Sunday, February 10, 2013

The family frown



I dropped my youngest daughter at her work this morning.  The sky was overcast and we rejoiced together in the rain that fell over night. It has been so dry in Melbourne since before Christmas and the plants are wilting. 

On the way home I caught the beginning of a programme, 360 Documentaries, devoted to the humble frown.  It has set me thinking. 

The presenter argues in favour of the frown in this age of forced happiness when even the slightest hint of sorrow gets shunned. 

Rachel Kohn one of the programme's guests speculated that the mark of Cain as described in the book of Genesis might in fact be a frown.  A mark etched on Cain’s forehead after he had killed his younger brother through jealousy and was then sent by God to wander the earth forever.

Apparently Cain feared that if he were a fugitive people would want to murder him as he had murdered his brother, and so it seems, at least according to Rachel Kohn, God struck him with the mark of Cain as a warning for people to keep away.  It was perhaps an attempt at curbing retaliation from vigilantes.  

We joke in my family about the family frown.  My father had one, my brothers and certainly I have a pronounced frown that deepens for me when I concentrate.  And this was another point made in the programme that people do not frown simply to express displeasure when they are sad or angry or when they disapprove, they frown when they concentrate. 

It  is akin to the way your mouth might move when working on something fiddly with your fingers. I’ve seen it in my husband.  He pries loose the clasp on a piece of broken jewellery, or something else small that requires concentration and fine eye hand coordination.  As he wriggles the pliers his mouth moves in unison.  My sister too when we were younger opened her mouth wide into a full circle whenever she applied mascara.

I thought about frowning first in adolescence.  I thought about it as a way of alerting the nuns that I was not as happy at home.  I practised being bright and cheerful at school.  This seemed the best way to win the nun’s approval but in between times I frowned.  

I enjoyed the way the two sides of my forehead came together, skin on skin, to form that vertical line in the middle above my nose. The nuns might take me more seriously I reckoned and they might know that despite my happy go lucky exterior things were not right. 

A frown is a form of communication.  The Radio National presenter talked about the tendency these days to use botox and surgery to eliminate  frown lines, to eliminate the mark of Cain perhaps, or to hide our occasional murderous impulses.

One of my brothers once accused me of writing in such a way as to make people unhappy.  As if I strive to cultivate a frown for sympathy perhaps or to offload my own sorrow.  I’m not sure about this. 

On Face Book there are many opportunities to feel happy: the lol cats; the sudden performances of musicians in shopping centres who burst into song; the happy stories of down and outs who make it against all odds. 

I scroll through and occasionally download these as they pop up on the pages of my friends.  They have a sweet flavour like eating sugar on cereal.  They help me through the day.  But it is the sad stories, the stories of hardship and of loss that tend to stay with me. 

So perhaps my brother is right.  Perhaps I want to linger longer on the exquisite pleasure of melancholy, the way it weaves its way into my life like a thread that I might follow for sometime until it comes time to change threads and then I can feel happy again for a while.  Always glad to be alive, however deep the sadness.  

To feel is to be alive. 

To feel nothing, to suffer boredom, to sense the absolute deadness of despair, the unbearable lightness of being, is something I can entertain, but only occasionally- like last week.  Like a small dollop of Hot English mustard, it infuses the taste but too much would blow off my head.  Take away my frown. 

Years ago I saw my father-in-law minutes after he had died and his whole face, once a bag of wrinkles and harsh lines, was softened such that I almost could not recognise him.  

The slack face of death is something that will come to us all one day but while we are alive, I’m all for the occasional frown mixed in with plenty of laughter lines. 

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