ALAN v24n1 - What Is a Mirror To Do?

Volume 24, Number 1
Fall 1996

What Is a Mirror To Do?

Marc Talbert

When I get up in the morning, sooner or later I find myself in the bathroom, paying homage to the mirror. My first glance at the mirror each morning is filled with equal parts of hope and trepidation. Who will I see reflected back to me -- Marc Talbert, conqueror of word and thought, literary lion? Or Marc Talbert, wordless and thoughtless, literary mouse? If I turn on the lights, it isn't always comforting to see various, jumbled parts of my mother and father (sometimes more mother, sometimes more father) looking confused and somewhat alarmed at the sight of me looking at them. If I keep the lights off, it's even less comforting to think the blurred apparition darkening the mirror is my bad breath and grumpiness made visible, or is something from a half-remembered dream.

Sometimes I don't know exactly who I've seen that morning in my mirror until later in the day, when I've had a little time to reflect (so to speak) and put my life into a more useful perspective.

Who exactly did I see in my mirror this morning? Successful writer? Supportive husband? Nurturing father? Prosperous son? Competitive brother? Distant cousin? Fair employer? Loyal employee? Stranger? All these things at once?

I didn't need a mirror this morning to know that you would see before you, now, a writer (whose success is still a point of discussion). But like all of you, when I look in the mirror I see many other things too -- so many, in fact, it is sometimes hard to keep them straight (I hate realizing I am being a successful writer when I should be a supportive husband, for example).

Undoubtedly, one of the most important things I am these days is a father, to a girl who is so eager to turn five she tells people she's four-and-a-half-and-eleven-twelfths, and to an eighteen-month old who looks at me, smiles, and says, "Daggie," which is an all-purpose word for doggy and for Daddy. I am flattered by the fuzziness of her vocabulary. We had two dogs, family members for certain, and nothing could make her smile more than the sight of either of them.

One of them, Maggie, a robust blue healer, with an exceedingly good self-image, came to us six years ago. The other, Jiggs, has been a part of our family from the very beginning. Some of you will recognize her as the dog pictured with me in the flap copy of the novel Toby -- she was my coauthor for that book, the model for the dog Whiskers.

My wife got her fifteen years ago, just two days before I came to New Mexico for keeps, fresh from Iowa with all my things -- mainly books -- ready to woo and marry her or die trying. From that time on, Jiggs went everywhere with us -- from the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South to Grand Gulch in Utah -- and was always a beacon of unwavering and unconditional love in our lives. Many of you have had dogs grow old on you and die -- leaving terrible holes in your lives. But I'd like to tell you a little something about Jiggs, because I think it bears directly on what I'd like to tell you about my writing.

She began to fail a couple of years ago, in the fall, so much so that I decided I should go out and dig a hole for her before the ground froze. The ground in my part of New Mexico is tough as cement, with perhaps a little more bounce, so every time I swung the pick the shock of metal against ground seemed amplified, running up my arms to my shoulders, almost ringing in my head. I dug, feeling all those things you feel digging a grave, when I noticed Jiggs tottering toward me from the house.

Jiggs always liked digging and holes in the ground -- in fact, I would consider Jiggs a connoisseur of holes -- and she was curious about what I was doing. I felt almost guilty about having her witness me digging her own personal grave, but she nosed around, and was thrilled. It was a great, big, beautiful hole and her master was digging it. For her pleasure, perhaps? Was she the master now, if only for a little while? She sat and watched, almost seeming to supervise, until I gave up for the day. It wasn't very deep -- for the time I spent, it was embarrassingly shallow -- but probably deep enough in a pinch; and besides, I didn't much care for digging any more while she watched me -- it was just too weird -- like the scene in Dickens' novel A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is confronted by his own gravestone.

If I'd known what good medicine it was for her to watch me dig a hole, I might have kept digging, certainly I would have dug with more enthusiasm. You see, the next day she was like a new dog -- alert, almost frisky, stronger, content. It was amazing. And we all attributed her renewal to seeing me dig that -- in her mind -- glorious hole.

What I've told you would be a cute story, told once and forgotten, except that the following spring she began to fail again. And once more I went out to dig in the hole, feeling that in good conscience it just wasn't deep enough. And once more, she dragged herself over to see what I was doing and seemed to enjoy watching. And once more, the next day, she was a new dog. This happened two more times over the course of six months. Obviously, my digging the hole had an affect on her, made her well; and if that were so, I was willing to dig to China to keep her healthy, to keep her from dying.

