On a May Monday morning, while waiting in the lobby of the probation office, I reached into my probation folder and discovered a copy of a reading titled “Faces,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, a riff from his hallucinatory novel, From The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I used this short piece with my students for years and developed a non-fiction writing workshop around it that always met with success. It’s probably my favorite short prose piece of all time.
I have no idea how Rilke found his way into the probation folder. I read the piece and started writing immediately without any thought to where the exercise might lead. Strange profane and poetic utterances surrounded me and they might have egged me on. I also had nothing else to do while waiting. I have found these moments often elicit the best strangest writing.
What follows is an excerpt from the “Faces” reading and then my writing inspired by Rilke and the Rilke faces I saw this morning. (I find myself teaching myself a lot recently, with my old lesson plans I formerly thought of no longer any use to me forever. It is an interesting realization when you discover you are teaching yourself and the teaching is going remarkably well. It’s as if I unwittingly enrolled in my own writing workshop.)
Have I said it before? I am learning to see. Yes, I am beginning. It’s still going badly. But I intend to make the most of my time.
For example, it never occurred to me before how many faces there are. There are multitudes of people, but there are many more faces, because each person has several of them. There are people who wear the same face for years; naturally it wears out, gets dirty, splits at the seams, stretches like gloves worn during a long journey. They are thrifty, uncomplicated people; they never change it, never even have it cleaned. It’s good enough, they say, and who can convince them of the contrary? Of course, since they have several faces, you might wonder what they do with the other ones. They keep them in storage. Their children will wear them. But sometimes it also happens that their dogs go out wearing them. And why not? A face is a face.
Other people change faces incredibly fast, put on one after another, and wear them out. At first, they think they have an unlimited supply; but when they are barely forty years old they come to their last one. There is, to be sure, something tragic about this. They are not accustomed to taking care of faces; their last one is worn through in a week, has holes in it, is in many places as thin as paper, and then, little by little, the lining shows through, the non-face, and they walk around with that on.
What does my face look like these days? I look in the mirror and can’t tell. There is no way to make a positive determination. I presume it is new. I rarely see anyone from my former life who might confirm or refute this.
My belief in the possibility of new and old face-to-face encounters as the means of my transcendence is strong. I wonder how theses new faces will change when they learn new official information about me. I will see that knowledge instantly displayed on their face even if they show no change at all.
I sat in a small office around a table today and saw other faces of members of The Registry. I don’t know what I am looking for in the looking but I want to see them as real people and not look past them. I saw absolutely no disguises in the faces of today. I will never forget any of them. They are, perhaps, maps to places in our culture that no one wants to find unless there is profit in the finding.
Every face deserves recognition. We look past too many in our society. I have looked past faces before, particularity in high school, almost never as a high school teacher. We must try to look harder, even when a face turns away in a parking lot or hides online in hate. It’s harder to look at faces when you are looking at phones all the time.
I am learning to see, too, in a new way. It’s actually going quite well. I sense a better acuity with crucial details, such as that smile on a coyote’s face when I saw him running in the shoulder of the road. It was raining and he was smiling. That was a good face. I saw something important in it.
Find a face you haven’t seen and look at it. Say something real to that face, not a pleasantry or pedantry. Look at that new face and report something to yourself about it. Notice ten new faces a day and make reports. Track down old faces that need or require reexamination. You know who those old faces are. And the new ones are all around you. Your face does count in this reporting.
After the meeting, I saw one of the faces in the room walking down the road. I pulled over to him and rolled down the window. Our faces met. I gave him one of the books I have written. He smiled. I smiled. I drove away and checked the rear view mirror. The man’s face was buried in the book as he walked. I looked in the mirror, leaned over, and saw my face. There was something okay there.