in the possibility of reconciliation under any circumstance, and yet there are things that we say to each other sometimes that may not be beyond the reach of forgiveness but remain beyond forgetting.
I was a skinny kid that grew up in a family of fat relatives. In an extended family where being overweight was the norm, I stuck out like a sore thumb; a thumb made more sore by frequently being made fun of and enduring nicknames mocking my body size. It was 1976. I was ten years old. Even an adult cousin that I adored would announce, “Jimmy, you’re so skinny, you look funny cuz your bones stick out.” Of course the bones she was referring to were elbows and knees. Given that kind of public derogatory announement today after years of building a fine defense and a quick, bitter tongue, I’d probably snap back that it was her that looked funny because when I stood next to her, we looked like the number 10. But, then, to suggest that visible elbows and knees were normal would have been risking switch-welted legs or a bloodied mouth. I was outweighed and outnumbered.
I was a skinny kid with a gap between my two front teeth. Braces would correct my teeth when I was older, but no stage of growth changed my underdog size. My slight size combined with my fastidiousness and what my birth mother called being “tender-hearted” got me called a “fag” by kids at school long before I knew what the intended insult meant. I only felt the way the kids said it and I felt dirty, dirty and outcast without knowing why; dirty, even before they spit on me on the crowded school bus.
When I was a kid, adults said that I’d “fill out” when I grew up. They lied about that, too. Ten years later, other gay men started dying. No one understood anything about H.I.V. then. Everyone was afraid. The government, at best, didn’t care. The church told us that we had it coming. They told us that we were being punished and we were, but not by God. We were being punished by the fear and hatred of people who left us to fight and die alone. I remember being so young and so afraid. I remember at one gathering, a young man, Jeff, carried his own drinking glass so as to not risk contagion. Jeff and countless other guys in the bars would speculate and sometimes outright accuse me of having A.I.D.S. Does anyone get “accused” of having cancer or heart disease? It was never a good time to be a skinny kid. It’s never been a good time to be a skinny gay man, even among other gay men. It was shaping up to just not be a good time to ever be me. Jeff’s personal drinking glass didn’t save him.
At middle-age now, it remains an elusive goal to hit a hundred and fifty pounds. No, ladies, it is not an enviable thing. Please stop saying that. Yes, I can “eat whatever I want”, as you so often say, “without gaining a pound”. It’s also true that if it’s not eighty in the shade, I’m cold and it hurts to sit. I’m getting closer to looking into finding an ass prosthetic; either that or I’ll be that guy that carries a pillow with him everywhere to sit on. As a rule, stress seems to effect our eating habits in one of two ways. Under stress some of us will eat everything and some of us will eat nothing. I tend toward the latter group. During a period of hardship and predictable weight loss for me five or six years ago, I was at dinner with my friend Suzanne, when she took my breath away when, while encouraging me to eat, she told me that I looked like “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”.
I’m not often speechless.
I didn’t much want to go outside for awhile after that.
Sometimes we say things that are not beyond forgiveness, but remain beyond forgetting.
I ache when I consider the times that I know I’ve been guilty of this.
Three years or so ago I was as physically present as I’ve ever been weighing in at an astonishing personal best of a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Since our car accident last year and the head injury I suffered I struggle to hit a hundred and thirty-five pounds. As a result of that space between my two front teeth when I was a kid and the braces and the slightly off-color cap on one of those two front teeth, I’ve always been a little o.c.d. about my dental hygiene. It hasn’t paid off. None of my enthusiastic flossing or gargling with hydrogen peroxide a half dozen times a day has made any difference in the tremendous bone loss that continues to happen. Dec. 30th, tooth number fifteen, the upper back left, was extracted. Not five weeks later, number three, the back upper right had to be extracted. I now have no upper back teeth to chew with. Pending insurance approval, a partial is hopefully on the way. In the meantime, I eat soft foods and boy, do I have cheekbones. I look like I’m doing an impression of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” now, even when I’m actually not . . . or “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”
Those words said to us that remain beyond forgetting don’t live in our minds in a moment-to-moment or even in a daily way. They’re not predators so much as scavengers. They wait until we’re vulnerable, exhausted, and just about to give up and it’s then that the jackals of some one’s words return from the nowhere of the past in hope of feeding on what’s left of us.
