writings and poems by Patricia Fontaine

Welcome to this small collection of poetry and essays written over the last 30 years. The writing here accompanies the embedded video of a reading I did in April 2014 for Delicious Words, a local fundraiser hosted by artist Dianne Shullenberger. They include poems about life with a birthmark, poems that helped me navigate cancer and what it means to heal, very recent work, and an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress called Weather Is Here, Wish I Was Beautiful: Postcards from the Edge of My Face.

The remaining essays are selected from a graduate thesis for Goddard College called Finding Beauty: Geography of a Birthmark.



The child is marooned on an island.
She is there because of her face.
It is an island
in the middle of a family,
a school, a neighborhood.
The color on her chin and neck
is somewhere between
grape and royalty. Where she
goes, the island goes. Her sisters
whisper up against the shore,
her parents gesture and flap
overhead. The cruel stones
of boys clatter.

No one touches her there
except doctors and dentists.

But then,
there were dogs on the island,
birds and worms and violets,
a whole greenhouse full
of carnations.

The Nest

When cancer roared in, the careful nest of my life
was blown from its tree, twigs scattered,
threads of birch bark and horsehair and fungus,
the breast feather lining strewn,
one of two eggs broken,
innocence like yolk
running out.

After the tests and the surgery
I had to rebuild it stick by stick, ask
how did this nest hold together,
how can it safely cup
one oval breast

It is lonely,
cells and skin insecure
of their symmetry.
It sits in the new woven bowl,
gratitude like spidersilk,
braided in with fear,
tenacious and invisible.

Even Ground

Lately, when someone
snags on my face,
especially a grown up,
and they cannot refrain
from sneaking a glance
at such marks,
the barest whites
of their eyes showing
like a spooked cow
that doesn't comprehend
the creature before it,
I tender a small smile.
When our glances cross,
they may feel foolish,
perhaps very human,
and there,
we are on

Oak, and Joy

At the choral meet, I stand next to Oak.
We fold back beige pleats at a window
to see the broad sun of September.
She tells me that her cancer's lesson was
Uterine cancer. Looked bad.
She arranged her "affairs"
as doctors advised, as if that word
could hold the splay of life inside it.

She was reprieved, clean margins.
She began next morning
to inhabit the life she had.
She tells me,
"Now I make my coffee and go out and visit
the flowers and bees and grass
and there is joy and I let it in."

Acute happiness for Oak, but
I am chagrined by this week's
running hustles to work
past wasps at their apples;
quiet shouts of morning glories;
wet silver in the unmowed grass;
clouds torn from each other.

As we begin to sing scales
I see that in naming these things
I received what was essential,

which is the calling of joy.

Sap Icicles

Along Bostwick Rd.
cold wind froze sap
from just-pruned maples
I saw a chickadee
at an icicle tip, so I
stopped driving and
put my tongue
to the cold tears of the tree.
I tasted flint, maple steam
when it first rises off the pan,
I tasted the shimmer
of life pulsing up inside
the cool grey bark
as soon as the sun
begins to apply
those long warm hands.

The happiest child was tongued to that tree,
The saddest child grieved the lost limbs,
and together, we grew up inside
my black quilted coat, and became
this white haired woman who cared nothing
for the cars who slowed and stared.

Grade B

We had a nice warm day on the 24th and some farmers got out their tubs and tapped the trees. Then yesterday was one of the worst of the winter. It "snewed and blewed" furiously all day. - 12 inches of snow. Hurrah for old Vermont! Today is warm again and the maple sap is running.
A letter from March 26th, 1909 by Doug Bragg's great, great grandmother, Anna Bixby Bragg.

Spring does not begin in my body until
my head is over Doug Bragg's evaporator,
steam around us like a creature,
warm, pussy willow grey, hinting
sweetness as sap laps along the pans.

One day when March was coming apart
out in the muddy yard, I entered the
sugarhouse and could not make Doug
out, just heard the thunk of thick wood
into the boiler, saw a suggestion of his
flannel shirt near the orange maw.

When he took a break to ring up
my bottles of Grade B, we visited a bit,
and he pulled out a sheaf of letters,
Anna's writing elegant and cramped
lining out the vagaries of the season,
all that tapping and hauling, the
hunkering alongside the boil however
long it took, the season all sweat and
shiver like the flanks of the Belgians
that stood up burly and patient.

"Hurrah for old Vermont!" she exclaims,
and a memory skids in of my grandfather
pouring Vermont Maid on his jello,
his soft-boiled egg, his ice cream,
and telling us how they used to
boil eggs in the sap, on the farm
just over the border, then one he left
with $17 jammed in a pocket when
he was 17. When I brought him the
good stuff after living here awhile,
he smiled and showed his small square teeth,
held out the hand known to pigs and
later, hammers. "Tres bien," he said.
We got out spoons, and we tapped that jug,
and we did not talk, but hummed a little.

