Do Mirrors Tell Us Who We Are?

“Mirrors show everything but themselves.”
Rebecca Solnit

As we fling ourselves headfirst into the universe, asking unspoken questions like “Do I exist?” “What am I?” “Who am I?” very few things respond as fast and as accurately as a mirror. Sight is our primary sense to take in and process information, and in the mirror we see ourselves. There we are. That we are.

We see ourselves in mirrors, but what do we see of ourselves?

My daughter flirted with the threshold of self-awareness around six months ago when she first saw herself in the mirror. She went nuts. Flapped like a flamingo. She then saw herself flapping like a flamingo and began barking and flapping like a puppy-flamingo hybrid.

Did my daughter see herself in the mirror? Did she think “I am here”? Or did she merely see something entertaining and react? (It was thoroughly entertaining.)

Besides humans (older than six months, we assume), there is a list of animals that can recognize themselves in mirrors. This list is expanding so rapidly that scientists are now wondering if the test they use—a dot on the face that animals try to remove—is inept. Apparently, a fish passed it recently. The dolphins migrated in protest.

It’s complicated.1 The mirror test—flawed or not—speaks to self-awareness. Are you a hand, a foot, a reflection in a mirror? Or are you you?

Between the body and the mind, there is a spirit of something—existence.

My daughter didn’t just flap. She flapped, saw herself flapping, and knew it was she who was flapping. That is incipient self-awareness. Pretty soon, like most humans, she’ll look to a mirror to deliver honest truths about her appearance, her self.

We learn to trust mirrors early on. Rely on them fully.

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for a Portrait” by Francis Bacon, 1952, Bacon’s distortion of an unnamed man in suit is also entitled “Businessman.” Learn more.

Consider the Robert Lowell poem, “Waking in the Blue.” Lowell, leader of the confessional poets of the mid-20th century, struggled with manic depression his entire life and spent many interludes in psychiatric hospitals. In that space, specifically McLean Hospital outside Boston, he saw his physical self bent and twisted in the “metal shaving mirrors.”2

From “Waking in the Blue”:

The night attendant, a B. U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)

[…]

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases.

Mirrors of metal so they couldn’t become shards. Metal that returned “pinched” reflections and “shaky futures.” Twisted and blotched like a Francis Bacon portrait. Lowell saw his fractured self in the mirror. Is that who he was?

mirrors tell us who we are
Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” 1979-80. Learn more.

Bacon was a modern British artist whose work electrified its viewers, delivering shock and feeling with features that looked human, mechanical, and dreamlike simultaneously. Bacon acknowledged his art was self-representational:3

Autobiographical? Well yes, inevitably, it’s about my life, at some level. It’s filled with my thoughts about things. And yet when I’m in the middle of it, I forget about everything, about myself and about friends and things that have happened. That might sound as if I’m talking about inspiration, but it’s not that. … I just get the bits of paint down and hope they suggest a way I can make something that looks as if it’s come directly off the nervous system.

In the mad dash to “get the bits of paint down,” Bacon created work that reflected sight but not visual. Something deeper, emotions drawn directly from his nervous system and passed intravenously (intranervously?) to our own subcutaneous essence. In that way, Bacon was mirroring himself—and perhaps mirroring everyone? Is that a realistic portrayal of humanity?

If I could draw my emotions, my soul, my psyche, at times it might indeed look a bit like a Bacon portrait. Mechanical, human, and dreamlike. Or at least a reflection in a metal shaving mirror.

But that’s not how I appear. What about appearance?

Terry Gross has interviewed thousands of people in her 40 years hosting NPR’s Fresh Air. Gross has said that the most common question from the audience was what she looked like.4 Why? Does what she looks like tell us more about her than what she says on the air and in interviews? Our appearance is a reflection without deeper consideration. A physical without a self.

This distinction is the crack into which slips the concept of a double. This double, this us that appears exactly like us, which is not us.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries. It is likely that sentences such as A friend is another self by Pythagoras or the Platonic Know thyself were inspired by it. In Germany this Double is called a Doppelgänger, which means ‘double walker.’ In Scotland there is the fetch, which comes to fetch a man to bring him to his death; there is also the Scottish word wraith for an apparition thought to be seen by a person in his exact image just before death. To meet oneself is, therefore, ominous.

The above is Jorge Luis Borges’ definition of “The Double” in his wildly delightful The Book of Imaginary Beings, a collection of creatures from various cultures and histories. Has anyone written more about mirrors—their power and limitations—than Borges? This Argentine writer, poet, and essayist and man who stepped back from life and marvelled that we are alive. A man who must have seen himself from a distance, like a mirror would.