I was washing my face one morning a few days ago and when I saw my face in the mirror, it broke my heart. I saw hollowed spaces and shadows and weariness and I cried looking at my own reflection. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve become rather obsessed about my appearance; not in the way that beautiful people do, but in the way that only the deeply wounded do. I’ve been grieving my teeth and terrified of getting “A.I.D.S. face”, daunted by the prospect of one more obstacle to self-acceptance and crumbling at the idea of one more reason for public rejection. Now, I was losing my hope to the sallow reflection in my bathroom mirror. When it happened again, when I washed my face and cried again at the rather Nosfertu reflection looking back at me, I decided that I couldn’t do this anymore.
I remembered that in a recent issue of AARP magazine that Cher had been quoted as saying that she had “given up mirrors”, that she “hadn’t looked in a mirror in years.” Of course she’s lying, but the idea of not looking in a mirror at all was nearly as compelling as it was frightening. You have to understand how vital, how strangely addictive mirrors are for someone like me: always one more glance, one more snip at a hair, one more disapproving look and then one more. No, you wouldn’t want to live with me and ever want to be anywhere on time, ever. I guess mirrors and cigarettes are to the life of my ego what humility and love are meant to be to my walk of faith. But now I couldn’t see past my own fear and grief, so I made a decision.
I took down the obsessively checked mirror to the right of my office door. I put the eye-level framed pictures on my desk on top of the bookshelf where I can see them but they can’t reflect my image back to me in their glass. I covered my bathroom mirror save for an eye-level strip opening about an inch and a half long by an eighth of an inch high. I can see just my eyes, just my nose, or just my mouth at one time. Mind you, I’m not throwing vanity completely out the window. I will know if that blueberry or spinach is visibly stuck in my teeth, but I won’t face self-rejection with my every reflection.
This is how I’ve come to begin this Lenten season by sitting shiva. The Jewish custom surrounding the ritual of grief dictates that mirrors be covered because mourners need not be concerned about their personal appearance, that mourners should be aware that their normal priorities have changed, and that mirrors should not be present in rooms where we pray as we are to direct our focus on God, not ourselves. I’ve been in mourning in many ways no more so than now as the shallow sand-built defenses I’ve invested a lifetime of energy in are incrementally and systematically stripped away. I mourn not only for myself, but for the suffering all around me that I feel so acutely so often. I grieve for living in a world so abrasive that I frequently feel sanded raw.
This Ash Wednesday is only the third day of no mirrors, but I feel drawn to continue the sacrifice of my painful vanity for the entire Lenten season, not just because of the hurt reflected back at me right now, but also because it might help. Already, without my physical image constantly reflected back at me, from time to time I can forget what I look like and just remember that I might Feel good in any given moment. Maybe without my appearance being my constant priority my focus will begin to shift, even a little. Maybe I’ll come closer to understanding that my reflection in a thing isn’t necessary for a thing to be beautiful. How much more beauty there must be to see in the world when our identification with something or someone isn’t required for them to be seen as beautiful and worthy.
Maybe, right now, while it’s so hard to see myself through my own eyes, let alone through God’s eyes, maybe it’s best if I only see myself through your eyes and only see what you show me.
If this life is about union and communion, and I believe that it is, then our self-rejection keeps us only ever halfway to the table and nearly all of us are too malnourished to not pull all the way up to the banquet table of our Father’s love and full acceptance.
Maybe, in covering some mirrors, maybe in borrowing each other’s eyes, we might get closer to pulling up a chair to the Table together.
– PreetamDas Kirtana 3/4/15