I’m thinking about mirrors.
It started yesterday, with a memory of being in a club of sorts in junior high school in Montreal. It was an extra-curricular thing where a bunch of us auditioned for a program run by Multiculturalism Canada (our school was rife with racism, so they were called in to help). I have no idea where I got the audacity to audition, because I was not popular, was not even ‘liked’, was that weird kid that wandered the halls with her eyes on her shoes and her books clutched like a shield to her chest, but something nudged me in the direction of the auditorium on the day auditions were held, and that same thing dragged me by a wild hair up on stage to sing.
I was cast in multiple parts. What?
The point of this program was to gather up a diverse cast of students from all races and walks of life, and have them write and perform a musical. We tackled racism in this musical, bravely and pointedly, the way children do. We had breakthroughs and breakdowns, traumatic encounters and healing ones. We put on a fantastic show, too, after a half a year of working and rehearsing. I actually had friends that year, for the first time in my school career. I was invited to things. I was a ‘part’ of things.
One of our rehearsal spaces was the studio/apartment belonging to two of the women who volunteered in this program. They had a living room that was completely devoid of furniture. The floors were beautiful, polished hard wood. One entire wall was a mirror. These women were dancers, so they had turned a big chunk of their living space into rehearsal space. When we gathered there, we’d enter the house, take off our boots, grab a pillow from a pile, and sit in a circle on the floor.
For a very long time, I sat facing away from the mirror. I couldn’t stand to see myself reflected there, so I avoided it at all costs.
What no one knew, and what I was only just barely conscious of at the time was that, in my earlier childhood, mirrors had been used as a form of punishment. If I did something wrong, I was told to go stand in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, to look at myself, confront my ‘badness’, my ‘wrongness’.
There was this one time when I had experimented with eyeliner. I think I was twelve or thirteen – so this was totally age appropriate. All the girls in school were wearing blusher and eyeliner and lipgloss, except for me. Someone had left a stub of black eyeliner in the girl’s bathroom, and it called to me like a siren song. I had to try it! I loved it, loved the way it made my green eyes absolutely pop. I walked around the school with my head high that one day, and enjoyed the unexpected attention the bold move had gained me. “Are you wearing eyeliner? Wow. You look amazing!”. Whoa!
After classes had ended, I ran to the bathroom to try to scrub it all off before the school bus came, but there was (as there always is with kohl eyeliner), a little bit left. When my mother and step-father got home, they noticed. Of course they noticed. I was marched to the bathroom and told to remain there.
You look like a whore. Is that what you want? To be a whore? I can’t even stand to look at you right now. Get out of my sight.
And of course, I cried, and of course, the crying made some of the eyeliner that was left over run down my face in inky rivulets, and now I looked like a sad clown AND a whore. Ugly. Ugly girl. And a liar. And a rebel. And a breaker of rules. Just bad. A bad girl.
I don’t know how long I stood there. That my parents didn’t like me was well known to me by this time. There was never anything I ever did right. I was never praised for whatever good I had done, only denigrated for whatever I did wrong, As I faced the mirror that day, in pain and fury, I scratched deep grooves into both my wrists with my ragged finger nails. Something about the physical pain eased the emotional pain, vented it somehow. And hiding it afterward, tucking my hands into sleeves so no one would notice, felt good, too. Like, I owned those marks. They were mine. I picked at them relentlessly for ages before a teacher finally noticed, and I was taken to a dermatologist. “Probably just eczema’ the doctor noted, and prescribed a special soap and a cream. I let the grooves heal at that point. I don’t know why.
But this was a couple of years later, and I was living with my father now. He didn’t care if I wore eyeliner (when he was sober – if he was drunk, it was a different story), so I put on a face every day before school like all the rest of the girls.I would look in the mirror just long enough to brush my hair, put on a bit of eyeliner and gloss, and that was that. For years and years, I never looked myself in the eyes.
One afternoon, I arrived late, so my usual spot with my back to the mirror was taken. I reluctantly scootched in between a guy and a girl on the other side, facing the mirror, omgdoom. We were there to work on harmonies, to nail down some of the lyrics of one of the particularly complicated songs. I sang with my head down the whole time, staring at my hands, my white knuckles.
Break time came, and someone started to pick out the tune to House of The Rising Sun. I started to hum, because it was one of my favourite songs. The boy beside me elbowed me gently and said ‘sing it’, and I looked up at him, startled. The guitarist started over, staring at me, willing me to begin. So I did. But I kept my head down and my eyes closed, or on my hands as I sang, even when doing so made it difficult to get the notes out.
A hush came over the room by the middle of the first verse. The program facilitators, my fellow students, everyone was silent, watching me, listening to me…
And then one of the facilitators said “Start over. Look up. Open your eyes.”
I have no idea what compelled her to do that. I hated her a little bit in that moment, but I did as she asked, thrust out my chin, opened my eyes, and started again, louder this time, facing front, and oh my god. That mirror.
By the time I got to the chorus, fat hot tears were running down my face, taking inky rivulets of kohl eyeliner with it, but the facilitator was mouthing the words ‘keep going’, and someone else, another student with a high, clear voice, joined in with harmony. And then another student, and then another, and we were all singing, me with tears streaming down my face. The boy beside me took my hand, and then the girl beside me did the same. We were a circle, joined by hand, by heart, by voice…
Applause erupted as the song ended, and the facilitator came to me, took me by the hand, and led me to another room. Tissues. A cup of tea. “What happened in there?” she asked gently. I shrugged. “I just don’t like looking at myself. I just don’t.”
“But, you’re beautiful.” She said. “You’re darling. You’re a beautiful, darling girl.”
It hurt me to hear this. It was like being punched right in solar plexus, and I collapsed in a heap of sobbing on her shoulder. I had no idea why it hurt. I had no idea what had been unlocked within me, but it felt like a tsunami of grief rolling over me, tearing me to pieces. She just let me cry in silence. She didn’t try to shush me or stem the flow. She let the storm roll in and then back out again, and as it ebbed away, she said nothing. Handed me more tissues. Waited it out. Gave me space to feel what I was feeling.
In time, she rose, took my hand and led me back to the circle, where we just carried on as usual. No one asked any awkward questions. There were a few concerned glances in my direction, but I just nodded, smiled a little, reassuringly, I’d hoped. I was okay. I really was. I was really okay.
Someone had seen me.
to be continued…
About The Blog Along
Every year, twice a year, once in April, and again in September, I blog every day for a month, and invite others to do the same. We have a Facebook group, and in that group the only rule is that for every link you post to your own blog, you go off and read three other blogs and leave a comment. This is simply a way to ensure that a community happens rather than just a ‘promo’ group. You’re welcome to join in as long as you are willing to read and comment on three blogs for every blog you post. Click here to join us! If you’re too busy for that, you’re welcome to just blog on your own for a month. Easy peasy. No one is keeping score. There are no prizes except that you get to build your own readership by regularly populating your blog with good content.
To read all my entries for the Blogalong, please click here to access the Blogalong With Effy Category on my blog.
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