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  • Ursula Werner

Saving My Neck

I have lately become mildly obsessed with my neck. This is not a body part that historically has gotten a lot of my attention, though when I was younger, I occasionally appreciated its length and elegance, especially when I caught sight of myself in silhouette. Unfortunately, any love I had for my neck was quickly eclipsed by hatred for my nose, the Schmidt-Dumont beak I inherited from my great-grandparents. But then, just about the time I made peace with my nose, accepting the large bump in terms of the character it added to my face, my neck started to collapse.

It was like watching the desiccation of a plum or a grape – they’re smooth and taut and beautiful when you first buy them, but if you leave them in a bowl on your kitchen counter and forget about them, they dry up and shrivel, their skin buckles and folds in on itself, until eventually they’ve become a completely unrecognizable new thing, a prune or a raisin.

“What’s all this yak about fruit?” Magda asks. “I thought you wanted to talk about plastic surgery.”

I know nothing about plastic surgery, except that I’ve googled how expensive a neck lift would be in the Washington-D.C. area. The average around here is about $15,000, because apparently, you can’t do a neck lift without also doing a face lift. That’s a lot of money just to iron out your skin. And for what purpose?

“Exactly. Why does your wrinkly, turkey-wattle neck bother you so much? What’s really going on?” Magda always cuts straight to the chase.

Well, it makes me look old, and I don’t want to look old, to put it bluntly.

“So it’s vanity,” she says.

I suppose yes, a big part of it is vanity, much as I hate to admit that I’m vain. I’ve never thought of myself as a great beauty, but I’m always conscious of how I look before I leave the house. Even if I’m wearing athletic clothes, I make sure that my socks match and there’s no visible panty-line on my butt. That’s definitely some kind of fear of mockery by others, a worry that they’ll think less of me because of how I look. Which, if flipped around, translates to a desire for affirmation or validation by others. Something I also have to cop to.

On a fundamental level, my fear of looking old goes to a fear of becoming invisible. Our society tends to sideline and ignore old people, shuttle them off to nursing homes when they can no longer take care of themselves. I don’t want to be unseen and ignored, like a potted plant in the corner. I don’t want to be forgotten.

“What about your own ability to affirm and see yourself? Does your saggy neck get in the way of that?” Magda asks.

Honestly, I’ve never been all that good at affirming myself. Maybe that’s why I’m focused on seeking recognition and validation by others. But even when, in the past, I’ve received recognition – when I’ve achieved some success that society values and that gets me a bit of attention for a brief while – it was a short-lived high. It didn’t make me say to myself, “See? You are a good person.” So intellectually, I know that being affirmed by other people isn’t a permanent source of nourishment.

“Is there anything that does nourish you? Anything that makes you feel whole and valuable?”

I can think of moments. Like on Christmas Eve, when our extended family gets together in the living room, and the younger generation puts on the Christmas pajamas their grandmother has bought for them, and we light the candles on our tree, and we listen to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and we eat cookies and feed cookies to the dogs, and we play piano and massacre a few Christmas carols. Or when I sat next to my friend Janet’s bedside, holding her hand while she was dying, reading to her from The American Journal of Archaeology.

“That sounds to me like you feel visible when you’re with your family and your close friends, when you’re with people who love you and whom you love back. Which is great. You’re lucky to have that in your life,” Magda tells me.

I know.

She’s not done. “So do you really think those people will put you in a corner with all the other wilting houseplants in your living room just because they can see the tendons in your neck? That they either will or can ever forget you?”

No. I don’t think they’ll forget me. As I could never forget them.

“Think about that,” Magda says. “Connect the dots. And when you’ve done that, stop pulling the skin of your face back behind your ears and remember that you’re lucky you even have a neck with skin on it, wrinkled or otherwise. As opposed to just the skeletal remains of one.

Oh no, don’t go there. Don’t tell me that I should be grateful for my neck because at least I’m alive.

“It put things in perspective, doesn’t it?”

Sure, but you can dismiss any of my daily worries on that basis. “Don’t worry about making the balloon payment on your mortgage, because at least you’re not dead.” “Don’t be upset that the Amazon is burning, because at least you’re not dead.” It’s a pat answer that keeps you from really engaging.

“All right. I’ll try. So do you want to know what I would do if I had your neck?” Magda asks.

Yes, what would you do?

“Go look at a photo of Jessica Lange. That’ll tell you.”

Of course, all necks look better with diamonds

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