The wicked queen in the fairy tale of Snow White consults her mirror daily and cackles, "Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the fairest of us all?" Most of us don't have her same question, but at some point during the day I imagine that even the least vain among us uses a mirror to take a quick peek at ourselves. When we do, whether we are aware of it or not, we are asking a question or perhaps many questions. We expect that mirror to reflect something back. When a mirror doesn't do that it's eerie.
The mirror I've pictured above is one that was given to me years ago. I use it when I ask clients to take a deep look at themselves and then draw a self portrait. The other day, I was in the yurt putting some new art up on the walls when I accidentally smashed that poor little mirror to smithereens.
A Shattering Experience
Here is how that happened. In a recent blog post titled Miracle of Miracles, I'm Still Here, I wrote about my healing journey of the last year and a half. In the spirit of moving on from all of that I wanted to take the art I made during my healing time and put it up in the yurt where I could see it as one piece. I wanted to bring it full circle, as something completed.
After hanging the last piece I stepped back so I could see how it all looked but I bumped into the table behind me. My heart sank as I heard a loud thump. Looking down I saw that sweet little mirror face down on the carpet. Oh no, please don't be broken, I thought to myself, but alas when I picked it up and turned it over I saw my face there on what was left of its shattered surface. What took my breath away was how much that image matched with how I've been feeling of late.
In my new bookThe Scalpel, the Paintbrush and the Pen: Healing as a Creative Art, (coming out soon) I talk about how living through my surgery was a death/rebirth experience. While I was healing I kept looking for the old Marilyn to reappear but the truth is I've never found her. I knew my surgery had seriously challenged my old image but looking into that broken mirror underlined that in a graphic way. Facts are facts and there I was shattered Marilyn.
What? Break the Mirror on Purpose?
When I saw myself amidst the cracks and the shards that day in the yurt, that old adage flashed through my mind. Oh no, seven years of bad luck! But before I could invest in that thought, my mind offered up the lines from Break the Mirror a poem by Nanao Sakaki. I don't have permission to print it here but click on the title and you can read it for yourself. In the poem, the old poet sees himself in the mirror and is startled by his aging image. After reflecting on memories of times past he sits down to meditate. In the last verse, he writes:
Suddenly a voice comes to me:
"To stay young,
To save the world,
Break the Mirror."
I found a copy of the poem and read it out loud several times, contemplating his instruction to break the mirror. Poetry often comes alive in my body. As those last four lines implanted themselves in my imagination, I felt my hand turn into a fist. In my minds eye I saw my fist smash into an imaginary mirror that had appeared before me. My feet were standing firmly on the ground. Intention filled my body. Clearly breaking a mirror on purpose was a rebellious act. The power and strength I was in touch with made my initial reaction portending seven years of bad luck wither and die on the spot.
My shattered face in the mirror suddenly seemed like a badge of courage. I saw how over my life, I have shattered the mirror of who I am again and again and when I didn't or couldn't, something or someone else shattered it for me. That process is an essential fact of life if you want to keep growing. It is absolutely essential if you want to live creatively because when we create something new we destroy something of the old.
When the old poet says, "to stay young" he is not speaking literally he is talking about returning refreshed again and again to our job here as humans. I think he is reminding us that what will keep things growing and changing, in other words, alive, is letting the old pass away and creating the new. That process is what will "save the world." Otherwise we walk around as the living dead, attached to our current image of who we are and along with that, what we think might be possible.
I did some art so I could more deeply explore that image of me in the broken mirror. In this painting titled Shattered, I see that I am green with healing. I'm in touch with my life energy, my fire here in my orange shirt, but this painting showed me that right now, rather than being broken, I feel more like a puzzle, putting itself back together. In that process, I'm discovering a few missing pieces.
As energizing as it might be, smashing the image of who we think we are is rarely a comfortable process. Breaking out of a mold when it no longer fits you puts you on the cutting edge of your life. It allows you to breathe deeply and consider many new possibilities. But It is a process and like the fate of the caterpillar inside the cocoon it is more than a little chaotic on the way to becoming a butterfly. In my case right now I'm left with big questions. The answers seem to have gone missing like the broken puzzle pieces in my drawing. I do know that re-creating myself is not a mental process. The answers are to be lived. I had my surgery in hopes of more life. I'm crystal clear that It is the living that counts.
That day out in the yurt, I vacuumed the carpet and brought the broken mirror back to my house intent on safely disposing of the broken pieces. When I loosened the frame the mirror came apart along the fault line of its cracks, just like a puzzle would. Trying not to cut myself, I carefully wrapped the shards in thick paper before putting it in the trash. Then I reinstalled the backing in the frame until I could investigate having the mirror replaced. I set it on the table in front of me and that is when I saw the faceless mirror, the mirror that doesn't reflect back anything but a blank slate.
Improvising New Life
I left the mirror frame on my table in my dining room. Its blank surface affected me each time I looked into it. It started to remind me of what it feels like to face a blank piece of paper before I begin a drawing. I have to break through that first moment and let something appear there even if I have no idea what it will look like.
Likewise, when I sit in the silence before I begin improvising on the piano, I have no idea what sounds are going to fill the room. It is a time of hopeful anticipation, of deep listening and waiting to be surprised by the harmony and the dissonance that might follow. My only job is to make whatever happens make sense, to let it have meaning and find its belonging in the context of the whole so the music can flow on.