Slow Car

Yesterday, a rusty bumper white sedan
kept a steady 30 in the 35 zone.
Instantly, impatience frothed
like sour foam in the mouth
of a bitted horse, chafing to be
sooner to the classroom,
to set out tin cups of color pencils
and little trays of paint,
the push to be early as red as an ambulance.
This urge to overtake is not new.
I would never admit the toxic rush
of how it feels to pass
on the double yellow line.
At the corner where I
expected the car to turn,
as most unhurried cars do,
reluctant to climb the hill
to the sprawl of hospital
and what waits there,
it kept going straight along,
and I saw 2 furred triangles
prick over the back seat, listening to
invisible words from its human.
The hurry drained away.
All ill will for the white car flipped
to grace, like a big shouldered
angel put her hand on mine,
and kept it there, until exasperation
slowed, and steadied, and got
the hell out of the way.

Squirrel, Rescue

Grey squirrels have been
systematically disassembling
the suet feeders, one completely
gone, another with its green
metallic chain inexplicably
uncoupled. So I fixed it,
put in a fresh cake of suet.
When I returned at noon
one of the greys dangled,
hind ankle wedged hard
in the notch of the feeder.
On went heavy gloves,
a jacket just shucked off, boots.

I said, "I'm here to help you."
It replied a gravelly hiss.
I reached out and pushed up,
squirrel, hand a tangled roil.
Suddenly squirrel high in the air,
twisting cat-like, landing
paws-out on a cedar.

Nearby, my heart was quiet,
a shimmer in the place
where we met,
where the "me"
flickered out for an instant,
rescued from its invisible,
shuttered knowing.

Wren in the Storm

Watching the snow split and shriek
around the back of the house,
something small flitted out
from the heart of stacked Adirondacks,
long bill, tail tilt, Carolina Wren,
cinnamon feathers held
snug to the body even as
a gust splayed its tail
and it tightened in place,
need and danger in
balance as the snow
spiraled, a wide whirl
it peered at,
leaned into,
vanishing to the place
my hunger would never

What Birds Know

What if we were never asked to be
this ligamented scaffold of bones
and red muscle, organs and their
actions of plus and minus?

I would be a bird for sure
if I was loosened
from being human, or,
even in this body,
watch them more closely,
like last night's massive
murder of crows on the campus,
perching, roosting and leaving
vast traces of black in the city-lit night.

What if the soft copper breast of this
winter robin peering in from
the sleeping branch of the tulip tree
kept me company enough, there
on the shoulder of imagination?

It would mean that last week
as I sat trapped at my mechanic's,
the wife and then the daughter
migrating in to air their worn
complaints about stupid everything,
I could be rocked back in the
grey, grease-stained chair,
grateful for the chatter
of their ruffle-feathered company,
how it reminded me of old relatives
chewing the day in my grandmother's kitchen.
I would see how beneath
all the blue jay jeering
they were both as kindhearted as
new, soft, anticipatory nests.

Death Questions for David

Cindy was propped up and gasping.
Shallowing breaths, then none.
Her eyes flew open, then closed,
last spark flaring before it went out.
What happened next was not tidy:
she gurgled,
a nurse lunged in to shout, "It's all right!"
the sister and neighbor gripped her
mottling hands like beggars.

I want to savor the awe part,
but after I am home, I can only replay
the ugly. The anguish is red and black.
It forces two jagged questions:
Is there a place, or is there nothing?

After I dangled from cancer's recurrence
in 1998, I crafted a peace with this.
Beyond death was an open stone
placed at the center of knowing,
a door I had the key to, a skeleton key
that worked on any lock.
Death was just this. . .opening out.

Now, not knowing. And the fear, dark and hard.

One night as David drove me home
from meditation class, I asked him:
what happens when we die? -
my seeds of doubt frantic, like something
filmed over time and speeded up,
all spindly and awry.

He took a breath, said he believed
we were interconnected with everything,
matter became matter of a different sort,
all these strands of energy
threaded among and between us.
As snow sparked in the headlights,
what he said became remembered.
In David's red car, misgiving
moistened and grew green.

Last Sunday we celebrated Cindy.
At 84, Meredith's shaky arms
opened to make a circle.
In Parkinson-hesitant speech
she assured us the circle was large enough,
there was always a hand reaching through.

Lovely Apples

The Apple Tree
"More beautiful now than ever you were
. . .you stand, past use, past
prettiness in the winter of your winter."
- Linda Mc Carriston1

In the forest, color is coming, and every breath or so, a leaf releases and parts, ticking through the tenuous lives of other leaves. In the distance, the head of an aspen quivers. Stills. I see the smooth waists of beech, crackled birch, the striated skin of fir and hemlock.

This is not a domestic place, although a metal spoon with a white handle lays bowl down in the nearby midden. It's far to the north of the apple tree that shed blossom and fruit in our urban back yard, and where my mother, young with purpose, filled her apron with small, mahogany apples to peel, cook, and sieve, rotating the wooden pestle inside the long tin cone. Her applesauce was a little too sweet, and short-lived. I do not remember many years of spooning it warm, but then everything telescopes for children, the labor of mothers reduced to spoonfuls.

My mother banked on pretty. Her apron bow hung neat, and lipstick ringed the filter tips of cigarettes she held, I later learned, like Betty Davis. She kept jewelry in small white cardboard boxes fixed with rubber bands, the words rhinestones or gold pins written on the covers in black ball point ink. In the next drawer down, she kept underwear organized in plastic bags: the panties, the bras, the girdles, the slips, separated by color and fanciness. As a child I went through my mother's drawers often, sliding my hands between the slippery bags, lifting out and opening the boxes. She kept the special black underwear at the back of the drawer: slips with lace and bras that hooked in front. I knew to replace them exactly.

