Writings by Cole Huffman

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One of my favorite Joseph Epstein essays is called “Narcissus Leaves the Pool.”

“Emerging from the shower, I stand naked in front of my bathroom mirror. This, let the truth be told, is not an altogether enrapturing sight. (Had he grown well into middle age, Narcissus himself would surely have spent a lot less time gazing into the pool.) Contemplating myself, I feel a brief wave of pity for my wife who, night after night, has to sleep next to this body; I, more fortunate soul, have only to sleep in it. The bathroom has good light and a mirror extending nearly its full length; there is a soft rug, muted wallpaper, and ample blocks and slabs of cool, cream-colored marble. To paraphrase Bishop Heber on Ceylon, this bathroom is a place where every prospect pleases and only I am vile.”

He goes on from there to draw insights on his life based on a review of his body. As I write this, no mirror sits atop my desk like a visual thesaurus. I post no selfies for review. No, I’m writing this all from memory. It says in Scripture no one can “look intently” into a mirror and then forget what he looks like (James 1:23-24), so consulting my reflection right now would be a digression.

To my knowledge no one has ever called me ugly—at least not to my face, the would-be object of scorn. My face, as yours, is our Table of Contents, and while I’ve received modestly approving reviews through life I was never encouraged, nor ever aspired, to model. My lips are too thin for any manufacturer of lip balm to want me although my nose is perfect for a Nyquil ad. I could blow my giant schnozzola into a tissue like a bugler while the camera tightens on the face I make whenever I swallow Nyquil. That would be truth in advertising.

I saw a dermatologist regularly in high school through college. In addition to treating moderate acne with a benzoyal peroxide concoction more powerful than any over-the-counter munition, she removed a mole. Its latitude aligned with the bottom of my left nostril and crowned the northernmost longitude of my smile line like a dark star. It was there when I met the girl who would be my wife (so was a huge chin zit), and my kids when little each poked the small mound of scar tissue remaining to ask what is “the bump on your face, Daddy.” My kids have also helpfully pointed out that my teeth aren’t as white now as…well, as white as when I met my wife in college. Curse you, sweet tea!

Is that why I grew a beard? To distract from my straight but slightly yellowed teeth? My dad used to say guys with beards are hiding something. Maybe he thought that because Hank Williams, Jr., grew an odd, chin-curtain kind of beard to cover the mangling of his face from an accident. I have a beard because my wife likes it so long as it’s trimmed and doesn’t obscure my dimples, which only she is allowed to praise.

Historically in some quarters of the church preachers grew beards to indicate it was indeed a man in the pulpit teaching, not a woman. Perhaps the flecks of gray in mine give an air of apostolic respectability. Or maybe not when you overhear those in my congregation who occasionally take the liberty to tell me the beard makes me look too old. (They’d have said that to Paul too.) Just a few years back they said I was too young. Too young is a goatee or soul patch. Too old is an Uncle Si beard. My beard in shape and form looks almost identical to the Most Interesting Man in the World on TV. Not bad, my friends.

I’ve reached the age now where I have to keep those errant nose and ear and eyebrow hairs plucked. I hate that word—pluck—except when synonymously paired with moxie. I notice if other guys my age and older aren’t manscaping those places. A face takes maintenance as you age. If I don’t use a moisturizer after showering or shaving my skin is drier than the pages of Lamentations. (See NFL quarterback Andrew Luck for what it looks like when you’re bearded but don’t shave.)

I think you should be more at home in your face as you age. Joan Rivers wasn’t, bless her. Oliver Cromwell was. A seventeenth century ruler of England, Cromwell told his portraitist, Peter Lely, that Lely must paint him “warts and all”: “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”

That makes me feel really vain for having moles and skin tags removed. But then I’ve never had a facial, so I must not be too vain, eh? I wonder if I’ll ever have melanoma? I’m not much of a sunscreen user so it’s possible.

I found a shirt the other day on major sale—like 90% off and by a good manufacturer. When my wife said the shirt matched my eyes I promptly took it back to the rack. My eye color (teal) is nice for eyes but terrible for shirts, and I knew I didn’t quite like the shirt anyway. (But still, 90% off!)

I watched a documentary recently where a guy credited a nun’s TV show with breaking his hardened, unbelieving heart. The nun had suffered a stroke, incapacitating her facial muscles, giving her a Picasso-like visage but droopy. She wore an eye patch. The guy, a fashion model, was used to beautiful people like himself, so he mocked her when she first appeared on his set, called her the Pirate Nun. But he lingered too. Beautiful words were coming from her. She was telling her viewers they were made for God. She was preaching Augustine essentially, that our hearts our restless until they find rest in the one who made us for himself. The guy had a beautiful face but a restless heart. The nun had an ugly face but at heart at rest. The fashion model envied the stroke victim.

“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). I make “face of Jesus” statements sometimes but His Nazareth face has never really formed in my imagination. I end up drawing on the movie Jesuses I’ve seen through the years for a mental image—unsatisfyingly, I might add. When John saw Him on Patmos he says “I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17). The resurrected Jesus’s face positively gleams unfiltered holiness (Rev. 1:12-16). We’ll have to be glorified ourselves to stand before His face.

We wait for that. We wait “till we have faces,” to adapt Lewis. Our faces then will be our faces now, just without the wild ear hairs and the need for vision aid. Epstein again, same essay:

“Thrift and prudence may, with luck, make one wealthy. Thoughtfulness and learning may, with even more luck, make one wise. But there stands the body to mock both wealth and wisdom and every other kind of accumulation. The body exists to demonstrate, if demonstration is needed, that progress has its limitations. ‘Every day in every way I get better and better’ is a notion that the body refutes. Beyond a certain point one ceases to grow stronger, more beautiful, more desirable. Neither all the king’s personal trainers nor all the king’s cosmetic surgeons can put any of us together again. The body reminds us that we are in the swim only for a short, however glorious, while. Then, no matter what one’s station in life, or what one’s natural endowments, the whistle blows and it’s everybody but everybody out of the pool, and that includes you—which is to say me—Narcissus, baby.”

            Till we have faces, indeed.
Posted by Cole Huffman at 2:24 PM
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