The Cure for Sleep: Mirrors
Season 2, 003: Through a glass darkly - what we see in the mirror
your invitation to write
This month’s invitation to write for the story archive is as follows: Tell me about your face in a mirror: a time when you looked at yourself in a good new way, or confronted uncomfortable beliefs about who and what you are.
[Please read the guidelines for contributors if this is your first submission to the project.]
As you read (or re-read) The Cure for Sleep, you will find mirrors as a recurring motif. I place one on the floor as a small child missing a father, imagining it a portal to him and God both. I look in the round mirror of my beautiful mother’s wardrobe as she dresses each morning for her job in the grocery shop, and see myself as a frog next to the quick bright bird of her. When I reinvent myself as an artist in midlife, I stand before my bathroom mirror trying to summon the courage to begin my first public performance. Mirrors become a way of framing how I feel about myself at key points in the narrative, and the hardest of these confrontations with self - and this month’s short extract given below - happens towards the end of the book when I have made a terrible mistake in love.
A suggestion for more work around this theme in your private creative practice: Experiment with taking a series of self-portraits using a mirror or window to see yourself at an unusual angle. How do you feel about making these deliberate images of yourself?
You can read the stories already contributed by readers over on The Cure For Sleep website: bedtime stories | memory games | bonding | choosing | promises | size & shape | time | desire | regret | faith | rebirth | play | hands
(All themes are still open for contributions, so that subscribers with time or health limits have the opportunity to take part as and when they are able.)
the cure for sleep: may extract
The next settlement along on that part of the North Devon coast was still the busy tourist destination it had been in my childhood, but here there were no pubs, no cafés, no public toilets. Nor any racks of postcards or plastic beach toys. There was, I’d been told when asking what to pack, just one cottage with a serving hatch sometimes open for hot drinks and ice cream. And the only advertised attraction for the seven days I’d be in residence, aside from the ever-present beach and sea? That would be me.
This had become a particular thrill in the three years of my new life as a travelling speaker and self-declared writer of the outside: coming alone and unknown to a place, senses made sharp by newness. Stranger in a strange land, I went along hungry for any small signs of who I’d be among this time.
But in the quarter-hour it took me to get from the car park to my cabin, I didn’t see a soul. Which made it all the more peculiar to reach the little brick building I’d be in, windowless on its wall that bordered the slipway, and see on its green wooden door my own name and photo. And vertiginous to open next the smaller side entrance by the cliff edge only to find a postcard waiting for me on the cold stone floor. Sent from across that North Atlantic I’d just arrived beside by the man who wouldn’t, after all, be growing old with me.
Heart lift at first, seeing his handwriting. Then heaviness. A fatigue so great that I wanted to lie on the grass and sleep, all my bags left unpacked around me. I’d come all this way, trying to keep moving through these months of mine that would always be without his company now – but here he was, ahead of me. Marking the territory.
Holding the postcard by one corner, mouse by its tail, I took it to the small outhouse that would be my only source of cold water. Came back then to the threshold to begin again, freed of male influence: a woman writer being allowed to work inside the carefully kept and Grade II-listed studio of two long-gone women artists who’d defied convention to live and love together.
Curator-cautious, I went step by step through the tiny space so as not to break anything. There on the back of the staircase door were the couple’s two painting smocks, one inside the other. Hung about on hooks were their cups, a rusted nutmeg grater, a Festival of Britain jug. Then, going up the few wooden steps, and bending my head to get around the sharp turn and low ceiling, I came into their only other room. Metal-framed bed with a white counterpane, a pitcher and bowl for washing, open cupboard of art supplies. On the mantelpiece, a sinister mercury mirror I’d been warned about on the risk assessment: it was degrading fast and giving off poison – I mustn’t get too close or look into its dark, decaying surface.
And so of course I did.
I’d been ashamed of my face since my terrible mistake in love: all the beauty I’d felt to possess in the few months of being wanted twice over – this had left me now. My skin was bad, my eyes were tired.
But I was here to welcome people in. What I looked like didn’t matter.
