this is a project that has been burning a hole in my heart. we all sing our pure and shaky and earnest songs, to ourselves, our kids, our pasts. we sing because we need to hear our voices out loud, because it gets lonely sometimes, because it hurts, because the joy cannot fit in our bodies. mothers are always and never alone. i want to focus on the never part. i want to hear the voices together. i want to start a chorus.
I avoid mirrors now, after years of being their magnet. A bad friend who gives us that sharp hit of alive, while equally making us feel like shit. For whom we say ‘it’s complicated’, and eventually grow bored and wistful. But whose old pictures we hold onto without understanding why.
As a tiny kid i sought out any reflective surface. The mottled, mirrored side panel of the oven controls, our sliding doors when the sun went down and I self regarded by lamplight. The kitchen window reflecting the outline of my face, while talking to my mom, my brother bathing in the sink, ‘Dallas’ on the television set in the next room, on our sweet, simple 1980s Friday nights. Dancing like the Breakfast Club, singing with every nuance of Cyndi Lauper, acting out the grown up parts in movies with second nature. Feeling the sweetest buzz with what I saw, and who I was when I saw it. The faraway looks, the hard stares, the kisses my babysitter described matter of factly; I had them down, and folded them in to my inner reserve of future experience. There was this implied sense that childhood was practice, that the years would bring me closer to meeting my true self, actualized, successful, and brave. Now deep in the future, I yearn to feel the quick of what I wanted to race from. After the change I never saw coming. When I began looking for something beyond me. For someone else. For hair that didn’t have a life of it’s own, for recognition of that tiny wild voice that echoed from years ago I could swear I’d lived through, for something deep inside that would still me.
There have been a thousand times I’ve gone to the bathroom to cry. Often the only lockable door in the house. After ‘The Champ’ or ‘Charlotte’s Web’ or ‘E.T.’ or Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Had a Dream’ speech, at three or four years old, my face hot and humiliated, and hurting like i would continue to for every character of every sad or happy ending for the rest of my life. And then came the real life business of mean girls and early puberty and feeling lonely without a concrete reason at which to point. The bleating torture of knowing I should love what I saw, but feeling only a bottomless ache for what I did not. A mirror is always there to keep us honest. The hard truth, stained face, desperation. Our reflection in self conflict is most like our insides. Dark and twisty and of forces that operate without our will.
The time we get in front of the mirror is in reverse proportion to the time we need. It wanes as we get older. All the primping and daydreaming of 15 is cruel and ridiculous from the rear view mirror. And nostalgic just the same. Just when we think we’ve memorized our faces, the map changes, we get lost in the lines leading to our eyes, we need to write our own directions, rethink the route. Like someone returning to their hometown 30 years later, a different landscape, bigger and lost at once. With a story.
I am all a blur these days. The getting outside ourselves that frees us, and the kind that makes us lose our dignity – I am caught toeing the border. I suffer from migraines, with an aura to them that precedes the explosion of pain. My vision is a crazy prism of a kaleidoscope, my face a trippy fun house distortion. For someone hard wired to see the shape of her insecurities in her reflection, there is a fitting, inverse poetry to it. There is sometimes a cracked glass rainbow that lets me see like I should have, forever ago. When it hits that the mirror shows nothing. Like the selfies the world takes with forced smiles, duck lips, serious-about-the-beauty-we-hope-you-will-see looks. Like the grown women groups of friends whose outsides are so virtually identical, you wonder about the insides. The luck of the draw is what most of us see. Our ancestry and symmetry, or the sun and cigarettes we let leak into the mix. Sometimes it’s my brother, like a gift, when I cry for him, sneaking a minute in the restroom under the guise of a full bladder. His light and dark in wavy shadows through the day, ink through tears that can start with the deepest memories of laughter. Aches so deep they change you in a cellular level. Love that does the same. It all works it’s way to the surface, the mix of time and stress and collagen. The creases left from a hundred kinds of smiles. We are getting hit from inside and outside. It’s a strange battle to fight. For our personal x-ray vision eyes only. The difference between mascara and completely, perfectly myself. Accepting (at last) that I’m an insides kind of girl. That my reflection looks rougher and glows more with each year.
