Finding the Right Image by RPCV Poet Ben Berman (Zimbabwe)

Why Finding the Right Image Can Be So Challenging

March 20, 2023

By Ben Berman (Zimbabwe 1998-2000)

I place the six-pack of beer on the counter.

The clerk looks up at me, then down at the beer, then back up at me, then leans in and says, I thought I was gonna have to ID when you first walked in, but now that you’re up close I can see all the gray hairs on your head.

I’m not sure whether to be flattered that he thinks I look twenty years younger than I actually am or upset that he’s noticed that I am starting to go gray.

Although, after I get home and examine my head in the mirror, I realize that there is something about the word, gray, that feels off—as though it is too generic a word to capture the intricate blending of complementing colors sprouting from my head.

Later, at dinner, I ask my wife and daughters if they will help me find a more evocative, surprising, and accurate description of my hair.

My wife suggests that my head looks like the lovechild of a panda and koala bear, but my seven-year-old seems downright offended that my wife would compare me to animals that are so adorably cute.

What about storm clouds? I offer. Or campfire smoke?

Both of these images seem somewhat accurate in terms of color, and I like that they speak to the impending dangers of a midlife crisis. But there is something too billowy about their presence. The grays on my head aren’t about to be blown away, and I need an image that is more accurately textured.

Salt and pepper, my wife suggests.

That one’s familiar, of course, and I kind of like it. But it feels imprecise. My hair is mostly the color of pepper with a little dash of salt mixed in. Pepper and salt would be more accurate, but even then, the secondary meaning of the word pepper seems to suggest that it is the black peppered about.

Part of the challenge is that I want to find an image that speaks to the rapid changes of aging. For forty years, I have enjoyed thickly settled jet-black hair, and now all of a sudden, it is as though the top of my head is being gentrified—all these little white clusters popping up all over the place.

I think your hair is beautiful, says my five-year-old. Like the color of a princess’ poop.

This comparison is certainly surprising, evocative and tonally complex, but unless that princess has been taking iron supplements it is also totally inaccurate. And yet, I appreciate the absurdity of my five-year-old’s suggestion and how it frees my mind to traverse the surreal.

It’s never easy coming up with an image that works on both a literal and figurative level, and I am looking for something that is both visually accurate but also reflective of my resistance to the fact that my youthfulness is beginning to fade.

My hair’s not gray, I suddenly say. It’s Dorian Gray.

My daughters look at me like I am an idiot, and even though there isn’t anything visual about that line, there is something about the mixture of playfulness and seriousness that I like.

I’ve always considered myself young at heart, but now my body is starting to tell a different story.

And later, when I sneak into the bathroom and use tweezers to pluck a white hair or three, I can’t help but recognize what feels like an ancient literary pull, a deep and existential tug.

Ben Berman is the author of three books of poems and the forthcoming book of flash essays, Writing While Parenting. He has won the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry, has twice been shortlisted for the Massachusetts Book Awards, and has received awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New England Poetry Club and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches creative writing classes at Brookline High School. You can reach Ben at his website.


Leave a comment
  • Ben,

    Thank you for this joyful evocative read.

    If my memory serves, at forty or was it fifty, I recall waking in the morning feeling I was still seventeen while walking to the bathroom to shave and otherwise ready for the day only to find my father in the mirror looking back at me.

    How I miss those gone by days some forty years pate where my father looked back on me from the mirror as now his father looks back on me. Yet what an amazing journey it has been with yet more to become.

    I can’t tell you how to grow older without aging but I can tell you it is possible and I know you will do it.

    Travel on, Ben Berman, your journey still holds unimaginable treasures.

    Be well, Jim w,
    Malay I, ’61-’66

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