My first Chinese Medicine teacher was little, not even 5 feet in his sandals, and exceedingly old, I would guess he was pushing 100 – but who knows with these taoist dudes – maybe he was 2 or 3 hundred years old. This guy was an old-world, transplanted Chinese doctor and he was contrary and eccentric – when I first met him I went to shake his hand, but he stood there and stared at my outstretched arm like it was E.T. Perhaps he was impatient with all the odd ways of this culture, but Lee always scrambled my head and had no qualms about reminding me that I was an incurable idiot. I remember daydreaming about saying really clever things to him or getting in the last word or actually being right about something; but that wasn’t going to happen. Even though we spent almost 2 years together, I’m not sure he ever knew my name – or at least he pretended not to. He did have a special Chinese name for me when it came to my needling technique; I later learned that it roughly translated to ‘thumbless neanderthal’ or ‘barbarian hordes’ or something like that. But he did make me follow him everywhere, and I suppose that was a good sign.
Often we would sit on a bench down by the waterfront in Seattle while he ate his lunch and chain smoked. Busy people, immersed in their concerns, glided by us just like the ferries and tugs gliding through the fog and drizzle that floated out on the bay. Here were people of all class, order and genus; a cosmopolitan soup of humanity, and Lee would be intensely studying them as they walked by. Frequently, he would lean forward, point his chopsticks at someone and say things like ‘super bad digestion’ or ‘kidney fire first-rate’ or ‘many liver worries’. This was old-school diagnosis, and he excelled at it. I’d watch him as he would he would study people’s faces, checking out the color and carefully scrutinizing all the lines of their face. These lines could be barely perceivable or heavily carved – it didn’t matter, he could decode their story . . . tales of organs and meridians, signs of vitality and deficiency. In his understanding, these lines, folds, creases on our face were neither good nor bad, it wasn’t better to have or not have them, they just revealed patterns of flow and habit. He would say, “Lines everywhere, on hands, on feet, in ears, on face, all reveal life story.”
Of course, another name for these lines is wrinkles. For whatever reason, I didn’t want to pay much attention to the notion of wrinkles. But being a child of the advertising age, I certainly knew they were considered a bad thing; and I do suppose that we all have been influenced by centuries of desperate efforts – by Cleopatra, by Nefertiti, Galen the Roman, Lillie Langtry, Cindy Crawford and a billion other hapless mortals – to thwart these distressing signs slowly being branded into our faces. Yet I was picking up mixed signals. On one hand, here is Lee describing great rivers of chi and energy indicated by these remarkable, branching lines on our face . . . but then, on the other hand, everywhere I turn, I’m surrounded by a world of anti-wrinkle nostrums, all screaming a much different interpretation.
The paradox is profound, the pressure intense. These lines on our face . . . are they merit badges of our journey, sculpted runes of experience, a hieroglyphic narrative of our brief and shining moment under the sun? Or are they just stupid, embarrassing wrinkles, a wretched insult to our self-image, a pitiless defilement destined to humiliate us? Certainly our values and what we hold to be important will shape our response to this fierce cultural pressure about aging and wrinkles, but I do think that if we don’t take time to consider these issues carefully, then our attention will be simply grabbed by the highest bidder. The situation reminds me of a passage from Frost, “. . . two roads diverged in a wood, and I – took the one less traveled by – and that has made all the difference.” But who knows? Perhaps Lee, sipping tea with his ancestors by now, is studying my face as I write this, grumpily declaring, “too much wind blow through head.”