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February 3, 2004
I have always allowed myself an inward smirk at actors who are still using their headshots from ten years ago, but now I seem to have become one. Mine looks nothing like me, from the curly hair to the uneventful jawline. Time for a new headshot.

Howard the photographer comes to the convent to discuss the shoot. Glasses or no? If I can find them, I'll wear them. Collar or no? Howard is intrigued by clerical attire. He says it's an interesting look. He likes the turtleneck better, though. I tell him I'd better go with the priest thing, at this late date. He shows me pictures of other women my age. He shows me his own. Everyone looks pretty good.

We really want to know what people look like. Radio announcers -- you have a vision of them in your imagination, and it can be disconcerting meeting them in person. Some people only sound tall, dark and handsome.

Authors, too: we think we know who they are because we have read their words. We picture them in our minds, and when we see photographs of them, we're slightly shocked. She sounds so sexy and gorgeous. How can she look like my grandmother?

One answer to this, of course, is that you may have seriously underestimated your grandmother. And the other is that the mind itself is beautiful, and far more potent in its beauty than anything the body can summon. Young people receive this news with minimal interest, but older folks are counting on it.

I look at photographs of Q from when we met. His hair was black. It is now silver, and he has more lines in his face. I don't recall the change. He must look old to other people. But he doesn't look old to me. I have changed too, of course: I used to have brown hair. Now it's blonde.

One of my greatest longings is to travel in time, to see people from other eras. What they looked like. How they sounded. Paintings are of little help: they were commissioned by the sitter, and they flatter. Just like headshots.

And they misrepresent, often. All those blond, blue-eyed Jesus pictures, all those blonde Marys in renaissance clothing. They do not look violent, but they are: they baptize a hierarchy of worth that puts people of color at its bottom. Color and features, height, beauty -- they commend a questionable physical ideal. I would love to see them. I would love to see Mary, brown and dark-eyed. Her Semitic Son. All the saints, as they really were: some tall, some short, a few chunky saints, a black St. Augustine, a Semitic St. Paul.

St. Francis is one of the most-painted saints. Tall, ascetic, handsome -- the usual. Except in one treasured image in Cimabue's fresco on a wall of Francis' basilica in Assisi -- over in the right-hand corner near the bottom. There's Francis, right there: a funny-looking short Italian guy whose ears stick out. Not painted from life, but from a cool-headed description by someone who saw him every day. It's got to be the real Francis.

My headshot will make me look better than I really look. But there are plenty of other photographs around the house, in case anyone wants to remember me as I really was. And those who have never seen a photograph are, perhaps, most blessed of all: it really is the words and thoughts that comprise me. It is those that will survive me. For all of us, the same. They can keep what is within us after our outsides have faded away.


To see Cimabue's Francis, go to

If you happen to find yourself reading this essay aloud, pronounce "Cimabue" correctly (CHEEM-a-bway) and they'll all kow-tow.
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