Like her underwear drawer, my mother arranged beauty carefully, taking it on and off with care and Pond's cold cream. It was not something, I realize now, that she ever felt she owned, but was something to be purchased, carefully labeled and preserved.

I imagine this is what she wished to impart to me; purchasing and patting on the thick makeup to hide my birthmark, researching treatments that caused more pain than erasure. My mother could not fathom why I would want to live with marks exposed, why I would want to suffer so. When I came out to her thirty-one years ago over a limp salad in a mediocre restaurant, she told me I'd always been a "masochist of the first water": first the birthmark, and now this - another reason for people to taunt me. Her mouth was stiff with these words; her fork set down on Formica with a sharp clack. (Recently I looked up the term "first water": it is the initial water poured off after soaking wild foods. It is poisonous).

When she died, shortly after turning 85, her face-lift had given way. Before she died, in photographs that fall and summer, she raised her eyebrows so that the skin around her eyes would look less loose. My sisters and I always puzzled about the look of surprise, of glee that was belied in the truth of a smile that merely lifted her lips over capped teeth. Until she died, and we figured out what it meant for her to have her picture taken when she hated her face, her body.

My mother did not think she was ever priceless. Her body was no longer of beauty use.

The night before my mother took her life, I helped her take a shower. I told her I cherished her saggy belly's beauty, the still shapely calves, her shoulders grooved by bra straps. She was embittered and would not hear of it, angry that she had been forced to move to a new apartment by my father. My father who, compelled to upgrade, underestimated the toll it would take on my mother as she struggled to find a purchase with a memory that was increasingly perforating.

The price it would take.

My appreciation of my mother's loosening body did my mother no good. My appreciation slid off her waterproof skin like drops that escaped the towel, like tears her skin was shedding.

To see my mother naked was a privilege, her body, like Mc Carriston's apple tree, past use, past conventional beauty use, past nourishing the hungry gaze of men and the lure of advertising youth. I cannot help but think of the exasperation I feel when anyone extols the virtues of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. The tree in the book is female, and she steadily gives of herself to the needy and clueless man until, old and unsteady, he sits his old bones on the stump of her. She has given everything that made her alive to the man, and now he sits on her stump. "Past use."

My mother did not have roots enough to fathom, toweling off her bitter drops, that she was "More beautiful now than ever you were . . . past prettiness in the winter of your winter." My mother had no receptor site for the distinction between pretty and beauty, the first being what many men see, the latter, a loveliness that lives above, below, and beyond skin, makeup or not.

Once, years ago, the summer I returned to my family after the first round of cancer, I asked my mother to go swimming with me in the warm August ocean off the south shore of Cape Cod. As we paddled about, touching the ridges of sand with our feet and looking at our hands in the clear salted water, I urged her to take off the top of her bathing suit. The beach was deserted, late in the day and golden lit. I'd been talking to my mother a little about feminism, about the rights of women to love their bodies as is. About how good it might feel to float freely. About who cares? My mother looked at me, bit her lip, and then she did it, slid down one strap and then the other. Flipped over the stiff cups of the bodice. Our breasts bobbed just below and just above the surface, like lovely apples. I swirled, and she swirled. We laughed out loud, like we were getting away with something.

1McCarriston, Linda. "The Apple Tree." Eva-Mary. Chicago: Another Chicago Press. P.11.


Bare Staring: An Essay on Looks Taken

My friend and colleague in physical difference, Eli Clare, used to sit on his hands as a child to stop the tremors. Cerebral palsy makes his speech slur, his right arm shudder, his gait uneven. Eli gets stared at. He gets gawked at. He gets gaped at, and he has strangers think nothing of piercing the privacy of his walk, meal, or presentation to query, postulate about, or advise him on his physical symptoms. They just barge ahead.

Clare has written eloquently about his experience of being gawked, gaped, and stared at. 1 One of the acts of resistance he's taken on to counter the gawking is to gawk back. Clare gapes at the gapers. And he flirts hard with those of his kind (transgender folk) as a matter of pride. Eli is no super-crip, someone social norms have elevated to be emulated for "overcoming" their disability. Nor is he pitiable - his stance and presence in the world precedes him down the street or in the classroom like wind picking up.

This essay addresses a question posed to me recently about my own experience of having my birthmark gawked at. Although I've written extensively on being the receiving end of what I call "the stare," I've yet to think in terms of resistance. Unless you count the "I dare you to gawk at me while I am smiling at you," resistance, or the ever popular "it's OK if your child has questions" pre-empt of the child asking the parent in a loud voice "what's wrong with that lady?" Or worse, the child breaks into terrified screaming and pointing, at which point I usually beat it to the nearest exit. The difference between Eli Clare and me is that it is not my body that the kid is pointing to, or that people do double takes about. It is my face. How does one create resistance to being stared at? And how in the name of creation does a woman with a mark flirt through it, fiercely flirt with how others see me as my mark rather than my me?


