47. Stop and stare

I once lived with a man who had the most beautiful face in the world.

His name was Keith. He died fifteen years ago, but I can still conjure up Keith's face as if I saw him yesterday. It was shaped like the moon and shone like the sun. Here he is:

My friend Keith (1949-1999)
Keith and I shared life in a communal household for a couple of years (there were nine of us altogether).

During that time, I learned that with him, what you saw is what you got, and that is what made him so beautiful to look at. His outside reflected his inside.

If he was angry, his whole body, including his face, contorted in anger. If he was in awe, his look of ecstasy took you along and you could not help but stop with him and stare in wonder (and this could be wonder at fireworks or at a clean and shiny toilet bowl). If he was concentrating, everything concentrated. If he tasted something, he tasted it properly, with rapt concentration. And if he was joyful (which was his default state of being) the joy exploded off his face.

I learned a lot from Keith, not least the Art Of Living In The Moment.

Keith and I in 1992 (above and below)

I have been thinking of Keith during the past few months, as the question of body image, physical appearance and beauty has raised its head.

Why is it that, unlike other women whose mastecomy/chemotherapy/hairloss stories I hear about, I am not completely fazed by the thought that people might look at me? Why don't I mind too much if people make a mental note that I don't fit the conventional image of feminine beauty, the one with two fancy breasts and a mop of golden curls?

Perhaps having Keith as a friend has taught me, once and for all, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

Because Keith, of course, was not conventionally beautiful.

In fact, many people in the street would (and did) see the opposite: a strange-looking man whose ugliness was only confirmed by the unusual, unintelligible sounds he made.

People stared. Children pointed. "Look mummy, look at that man, what's wrong with him?" Embarrassed mothers shushed their children whilst joining a different queue in the supermarket.

In my view, there was nothing wrong with Keith at all.

Intellectual disabilities, yes; disfigurement, yes, perhaps. But that was just who he was, and I cannot imagine him any different. Most people who have disabled friends or relatives will agree.

One of the things that made Keith such a joy too look at (and to have as a friend) was the ease, confidence and un-selfconsciousness with which he lived in his body.

Keith was not my only friend with unconventional looks. People who use a wheelchair, who have a unique way of walking, who make unusual noises, or whose faces are truly one in a million: they, and the people who are with them, know what it is like if people stop and stare. Everyone will deal with this differently, but for many, becoming a recluse is just not the chosen option.

I have become used to people stopping and staring at Difference. Sort of.

Then there is the question of baldness, which has been the theme of my last few weeks.

Of course there are many challenges on this front, but on a fundamental level, I don't really mind my temporary hair loss.

For this, I think I have my best friend to thank, along with the monks and nuns of the Buddhist order we have been closely involved with since our late teens. Best Friend spent 17 years of her life as a nun, which involved keeping her head shaved. When my initial shock at her baldness had worn off (which took, oh, all of five minutes), it just seemed normal.

But of course it wasn't normal to the outside world. When she wore her full robes, it was obvious that her shaved head had to do with religion. But wearing her civvies, this was less obvious. People did stare, and probably wondered.

Sometimes that was just tedious, and she'd wear a woolly hat in order to be anonymous. (One welcome thing about not being a nun anymore, she says, is the possibility to be anonymous in a crowd.)

Personally, I think that my Best Friend (along with Keith) is one of the most beautiful people in the world.

With my best friend. No, she didn't have cancer. She was a Buddhist nun.

My best friend (fully robed) at my wedding 1994

This wasn't the blogpost I was going to write. I wanted to write about Being Bald and tell you what it's been like to spend my first couple of weeks with no hair. But to my surprise, this is what emerged from my keyboard.

Being bald has not been as plain-sailing as this post suggests.

It's been full of scarves and hats, sometimes happy scarves, sometimes anxious scarves (and hats) in quick succession. There have been times when I've wanted to hide from the world, or had a crisis of confidence in a shop, trying and failing to be anonymous.

But fundamentally, it's been OK. Perhaps that's why I had to write this post first. I will describe the glorious and not-so-glorious details of Being Bald another day.