I adjusted my headscarf, tightened my apron and went back down to make a little bower of books by the open door. Hoping, in this way, to recover some of the joy I’d had in my first year of writing beside the pool.
Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (pp. 267-269). Orion. Kindle Edition.
this month’s extra
Back in March, I joined Lorraine Candy and Trish Halpin on their brilliant Postcards From Midlife podcast to talk about life’s threshold moments: how we can step into new ways of being. Their incredible archive also includes a conversation on sexual awakenings with Three Women author, Lisa Taddeo.
author site | book site | twitter | instagram
Scanning the numbers on the doors down the corridor, I harboured no feelings of dread, no feelings that I would find anything untoward or unexpected. I expected to see my mother, in a hospital gown in a hospital bed. Pulling back the curtain divider in her room, I saw my grandmother’s face swimming out of my mothers’s, calling out to me and admonishing me for making the trip down to see her in hospital. I was thrust out of myself. The years swam. I lost my steadiness. And then, when I looked again, it was my mother and it was her face that was chastising me.
I was no longer in my body. I staggered down the corridor with nothing like the steady considered steps of those patients diligently walking their laps around the ward. Collapsing into the green plasticky lounge in the visitor’s room, I put my head between my knees until I returned to myself. I opened my eyes and saw my face mirrored on the blank screen on the wall opposite. It was a face that I could not seem to recognise. The years swam. I lost my steadiness.
Now the practice of looking through old photographs for the faces I saw that day in the hospital room has become a search for the right face attached to the right person. The fluidity, the distinct lack of fixed-ness, of features formed through years of familial living, astound me. Is it possible to see my face in the mirror as mine and not as a fusion of all the women I am the result of? Will my daughter see her grandmother’s face in mine one day? Does she see me when she looks into the mirror? Does she see herself?
- Emily Tamas
What we see and what don’t see in the mirror. They are so close aren’t they? There in our face and also beyond making some things weirdly distant and others sharper than they’ve ever been.
I look in the mirror on this grey Tuesday morning and there’s my mums neck; suddenly and rudely more wrinkled than I’ve noticed before.
“I hate my neck” I remember mum saying exactly that 20 odd years ago now; she was about the age I am now.I had peered at her then and examined her skin and found it unremarkable under a face I felt was aging amazingly well. Indeed I heard this echoed in the compliments she received especially in relation to me and my big sister; could she really be old enough to be our mum? Familiarity and love too making my judgement so much more favourable than her own.
I also always received flattery from friends as well as strangers back then;but these were often misperceived if I think about it now. I didn't really want to look like a schoolgirl. We want to look grown up enough to be at the mother of our own child, dancing at that club, drinking at that bar, hanging out with that crowd; I needed to see myself as of an age that could cope and manage with all that life seemed to hurl my way. I didn’t want to see the fear, panic, pain and confusion on my face any more than I wanted to see mums wrinkles.
As I had sat on the 73 bus travelling across London with my 10 month old on my lap, my face with its girl like appearance , passers by would say
“ You must’ve had him young”
Not so I thought , 27 was the average age for having your first child;I was average then. I felt anything but that. I felt panic at times.So much so that I called social services one day, distraught.
“What do I do if I can’t cope with my child?” The question I just managed to relay to the person who had picked up the phone. I can’t recall their exact reply. I can recall the way the question landed, was there immediate danger? Did I have support? They just didn't get me. No-one did.Why would they? I didn’t get myself either and I really couldn’t explain this.Put the phone down. Cry and hurt alone some more.
I didn’t get what to do when I wanted to run out the door; when I needed my mum but not how to ask; when I wanted my big sister to step in and scoop me up and look after me.When I just wanted my dad to see how brilliant I could be at being grown up.My head was full of chaos and sadness and joy all in one big scramble. Yes, thats what it was, a scramble, like eggs mixed so each one was now part of the other. Where did one emotion start and another end? What even were these emotions? I just felt alone; unable to express myself except after wine and dancing but then it seemed to come out strange and urgent and somehow more frightening than ever. But there was joy too. A lot of pure love and joy.
So now, when I see my neck and my face and the wrinkles I don’t like I also see beauty and experience and someone who has made it through, through the toughest of times.