I need to talk about two things here that intertwine: the challenge and context of being 'appearance disabled;' and the experience of being stared at, both historically and culturally. This is a complex ride.

When did I become aware of the stare? Had to be grammar school, the age at which I had enough of a little self on board to notice that I was last chosen for games on the playground. This was the second slap; the first being how kids' heads snapped around when I came into school that first day. And this is where the complexity begins as well, because I don't actually remember the head snapping. I think my first act of resistance, or perhaps, protection, was to create the counter to the stare: the blur. The blur allowed me to tune out the staring by focusing my gaze elsewhere, ignoring, pretending, and essentially obliterating a presence of staring other - as if it was not happening, and surely as if I was not the cause.

Ani, a young woman with a port wine stain featured in Fiona Whittington Walsh's thesis "The Broken Mirror: Women, Beauty, and Facial Difference," says about her experience of the stare,

We walk around in the world making eye contact and we react non-verbally to people in our world. For me to protect myself I need to ignore. To ignore these non-verbal communications that are going on around me - towards me, at me, bombarding me…I notice every single stare and that is the paradox of this. I am always looking at how people are looking at me always, constantly. And, then I see how they are looking at me and then I ignore it. I put it someplace else.2

As Ani notes, the blur also holds the reality of hyper-vigilance. Curiously, this is another place Clare and I differ. In private conversation, Clare has noted that his sense of blur entails an obliviousness to stares. My blur encases me, but still illuminates the starers, like special infrared glasses or radar. Scanning, seeking, and recording.

For me, the blur really didn't come into play until I was on my own in a school setting. It's not that there weren't shouted cruelties at the local ice cream shop or drugstore from stranger kids, but my younger sister Jean was my buffer then, my witness, and would often taunt back, turning us away with a huff and the dignity small children can employ when no parents are around, becoming the adult proxy for each other.

But as I grew older, the blur became less and less effective, especially as I quit using makeup and took my full color out on the streets. Although I still use the strategy to great effect, I can not quite block the other, and I can not quite divert the rush of shame that still surges, unbidden, about being the recipient of someone's unasked for gaping. My chief strategy is often to force myself to make eye contact with the gawker, the hope being that I will either shame them in the act of staring, or exchange some spark of humanity, my smile begetting something unexpected and genuine.


What is a stare? My computer dictionary tells me it's a long concentrated look at somebody or something, often full of curiosity or hostility; to look wide open with shock, fear, or amazement; to express rudeness or defiance. What resonates with the descriptors are the words: concentrated look, shock, fear, rudeness. I do not field amazement, nor do I field hostility. But I do field the stare, like a baseball lobbed in my direction that I have to catch or it will smack me in the head. I perceive the staring as rude. But is it? How else are people to verify what their visual cortex is registering? I know, because I do it too. Only I am clever about it, making sure I am well out of the person's radar before I sneak my look at the wheelchair, the scar, the colored face. I want information to fill in the dissonance in perception. Sadly, I also have an internalized template of normative appearance, but damn it, I know this, and I fight it. Or rather, I engage a self-talk that lets me know I am seeing the other as other rather than human.


This happens on a continuum, and here one gets into the other place with my face: the continuum of disability. I have had many conversations with Eli about the fact that I am certainly gawked at by the curious and invaded by the well meant, bent on 'enlightening me' that there is 'something I can do' for my face. Or there is that type of benign invasion, my version of super-crippped face, in which slightly breathless folks tell me I am so brave and courageous. This always bewilders me: brave and courageous how? Because I choose to teach and be mistress of ceremonies and attend concerts and give directions to tourists? What are my choices? To walk around with a face full of makeup, or wear a Goth hood or grow long hair that I spray in place around my chin, neck, and cheek? But Eli's body is in question, his undertaking of tasks like walking or talking or writing or eating requiring much more time and application than I would ever have to consider. I can cover my face in the aforementioned ways. Eli cannot hide his tremors, control his gait, or drink easily without a straw. I have a body that measures up to norms, but a face that does not.

Perhaps that is why it does not occur to me to resist by gawking back. Not only do Eli and I have different styles of activism, we have different bodies. I am still too leery of provoking further stares by staring back - but Eli is angry, justifiably so, with a history and litany of damage done to the different that I can't hold a candle to. I wonder where my anger is?

I'm angry at the norms, what my friend Ellen Fein calls the "basic pathology" of the culture: one is only deemed OK if the outside appearance looks good. This is the legacy and mission of capitalist interests that fuel consumerist ideologies pervading the West, especially the US, in my opinion; a country in which "good" means bigger, thinner, and richer strivings, and that achieving some or all of these seem increasingly the focus. And a focus so insidious and interwoven into visual value systems that my students, for instance, are genuinely surprised and shocked by the real motivations behind advertising and fashion: to keep women insecure about their looks and endlessly buying Sisyphean products (the boulder of "looking good" forever rolling downhill once the treatment/purchase/ diet is completed) that will never allow true worth, real rest, or solid self-acceptance. What follows the rolling down of the boulder of consumption is the flattening of and disconnection from what our insides are - our soul, spirit, wildness, and rock-solid connection to self. This is the essential context that surrounds staring, and helps fuse what is a simple human response of peering curiously at difference with moral judgment, hierarchical sorting, and condemnation.

