Seeing Things

Nothing screams desperation like a dachshund in a dinner suit. Granted, there are parka-wearing Pomeranians. But something in their natural coquettishness makes the idea seem less jarring. This is no slight to dogs. I understand well that pets have little say in matters of fashion. My blame, therefore, is apportioned to pet owners. Being people, they display that alarming propensity to assign human qualities to animals and objects in any given moment.

Like it or not, the same instinct that compels children to draw faces on flower paintings lives also in the heart of anyone who has ever met a cat’s gaze and thought to herself, ‘I really must wish him good morning’. Pointless- since the cat will never say anything in return. The same goes for the preened pooch who, should it catch sight of itself in a shop window, wouldn’t recognise the phantom spectacle anyway. Most animals react like this. They dismiss their image as a sort of alien and get on with their day. All except for the Capuchin monkey.

                                                                                                        When faced with a mirror, a Capuchin monkey won’t behave as if looking at a stranger. She will stare into her own eyes. Not quite understanding the concept of mirrors- yet somehow knowing that the reflection staring back isn’t unfamiliar. The image she sees is a phenomenon located halfway between the poles of self and other.

Somewhere along that spectrum is where I spent the latter half of my teenage years- a time when hormonal acne bloomed over my face. Gazing into mirrors, I understood what I was seeing. I just had a hard time believing the red and raw person on the other side was me. For years, I leaned on heavy make-up and found solace in skincare. But soon I found myself shrinking from harsh lighting. Eventually, I had a hard time being around people.

Moving to university didn’t help. Everywhere in my halls of residence I saw people with beautiful skin. As a result, my self-esteem began to disintegrate like a cobweb in a storm. The only option, it seemed, was to lock my dorm room door for fear of being seen- and to avoid the kitchen where my flatmates would congregate. One day, singular in its pitifulness, I felt so monstrous that I set up camp in my room, feasting (as a Capuchin might) on a packet of Brazil nuts that had been gathering dust on a shelf.

Two years later, then an exchange student, I was hiding again. I was in a room with walls painted a blue that fell just outside the spectrum of romantic shades, like cornflower or cerulean. I heard the whir of the air-conditioner and the occasional shuffling sound coming from the other side of the door. This was Wednesday’s fanfare. It let me know that women with towel carts and spray bottles were currently patrolling the corridor. They made everything smell like a lemon tree on a hill.

Outside, a Spanish boy was waiting. I imagined him looking up at my accommodation block- a dreary figure in the mild-mannered rain. And this was autumn rain. The kind that threw everything off-colour- so that the lines of cars, the mercado grocery store, the sardine apartments- all appeared desolate, all a bit green around the gills. ‘It’s raining,’ I typed into the computer, reassuring myself that today was no day for a walk.

I let the curser hover. Reaching an arm over my shoulder, I felt for knots along my spine. His words flashed on the screen: ‘I have umbrella’. One day, after class, this Spanish boy had asked me my favourite word. ‘Cucaracha’, I said, without looking in his direction. Then I heard from him again while taking the tram into the Old Town, where the basilicas looked like ornate sandcastles.  ‘La chica enfadada, ‘ he called me then. Angry girl. ‘Why are you always alone?’

He was right. By that time, making connections with people was a challenge I didn’t know how to rise to. On one memorable fieldtrip to a site perched between Cliff Solado and Guadalentin valley, I had sensed a stronger kinship with nature than with any one of my peers. Surrounded on all sides by Eurasian crag martin and mouflon from the Atlas, with esparto trees seeping perfume into the charred air, it felt to me that I was being pulled towards the clouds in all directions. Like I too was a floating afterthought in the sky.

As we journeyed home, driving past fields where men stood picking oranges ripe as suns, our coach eventually stopped off at a service station, allowing everyone to take a break. As daylight waned and pools of students began forming on the concrete, I caught sight of a female student walking towards me. ‘No estás sola,’ she said over the chatter, strands of ebony hair stroking her forehead. You aren’t alone. With this, someone else had echoed the Spanish boy’s assertions. That I was on my own. That I needn’t feel that way.