In digging a grave, many thoughts come to mind. There were times when I found my mind wandering -- as it is wont to do -- imagining that I was digging my own grave. Many times in digging I thought of my own death and what it will be like for me, just as I wondered what it would be like for Jiggs. As I thought about holes and about death, the sadness I felt often was not for my dog, but for me and for all the dear friends and relatives I've lost to death over the years and will lose in the years to come.

But all was not sadness and grief. Blisters. There were blisters. And an ache in the small of my back. And, believe it or not, there were a couple of times I looked forward to digging that grave -- there is a strength that builds in your hands and arms and back from digging, and such strength feels good. And there is a satisfaction in digging such a hole well -- in carving the dirt and clay and rocks and roots to one's image of a comfortable grave. In digging a grave, one comes into closeness with one's living body and with thoughts of death -- and there were a few fleeting moments when I felt as if I was physically grappling with those emotions --that I was the embodiment of life, grappling with death and holding my own against it. In short, there were moments when I never felt more alive than when I was digging Jiggsy's grave.

And sometimes I couldn't help making comparisons between what I was doing with my pick and shovel and what I do when I write. I have felt, more and more, that writing a book is like digging a grave -- for myself. I have felt, more and more, that the deeper I dig the hole, metaphorically, the more alive I become. I might dig in over my head, but still feel alive --absurdly alive -- as if I were digging a hole in which to hide treasure instead of digging a simple grave.

Sadly, all good digging -- literal and literary -- comes to an end. You either dig yourself to exhaustion, or the walls begin to collapse or fill in with water or mud every time it rains, or it's too deep to get out without help (which is sometimes called editing), or in the case of Jiggs, the dog dies. There comes a time when no more digging will help, when everything has come full circle, when purpose has been fulfilled. It happens with every book, and it happened with Jiggs a little over a month ago.

Looking back with the distance of a month, I see I learned some important things from digging Jiggsy's grave. If the digging had been easy, say in the rich, crumbly, black topsoil of the Iowa I grew up in, I wouldn't have learned so much or felt so much as I did. But in the unyielding, stubborn earth of New Mexico, so foreign from what I grew up with, I learned about love and loss -- even as Jiggs cheered me on with her doggy enthusiasm. I also learned that the challenge, always, is to transform the struggle, the difficulty, into a thing of beauty -- in this case a grave, dignified and comfortable -- or, in the case of my writing, a book. That's the challenge, which of course we don't always meet.

With each book I write, I have good days and bad days. The struggle that comes from the bad days, much more than the good days, teaches me useful things about myself. Just as I try to fit a story into the framework of a novel, I tried to make Jiggsy's hole square -- an impossible task. Just as I try to make each story completely, totally honest, I tried to make Jiggsy's grave plumb -- also impossible. And just as I try to create a novel that embodies compassion and respect for the people in it, I tried to make a grave as perfect as my love for Jiggs -- which could never be done. With each book, as with the grave, I have reflected back to me images of myself --my interior self, my desires and dreams and beliefs and fears -- images I have never been aware of before, and some of them images I don't find flattering. The grave became a mirror reflecting back to me some of the darkest, and most absurd, parts of myself. Books -- both the ones I write and like to read -- are also mirrors, reflecting back to me the complicated, multidimensional things about myself, reflecting not as if from a polished surface, but as if from the shimmering depths of a pond, or a cenote , the layers of water, each a different temperature, reflecting various layers of me with varying clarity -- some dreamlike and some startlingly real, some warm and some chilling.

There are many kinds of mirrors in life. The most superficial, of course, is that cursŽd, aforementioned mirror above the bathroom sink. It is useful to realize that none of us will ever see ourselves directly -- not in a mirror or a photo or in a video. It stands to reason that the more things you use to help you see yourself indirectly -- video, photos, mirrors -- the better you will know how you look. The more things you use to help you understand yourself -- your body, your spirit, your attitudes, your intellect -- the more accurately you will be able to know yourself.