Yes, I am angry at the norms, but not at the starers. Funny, but despite my shame at being stared at, the often unbearable strain of the daily onslaught, my resistance is to move on, and work toward holding and stabilizing my vulnerability in the face of my face's magnet for gawks. This is not always successful. There are times when I don't exactly hate humans, but feel the urgent need to retreat to a place where there will be no interaction, and hence, no staring. I do not want this to be my living.


Staring is bare. It bares both the object stared at, and the person staring. There is something here right on the edge of possibility - not to honey the act, but to reframe the stare in such a way that I channel that primal shame reaction into something else. Truth is, it is not the staring that I need to resist. I can fight to educate and surge awareness into willing ears about beauty norms and disability discrimination. But the stares…I think there is something animal to gawking.

My friend, psychotherapist Jean Reinsborough, chewed on this notion with me in the midst of a vast auditorium of starers at a Bonnie Raitt concert. She wondered if the double take is rooted somewhere in the lizard part of the brain, the part that knows that anyone new to the fire could be a threat to the little band, cracking marrow out of their mastodon bones. Others have chimed in with this idea, wondering with me when the onset of "other" began, and the wedding to a flinch and defend response.

But we are not animals completely, long since trained out of our senses, our reciprocal perception with other living things. What earth-based, spirit knowing peoples know intrinsically, most of us urban white folk not only forget but also suspect. How can I bridge the suspicion, the wary look that flits across a face regarding me, especially the flinchy fear some children brandish? The baby's face that crumples. The boy at the post office who hides behind the twin trunks of his mother's legs. And in China, when I visited there in 1986, the old ones who made the sign to ward off evil.

What if I simply allow the stare? What if I, on a day in which I am wholly inside my own skin, allow the energy of the stare to pass me by, like Aikido, but engage the starer in his/her bareness? There is an extreme vulnerability in being caught staring, and an opportunity to go past the glancing visual blows - to exchange the essence of the animal wildness inherent in that double take, and meet it. What if I use my color in this way? What if?

Maybe that's flirting, like how one flirts with babies: deep, soulful, completely bare. Consider: If my face bears staring, someone else's stare in fact bares them.

I'm reminded of a Rumi quote I have over my desk:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.

I looked up the source of the quote, and found this additional stanza:

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about Ideas, language, event the phrase each other doesn't make any sense 3.

There is a profound sense of yes when I read this - as if the spiritual side of the whole configuration of staring is about more than rudeness, space violation, ignorance, and vulnerability. When someone stares at me, they are looking for something to explain the interrupt in normal. In a sense, I am enabling an opportunity to experience something beyond language, beyond the startle even. It is a "full moment." Indeed, the sense of "each other" is there, but it does not make sense in the polite frame of the word. We are both inside the act of the stare. And I began to wonder - what if I join that feeling of shame, and use it as a way to come right to the edge of my skin, the untamed flush of shame flaming all those blood vessels to open and surge? What if I meet the stare, instead of just receiving it? What if I act? Meet the other in the field, standing?

This is not submission, courage, defiance, or altruism. This is attempting to find way soul to soul.

What do you see when you stare at my color?

On a good day, I'll meet you there.

Ugly As Sin

Beauty sits opposite ugly. Ugly trails after being something that is not. Ugly conjures monstrous creatures that lurk in swamps or laboratories or were born under a bad sign. If I want to look hard at the nature of beauty, I need to look at the nature of ugly. Conversations with performance artist David Roche 4 sparked this when he likened his facial deformity to 'wearing his shadow' on the outside. As an external and reacted to flaw, David believes he had no choice but to deal with it. His understanding of this as a "gift from God" intertwines with his heritage as a Catholic "incense survivor."

This notion of shadow as gift has been stuck in my throat for weeks. I've been swallowing hard around what is lodged there, looking at the shameful turn-away shadow self that does not want to look at others like me, finds it hard to cough up compassion for someone who has trouble loving their mere big butts or proliferation of freckles. Yes, I'm being sarcastic, but David's take doesn't quite get to what really fries me: the insidious pollution of beauty norms, and the institutions that keep them in place. But am I just resisting his message of grace? Chewing on my own frayed Catholicism, I was shocked to remember the term "ugly as sin," and the power the notion both sin and ugly wield in the conversation.

I   Ugly, Sin

ugly: 1. displeasing to the eye, unsightly. 2a. Repulsive or offensive; objectionable: an ugly remark. b. Chiefly Southern U.S. Rude: Don't be ugly with me. C. New England Unmanageable. Used of animals, especially cows or horses. 3. Morally reprehensible, bad. 4. Threatening or ominous: ugly black clouds. 5a. Likely to cause embarrassment or trouble: "Public opinion in both nations could take an ugly turn."(George R. Packard). B. Marked by or inclined to anger or bad feelings; disagreeable: an ugly temper; an ugly scene. [Middle English, frightful, repulsive, from Old Norse uggligr, from uggr, fear.]

Synonyms ugly, hideous, ill-favored, unsightly. These adjectives mean offensive to the sense of sight: ugly furniture; a hideous scar; an ill-favored countenance; an unsightly billboard 5.


