Who do you see when you look in the mirror? What do you see? What do you think?
Whenever I consciously confront myself in the mirror, when I’m not shaving or brushing my teeth, or doing anything similarly mundane, I always shock myself. It’s not the same as seeing me in photos or in films, because those are just two-dimensional images of me, and might as well be of someone else who’s vaguely familiar. But to see me through that transparent wall, in 3D, moving the same way I move, mirroring my gestures, puts me so far apart from myself that I sometimes barely recognise what I’m looking at. Then I walk away from the mirror, stop, and walk back again to take another look at the alien creature in there. And it scares me, to realise and understand that I am this flesh and bone thing staring back at me, often in a mocking way, that this is the way I look, that this is who I am.
In this house, we often comment on how weird it is that we share our space with furry four-legged beings a lot smaller than us, that we take it for granted most of the time that they just walk around and ignore us, that they breathe the same air as us, lie on the same beds, sit with us on the sofa, talk to us in a language we can’t really understand. It’s just odd that our lives are stalked by these cat creatures and that we, in the main, don’t bat an eyelid that they exist side by side with us, that they exist, full stop. It’s the same with that man in the mirror; most of the time I take him for granted, especially as most of the time all I see of him are his hands on the keyboard, the frames of the glasses he has on his face (from inside the frames), his arms and legs moving when I walk, the hum of his voice in my head when I speak, but I’m never really aware of myself as a thing, as a living breathing entity that shares a space with M, A, and the cats, and the other three children when they are here.
Even when I go shopping, I have this muted, hazy appreciation of what the man does, how he manages to find words, sentences, paragraphs, quarters of hours, to share with the people who work in the shop down the road, to talk with them and make them smile and tell him their life stories, when he doesn’t actually much like being with others. And I can feel his enjoyment of this mutual kindness. And then, the moment I walk out of the shop, that all dissipates, and the adrenaline that has driven him and me disappears, and the damp of the night makes me feel cold and apart.
The other things I see on those rare occasions when I do notice myself in that mirror are things I don’t really want to see. Sometimes it’s my father looking back at me critically, those features of his I was so familiar with, and which I dread to see manifesting themselves in my face, in my being. Sometimes it’s me, just turned fourteen, face smooth and embarrassed and close to tears, upset and hurt at a trick someone has just played on me, uncertain as to what to do, how to regain my dignity, how to stop that damn acrylic shirt my mother made me wear from itching on my shoulders and on my stomach and making me feel fat. All my shirts were acrylic then; now they’re all 100% cotton because I can bear nothing else on my skin, and I usually buy shirts so big that they can’t touch my stomach anyway. And sometimes, too often nowadays, I can see a new wrinkle appear, not from laughter or smiling but from the continuous scowl I know I wear because the troubles of the world make me permanently scowl. And still it’s a shock, every every time, to see me in there, breathing and being and scowling. Verfremdungseffekt (look it up).
One of the tasks I give my writing classes is to write about themselves as seen from the outside, not just pure descriptions of their physical characteristics, but of the impressions they think others have of them. Surprisingly few of them are ever positive. It’s an interesting game. Depending on how I feel, I either describe myself as loyal, steady, and talented; or weird, arrogant, and manipulative. Or I used to, anyway. I’m not sure I could find the words now, not after having just looked in the mirror.
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