Now, there is a metaphor for creating new life when life as we know it has disappeared. Life is an improvisation though we work hard to pin it down, to freeze it in a frame. Here is what a more improvised life might look like: With hopeful anticipation we can listen deeply to what we are moved by, what is calling us and take action in that direction. Rather than being stuck in our old ruts we can surprise ourselves with what is unfolding. We'll need to greet both harmony and dissonance with the desire to let each find its rightful place in the context of the whole. If we can do that, our lives, like the music can flow on, bringing beauty and meaning.
I've always known that the arts I have practiced were not about the end product. It is the process of creation that has kept me going. If that had not been so I would have quit long ago. I am not among the gifted few in either the arts or in music but I have dedicated myself to the process of creating. It is a gift that is there for all of us. Our ability to imagine and to create is an important part of what being human means. As I piece my life back together following the trauma of my surgery, I realize that I am standing in a moment of enormous creative possibility, more possibility than I have encountered or allowed for awhile.
This drawing that I titled Who Am I Now? makes me laugh. If I'm truly looking for an answer to the question in that title, I'll have to remove my hands from my face or at least open my eyes and peek out a bit at the world around me. Here, I'm lost but it is a lost of my own making. I'm longing to know the deeper truths about my life but in this drawing I am shutting myself off from important ways of knowing. Living in a culture that encourages us to exhaust ourselves with our outer world fascinations leaves us missing the deeper flow that is always there ready to inform, support and guide us even when we are blind to it. How do we wake up to that flow?
I could have broken the mirror in my yurt, cursed or cried, vacuumed up the broken glass and disposed of the shards. That would be that, the end of it, but if a piece of us is waiting and open for that deeper flow to appear, even ordinary events can bring awareness of the larger dimension of our lives. That awareness is guaranteed to bring deeper meaning and purpose to our days. The story I'm telling here is an example of how that works, how a broken mirror took me from the surface of my life and delivered me to much deeper insights about my current life circumstance.
Death Has Touched Me
This little mirror wasn't done teaching me yet. One day as I walked by I saw that the backing had fallen out of it. Now what it framed was the world beyond it. No barrier, no image in the way, no blank slate to contemplate, no barrier between myself and Mother Nature. My separate self, the one I call me no longer there.
Though I am now well, I'll admit that visions of the world without me in it do cross my mind a lot more often since my brush with death. I know that might sound shocking in a culture that doesn't like to talk about it, but psychologically one of the most important things that emerged from my illness is my new relationship with my own death. I see it in my art.
I painted Who is that Behind Me? near the end of my healing process. I was feeling much better so I was surprised when this giant who appears to be stalking me came into the picture. The drawing felt vaguely threatening except the giant's clothing suggested the Trickster archetype. The Trickster in cultures the world over is the boundary crosser, representing disruption, mischief with a touch of humor. My illness had brought Trickster energy my way complete with all of its disruption, but even in the worst of it I had indeed found my way to some humor. I liked that the stalker in this drawing made me laugh at something I wouldn't ordinarily see as funny. I spent a lot of time wondering who that stalker was. My illness returning? Maybe? I didn't really know. I did note that I was still climbing a steep hill to recovery.
Many months later I painted this picture which I titled Death and Me only after I finished making it. My gut had told me that this piece held the answer to the question I was left with when I painted Who Is That Behind Me? The giant's arm reaching out and touching me let me know that the stalker in my previous drawing was indeed my own death.
Here he has caught up with me. He has shrunken in size a bit or else I have grown. We are more equal partners. I do feel touched by my death but I no longer feel stalked by it. We are in new relation. We share the spiral on our chests. I put them there without thinking but the spiral is a powerful symbol found everywhere in nature. It is expressed in the art of cultures the world over as the journey of life from its inception, through its ending and onto regeneration, the circle of life.
Gratitude for Lessons Learned
Not too long ago a friend and I were talking about all the folks in our small town experiencing health challenges. They were all about our age, late seventies or early eighties. At one point closing her eyes as if making a wish my friend said, "I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that nothing happens to me." Her words went into me and left a hollow feeling in my gut. I understood what she was saying completely, but her wish triggered a question in my own mind. Do I wish that my illness hadn't happened to me? I couldn't find the place in me that wished that was so. I don't wish ill health on anyone and it may have been nice if I could have learned what I have learned some other way. The truth is I can't imagine how that would have happened. I am awake in a way that I once was not. My own death holds a new place in my awareness and that fact transforms how I experience life.
We all die. Supposedly we know that but I'm not sure that is true. We don't live as if we know that. It would be easy to write off my thoughts with a quick, "Of course, I know that. I know I'm going to die," but we don't really know it. I think we spend our entire lives trying to come to terms with that fact. As we age we slowly come to greater understanding that, "Yes, that means me too." When we encounter serious illness that quickly morphs into, "Oh my, yes, that absolutely means me too!" Most of us inch our way toward fully embodying that deep truth about our own ending or else we close our eyes and lose ourselves in denial.
I fully realize that I have much more to learn because my life isn't over yet. I've proven to myself that my relationship with my own ending is an ongoing revelation. I expect that process to continue but after my illness I have a whole new level of understanding. Like looking through my empty mirror frame after the backing fell away, I know that I am part of a much larger whole, we all are. Who would we be as a people, as a culture, as a world, if we lived life truly accepting our place in that very big picture? I believe that would indeed change the world!
Thank you for reading. The problem with a blog post is that it is all a one way communication. I'm curious how my words are sitting with you. I'd love for my post to spark some conversation. If you are up for it please post a reply or send me an email. I'd love to hear from you.