Except, Borges did not see himself in a mirror. Not only did he suffer from extreme shortsightedness—and at the end of his life, blindness—he also had a lifelong dislike (he even uses the word “fear”) of mirrors and strictly avoided them. When asked about his usage of mirrors as an image, he answered:5

Well, that, that also goes with the earliest fears and wonders of my childhood, being afraid of mirrors, being afraid of mahogany, being afraid of being repeated. […] the feeling came from my childhood.

The double is us but isn’t us. It is us without the self.

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)” by Francis Bacon, 1955. Learn more.

I am fascinated by the double except, bizarrely, I imagine myself as the reflection not the original. A Midwestern-bred need to please makes me “mirror” others rather than project myself.

American essayist Rebecca Solnit wrote she was made to feel she was the “mirror” of her mother. Solnit grieves for her lost self.6

Who was I all those years before? I was not. Mirrors show everything but themselves. […]She thought of me as a mirror but didn’t like what she saw and blame the mirror. When I was thirty, in one of the furious letters I sometimes composed and rarely sent, I wrote, “You want me to be some kind of a mirror that will reflect back the self-image you want to see – perfect mother, totally loved, always right – but I am not a mirror, and the shortcomings you see are not my fault.

A mirror is where we meet and see our embodied self. A mirror tells us that we are. Frozen in time. Mirrors don’t capture the past or the future, but they do reflect the present. They are immediate, instant, and reflective of right now. As long as we stay in the now, there will be no then. No death, no pre-existence. Do we ever feel more alive than in those moments when we’re certain we’re not dead?

As I dance around these issues, throw a few into the universe, gently strike the concept of a mirror and wait for a chime, one thing that is certain—despite the intelligent attempts of the magpie—is that self-awareness, mirror or not, is wondrously unique to human beings.7

Mirrors might tell us that we are, but as Borges knew well, they don’t tell us who we are. Only deep contemplation and examination of the miracle of life, of our existence, and, ultimately, our nonexistence can do that.

Self-knowledge is beyond the mirror.

The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To

“nothing is safer
than the sound of you
reading out loud to me.”
Rupi Kaur

The vast voice that rings down from above, enshawling our arms in a cone of auricular safety. The physicality of sound intended to contain and expand simultaneously.

Is there anything better?

My father had a special voice when he read to us. Softer, lighter, a questioning of things. He must have read us hundreds of books, but the ones I remember are by Thornton W. Burgess, a New England author and conservationist who wrote about forest animals with names like ‘Reddy’ Fox and ‘Buster’ Bear. Dad’s voice, usually definitive, became light, tickling the words in wonder and merriment, nurturing our delight in nature. His “reading voice.”

American novelist Marilynne Robinson encapsulates the importance of reading:

The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitions, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.

Language has tremendous power, doesn’t it? Especially when woven into a narrative and carried to us through voice.

Indian/Canadian poet Rupi Kaur delivers poetry sanded to a remarkable grain. Her words are elegant: nothing is present that isn’t necessary, and nothing necessary is omitted. From Kaur’s “The Perfect Date”:

nothing is safer
than the sound of you
reading out loud to me

It is safety, isn’t it? Comfort.

Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp once wrote that when preparing a dance, she preferred her studio to be warm. “There’s also a psychological component to hear: It calls up the warmth of the hearth and home.”

Safety. Comfort. Something we all crave, and something we remember distinctly about our childhood (whether it was true or not). And there is the warmth too—parents hold their children on their laps, in their arms.

Illustration "The Comfort of Being Read To" by Marilyn Yee. Featured in "The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To."
“The Comfort of Being Read To” by Singaporean artist Marilyn Yee.

That feeling of being read to is like the feeling of being led into a world and shown all its intimacies and close-kept secrets. Described perfectly by Rachel Carson, a natural teacher and caretaker, in her book The Sense of Wonder:

It is hard to find adults to read to us when we are adults ourselves. But there are exceptions.

Audiobooks, of course. I spent most of my time in graduate school listening to the marvellous Flo Gibson—her voice is like syrup passing through marbles—reading the collected works of Charles Dickens. (British literature has always held some sort of nostalgic escapism for me.) Gibson put dance in the word “Twist” and when she said “Mr. Bumble the Beadle” – as Dickens made her do quite often because he knew how funny it sounded – it was like the name was tumbling downstairs only to arrive fully standing at the bottom.

But my favorite authorial voice is British actor Martin Jarvis reading P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle series. It is wondrous from word one. An English countryside, a different era, the kind of escapism one gets from gardening or petting a purring cat.

