Thanks to Richard, I read some amazing posts today written by Tamar and Jean, blogging about self-portraits, mothers, ourselves.
I've always approached the self-portrait from a visual perspective and it has always been a photographic journey I hated – I don’t like pictures of myself, never like what I see, because in those pictures is a person who, in my opinion, will never be as beautiful or as striking as my mother. No, worse...I've often used the ugliest words when I see those pictures...ugly, she whispers. Self-portraits always stir the pot filled with insecurity, fear, longing, self-pity, anger, and sadness. Oh what a witch’s brew that is!
So I take another self-portrait, and another, and just one more, always looking for “me,” always hoping to find that perfect picture, the one of a perfect beauty, the one who dances in the middle of a crowd, a person with whom people fall in love. But…but…
“Why don’t you wear pretty shoes?”
“Mija, let’s cut your hair.”
“Let’s straighten your hair.”
“Look at that hair, you’re Medusa!”
“I never went back to Mexico because of you. How could I leave? But now I feel like a transplanted plant, underfed, undergrown…dying.”
“Wear a dress, why don’t you ever wear dresses?”
“Why do you like that girl? You need more friends.”
“You shouldn’t stick to just one friend, it’s not healthy.”
“You’re just like your father – such a nasty sense of humor.”
“Why don’t you have any boyfriends?”
“Doesn’t your school have any dances? Why aren’t you going to any of them?”
How terrible that these messages stick to a girl, stick to her and guide her every choice, every womanly decision. How desperate I search for a beautiful girl in those cursed self-portraits! How desperate I am to find a self-portrait in the glancing eyes of strangers, in the words and support of friends, in the touch of my husband, in the affection of my children.
Today I relaxed on the sofa with a book, and M sat next to me with an old toy of hers in her lap, a toy that has “piano keys” that when pressed, produce tones. The keys are laid out in front of a plastic rise decorated with animal figurines and colors. M tapped away at the keys and said to me, “I’m a mommy and I’m working on the computer, honey.” I say, “Okay.” She reminded me not to say her name, but say, “Mommy.” She will call me “honey.” She was patient when she spoke and loving when she looked at me, staying very busy, very focused on her work. As we played, I paid attention to every detail, wondering, is this how I am? Is this how she sees me?
Later, when I asked J to do something he didn’t want to do, he got sassy with me, downright nasty, and I wondered, is that how you see me? Do I do that with you?
As I cooked in the evening, I griped to D about our money situation. I said, “We can’t live on our savings, we’re running out. Something has to give, change. Like…now!”
“Don’t you think I know that? Every month we go through this…look what you’ve done.”
“What I’ve done? What do you mean, what I’ve done?”
“I mean what we’ve done.”
“You didn’t say ‘we’ve’, you said, ‘you’ve’. What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
I wonder, is this how he sees me? That somehow all by myself, I created this family, I created our circumstances by not being a working lawyer, and I spent our money.
When I checked e-mail later, after the stewing (of dinner and at my husband), a student had written to me, saying how I've changed her life, that one afternoon she heard me say, I love you, to my son on the cell phone (an unexpected interruption) and that little moment moved her to change how she related to her children. Not to mention, she added, that she will change her schedule to have me as a professor every semester she can. I laughed and reflected on the many times students have said complimentary things about my classes. I wonder, is that how I am? A good teacher, someone they will remember?
A friend wrote to me, suggesting a writing contest that we should participate in. I recall my successes...and I ask myself? Is that who I am, a writer? Someone who can write? Is that how people see me?
And what of the love of so many important people in my life? At times, I can hear my father say proudly, "My beautiful lawyer." How I cleaved to those words! I hoped that was how people saw me, too. Beautiful, smart, successful. My sister says on occasion, "you're too permissive as a parent." My brother said to me one late night at the beach, marijuana scenting the air, coloring our senses, "You were important to me in those months after Mom died, you affected me, helped me." I recall being left by a lover for another woman and I remember the pain, my destroyed ego, the message that I'd always believed in, deep inside. It had actually come true. There in real life someone said, "I do not love you - there is someone out there better than you, someone I'd much rather be with."
Lastly, I feel my mother's warmth when I'm afraid, how safe I felt when I ran to her bed...even as an adult. I do hear when I want to, my own mother's voice saying, "I love you, mija." Words which seem to erase all the hurtful ones.
Sighing deeply now, I sit in front of the computer with a Diet Coke at my side, a Butterfinger wrapper on the floor, kids waiting for baths and books and extra time awake, undone homework on the kitchen counter, ungraded papers in my backpack, my make-up rubbed away, my salt and peppery hair sticking up in places it shouldn’t, my jeans stretched out and tired, my brother’s old sweater that I nicked from my mom’s house after she died now speckled with sauce that splashed from the skillet…
I wonder about my self-portrait. In the end, in the quiet of a day done, I realize self-portraits are ever-changing, ever-fluid, a blur of history, memory, possibility, people, passing conversation, playful instances, other photographs, otherness, togetherness, aloneness, regret, and all the emotions that accompany life. My self-portrait cannot be done.