The sky hangs low, underbellies of clouds beginning to thin as the sun rolls over the half thousand or so walkers, two by three along the grey, segmented sidewalk. We are the last leg of a five-day walk to bring attention to global warming. The road pace, along dirt and tar with fields of short corn from the wet summer and masses of goldenrod has brought us, on this fifth day, to streets. As we enter the city of Burlington, the trees, held back by strip malls and car dealerships, begin to make presence again in the urban yards and parking lots. It is too early for them to turn, but yellowed leaves of the maples are underfoot. They are covered with large black spots, a sudden fungus that is taking the leaves prematurely from their small attachment to branches. I am walking alone, the intermittent companions of the last 3 hours lost in conversation with others. I look at the leaves. I touch my face. Without warning, I want to weep. In the midst of this bipedal and earnest collection of folks who've joined ecologist and Middlebury college professor Bill McKibben's From the Road Less Traveled: Vermonters Walking Towards a Clean Energy Future, my sense of loneliness, of otherness cloys and distracts. I am a self-absorbed deviant.

Someone remarks that the leaves are ugly: a blight. What could be an opportunity to bless the good plain earth under cement and boots, connect to what I know to be true, becomes instead a hamster-wheel of grade school replays: I am walking alone because I am ugly. Shame slinks along. I am 52 for god's sake, I have a meditation practice, I know better. I am a good person.

This is not news, but it is new territory, because in a way I am walking backwards these days, voluntarily walking to explore and reclaim my own lost ecology - the darkest place inside that has a secret passageway to the darkest place under my other colored skin.

In the last few years it's come clear that I have developed an agreeable and entertaining persona in direct proportion to how much I secretly feared I repelled others. I've often wondered what would happen if I stopped trying so desperately hard (with increasing cleverness and denial) to be liked. I began to notice, as I visited this quicksandy place, the shadow there. The conclusion that dawned was immensely difficult, poised to upset the apple cart of 30 years of succor in therapy rooms and workshops, books and trainings. Despite all these years of cultivating self-acceptance, of learning how to meet the daily stares and well-meant but often clueless interventions of complete strangers ("have you ever thought of getting surgery/makeup for your face?"); despite choosing not to wear makeup or take on surgery; despite recent (and heartbreaking) research and analysis of the medical model of "curing" my port-wine stains; despite pals who are steeped in disability activism; despite a 20 year career of teaching, facilitating, and being mistress of ceremonies; despite my place in the public eye; this is my intolerable realization: I bought the cultural definition of my face as ugly.


Performance artist and inspirational speaker David Roche has visited this place. For David, the fact of having what he calls a "facial deformity" means "my shadow side-my difficulty and challenge-is on the outside, where I have been forced to deal with it 6." Roche, in his performances and essays, reminds us that those of us with facial difference have always been culturally feared and vilified:

The facially disfigured person is the most hackneyed symbol in cinema and theater, commonly standing for something that has gone dreadfully wrong. No other metaphor is so overused as a portent of despair and evil.7

Think Phantom of the Opera. Think Freddy Kreuger, and all the other masked creeps. Think Scar in the Lion King: the "bad" lion (not to mention that the other "bad" lions have dreadlocks and decidedly hip-hop badass personas - but that is another story).

When I considered the collapse of the extendable self I invented to ensure belonging, I began to notice other shadows twined in with the fear of my ugliness. Three in particular showed their sullen edges, like black spots on the maple leaf that someone judged as ugly:

  • I did not want to look long at other disabled folks, especially those with facial differences (yet was compelled to do so). Wince.
  • I would often become deeply offended if someone tried to compare my experience of being stared at/shunned with their acne, fat calves, or tiny scar over the left eyebrow. My story pain trumped. Ugh.
  • And three, when anyone offered that I was beautiful, distrust would set off like a stink bomb, an acrid cloud of disbelief. Damn.

There were sins on my shadow. I could not believe that underneath the million hours of therapy and seeking, my marks took the heat for any difficult experience or yank. Marked, as in the ancient stories, as unloved. Especially, carrying aversion to those that looked like me: seeing the spots on others as the goddamn socio-cultural definition of ugly, oh lord, I had sinned. Not only had I sinned, the sin of un-compassion, but I might as well be ugly as sin. Ugly as sin.

My computer dictionary tells me Sin is: 1. an act, a thought, or behavior that goes against the law or teachings of a particular religion, especially when the person who commits it is aware of this. 2. something that offends a moral or ethical principle; 3. In Christian theology, the condition of being denied God's grace because of a sin or sins committed. I look up the root of sin in the big dictionary. Curiously, the root seems to derive from to be ("It is true." "The sin is real.")8


If ugly is fear, and sin is real, I have really sinned. Happily, this coincides with the leftover black spots of original sin on my soul from being born Roman Catholic in the first place. And with a birthmark? Now I know the territory. How utterly inconceivable that a wildly well-educated feminist would still carry these implants.

It occurs to me, as I grow weary of kneeling at the altar rail of this essay doing penance (the usual fate for those of us Catholic kids in the 50's and 60's after confessing our sins: to kneel and recite a set of prayers in measure to the sin's severity - decreed for us by the priest behind the screen in the velvet draped confessional booth), that curiosity has jostled awake, along with shame. Intense curiosity. I want to know why I have this face. Not just my internalized sin - I am savvy enough about the nature of oppression to know that this is the commonest of defense mechanisms in the face of perpetual disenfranchisement of belonging.

