Reflections on a Lack Thereof
I believe that we all need a break from reflection. Literally.
Every summer for the past fifteen years, we have rented the same house in Nantucket. It’s one of the oldest houses on the island, built in 1724, with precipitous staircases, massive hand-hewn wooden beams, and six live-in fireplaces. Modern conveniences, apart from indoor plumbing, are in short supply. The television is tiny, though only slightly smaller than the family room which houses it. The stove and the coffee maker may operate whimsically, but the profusion of roses arching over the door and the salt tang of the ocean breeze eclipses the draw of appliance reliability. Not only do we forgive the house its tics, we have come to cherish them.
The house does lack something that is not so easy to embrace: functional mirrors. Sure, there are mirrors over the sinks in the bathrooms, but they are crazed and clouded. Ditto the mirrors in the bedroom, which hang, slightly askew, on ancient frayed wires. Not only are these mirrors essentially non-reflective; they are situated at impractical heights, and not even remotely near an adequate light source. Not one of them exceeds twelve inches in length. In short, they are useless. Time and circumstance has reduced them to nothing more than frame inserts.
When we arrive in Nantucket, transitioning away from our normal level of mirror-based behavior is a gradual process. We always spend the first day trying our best to discern our reflections in the motley assortment of murky, wavy glass. We travel from room to room, eyes narrowed, heads tilted, all in a desperate effort to see ourselves. It’s comical, or maybe just pathetic, but ultimately, it’s ineffectual. All we achieve is frustration. We finally move on to taking a blind stab at making ourselves look decent but it’s clear we are still tentative. Over the course of the first few days, passersby can spot us, furtively skulking out into the driveway to the car’s sideview mirrors to make sure we are properly tweezed, flossed, and blemish-free.
Then, there is a shift. Days pass. We spend lazy afternoons at the beach. There are heated games of setback to be played, and corn, fresh from the farm, to be shucked. The tug of the mirror weakens. Gradually, we begin to let go. Freckles pop. Stray hairs, gray hairs, peeling noses, our bodies’ natural processes march on, unobserved and unchecked. We worry a bit, wondering just how bad we must look, but it’s a worry that ebbs and flows like the ocean tide and finally falls away. We get caught up in the sweet smell of the honeysuckle, or the frantic sprint to the beach to watch the sun set.
We return home, only to come face to face (literally!) with everything we have been unable to see over the past two weeks. At first, I am incredulous that I’ve walked around Nantucket with conjoined eyebrows that can best be described as Kahloesque. I let people see me like this? What was I thinking? But then, I take a deep breath, and regain my balance. I know that my eyebrows played no role in our runs along the Cliff, or the rainy day we all got addicted to Law and Order. It is then that I am most grateful for the time spent in a house with no mirrors. By derailing attention from appearances, we are encouraged to inhabit the richness of life, real life, blooming beneath the surface. Every summer, the lack of mirrors starts off feeling like an inconvenience, even a sacrifice, and every summer, we discover it is anything but. It is a lesson, and a great gift. I try to hold onto this, but inevitably, I find myself drifting back into the mirror’s pull.
I guess it all comes down to a couple of sweet weeks each year, when we stop being motes in, to quote Sylvia Plath, “the eye of a small god, four-cornered.” Instead, we live in the breathlessness of that first plunge into the Atlantic and in the plans we make around the dinner table. I believe that in a house without mirrors, we are us, ourselves, at our truest, and I dare to think, most beautiful.
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