And when me becomes we, this miraculous we that my daughter and son make real, the sharpness liquifies and the heat of love turns to steam and soft focus. I can look at myself in a pair, in a trinity.
We have only one mirror now. A simple sheet in the bathroom, in which I see from the neck up. A tiny sticker in the bottom corner reads “you are beautiful”. And this sticker doesn’t lie. My little boy hadn’t seen himself in months. Watching his reaction to his own face was like watching an older guy reunite with a buddy from high school. We got a tiny handheld one he smiles into now, carries around for check in’s, to start to memorize what is changing by the day. But I’m here. I can see it, him. Learning his face. We all have to.
Here is a mirror to my life right now: 9:30, the night after the last day of school, an old T-shirt, hiding in a dark corner of my open-walled house, dictating all of this into my phone, laughing at myself, but needing to tell the truth out into the cool night. This is who I am, in all of its glamor and honesty. I don’t need to see it anymore. I have eyes on the inside.
(photo by Zalmy Berkowitz)
A mirror is my hair with pink strands flying every which way in a mischievous wind – playful, flowing, fluid; a visual echo of that which seeks from within. I strive to hang onto these times knowing that the wind can shift in a blink of an eye and turn my strands into a tangled knot of complexity; a reflection of a mind that moves too fast and irregularly. I’ve learned to be still and slowly unravel the strands with deep breaths; to turn my face to the wind and let it flow through; it is here I find solace in silence and stillness and peace.
(photo by Amanda O’Donoughue)
I am from carved stones, intricately designed crosses
I come from rugged mountains won and conquered
I am from loud voices, negotiations seeped in familiarity
I am from dreams, beauty and hope
I am from war and conflict, sadness and grief
I am from love and survival
Against the odds I am from a language unique and beautiful
I am from two worlds neither here nor there, belonging to neither
I am from certainty, at times uncertain
I am from dances expressed with graceful hands
I am from a life sometimes so beautiful, I am from a life lived and unlived
I am from snowy peaks little and large, I am from the voice that speaks for others
I am from wonder of this world’s cruelty and kindness
I am from a land of talent, poetry and music intertwine
I am from many languages all mixed into one
I am from checkpoints at many borders
I am from reasoning when there is no reason for any of it
I am from a diaspora dispersed within
I am from generosity and from high expectations
I am from watermelon on hot summer evenings
I am from the sea right opposite me
I am from grandmothers memories of church, culture and language
I am from all these memories within.
See that girl in the middle? She’s the one with the secret. A lifetime of hurt and pain lived in 11 short years. The father who was the alcoholic. The father who flings painful words and fists. The house filled with anger and hatred. Love was hard to find. The neighbor who took her innocence and robbed her of her childhood. The secrets that no one wants to know…that no one wants to believe. Her eyes speak volumes…the screams she wishes she could scream but her pretty face seems to hide the eyes and no one asks about the pain hiding beneath the tan skin. The secrets will stay buried for far too long and that pretty little girl…the one with so much promise will flouder and fail and fail again. She will reach for perfection and never achieve it. She will disappoint and find disappointment. She will hurt others and be hurt. She will lash out at anyone who dares to get near. And then it happens. Gradually she finds her feet and her voice. Eventually, she will heal and find a place where love can flourish. Slowly she learns to run again and then jump. She first grows wings and then learns to fly. She learns to drown out the naysayers, the critics and those who would doubt her. She listens to voices of promise and power and believes. She finds strength in herself and her abilities. She will find love and allow herself to trust that she is deserving of it. She overcomes. She will grow inside of her four beings that bring with them so much hope and promise for the future and she loves them without reservation. She will teach them about love unconditional. She will never allow words or fists to destroy their light. She will shelter and protect them with the hope that they will never carry the secrets and silenced screams. She forgives. She lives a life of happiness that she designed…not happily ever after because that is the stuff of fairy tales and she learned long ago that fairy tales do not exist but the deep and all encompassing happiness that comes from seeking it out and allowing it to envelop her life. She finds peace.