I bought a few Wodehouse hardbacks recently at Hatchards Bookshop (they have an entire wall devoted to him), and I was delighted to find a staff member who not only loved Wodehouse but also loved the Jarvis recordings. (The only thing better than reading Wodehouse is finding another person who also reads Wodehouse and then talking about how you both read Wodehouse. I intend to talk about Wodehouse should I ever casually encounter Stephen Fry.)

David Sedaris once noted his favorite “reading” was Elaine Stritch reading Dorothy Parker. Many people have read Dorothy Parker—her words bounce into our ears. Stritch is singularly good at it. Her voice is not dissimilar to that of Flo Gibson.

A woman who has done more to coax poetry in our everyday speech and wit than anyone alive is Maria Popova, writer and creator of Brainpickings.org. Popova hosts the annual Universe in Verse, a celebratory amplification of science through poetry and the spoken word. To those who participate, thank you for reading to us.

Poetry is best when well-read aloud (although it is also enjoyed in quiet) when humans can add a pause, breath, intonation. Human voice turns heavy mist into high cumulus.

Illustration "The Wonder of Being Read To" by Marilyn Yee. Featured in "The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To."
“The Wonder of Being Read To” by Singaporean artist Marilyn Yee.

As adults, the joy of being read to expands beyond feeling safe to feeling enlightened, elated, interested. In wonder.

It is not easy to be in wonder these days. Not only do we not have time, but it requires denuding our fragile egos. It is a state of not knowing. Of being affected. Deferring. The older we become, the more threatening this position feels. And with good reason—we’re taught to be in charge, responsible, accountable. We abandon our instinct to listen, learn, and defer. To care.

But we still need to feel comforted. Every human will long for a feeling of comfort at one time or another. Being read to is feeling comforted.

A few years ago, I was caught in a nighttime windstorm in the Virginia woods, the tail end of an off-coast hurricane. Branches, even trees, were falling. It was the closest I’ve been to death. And I walked twelve miles down the mountain to civilization, all the while listening to the great Edward Herrmann reading David McCullough’s book about the building of the Panama Canal.

Falling trees, suffocating darkness, water that wanted into my blood. And Edward Herrmann. I remember nothing about the Panama Canal, but I will never forget that voice. It gave me the illusion of comfort until I found actual comfort.

I cannot express it well, so instead, I’ll pull in Durga Chew-Bose’s simple lines from Too Much and Not the Mood. Her energy and power are infectious.

When I hear a recording of Frank O’Hara recite ‘Having a Coke with You,’ gleefully anticipating him saying yoghurt, saying flu-o-rescent orange tulips.

I listen
to him and I would rather listen to him than all the poets in the world
except possibly for Dorothy Parker occasionally
and anyway she’d hate that.

I wonder if Chew-Bose has heard Elaine Stritch read Dorothy Parker.

I hope so.

The feelings of comfort hold us fast like rotund arms. But comfort doesn’t live our life, it doesn’t extend us into the world. For that, we need wonder. Wonder propels us out into the world and back into forests. We need both comfort and wonder.

My husband reads to my daughter. Inflexion, vocal patterns, tempo, pronunciation. My husband has a “reading voice.” My daughter is so very lucky.

Feel comforted. Be in wonder. Be read to.

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners

“I am strongly of the opinion that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection.”
Gertrude Jekyll

Gardening is the background activity that claps events in the foreground. It’s the thing underneath, behind, outside, apart. It’s a space we enter and leave. And yet, like tilling layers of soil, we mix it with our daily, non-gardening life.

One of my favorite gardeners is Robin Lane Fox, a Classics scholar and (a scholar-friend informs me) the leading expert on Alexander the Great. Lane Fox also manages the gardens at Oxford University’s New College.

I cannot fully express what gardening has added to my life, ever-present in my mind and increasingly in my muscles, and always adding more to what I notice in the daily course of living.

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Catmint and tulips growing in the springtime garden of New College, Oxford. Robin Lane Fox is the head gardener. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

For the last forty years, Lane Fox has written a gardening column in the Financial Times. He is – as one might expect of a Classics scholar cum gardener – erudite, informed, relentless, tidy, specific and occasionally susceptible to the beauty that results from the human endeavor of gardening.

Most of all, Lane Fox is a crusader for “thoughtful gardening” which essentially means: care, notice, learn, fail, improve – be immersed in that which you do and from that focus will come knowledge, even insight.

Winters respond to thoughtful gardening. They have their short, cold spells, which limit choices for gardens outside warmer cities, and there are also those days of dark rain and gale warnings, some of which come true. Their boundaries, however, are advancing with the warmer average temperatures of the past twenty years.

