People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue
So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears.
– Smokey Robinson
So take a good look at my face if you can because for many years I could not do the same to you. Oh I saw you alright, right down to the nitty gritty of your being, but always from a-glance, from afar.
I never would look directly into your eyes. For years and years I tried to hide this, yet even today, there are small remnants of this behavior. I would look slightly past you, or below your eyes, but never as we spoke would I commit to eye contact. I would try, but I just couldn’t. When I pick up this little machine called a camera, and I place it in front of my eyes, I can look straight into yours. I can look past the facade into your being. I could fall in love with you; see your graciousness, and your potential. With the camera, I can believe in you. Take away this camera and I become critical, fearful, and deflect through a joke or two, the tracks of my tears.
I am good at keeping the attention off me, of staying alone, aloof from the crowd. But then as on a magical mystery tour, I pick up my camera, and I change, super-me emerges.
This has been a forty-year struggle to understand, and like most things, I must go back to the source, my mother.
For like me, my mother was an enigma. During my early formative years, I vaguely remember a loving, doting, caring mother, who was ambitious for herself, her husband, and her family. But then as noted earlier, she got sick, went to bed, and as of all good things that must come to an end, slowly emerged as wealthier, more powerful, and more critical.
Today I understand much more than a boy of seven or eight, so I will not bore you with the whys of her life, rather since this is my story, I will tell you about me in a way I never could face to face.
And then, along comes my mother, a woman of enormous determination to right all things wrong with her son. She became an expert at criticism, finding fault with every behavior, disappointment with my every attempt, and worse for a young man; a singular focus on my looks. She would comment on how unattractive I was; my hair, my acne, and generally my whole face. I can remember being brought to the family doctor with my mother’s desire to have my ears pushed back so they would not stick out as much. I remember with glee, how the doctor reprimanded my mother and told her to leave the “poor child alone.”
She was on a quest to make us all members of the WASP establishment. They were the beautiful people, and her unattractive son just didn’t measure up. I failed and I became so self-conscious about myself, that I had trouble leaving my precious basement I described earlier.
So for years, I feigned looking at people, I became funny like father, to focus on the joke, rather than on myself. I withdrew, and became more alone, yet all the time appearing to be part of the party.
So here’s the real kicker of this story, it seems to make perfect sense that a boy who was criticized about his physical appearance from morning till dusk by his mother would want to avoid the look of criticism, that he would feel so self-conscious that avoiding eye contact was a pre-requisite for any sort of self-preservation.
I had a stutter, but not with the words I spoke, but with my eyes that feared looking directly into yours. This whole situation simply compounded the self-consciousness I already felt.
You see (an interesting pun) the story does not end here, because one could learn to feel acceptance and pity for this child of visual abuse.
But that is not the case, for like all good children I should get down on my knees at bedtime, and thank The Lord for the gift of the camera. For through it and with it by my side, I have learned to focus the anger and dreadful hurt I felt as a child towards myself. I pick up this gift, my camera and when I look directly into your eyes I see not what my mother saw in me, but rather what is wonderful in you.