So the pandemic rages on, despite multiple vaccines just around the corner. Many of us are not bothered by wearing masks, washing hands or social distancing, despite the oddity or surreal quality of it all—never mind the daily mixed messages regarding the efficacy of protocol or in fact if a mask actually protects at all and who it might protect…you or me? Even if it does neither, in truth, I feel as if I’m doing something, making a claim, wearing a badge, a ribbon, a sticker that reads “yes, I’m in, we’re all in, together.”Of all the precautions, I find the mask the most intriguing. I am reminded of a fellow student I once knew when we both boarded at the International House on Riverside Drive in New York City while attending Columbia University School of the Arts. From Bahrain, he once described the beauty of the Muslim women from his home country through only the description of their eyes. “Sometimes,” he said, “that is all you can see, but make no mistake, you can tell a lot about a person through the study of those eyes.
As a painter, I can tell everything I need to know from those proportions, those contours, the color and the balance of those eyes.”
So it is true. As the Covid-19 pandemic has stormed on, I have been forced to look more people in the eye, so to speak. This is not unusual for an American to do, as I was raised to ‘look a person in the eye.’ Just as with a firm handshake, looking someone directly in the eye was considered a mark of good manners, something that revealed honesty, openness, willingness.
If someone else failed to look you in the eye, or if they were shifty eyed, this clearly meant that dishonesty or something else more sinister lurked behind those eyes.
I have always associated wearing a mask with drama, the imposter syndrome or highway robbery. Today it is meant to be the norm, with all sorts of masks being spawned from acrylic see-through shields to a Darth Vader sort of gas mask, like the one worn by the orthoptist who recently measured the imbalance of my own eyes, or, more interesting, the Joker lips emblazoned red across half a face. For me, a mask does feel a bit like hiding, but on the other hand, as I heard one doctor reporting (and I am paraphrasing here), “There is a benefit: we are required to look one another in the eye, to understand the full impact of what is being said.” Gone are the twitching lips, facial ticks or nostril flaring giveaways. Am I more hidden or more revealed? Hard to disguise the eyes; prevent pupils from dilating against your will or lids from blinking involuntarily.
So I think of my onetime friend from Bahrain, his beautiful paintings, his eye for detail, and I think of the love he had for the women of his country all distilled into the curve of an eyebrow or a contracting pupil. I imagine the eyes he saw, how he might have stood back and studied them, seeing balance, beauty, symmetry, perhaps poise and proportion. Or possibly, the opposite. He said, not unusually, he saw into the depths of their soul. Who hasn’t heard that before? William Shakespeare wrote, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” In Matthew 6:22-23 we learn “The light of the body is the eye…” And Cicero reminds us “The face is a picture of the mind with the eyes as its interpreter.”
With no more smirks, grins or pursed lips to gauge or distract us, perhaps we are all, above our hygienic masks, at eye line, actually required to see eye to eye. Without the privacy of pupils that grow and contract compulsorily, revealing things we may or may not wish to disclose, aren’t we practically forced into a position of sincerity, frankness and concurrence? Perhaps this is a good place to end 2020, a year of extraordinary thrills, tragic spills and unexpected gifts—the greatest of which might just be a world, a country, a person heeding the call of agreement, accord and intimacy—the practicality of seeing eye to eye, or as someone else once said, “into me see.”
Wishing you a Happy Holiday season and a Brave New 2021.
On sale, paperback released 28th September