On Mirrors, or Looking at Myself
How peculiar – the thing I was most afraid of losing is this little mirror, two inches by three, encased in a flat red rubber sleeve. On the front of the case, the word Bermuda lounges above a white triangle.
My grandmother never went there; I don’t know where she got this souvenir. She never travelled, until she came to live with my family for a year when I was six years old. She gave me this mirror as a keepsake and it smelled like cigarette smoke for a few years, as did all her belongings and every gift she sent in the mail.
And not many gifts did arrive in the mail because they were rarely bought or sent; over the years she moved from one room with a hotplate to another room with a hotplate, and never reached a state of sufficiency.
My grandmother smoked whenever she could, ate whenever she could, got high whenever she could. She made a life of siphoning money and energy from other people. She died addicted to Nyquil, penniless, miserable, reviled and pitied, mostly by her own children.
We see ourselves in mirrors.
Or, more accurately, we see reflections of ourselves: a two-dimensional representation of our physical layout. What we see, and whether or not we like it, is determined only slightly by the actual appearance at hand; more important are the ways we’re led to assess ourselves.
This is true for women more than men, in my opinion. Mothers show daughters how to look in mirrors. Hidden in the glass there is something to learn of perspective, something about a working approach to the world. It’s where we put on our faces, style our hair, arrange and smooth our outfits, do our self-assessments.
A mother imparts to her daughters her own paradoxical methods and standards of judgment. An ideal self-analysis involves a compassionate return to our core – the self we cannot see in a mirror – in order to rejuvenate, cope with stress, and strengthen convictions relevant to our situation. Many daughters, sadly, learn the way of doubtful criticism instead and get caught in a trap of blaming and bitterness as a result. For a working perspective doesn’t necessarily mean a positive one.
Women are centres.
Centres can consist of substance or of emptiness. The trick to being a strong woman is to find the balance between those two poles, to discover how and when to allow space or hold it. When we are pregnant, we allow another being to use the space of our womb, our reproductive organs. When we’re busy having sex with another person, the same principle holds. But when we’re separate, we’re separate.
It seems entirely simple, but the difficulty is that once a thing is true, it is often held to be true at all times. Accessibility in women, emotional or physical, is frequently treated as the rule; so a weak woman easily becomes a used one, bitter about her lack of inner resourcefulness and blaming others for it. We do pick up such attitudes from our mothers, whose reactions to being put-upon or emptied by others we’ve observed all our lives.
Throughout my life I heard horrid stories about Grandma – from her own daughter, no less. My grandmother always suffered from mental illness and addiction, so as the eldest child, my mother was forced to pick up after this awful ineptitude. From early childhood, her tasks included going to the pharmacy to pick up Grandma’s prescription drugs, cleaning the house and cooking meals, caring for her six younger siblings, and fending off my sadistic grandfather (unsuccessfully). Naturally, my mother came into possession of an untameable well of anger. It overflowed into my ears and only in early adulthood began to dig its way into my heart.
“I did the stupidest thing by letting my mother come to live with us that year,” my mom would reiterate in my presence. “I felt . . . I felt . . . I felt . . .”
I would listen, understanding, but surrounded by a stone wall of silent protest. A relationship of psychological control between mother and daughter is a strange thing; it really makes you sit still and behave. It makes you absolutely tremulous, as though you cannot hang on to yourself, as though you aren’t yourself and it was just an illusion she made up, your existence.
Many accounts of my grandmother’s slothfulness, verbal degradation, manipulation, rejection, and neediness morphed into accusations against my own character, as I moved into adolescence. Suddenly it was I who’d hated and hurt and rejected my mother since the beginning, who epitomized selfishness and who’d stolen her freedom and given nothing back.
Whose was this reflection I was looking at?
Possibly it was the ugliness my grandmother found in herself and made a lifelong attempt at ignoring. Yet such characteristics also resonated with my own predominant feelings about my mother. I saw my grandmother’s sickly, plaintive face behind my mom’s insistent demands.
And what lay behind those demands? I’m certain it was her longing for whatever she’d been deprived of that caused her to notice everything I wasn’t or couldn’t be. I was also present in this matrilineal mirror image – detestable, shameful, unforgivable. The three layers in my self-perception became my grandmother’s pathos, my mother’s blame, and now, my own confused anger.