I want to know what I can do with this face.

Reading Anne Lamott's review of David Roche's show sparked something. She recalls Roche 'secretly giving instruction on militant self-acceptance:'

"We with facial deformities are children of the dark," he said. "Our shadow is on the outside. And we can see in the dark: we can see you, we see you turn away, but one day we finally understand that you turn away not from our faces but from your own fears. From those things inside you that you think mark you as someone unlovable to your family, and society and even to God.
All those years, I kept my bad stories in the dark, but not anymore. Now I am stepping out into the light. And this face has turned out to be an elaborately disguised gift from god."9

I don't know about stepping into the light, but I do know that I want to track ugly and beauty. When did ugly arrive? Was it in a pope-mobile, all stiff vestments and daring my little self to argue? Did it slip in as I looked around and saw no faces colored in patches of red and purple? Was it notched when my sister's boyfriends wouldn't really look at me? What's the deal with beauty?

II   The Deal with Beauty


As I bring this dilemma into conversation, this tangle of ugly and beauty and sin and shadow, Marcia, a guide of mine, allows that in non-duality, everything is beautiful. There is no ugly or pretty. This reminds me of an answer to my bid for one word/sentence definitions of the notion of beauty - an informal survey that began this summer and has garnered wildly varying responses: from "Fred Astaire" to "What it feels like when you resolve an argument or finish a really good book or movie and you sigh," to "the smell in my grandmother's clothes yard." But by far the most intriguing answer came from Bill.

I met Bill in July at an advanced training to facilitate Mind Body skills for clients and staff in adjunctive health settings.10 Bill was an oncologist from Indonesia - amazingly young, hip t-shirts, and a decidedly shaved head. When Bill came over to talk with me, I was surprised to see that his eyes glimmered with tears. Bill took me by the shoulders. He leaned in. He was that urgent. He told me that his definition of beauty was simply "every." He meant that it went even beyond 'everything' to the simplest common denominator of "every." Of course there is suffering and evil and pain, but from a Buddhist perspective, this is all part of the whole. He tells me this and looks closely to make sure I understand. I do. He walks away, ducking his head. My mouth is open, I am breathing hard, like I just ran upstairs. Sacred stairs.


When did I part from "every?" I want to know when it started, this self-aversion that projects to otherness as avoidant. I know the big parting was my birthmark surgery, and the small parting was the first application of Covermark makeup to my birthmark prior to that. But was there something earlier?

Marcia: "When your mother (and father, though my mother was the agent here) ignored the doctor's advice about you as a baby to love you as you are."
Me: "Oh."

I begin to weep, a kind of seeping, like water that finds its way through stone cracks and begins to glint where the light finds it. I have a sense of the lonely child, at play and ease in the natural world but terribly skittish about being anywhere but under the backyard pine trees or the distant barn where we kept a horse or my grandparent's brook one street over. Marcia reminds me that when anyone is unmet in their innate joyous state, it is natural to assume that something is wrong: with them.

This reminds me of why, when someone tells me I'm beautiful, I have such an aversive response. My mother was not congruent, as Marcia puts it, with her avowals of me as beautiful. As soon as I was conscious enough to sense what my mother meant with all her non-congruent gestures, I fused into "other." Other with something wrong. Other that could not by any stretch, be beautiful. And other that began to secretly suspect that there was something wrong with all the other "others." All those others who got stared at because of how they looked or behaved. If I did not look at them, I would not be compared to them: the droolers. The rollers. The thick lipped and beetle browed. The wildly gesturing. The cane tappers. The blunt voiced.


I am reminded of these ardent lines from Galway Kinnell's St. Francis and the Sow:11

The bud
stands for all things,
even those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing:
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers from within, of self-blessing…

Kinnell continues to tell the story of St. Francis, putting his hand on the rough brow of the ordinary sow, how we come to see the loveliness in the whole long length of her, the perfect loveliness. The contradictions of ugly and beautiful and how they lay together on the straw. Where does one begin, the other, soften its edges?

Sigh. I think of the term uglybeautiful, used by African American women in reference to church hats. And of the oil slick that broke my heart this morning in Lebanon, oil from bombed oil tankers disgracing the beaches, sinking to thick poison on the sea floor: surely there is an iridescence to the oil that is terribly beautiful.


What is ugly? Is it only relative? Marcia reminds me of recent writings about the Golden Mean: how the holy 3:5 proportion 12 is indeed echoed in the design of the sunflower, the eye and ear, so that in truth, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Literally. Ugly would be that which is non-proportionate. I look out at her carefully tended gardens, at the chubby blue spruce (plant name: "Fat Albert") silhouetted against a fretful sky. Reach for the dictionary conveniently located to the right of the armchair. Look up ugly. Dismayed there is no deeper origin (origin obscure) other than "fear." Marcia crows, "that means ugly is a derived state, not a natural state!"

If fear/ugly is the primary distortion of being not about love, then fear is not love.

Marcia: "Your mother is afraid for herself, and afraid for you."
Me: "How? Because I'm a reflection of her?"
Marcia: " Yes."