I think what I see reflected back to me in the eyes of my wife or my daughters -- and my dogs -- is a better mirror than anything else I know. The feelings I experienced digging came at me from the darkness of the grave, and I couldn't avoid them in those close quarters any more than if they'd been bats flying at my face. The images and scenes and characters in my books reflect back to me yet another image of myself. The way I react to the images and scenes and characters of the books I read by Richard Peck or Katherine Paterson or Chris Crutcher or Mary Downing Hahn form yet more images of myself. All of these images combine to form a more accurate picture of myself than any single image from any single mirror in my life.

When thinking of mirrors -- or should I say, when reflecting on mirrors? -- one mirror immediately comes to mind. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , the Queen has a mirror that she relies on for more than seeing if her crown is crooked. "Mirror, Mirror on the wall/Who's the fairest one of all?" When the story gets to that part I'm always a bit puzzled. The Queen, at least in the illustrated versions I see, and especially in the animated Disney movie, is not pretty -- certainly not fair. I have always thought the mirror was protecting itself from destruction when it would say, "You, my lady." The mirror was lying -- anyone could see that! It was an outrage!

But what is a mirror to do?

Every morning when we get up, every night as we prepare to sleep, and sometimes fleetingly during the day, we expect the same from our mirrors that the Queen expected from hers. The mirror reflects our outer selves, in all our glory, but we are selective about what we notice in our mirrors. We look at only those things we want to see -- only those things that make us feel pretty -- that lip gloss, or that eye liner, or that razor carving its way through foam, or those teeth so nicely brushed, or that hair lying "just so." We rarely look at everything together and see how it all fits together -- whether or not we are really as "fair" as we think we are. And yet we expect the mirror to tell us that we are "fair."

Frankly, I don't think many of us want to know what we really look like. I think we like this deception -- or at least rely on it to keep us going, to give us the confidence to go out into the world. Most of us, if we really looked at how everything in the mirror is put together would be upset, perhaps even mortified. How could perfect teeth and perfect hair look so É so ordinary when put together?

In order to see what we really look like, and to appreciate what we really look like, we need perspective -- and distance. It's true that if we get too close to the mirror we can't see anything at all. We need both perspective and distance in all areas of life, but certainly we need them to know ourselves -- to see how we look inside and out -- physically and emotionally and spiritually. And more and more, as our society seems to crumble around us, we need perspective and distance to know our cultural selves.

What is this culture in which we live? Each of us has an image of ourselves that is cropped and framed by the culture in which we grew up. Viewed in this way, multiculturalism is like trying to fit several frames over each of us. In doing so, one frame will end up outside, dominating the others. And the affect of many jangling frames will distract from what is being framed -- namely each of us as individuals.

I come from a culture that I cannot deny, that I would be foolish to deny. I grew up Protestant, middle-class, and come from northern European stock. I grew up in Iowa, the middle of the middle of the middle, where everybody talks like Walter Cronkite or Johnny Carson -- in other words, I grew up with no accent (or so I was taught to believe). I now live in northern New Mexico, which is largely Catholic and poor, which is made up of a sometimes uneasy mix of Native American, and Hispanic and Mexican mestizo, and Anglo -- which is a catch-all for people like me and also for African Americans and Asian Americans, company with which I'm very proud to be lumped. I have chosen to live in New Mexico because it doesn't show me what I want to see about the culture I came from, and who I am, but because it challenges my view of myself -- gives me the perspective and the cultural distance I need to better know and appreciate myself. I haven't chosen to become Latino, or Catholic, or to acquire an accent. But I have chosen to grow as a person, which means that I have chosen to learn about my heritage and myself -- as reflected back to me from the contrasting heritage and cultures of those around me.

In other words, I am using other cultures as a mirror of my own cultural self. Through this process I have grown to know and appreciate my own culture and those other mirroring cultures more profoundly, more completely, than if I had chosen to stay where I grew up, which would have been the equivalent of living as part of a TV sit-com, in which everything is calculated to show me only what I want to see, only what is safe to see, only what is amusing, cute, and reassuring -- not what I should see.

This choice I have made is reflected in my writing, and in my reading. I find myself craving more and more in my writing and reading those two things: perspective and distance. I think my two latest books embody exactly what I mean by this.

