SELF-PORTRAITS

 

I saw a documentary on Rembrandt over the weekend, and specifically his later works. The camera hovered lovingly over his self-portraits. Someone said that Rembrandt wrote his autobiography in his self-portraits; I think they are the greatest series of self-portraits done by any artist.

When he’s young they show him handsome, smooth-faced, somewhat arrogant, he could be a nobleman, a man of leisure. By the end there is the flabby skin, the pouches under the eyes, the sinking of the lower half of his face. Only the eyes look deeper than they have in previous self-portraits, contemplating a life. Everything is exposed, if not explained, on that canvas.

A young girl took a photo of me on Sunday (see below). We were standing in the kitchen. She was making Mac-and-cheese and I was wearing a sweater because it was a cool, rainy morning. This photo is no self-portrait, and it’s certainly no Rembrandt. He was looking in while I was looking at her, because she was smiling so prettily, without any questions or ruminations about life. The only thing my face has in common with Rembrandt’s is that I, too, have pouches under my left eye.

I’ve never liked to see photos of myself, and especially of close-ups like this one. But when I see it, I feel that what I want to do before I die is fully accept that face, fully accept myself.

When I run into messes or failures, or what feel like failures, I don’t want to start thinking what was wrong with me that I could make such a mistake or such a decisions. Nor do I wish to idealize anything.

I have kept a few goals but have let go of personal vision. I don’t want this human being of Mondays or Thursdays conforming to some image, some static, abstract dream that doesn’t take into account the added weight, the pouches under the eyes, the tiny hairs that appear occasionally on the face,

Other people might find a personal vision helpful, I understand that, but in my life those ideals have often been a trap, squeezing me into a tube where I stay contorted and uncomfortable. I’m not anyone’s idea of a teacher or a writer, including my own. I’m done with conforming to anything.

Over my life I have spent some time, through personal reflection, therapy, and the give-and-take of relationships, looking at my conditioning. It’s always a temptation to say, I’ve been there, done that, and now I’m wiser. But I’m not sure I’m that much wiser. I suspect that, years of practice notwithstanding, I still act within certain deeply ingrained parameters. Even with the opportunities for freedom and spontaneity provided by each moment, there’s a very basic knowing that continues to act within me.

Can I accept that person, too? I know she changes, but how often do we say that as an escape from the present moment rather than full acceptance of it?

Rembrandt saw himself—a genius painter out of favor, a bankrupt, a man who lost a wife and children, impoverished, ignored, and even reviled at this last stage of his life—and he didn’t look away. Instead he used all the hard-earned skills he accumulated over a lifetime and his native genius to express the totality of what he saw.

I am no Rembrandt, but I would like at least to have that kind of integrity, to see and listen as well as I could, not look away.