Leela told me she was beautiful. And as she assessed herself in from of a full-length mirror in a vest and the boxer shorts of the customer asleep on the bed beside her, I had to no reason to disagree.
But Leela as Leela has been born was in there too, and it was this natural ‘booty’, ‘straight from the hand of God’, that she was most proud of. The other girls, she said, were ‘black, like Banglas’, and once they’d scrubbed their faces clean of the Dreamflower powder without which they wouldn’t leave home, they were no prettier than the beggar-monkeys snatching bananas out of the hands of devotees at the Hare Krishna temple down the street.
But not Leela. Stripped of everything, including here knicker-bra, she was still a wonder she said–not unlike the Taj Mahal of Agra city bathed in moonlight.
~ from Beautiful Thing, Inside the secret world of Bombay’s bar dancers by Sonia Faleiro
Growing up in India, I was not the beautiful one. The middle child, sandwiched between two fair-skinned siblings, I was the dark one. As a young girl, I was convinced that I was switched at birth. You hear those horror stories all the time. If it weren’t for my hazel eyes, the ones I share with my siblings, I would have believed it to be true. I grew up in a culture with a fair-skin obsession across high, middle and low class people. Your shade of skin color determined your beauty and ultimately, your fate to marry a ‘good’ Indian boy. I remember all of my young life the ads, cinema, matrimonials constantly bombarding the message of fair as being akin to beautiful. Ad’s read “Match for Smart, Fair, Slim Brahmin Girl” or “Seeking fair, slim, b’ful girl.” I am sure that my own bio-data listed by my parents in the Times of India used “fair” liberally to encourage responses from suitors.
I went to an all girl’s school from kindergarten to tenth grade. My school identity was being the younger, less attractive sister. Somehow, it didn’t matter and I was happy to live in my sister’s shadow. I recall being asked by a school friend, “Whatever happened to you?” The implication was why was I so dark when my siblings weren’t? It wasn’t the first time someone had commented on my skin color. Those words stayed with me for a long while even as I entered the advertising world as an art director. We promised women a “fair and lovely” complexion using skin lightening products. And when you think you have seen it all, a couple years back a “intimate wash” was advertised to whiten vaginas. The message was you need to be fair not just up there but down there too.
A couple decades later, living in America, in this different world, I wonder if things are the same here as they were there. I got married to a man with a much lighter skin color than mine. And gave birth to a boy with the most perfect skin color. A few years back, my then seven year old asks me out of the blue, “Mama, why is my skin so dark”? I can’t believe what I am hearing. Did someone say something? Why does he care about his skin color? Have I failed as a parent? It took me a long time to be comfortable in my own skin and it was after I came to America. So I say, “You are just perfect the way you are. People pay big money to make their skin look like yours.” Yes, my child, you are the most gorgeous child one could dream of having.
when i look at this image that my daughter captured i see a woman with strength, yet i am that woman and i don’t always see it or believe it within myself. however when i look at this image i think to myself…there she is! there’s that woman that i want to be. she is me. seeing her capture me this way gives me encouragement not just for her but for myself and i’m grateful for that. i truly want to be the woman that she sees, the woman that i see in the image. deep down inside i know that i am. i just need to find the courage to find and accept her. i think i’m halfway there.
This is me. The year I turned 21. The year I took my first film class, my Dad’s Konica slung around my neck. I spent the three years before wedged in front of canvas pushing colors. Spewed, ugly. I remember watching the girl next to me, headphones on, nimble with a brush — she looked happy. I actually slashed canvases that year. Threw them in dumpsters barefoot, in the pitch of night. But then this class. The first time I didn’t think, critcise, judge. Just MADE. This photo is splotched brown with fixer. It has mesh marks from the drying screen. It’s Illford smooth and I can remember clutching the thin box of sheets at the bookstore close to my chest, $12.99, hearing none of the sounds around me. I might as well have had my eyes closed. I do remember the hum of the darkroom. My teacher named Charlie. The feel of bathing in red light. Swishing paper across from my future husband, hoping our hands might touch, watching time tick on a round wall clock. A long slow crawl, while shapes emerged from liquid and the moons aligned. I don’t know who took this photo. I grabbed it on the last day of class from the bin destined for the trash. But now it hangs right outside our bedroom door, like a prize.