A Sunburned Prayer is a book in which I set out to explore questions of faith. The first year I lived in northern New Mexico I noticed, on Good Friday, thousands of people walking along the highways north of Santa Fe. When I asked about this I was told about how many devout Catholics in this area make a pilgrimage to a little town about twenty miles north of my house, a town called Chimay—. I was told they go to a Santuario there where there is a pit in the ante room, off the altar, a pit that is looked over by a statue of Our Lord of Esqu’pulas -- a Mayan saint from Guatemala.

How that statue came to Chimay— from Guatemala over a century ago is a mystery, or a miracle, depending on your point of view. The pit where this statue was first found had once been a hot springs, with water the Pueblo Indians believed had curative powers. The springs had dried up, but a pit remained, and the Pueblo Indians believed the remaining dirt -- if eaten or rubbed on the skin -- could cure physical or emotional ills just as the water had.

When the statue was first found, it was carried off to the closest church, several miles away. But it kept mysteriously disappearing, only to be found again, half-buried in the pit. Was someone playing a prank? People began to doubt the saint-nappings were a prank. It happened too often for somebody in that tightly knit valley not to know if somebody was joking around. It could only be the saint, himself, moving to a place he felt comfortable.

It was about that time someone made an uncanny connection between the pit in Chimay— and the church in Guatemala built for Our Lord of Esqu’pulas. That church, a cathedral, was built over a pit that contained -- you guessed it -- holy dirt that could cure diseases, physical and emotional and spiritual. People from all over Guatelmala made pilgrimages to this church to eat the dirt or rub some on their bodies.

So, a humble Santuario was built in Chimay— to honor and protect this statue and the holy dirt -- and (why not?) to allow the family who owned the land to profit a little from this miracle.

I was brought up a Methodist or a Presbyterian -- depending on which minister my parents liked at any given time. I grew up in the Midwest where people made pilgrimages to the Iowa State Fair, not churches. I was understandably skeptical when I visited the Santuario for the first time. But from the moment I walked through its front doors I knew it is a place of miracles. I saw people inside crying for happiness and eating pinches of dirt. I saw the crutches lining the walls of the ante room, gifts from people who believed the dirt had cured them. I saw photographs of loved ones, so that visitors might pray for them. I read the testimonies, many of them written in Spanish.

I didn't understand any of it, but I felt the power of the place. For these people, it was true -- the dirt held power -- and I envied them this belief.

It was many years later that I decided perhaps I should write about this thing that moved me to tears every Good Friday, to write about this Santuario I visited with such regularity during the year. And I made the pilgrimage by myself -- one of the few with blond hair among the thousands -- one of the few who was not Catholic. I walked among people who looked as if they never walked farther than from their car, through the grocery store, and back to their car. I walked among people who carried large, heavy wooden crosses. I walked among people who never stopped saying the Rosary -- people who were in Rosary-induced trances. I walked among children who had no business walking fifteen or twenty miles. And old people who were just a few steps from using wheelchairs.

It was a walk that changed my life. I began to write A Sunburned Prayer , much as I had started the pilgrimage, on faith, not knowing what would happen along the way but knowing something would. A miracle? Perhaps. But I wrote to discover, to push through uncharted territory -- to see what images I could find on the other side of the mirror.

My faith was rewarded. The physical journey of this pilgrimage wondrously matched the spiritual journey. In addition, the story matched the topography, and the interior story matched the exterior story. And in the book I met Eloy, a boy I grew very close to -- an Hispanic boy raised in a place very different from where I was raised, living in a small mountain town in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos -- very different from Iowa. In Eloy I met a boy who wrestles with life and with God, with hope and with death. He is forbidden by his parents to make the pilgrimage to Chimay—, but he goes anyway, to fetch some holy dirt for his grandmother, his abuela, who is dying of cancer.

What Eloy finds at the end of his pilgrimage is as surprising to him as it was to me, typing those last twenty pages.

For my latest book, Heart of a Jaguar , I chose as a mirror a culture that provides a unique perspective and great distances in both time and place. Using the Maya as a mirror reminds me of another great mirror in literature -- the one in Alice in Wonderland -- that looking glass through which she falls, behind which is a world that changes her perceptions of reality, and herself in relationship to it, in startling ways. Through the Looking Glass -- what a marvelous, garish, sometimes carnival- ish , way to see reflected back the interior logic of one's mind!

My story takes place seven hundred years ago, in the Yucat‡n of Mexico, and concerns a Maya boy, Balam, who teeters on the brink of adulthood. It is a story that concerns, among other things, blood sacrifices.

