"Phantom Of The Social Opera"

[Article I wrote for an online magazine in 2007.]
Phantom Of The Social Opera
Once in Cincinatti while standing in line for The Phantom of the Opera, a man struck up a conversation with my friends and I in the street. He waxed poetic about the wonder of high school students on a chaperoned trip to see a classic Broadway production. This is a great country, he said, and paused. Cleft palate? He asked me, gesturing to my cleft lip and palate. I nodded. Now that's what I'm talking about, he said. That's America. Then he asked for fifty cents from the chaperone who had just come to get us, was declined and went along his way. I remember thinking it a strange coincidence that it was Cincinatti, the city where I underwent all fourteen or so of my surgeries, where a stranger should be so forthright.
Some people might find his remark rude or patronizing. I do not. You see, it wouldn't have been nearly such a strange coincidence were it not for the fact that most people will go to great lengths in my presence to avoid saying anything related to my facial deformity. They fear they will reopen some emotional wound. This is unfortunate. If I am angry with God, if I am angry with Fate or Nature, that is my problem. If, on the other hand, I SEE God in the face with which I was born, that I identify with every day when I look in the mirror, that bears the scars of generations of work of doctors over a natural phenomenon of unknown cause, then this, too, is something you may never know if you are too insecure to voice your own thoughts.
I would like to do my part to pierce the veil of silence. If I speak my truth instead of waiting all the time for someone to ask me the right questions, maybe you can take it as your cue to speak your answers to all the questions you wish people would ask you. I've been given enough cues from my heroes, my mentors, my friends. It's time I asked the questions myself and filled in the blanks with answers from the wondrous life I already live.
Before I continue, a note to those with politically "correct" sensibilities: I did not realize until I was about twenty years old that the word "harelip" (meaning a lip split like a hare's) actually referred to my birth defect, so veiled and obscure were most of the contextual references wherein I found that word. Others will disagree, but I have since accepted it as the more descriptive, usable term. In any case it is tone, intent and context that makes a word an epithet. And I harbor no ill feeling toward hares or rabbits of any type.*
What is it about a harelip that makes people uncomfortable? I believe that it embodies a blind spot in the mythos we have constructed of what it means to be human---but a harelip is more than that. It is a call for human dignity from the very beginning, a challenge to look deeper at the ideals we take for granted. How each of us responds to such a call depends entirely upon the individual. Some see harelip as a weakness to be exploited. Many insist on seeing it as a mere attribute and no more, doing all they can to sweep the whole matter under the rug. To me, both of these approaches falsely paint me as victim, attempting to deny my basic human capacity to find meaning in my experience, which is what it means to turn weakness into strength. To me, a harelip is an awesome symbol. A great part of its symbolic power comes from where it is located: the face.
A face is a canvas in both mind and flesh. It can be a blank slate. Or, it can be a living, thriving metropolis, engaging in every type of activity known to man. A face can encompass the mysteries of birth and sex, old age and death---and still hunger for more meaning, more life, more death. It can be an infant crying for its mother one moment, an old woman quietly knitting her last work the next. A face is the original television, a holy tablet upon which the script of our lives is constantly writ. It is a landscape betraying truths beyond itself in the smallest movement or the accumulated weathering of ages past. A face is actually the entire story of the universe filtered through one single human perspective. This is what I see when I look in the mirror. This is what I see when I look at you.
"What did your face look like before you were born?" the Buddhists ask. It's supposed to be a rhetorical question, but I can offer a rhetorical answer: just like every face that could possibly exist. Just like God's face, if we can accept what is meant in Genesis by "created in the image of God". Here's another answer I could give: I looked like God with a hint of a harelip. My mother would have known this, too, several weeks before I was born and she did find out, had the ultrasound machine not chanced to break down that day she was pregnant with me there in the hospital. But the doctors were well prepared, so that when I was born I was taken immediately to surgery. Thanks to their craft and all of the civilization it represents, I can breathe and speak. To this day I cannot whistle, but thanks to those doctors I can sing. I wear the mark of their tradition on my face like the workmanship of a dike thrown up to protect a town from flood.