Ah. My mother's unresolved fear/revulsion is what I pick up when she tells me I am beautiful. If she could cover me up, she didn't have to feel guilty. I am reminded again of the mother/daughter workshop I took my mother to in the mid 90's. I'd been teaching my Mother Daughter course for ten years, and stoked the illusion that this workshop would give us ground to "tell it like it is." How disappointed I was when I tried to 'tell it like it was,' woman-to-woman, about my pain as a kid with a birthmark. My mother could only talk about her guilt at having me. She was consumed by making it right. There was not room in that tight stall of her psyche for my experience or emotional life.

I mull on this notion of beauty, of being called beautiful, how I mistrust it, yet how often I hear it. Where's the congruence? Marcia looks at me a moment. Tells me that she often thinks of me as beautiful, but that it's not just my face: it's the whole of me - the person becoming, so earnest about learning, about opening doors, heart. Hmm. I can see this. But there is still a bit of neoprene, thinner now, guarding known beauty.


Late last night, after I sit in a basement with my tracking group and view radiant slides of bobcat, moose, mink, otter, mountain lion, and lynx, I am finally able to connect with Laura Pole, a musician and nutritionist I met at a Smith Farm 13 cancer retreat who wants to hash over ideas for her book about healing foods, and the stories behind them. She tells me a story of being felled by the flu, and a neighbor who brought soup and salt-and-vinegar potato chips, pointed at her, and said, "you need salt!" This neighbor then tells her own story of being a very sick child, having stopped eating and drinking and quite near death - her father came to her with a little bowl of salt, and encouraged her to stick her finger in the bowl and lick it. She did, and grew thirsty, soon hungry. She returned to health. Laura, sick for days, dipped her finger in salt that night, making a little ritual out of her desire to be well. She grew thirsty, and drank. She grew hungry, and ate.

She tells me this and other stories and when I ask if there is a word or metaphor that speaks to all of it, she says wholesome. Yes. It's more than healing, captures the essence of the old stories, the old wisdom held by those with closer ears to the plant world, the spirit of whole, and then some. Whole is everything.


In talking about how he sneaks up on that deep sense of not being wholly alive and hidden with his audience, David Roche tells us: In my work on stage, I acknowledge and play upon that universal sense of being flawed. Then I introduce a different, more powerful metaphor- one that is more true, and more healing. One that is defined by its true owners, those who live it. My through line is: to survive spiritually and emotionally, I have been forced to find my own inner beauty. I have discovered that I am a child of God. I am whole. And my face is a gift, because my shadow side is on the outside, where I have had to deal with it. Paradoxically, I have been made whole through, and with, what originally seemed to be my flaws.14

It seems that, like David, and St. Francis, and Galway Kinnell, and Laura Pole, I have a chance to reteach myself about loveliness.

I don't think I will take David's route exactly - I still flinch from the word flaw, and find myself looking for another purchase in how to bridge that sense of reclaiming what is already given that uses words that are not relative to norms, to clear smooth white faces, so brightly lit by bleached teeth that shadows don't have a chance. Shadow is the treasure place, the mystery room, where the root of sin is "true," and ugly is an unjustifiable relative.

Here is the deal with beauty. Perhaps this uglybeautiful notion can be offered to all the 'otherness' stuck in those hidden inner cracks and sticky human corners: Beauty is not appearance. Beauty is, like Bill from Indonesia says, every.

1Clare, Eli. “Gawking, Gaping, Staring.” Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories. Bob Guter and John Killacky, Eds. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2004.
2Whittington Walsh, Fiona. “The Broken Mirror: Women, Beauty, and Facial Difference.” Thesis, Graduate Master of Arts Program in Sociology, York University, Toronto, Ontario, 2002. P.68.
3Moyne, John, and Coleman Barks, trans. Open Secret: Versions of Rumi. Translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks. Putney, Vermont: Threshold Books, 1984. P.8.
5American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th Ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. P.1866.
6Roche, David. About David Roche. Website introduction. www.DavidRoche.com.
7Ibid. My Face Does Not Belong to Me.
8American Heritage Dictionary, P. 2028.
9Lamott, Anne. Sincere Meditations. http://www.salon.com. P. 2.
10Mind-Body Medicine Advanced Training Program. Claremont Resort and Spa, Berkeley, California. July 21-26, 2006. Advanced component of MindBody Medicine skills training focusing on small group facilitation theory and practice.
11Kinnell, Galway. A New Selected Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. P. 94.
12Doczi, Gyorgy, The Power of Limits: Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art, and Architecture. Boston: Shambala, 1981. P.27.
13Smith Farm Center for the Healing Arts, 1632 U St., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20009. A small non-profit arts and health education institute dedicated to serving people facing life-threatening illnesses, caregivers and medical professionals.
14Roche, David. My Face Does Not Belong to Me.

Home Writings by Patricia Fontaine Healing Art & Writing Classes and Workshops About Patricia Resources Contact Patricia Fontaine Marooned The Nest Even Ground Oak, and Joy Sap Icicles Grade B Slow Car Squirrel, Rescue Wren in the Storm What Birds Know Death Questions for David Lovely Apples Bare Staring Ugly As Sin