As I grew older, I began to feel perpetually constructed according to my mother’s themes of the day. She made me sit still when I moved; she made me listen when I should have spoken; she made me agree when I disagreed, she made me cry when I’d been laughing; she made me weak when I was strong. She made me.
“Someday I’m going to sit down and just tell you,” she announced more than once, “what it was like to grow up with a mother like mine.”
“How about you write it instead,” I suggested, thinking, Write it so you don’t wield it on me, so I can take my time and begin to know all this as I become more ready, so for once I’m on my own terms; besides, haven’t I spent my life re-learning this story, over and over?
But she insisted it had to be done this way and I knew it would be a fight to prevent my ears from filling with her bitterness. She seemed unaware of the comparisons I might end up drawing.
I left my home at an early age.
What was I searching for? A certain freedom, I suppose, an ease of being.
Upon my real identity – the one I’d found in myself as a young child – there were superimposed my mother’s desires, fears, regrets and hates. Constantly thrown about in the air, her opinions were invisible birds that landed on my shoulders and never departed; they shrouded my real personality until I disappeared beneath all the feathers.
I learned to base myself upon others’ thoughts and desires. I learned to appreciate and expect that other people would subsume me. In fact, I came to enjoy the push-pull drama of that relational style.
The threat of abandonment really works.
The threat of abandonment lies at the core of what I will call an ego-based relational system. Because each person’s worth lies in what the other opines, there is a risk of rejection at any moment.
The thrill of this ride is just fantastic; the fights are huge and the make-ups cathartic. There isn’t a lot of security, but people who engage in this type of sparring haven’t known much unconditional love anyway, so they aren’t aware of what they’re missing. The drama is intoxicating, even though the possibility of rejection reigns supreme.
But pity and terror are very paltry proxies for compassion and forgiveness.
The problem with the game is that it becomes real hard to see straight after a while. The push-pull is tiring, the tremulousness is actually a sustained inner quaking, and with time the sky-high reconciliations aren’t enough to assuage the deep lack of trust that abides. It’s hard to find your own shining kernel in such a mess of projections and opinions, since the layers of externally-constructed material become ever thicker.
Eventually, loss prevails because the players failed to move beyond what they wanted from themselves and each other. Love. Instead of bringing each other forward, they’ve subsumed each other. What’s left after that?
My grandmother’s mirror stayed with me.
Several years ago, I pulled it out of a box and recalled that it was one of my sole possessions from childhood. I kept it around and used it to check my hair and other things like that.
Only a short time later, I found myself using it to gauge my appearance from a longer point of view, with a full-length mirror placed at the opposite end of the room.
Around and around I turned, looking from every different angle. Naked and clothed, I examined all my characteristics: the way I stood and cocked my head, the way my shoulders hunched and straightened. I would put my legs in different stances to see how I looked when walking or waiting.
I was especially curious to know how I appeared from behind, since that was how I remained most invisible to myself (also because my mother’s insecurity about the size of her backside had made a dire imprint upon on me).
Eventually I discovered that when I placed the mirror a certain way, both my body and my ever-open eye filled the mirror — my face and all of me, together.
The farther away I stood from the full-length mirror, the worse the image looked.
Gradually this habit of compulsive looking became an obsession. I carried the mirror with me everywhere. Often as I left the house, I’d have to go back and check myself. Again I’d see that blue eye and my body behind me, as I assessed my horrid shape with a nervous lump in my throat.
I stood and stood, often missing appointments and classes, frozen there inside my reflection for hours and feeling a wrongness that I couldn’t explain or halt. I just had no idea what I was looking for.
Once I misplaced the mirror and it weighed on me very much. When I felt the urge to see myself, the front image had to suffice and it wasn’t good enough. At night I laid awake thinking of where I could have left it. I even thought my partner might have hidden it from me.
“Is it just because you need a mirror, or is it about something sentimental?” he finally asked me.
So I explained that the mirror was a keepsake from my grandmother and my childhood, and went looking for it again all around the house. It had slipped behind another item on the bathroom shelf. When I found it, I felt immediate relief.
I studied the white triangle and the word Bermuda, thinking it was curious that she’d never been there but somehow had come into possession of this souvenir.
I thought, The Bermuda Triangle– they say people disappear there.