It struck me as odd that two strangers had noticed me, even though amidst a sea of dark heads mine must have stood out plainly. Back then, though, when a professor singled me out to answer a question in a room brimming with students, it felt like my social anxiety had become the plaything of some otherworldly force hellbent on humiliation. In an attempt to swerve further unwelcome interactions, I began sitting at the back of the seminar room where lessons in Prehistory were delivered.

It was in this seminar room- with its wide windows that overlooked bundles of pink flowers- that I first learned about Lucy. One afternoon, over the hum of the overhead projector, it suddenly occurred that fragments of the professor’s sentences were floating like driftwood towards me, hovering mid-air until I became newly and distinctly aware of them. ‘A previously unknown human ancestor,’ said the professor in his signature drone, the wind sending shivers through the palm trees. ‘Bones discovered in Ethiopia…three and a half million years old’.

I found myself listening with the ear of a hunter. Though my Spanish had improved over the past few months, I still had trouble following technical language. As a result, (and coupled with the fact that the module I was taking didn’t count towards my finals) I tended to spend most of my time doodling faces in the corners of file paper, daydreaming about which film to watch later that evening. But today was different. Something about Lucy had caught my attention.

She had died quietly. Maybe that was the reason. And the nature of her death was undoubtedly mysterious. (When Lucy’s sensational skeleton was discovered by two young American anthropologists during the days of lava lamps, long knit vests and Led Zeppelin, there was nothing in her remains to indicate a predatory attack had occurred. All that could be said was that she had settled beside a body of water, and died- possibly having drowned or fallen from a tree).

In reality, I now know it was a combination of factors that drew me to Lucy. And these had to do with projection (perhaps making me no different from the people who dress up their dogs). In Lucy, I had seen myself. And being either unable or unwilling to afford myself a scrap of humanity, I cast it all outward. Lucy was where it landed.

As the professor continued, I noticed there was something in Lucy’s physical peculiarity that appealed to me. Donald Johanson- one of the men responsible for the Hadar discovery- once observed that she was a ‘terribly intriguing little hominid’, owing to an apelike skull and jaw that didn’t match a pelvis indicating bipedalism. Lucy walked on two feet. But being such a strange mix of human and primitive traits, she belonged nowhere.

Not so unusual, then, that I was reminded of myself. By the time I learned about Lucy, I had struggled with more than just skin issues. My self-loathing was taking on a more twisted dimension and had mutated into the condition of body dysmorphia. Now the image I saw in the mirror was distorted. My legs, neck, nose, feet, teeth and fingers- all had become objects of distain.

Throughout the lecture, my imagination held to the picture of Lucy buried beneath adamantine layers. I could see her body enveloped in silence. Her bones hardening to rock with the passing of millennia. Alone with a mirror and my thoughts, I was all too aware of my body. Yet in the company of others, I cowered among the foothills of my own being, feeling buried.


As with many people, I have had some time to think recently. A few months ago, I ordered a copy of Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by Donald Johanson. In this book, the author details the improbably of finding Lucy. ‘Hadar is a big place, ‘ he writes, ‘and there is a tremendous amount to do.’ If I had waited another few years, the next rains might have washed many of her bones down the gully. Five years later, she would have been gone.’ Not only that, but others had scoured the excavation site where Lucy’s bones lay in the scorching Ethiopian heat, finding nothing at all. ‘Why the other people who looked there did not see her, I do not know’, Johanson says.

One day, having read the book cover to cover, I pictured myself walking out onto an open plain. It occurred to me then that my old bones were surfacing in the half-light. Now that enough time had passed, a gentle examination could begin. One by one, I held the fragments.

Photo courtesy of Berend Leupen

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