On Reflection

Mirrors are magical.

I well recall my ancient grandmother, Grammy, who lived in a cheap and Spartan second-story flat downtown. To access her abode, one had to climb the most incredible lengthy and narrow staircase imaginable, certainly illegal by modern fire marshal standards. After ascending the fifty steps (or so it seemed to this five-year-old), one stood immediately before Grammy's threshold; a couple other miniscule apartments trickled a little further down the hallway, homes to other widows in their declining days, presumably. The odor of dust and fittings carved of wood no doubt harvested in the 1800s (this lay in one of the oldest parts in town, smack-dab on Main Street) permeated the air. Even in those days, my tiny nostrils were exceedingly perceptive, especially to decay.

Roger Corman could have filmed an epic here and not have spent more than a tenner.

A rap on the door was followed in response by some interminable shuffling as Grammy roused herself from yet another nap and slowly worked her way to the shabby door designed to keep only light out (barely) and certainly not sound.

This is exactly how I imagine the slums of Whitechapel to have been in Jack the Ripper's day. But it suited her, apparently. Grammy was an odd duck, but what would you expect? She passed on some genuine eccentricity to Pop, and he to me, but there it ends, procreation not being in my nature.


After a turn of a skeleton key in a lock any halfwit could have picked in under ten seconds, the blistered door swung open and Grammy welcomed us for another of the requisite visits I used to dread. She was scrawny and frail, with wrinkles on top of wrinkles, wasn't particularly fond of children (although I certainly never viewed myself as a child), loved to smoke innumerable Chesterfields and was reputed to frequent The Red Onion, a particularly sleazy "nightclub" less than a block away. Had she been sixty or seventy years younger, I could have well imagined her a dancehall girl, maybe even a tart.


But I digress. I'm not sure the verb I used above is appropriate; maybe, "gave leave to enter" is more fitting.


In Britain, they have a term, "bed-sit," but here it took on an entirely new interpretation, since there really was but a single place for conversational repose. Her one room apartment housed a flimsy cot masquerading as the divan, a table with a Bakelite enclosed five-tube radio upon it and the requisite ashtray, a sink, and another stand supporting a one-burner hotplate and very little else. I'm pretty sure Grammy found our visits as painful as I did. But my mother always had this weird sense of duty, so we played them out religiously, perhaps once a month. I well recall being forced into one of these expeditions on a particular Saturday, interrupting my chance to view Invaders from Mars on the boob-tube. I was very pissed.

But there was one accoutrement in this anemic abode which always caught my fancy. Now keep in mind that there were no decorations, no paintings, no nothing in this flat designed strictly for sleeping, listening to the radio or perhaps eating a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti warmed over the hotplate, and very little else. So what was the centerpoint of decor?


Grammy had positioned two mirrors on opposing walls.


By standing directly between them, I (at age five) could easily view infinity, and tune out the forced conversation going on elsewhere.


The mirrors! The tiny parallelepiped of the room went on and on in either direction, shrinking even more with each iteration. Though really just a little kid, I was the biggest thing--emperor of the middle land--in this infinite regress echoing in either direction.


While I definitely had been entranced with mirrors even earlier in my career here on Earth (I remember refracting light to produce a spectrum on the wall by tilting a small mirror at a 45 degree angle in a pan of water and shining a flashlight on it, reveling in the appearance of the pure colors much as Newton had done) this was my first encounter with infinity.


Mirrors are indeed magical! That was no pedestrian affair when Lewis Carroll penned Through the Looking Glass. Or when M. C. Escher repeatedly figured mirrors into his etchings and pen-and-inks. And what about scrying, which has a history several thousands years old and was once even part of the Golden Dawn curriculum before foolish modernists excised it? Or that Egyptians in the time of Nuit and Hadit thought hand mirrors important enough to depict in beautiful engravings and paintings? Or that a vampire casts no reflection?


And then there's Oscar Wilde's brilliant:
The nineteenth century's hatred of Realism is Caliban's enraged reaction to seeing his own face in the mirror. The nineteenth century's rejection of Romanticism is Caliban's fury at not seeing his face reflected in the mirror.
Nothing has changed, has it!

Yes, I've known from a very early age that mirrors are indeed magical. But having spent way too much of my time living an exterior life, I had almost forgotten that.

I had a dream once I've never forgotten. In it, it's a bright July afternoon, somewhere in the middle of Minnesota. My attention is caught by an image in the huge plate glass window outside a McDonalds restaurant, reflecting something completely unexpected.

Four decades of lethargy weighed heavy, but I paused to look anyway and saw two lovers shining with joy, hand in hand. The posture of the pair was identical to that portrayed in Trump VI of the Waite deck.

In my dream, I pondered: which way is the glass reflecting? Who is gazing at whom? At the time, I thought maybe I looking in, perhaps unconsciously scrying, trying to divine the future. But now I think it was the exact reverse, and that those ephemeral images glinting in the glass were actually hoping for escape to my world, pining to become real. More logically, it's probably yet one more instance of Grammy's opposing mirrors, and the beams will bounce back and forth for a long, long time, making it damn near impossible to see from where they start and to where they will end.


And then I woke up.

Poor Brutus! He didn't even get that far.  Do you remember when Cassius asked, 
Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?
 The latter responded,
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.
To which the former counters,
'Tis just:
And it is very much lamented, Brutus, 
That you have no such mirrors as will turn   
Your hidden worthiness into your eye,  
That you might see your shadow.
Clearly, Shakespeare perceived the magic lying just beneath the silvered surface. And he's pointing out what some regard as epistemology's weakest link, but I consider its most endearing aspect. As some nameless benefactor once wrote:
We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are. 
It's always a looking glass, don't you think? Hence, life imitates art, ever.

Next installment: O! Canada!

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