That may seem as foreign to us as a story can get. But I don't think so. I think every day of the sacrifices we expect individuals to make for the common good. We expect, and accept, a certain number of deaths per thousand for the convenience of driving our cars and polluting the air. We expect, and accept, a certain number of deaths per thousand in exchange for pest-free foods and for high-voltage power lines that exist near homes and schools. We expect young men and women to give their lives in the military, in our police forces, in our fire departments to make our lives safer.

The Mayan civilization was a great one, one I admire and respect enormously. They, like us, expected individual sacrifice for the common good. And their sacrifices also involved blood -- celebrated blood -- with many striking parallels to the Christian practice of celebrating the blood shed by Christ, and his sacrifice for humankind.

On the surface -- selectively looking at a superficial, bathroom-type mirror -- the Maya appear as different from us as any culture can be. Yet, upon closer and more honest inspection, there is much we share with the Maya. Through them I have learned more about myself and my culture than I could have writing about myself and my culture.

Any honest reader might look into the mirror that is Heart of a Jaguar , and see reflected back struggles between life and death, love and hope. Certainly I wanted to portray the Maya view of life and death, love and hope as accurately as possible. And I also wanted their view to serve as a useful mirror for the reader, a mirror that could help the reader see more clearly his or her attitudes toward life and death, love and hope.

With Balam's help, I hope I have done that.

Speaking of life and death, love and hope, I want to circle back toward the beginning of this talk -- back to Jiggsy and the grave I dug for her. We buried her with her dish, in her blanket, her face wrapped so as not to get dirt in her eyes or her mouth. That seemed important to us. Burying her was hard, and we were denying that she was dead, denying that she could no longer feel, even as we shoveled dirt onto her. But it only took a couple of days of visiting her grave, mounded and covered with rocks, many of them heart-shaped rocks my daughter Molly loves finding around our house (and with great success) to close my eyes and find that when I tried to picture her, her image was fuzzy, not clear, almost vague. Her image wasn't clear, but her presence was almost overwhelming. When I opened my eyes and looked up into the shockingly blue New Mexico sky, I felt her gentle dignity, her generous personality. It was almost as if she was in the air I breathed so deeply. It was almost as if she was in the salty taste of the tears trickling into the corners of my mouth. She, like all dearly loved souls, had grown somehow larger in death, not as small as one moment of her caught on film or felt in a single pat on her head, but as large as all such touches and glimpses -- memories accumulated over fifteen years. She was now liberated from my image of her body, her face, her feel. Through the mirror of death -- which is perhaps the ultimate mirror, and also the mirror-image of birth -- I was able to see her in a completeness, and with a depth I had been incapable of before, when she was alive.

So it is with books. It takes time, and it comes after the grief of the author letting go. But when a book is published and is out in the world, it suddenly becomes greater than the day-to-day ups and downs of its writing, the flurry of glorious writing and the grinding of impossible writing, the anguish and the joys of the screen's blinking cursor -- as opposed to me, the cursee. The book becomes more than the pages sent with such hope to New York, and more than the second thoughts -- the doubts and the fears of rejection. Each book that is dearly loved in the writing takes on a presence that is bigger than its physical size, more complete than the struggle to write it, more profound than the intent of the writer. In a sense, to finish a book is to say goodby to it, to let it die, with the hope it will be resurrected in a form, and with an energy, greater than anything the writer can comprehend or intend.

Perhaps in a of couple years I will have enough distance, have gained the perspective necessary to see A Sunburned Prayer and Heart of a Jaguar in the way I have been able to see Jiggs this past month. Certainly, through writing those books, I have learned much about myself and my culture that I could not have learned any other way. They have mirrored back to me things of depth and beauty and also things of shallowness and ugliness.

And I hope in some way these books will become mirrors for you, of you, mirrors that provide perspective and distance, reflecting back to you things you've never seen, or felt, before -- or things you've seen or felt, but never allowed yourself to explore.

Marc Talbert is the author of a number of YA novels, most recently, Heart of a Jaguar and A Sunburned Prayer . He delivered this talk at the 1995 ALAN Workshop. Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale. Reference Citation: Talbert, Marc. (1996). What is a mirror to do? The ALAN Review , Volume 24, Number 1, 2-6.