Such thick detail. To be immersed in his writing and the image proffered is deeply rewarding. And yet, isolating, no?

By isolating I mean gardening – like reading and writing – is often best enjoyed alone. Not the physical work but the contemplation, the thoughtfulness, the deliberation.

Gardeners have odd propinquity. There is no collective noun for gardeners. Between the butterscotch earth and ceramic sky there is us and plants and insects and water and it eventually rounds back to us. We are the keystone of the project nature never requested.

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Allium bloom in New College Garden. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

And yet, we gardeners are quite an interlinked bunch.

We have celebrities. Legend. Annual events. Magazines. We move with the environmental movement and when we hear that “gardeners have reduced CO2 levels” we all pat ourselves on the back for being “part of this great something.” A muddy paw on the back.

I’ve attended the Chelsea Flower Show, my husband received tickets for work. We spent the evening in the insufferable company of people who weren’t gardeners. (Who are lovely people except for this fact). It made me realize, gardeners are indeed a group. An unnamed group. One that has boundaries but also pokes its tendrils throughout time.

The tranquil walks of domestic life are now unfolding to my view: and promise a rich harvest of pleasing contemplation.

U. S. President, John Adams, an avid gardener, wrote to his wife Abigail that he longed to return to the flowered aisles of his Massachusetts homestead. Instead, he was cloistered in Philadelphia, forming the Nation.

I feel connected to Adams. And yet, his words steep in detachment. Another gardener who must step away to enter the garden.

Maybe it has to do with property, the only place I can really garden without permission. My space.

Is that what makes gardening a thing apart? Property? Should there be public spaces to garden? Gardening cafes? Want to meet up and plant a few bulbs? Perhaps iris dividing after work?

If we’re with others, would we still feel the deep, devoted thoughtfulness of gardening? If one cannot feel the deep, devoted thoughtfulness of gardening, is that still gardening?

From Denise Levertov’s “The Tulips:”

Red tulips
living into their death
flushed with a wild blue

tulips
becoming wings
ears of the wind
jackrabbits rolling their eyes

west wind
shaking the loose pane

some petals fall
with that sound one
listens for

There is No Collective Noun for Gardeners
Oxford’s New College Garden in springtime. The far wall is part of the original city walls dating from the 12th century. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We might not garden together but we can be gardeners together.

Gertrude Jekyll had a profound effect thousands of gardeners. Jekyll’s use of color, texture, and harmony furthered the garden as a place that draws one in – both visually and physically. Jekyll’s garden was a defined and deliberate place, not just a collection of plants next to a wall.

Jekyll was influenced by William Robinson, a late-Victorian gardener responsible for what we think of as the English garden: a great, natural flowery mess that is deceptively evolved and deliberate. Waving his trowel at formality and horrid bedding, Robinson opted for natural, gentle, subtle plants.

In 1931, a few years before he died, Robinson gave Jekyll a copy of his influential The Wild Garden. It was inscribed thus:

Gertrude Jekyll

From the author.

Gravetye, New Year 1931.

His gardens were more flowery than his prose. Or, perhaps, the closer people are the less they have to say. Regardless, it nods to a bond. Two who are gardeners together.1

Photos of New College garden, Oxford featured in "Thoughtful Gardening" book entry.
Gardens at New College, Oxford University. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

British novelist Penelope Lively collects gardeners.

She moves them around like spring bulbs and cobbles a book from the effort, Life in the Garden. Lively discusses literature, style, trends, and those who would be gardeners, like Prince Charles who talks to his plants.

Lively pinpoints the exact benefits of gardening:

In gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backwards, and forwards, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next. And for me, there is this abiding astonishment at the fury for growth, the tenacity of plant life, at the unstoppable dictation of the seasons.

There is a concept known as runners flow and equally, writers flow. Is there gardening flow? Untethered movement within time, space, ideas, hope?

Lively thinks so. She also, however, uses the familiar language of the detached. She calls gardening an “intimate paradise, intensely personal, with private hiding places.” There is something in her that covets this space, this garden, and despite writing about it to us, won’t invite us in.

Obviously, gardening is and will always be a social activity. As much as it is a solitary activity. I don’t mind either, it’s that I just wonder; is there a way to bring more of the benefits of solitude – of that gardening flow – into a life that comes at us with its busyness and often won’t let us be alone? (Or doesn’t allow us to afford property?)

Does gardening have to be apart? Do all soul-enriching things?

I don’t know. Perhaps it will come to me as I cogitate amongst the crocosmia.