Expressive Eyes

The first lockdown was a holiday from myself. The shock of trying to make things work meant there was no time for self indulgence. Clothes were purely functional. My make up bag stayed shut. When things calmed down a little in the middle of Summer I had my birthday and I spent some time looking in the mirror out of curiosity. As I studied my face, I noticed a new development. Three lines, no more than a centimetre long each. Two leaning diagonally in the same direction. One leaning the opposite way. They outline a small area of my face right between my eyes. They are origami instructions. Fold here to make a frown! Three tiny ravines, here to stay.


Covid 19 will leave its mark on us in a myriad of frightening ways that I find too overwhelming to comprehend, so instead I think about our faces. God our faces are really going through it. We have come together, mostly, to do as we’re told for the good of society. We wear masks now. They are common as bottle tops and nitrous oxide canisters on the streets of West London where I live. All these hidden faces! All those coldsores festering! Sales of lipstick have plummeted. There is no lip reading anymore for the deaf. No showing off straightened whitened teeth. I met a man recently who took off his mask briefly to reveal a perfect full orange beard. Surprise he said, wearily.


We have become used to this deficit of face, used to trying to read the whole book of someone’s emotions by their eyes alone. For us who have sight, our eyes are doing all the work. Our eyebrows are dancing like Michael bleeding Flatley over our masks. Up down up down up up up down. No wonder my lines are set. 


I have been learning about eyes. Did you know that the whites of our eyes are unique from the eyes of almost any other species? The official name for our eye whites is the ‘sclera’. Have you ever seen an animal with white around their pupils that is visible like ours? It doesn’t exist. Our ‘sclera’ pops out as a contrast to the colour of the eye. You can see it from far away. It is unique to humans. An Oxford neuroscience researcher Harriet Dempsey-Jones explained this for The Conversation,


"Our eyes are exceptionally formed to catch attention and easily reveal the direction of gaze. Basically, eyes provide us with insights into when something meaningful is happening,"


The human eye is engineered to be revealing. How much of the sclera you see and don’t see is all signals of emotions; fear, sincerity, anger, surprise, sadness. 


Then there’s direct eye contact. When we meet someone’s direct gaze our brains immediately starts to work to make sense of the fact that the mind of another person is engaged with ours. We become more conscious of that person’s agency, of their ability to think and to feel, and consequently that makes us more aware of our own agency. Have you ever heard someone describe the eyes as the only part of the brain that is directly exposed to the world? If that is the case then locking eyes with someone is the closest we can come to touching their souls and being conscious of our own.  I think of that line that Shara Nelson sings so beautifully in Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy; 


‘you’re the book that I have opened, and now I’ve got to know much more’. 


Our eyes are the books of ourselves. They are designed to be the places we go to read each other, and to find meaning. In a Post-Covid mask-wearing world, where loneliness prevails, they are the frontline workers of our faces, totally exposed and exhausted from all the overtime.


As we enter into our second year of a global pandemic, my children aren’t surprised anymore when school is cancelled. My youngest child calls the different tier rules of isolation and quarantining ‘the bad rules’. He is three years old and already he can’t remember life without them. As they become normalised for everyone else, I wonder how will the complex human eye adapt? 


I think of LED letters moving across the front of a mask, a type of self transcribing Siri affair where our eyes become adept at fast reading each other’s words like autocue. Will we wear coloured contact lenses instead of lipstick? Will all of our face piercings end up on our brows? I wonder in centuries to come how our faces will evolve. Will we develop extra strength muscles in our brows for expressing ourselves? Will we have tiny mouths and huge bulging insect eyes?


The author Alice Walker said this. 


'We are all substantially flawed, wounded, angry, hurt, here on Earth. But this human condition, so painful to us, and in someways shameful- because we feel we are weak when the reality of ourselves is exposed- is made much more bearable when it is shared, face to face, in words that have expressive human eyes behind them.'


And god hasn’t the the ‘reality of ourselves’ been exposed in the last year. The pandemic took us out of individualist thinking, and forced us to consider ourselves collectively. It was a reminder not just that we are human, but that we’re that we are only human. Then the terrible irony of the new rules meant that we were forced to spend more time with our individual selves than ever before. All that time to excavate our flaws. To dig them out and dust them off and polish them. All that time to be confronted with our own faces and our own choices, all that time to rage on timelines, and to collect fear from every direction. We filled our glasses with it! Gulped it down. 


I saw my friend post on twitter yesterday, ‘hope is in the post’. The grand solution of vaccinations is hanging in the air. We can handle any sort of torture when the end is in sight. But how to live up to then and beyond? 


The one thing I craved and devoured the most over the last lockdown, was Alice Walker’s ‘expressive human eyes’. I found myself seeking out eye contact. I needed to climb out of my head and into someone else’s. And I can feel myself doing it again now. 


It’s not rocket science, but it can be strangely hard to achieve real eye contact in a big city if you aren’t surrounded by family or friends. I get it when I buy fruit from Mustafa at his fruit stall, or from the lady at the corner shop, or the man who sells coffee at the cafe. I get it from my lovely colleagues at work who I’m lucky enough to get to see every weekday. It’s a tiny igniting of something. A stirring. It’s the feeling of seeing and being seen. It makes me feel, alive. 


As we enter a new lockdown, stumbling drunk on fear and inertia, where every day feels like a mountain to climb; try this. Use your eyes.


If you are lucky enough to be able to take a precious walk, get out there. Wear your mask and look someone in the eye. In real life. Exist in someone’s direct gaze. Say hello. Make a joke. Ask after someone. Shout at someone. Do what you need to do to read and be read. Show someone your soul and get a glimpse of theirs. There’s a relief to it. And at the end of it all, when we’re allowed to be together again, we can compare wrinkles. 


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Here's some text about this photo.

Annie Macmanus

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Expressive Eyes