As a little one, you didn’t understand facial expression. You didn’t even know it meant something…you just knew faces shifted and moved and you couldn’t make sense of that.
You looked in the mirror a lot because it didn’t seem like your own face did a lot of moving. It was just there, doing nothing, calmly being a face.
So, mirrors happened and then you would watch people and marvel at their expressions. You couldn’t extract meaning from the movements, but you looked anyway. You were so curious.
Eyes were almost the opposite…they conveyed too much information. You couldn’t handle that, couldn’t disentangle meaning from noise.
For you, faces lacked meaning…whereas eyes just aggressively lasered their meanings directly at you. You could never really look at another person’s eyes for more than a second. It was like looking a the sun (if the sun were a giant old mind shooting too-bright thoughts into your gaze, confusing you, stunning you).
Eyes burned in a sun-like way. They still do.
You’ve never been good at looking at people. You try to peek, just to see those funny faces…but mostly you look around or you stare at your shoes or you find the back of your hand to be pretty interesting for the duration of a chat.
You hide from that ever-shifting sun-god.
Your face never matches up with your feelings about whatever. This or that feeling. You think, watching others, that there must be some tether between face and feelings…a tether others have, a tether you lack.
You don’t trust people. You can’t know if the expressions they share match their intentions. You’ve been confused by a lot of people, misled; you learned pretty quickly to hold back, to start with mistrust. Which carries its own downsides…mistrust is no way to live, you lose out on too much, but that’s just the cause and effect that happened.
You trusted because you didn’t know that faces, their expressions, were language…not until later. And then you knew, and you felt lied to…you realized you had missed out on so much. And you realized that those expressions could be false, and you had no way of knowing how to sort through that. You felt so far behind others, so disconnected. So your heart sort of closed up; you took that off the table, and you felt armored and tough, but really you were just hiding…retreating further and further behind your own shiftless mask of a face.
Now you don’t feel armored, you just feel absurd. You kick over the cardboard walls you mistook for toughness and you laugh at yourself more and that’s good. Being open to vulnerability is being open to the absurdity of the fact that you’re even here; that’s an okay place to be. Impermanent, strange…small and not much of anything…strong because you’re scared…once you see the humor in the fact of yourself and kick over those cardboard walls, you’re okay. Maybe not all the time, but you find an okay place to sometimes return to.
Mask like driftwood, floating on a river’s perturbation, sometimes atop it all and safe, sometimes below it, drowning…cycling through those states. Now you know: as long as you’re here, you’ll cycle back around to the surface, if only briefly.
Your blank face like a raft…a tether after all.
For most animals, behavior is coded into them from the start. Bees are born knowing how to bee. Dolphins know how to dolphin.
Humans…we get a few schematics (eating, loving, singing) but mostly we’re blank slates…we need to be filled up with knowing, taught. And we can become a seemingly endless variety of people. There is no set way to be (bee)…so we end up varied and different…we end up similar and strange and likewise and not…cultures herd and fail and shift and change…history grows and gets weird because we can’t settle. Our nature is that we lack a nature.
You think facial expression is unknowable because, while it generally means a certain subset of things (happy/sad)…it has no fixed nature. Facial expression can mean the opposite of what it intends, or have no relation at all to what a person feels. (Not to mention eye contact, its sun-god chaos.)
You learned about Noh when you were a teenager. It’s a form of Japanese theater; been practiced since the 14th century. To this day, you read about it. You watch videos of Noh performances.
Noh takes facial expression and turns it into a code…a simple, rigid, easy to understand, never-changing code.
The code takes the form of masks. Masks carved from cypress. These masks signal to the audience everything they need to know about a character…their age, social status, their emotional state and so on.
You think Noh is magic. You love watching those videos.
For you, Noh gets that we all feel lost and alone, trapped behind faces…faces that shift and conceal and make it hard to know the people around us.
Noh makes a simple code of masks and dispels the confusion. It counter-balances the codes we are born without. People know precisely who a character is, what they’re about. The performers and the audience have a shared experience. Briefly, so briefly, they are unlost, connected.
(they are, briefly, on the right side of the river)
You watch those videos. You imagine a world where we all wear Noh masks, always, every second of every day. You love this world. Sometimes in this world, we put on plays where actors perform without masks…their true faces are the novelty and the audience delights in their sense of shared confusion.
From Noh masks to no masks.
(You used to read Pinocchio because, for a long time, you thought you were a marionette. [Obviously you preferred the original ending]. Geppetto makes Pinocchio out of pine, not cypress. The lack of synchronicity is a constant source of frustration for you. There is a small amount of debate regarding the kind of wood Pinocchio was fashioned from, so you cling to that. You study the geographical distribution of cypress, and yes, there’s Cupressus sempervirens (Italian cypress), but it’s a small tree- too small to craft marionettes from. And ‘pino’ means pine in Italian, so you bristle and study trees and words and try to reach a different conclusion.)
You met the Blue Fairy one time. She was a psychologist. She had been trained to be very still during sessions. The idea is that if clients can’t sense your reactions, they won’t feel judged or whatever.
The psychologist…she didn’t move a lot…she didn’t make facial expressions. You enjoyed the quiet of that, so you stuck around and said this and that.
The psychologist focused on your lack of body language, and all the stuff where you can’t make sense of non-verbal expression. She said you were good with words because words made more sense to you…you could access words in a way you couldn’t access more subtle forms of social information.
You thought, “I don’t know”. It was interesting enough, but you just added her ideas to you collection of interpretations. You had a lot of them by that point.
You told her about some of those interpretations- Noh masks and marionettes and Cupressus sempervirens and all of that. You didn’t know what she made of it, because her face never moved and she was so still.
Anyway, that’s how you met the Blue Fairy.
Instead of magic and a wand, she had autism training and a diagnostic manual.
Cycling through it all.
Briefly…never long enough…on the right side of the river.