“A man’s true wealth is the good he does in the world. Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.” – Khalil Gibran
Three decades lie in the four-pixel space between this image of me and the one of you. At once side-by-side and 30 years apart here we are, mother and daughter yet two little girls, each dressed by our moms in the sweater your great-grandmother knitted for me. Could my Nana have known—or even wondered—as she worked a spool of wool into something more tangible that it would become a time machine?
Could she have known that my mom—once I outgrew it—would tuck it away in a cedar chest where it would lie in wait for the off-chance a girl would raise her head from the sea of great-grandsons that came long after she’d gone?
I’d like to think my grandma knew one day I’d have a daughter. And that I’d freeze the likeness of you next to one of me like mirrors… the child you are today and the one I used to be.
I pass by the mirror earlier than desired; with a baby who’s not really a baby anymore, snuggled tightly into my side. Chubby little baby legs that are more of the lanky toddler type, wrapped firmly around my midsection, making certain I don’t set her down. Forcing my exhausted self to start the day; but I stop, distracted by a pocket of light hitting our hair. Staring at our reflection, I realize how complete this is- this puzzle we’ve created, with pieces of determination, happiness, pain and pride fitting together just right, to make something pretty damn special.
We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay—and rise! – Maya Angelou
(photo by Kati Dimoff)
with our chopped legs, cross fit scars, pacifiers and in all of our potty training glory. my sweet, sweet girl.
In my younger kid free days, I was a spontaneous free sprit who was always up for a last minute adventure. I swore that motherhood wouldn’t change me. I would still be the same carefree, fly by the seat of my pants person. I just planned on taking my kids along for the ride. Well, I had my first child and realized I was incredibly naive to think my life wasn’t going to change. And then I had another baby, and another, and another. Suddenly, I realized somewhere along the way, I had nearly lost that carefree side of myself. I was fully submerged in mothering my four kids. I’m not saying I wasn’t happy to be doing it but sometimes I really missed that side of me. And when I was home with a newborn, 2 year old, 4 year old, and 7 year old, I wondered if I’d ever see that person in the mirror again. It’s interesting how when you are in the throws of raising young children, you think it’ going to be like that forever. You think you will never get a moment to yourself. You think your kids will never grow…and then one day you wake up and realize they are growing and how fleeting time is. My youngest is almost four. I’ve been mourning the idea that they days of having babies are over. Its a feeling that I think will never totally go away. Somedays that mourning feels intense, but I am starting to have glimpses of the old me and I feel excited for what the next phase in my life will bring. I’m happy to welcome back parts of that spontaneous person I used to be and to merge that person with who I am now…much wiser and more thoughtful. A person with much less insecurity and self doubt. A person who likes herself more now than she probably ever has. Our society is so youth obsessed but you know what? I wouldn’t trade how I feel about myself now for less wrinkles. Middle age feels good to me.
If I could tell this girl about a different time, one so far removed from where she is now, I would.
I would tell her about a day when she’d feel safe from the panic and unrest that lives inside her head, a day when she’d be free from the fixed smile on her face.
If only I could tell this girl of a thousand kisses from someone who knows how to love her, really love her for who she is, not who he wants her to be.
I would tell her that she would look upon a sea of beautiful little faces that she would one day call her own.
That the holes in her heart would heal and repair, that she would feel complete.
If only I could tell this girl just to hold on just a little longer, stay strong and wait for her dreams to unfold.
It takes great effort to remember a time that this wasn’t me. It’s who I am, and who I was always meant to be. Their mama.