My harelip is a product of both the wild, chaotic forces of nature and the unceasing work of humanity to restrain them. Cleft palate is the most common birth defect, affecting about 1 in 700 or 800. It also occurs in animals other than hares: some as a birth defect, others naturally (such as manatees.) Its cause is not known. Some repaired cleft palates on humans are hardly noticeable; perhaps someday soon it will be the norm for there to be no trace at all of the surgeon's work on the faces of cleft palate patients. Perhaps a genetic cure will be found. And perhaps in this way cleft palate will become a thing of the past, swept under the rug for all but the eyes of specialists and medical historians. And then, perhaps one day through our science we will all shine like polished gods and live forever. Wouldn't we use technology to make ourselves immortal if we could? But that is the imaginary future, and in the present (according to this view) I am still left with a shortcoming of medicine obscuring my features.
As far as I can see, only according to this highly idealized view of science is harelip an object of scorn or pity.
What is the shortcoming of medicine in failing to prevent or completely repair my harelip? Precisely that it is not omnipotent. Just that it was born, and is still learning and perfecting its techniques. And as it was born, so it must someday die. If that sounds funny, just try to imagine for a second something dying that has always existed. You can't, of course. It had a beginning somewhere. Think of yourself being born, as you take your first breath. Think of the warm, comfortable, safe womb you are giving up. It's a pretty safe bet to say that just about none of us will ever again experience nine months of such peace. Think of all the times in your life when you had to give something up to get something new. Life and Death are equal parts of existence as we know it. If medicine ever does find a way to make us immortal, it will then have rendered itself unnecessary. As one thing ends, another thing begins. Always.
  It's no secret that death gives life its sense of urgency and immediacy. As applied to medicine, were it not for injury, decay, disease, and defect (such as cleft palate) there would be no medicine. If life was not difficult and perplexing, we would not seek knowledge, enlightment, or God. The twin forces of life and death work together to craft patterns of meaning ever-greater than the sum of their parts. The cycle of death and rebirth is happening in science right now. Old theories are constantly being abandoned or amended as new possibilities are sprouting. Over time they form structures we call great advances of civilization, but who is to say these movements are not part of even greater cycles of death and rebirth?
I believe that in order for us to perceive change in this manner, there must be in contrast an aspect of all things that does not change---a golden thread running through the tapestry of the universe. It is this golden thread that keeps us innocent before we become convinced to feel shame in what we are, and this same golden thread that can help us to reclaim that innocence. The simplest way I've found to express this is found in the Hebrew tale of God's own name being revealed to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus chapter three, the name usually translated as "I Am Who I Am." This is the self-existent principle. It states that everything in the universe, which is just one part of God, exists moment-to-moment as a function of its own being. I exist within God's self-existence---and by extension, God exists within me! I also am who I am, as you are who you are, as we are who we are.*
My face is what it is. My harelip is what it is. What is it? It is a tree struck by lightning as a young sapling, that yet grows. In a society that shames its citizens to cover its own mortality by insisting that they look thus so, act thus so, buy this brand, support this jihad in order to be fully human, I wear my harelip as a symbol of the mortality that resembles all people and all societies. And I wear it with a smile because I am who I am, and I like it.
I don't know what happened to the man in Cincinatti after we went our separate ways. I don't remember his name, or his face. I don't know if he is still alive, if he won the lottery and moved to Cancun, or if he found a warm place to sleep that night. I wish I'd asked him what he meant, what fragment of the American Dream he saw alive and sparkling in my face. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light played off the theatre display glass on an aging bum with a silver tongue willing to play medicine man for some loose change. Then again, maybe he could have told me in just a few minutes some of the things it's taken me years to figure out and then some. I'll never know for sure.
As I slipped into the darkness of the theatre his words faded from conscious memory. Years later, I would remember them and fill in the gaps with my own imagination. Now that's what I'm talking about. As the curtain rose and the spotlight descended on the stage, my homeless friend was the furthest thing from my mind. Now THAT'S America.
The show was spectacular. I slept for the whole bus ride home.
*2010 disclaimer: while the word "harelip" still doesn't offend me personally, it does offend others who have worked and are still working to curb usage of this word. In the interest of solidarity with something greater than myself, I want to concur: the word "harelip" is generally considered offensive and should be used with discretion. That said, there's still a paucity of terminology to refer to "cleft palate", in my opinion. Perhaps through talking about it, better words will arise... the first step is still just to have the conversation.
**Thanks to www.yhwh.com for this unique and powerful take on the the story of God's name.