Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Mirror of Matsuyama

This story is from before.
Before beauty was standardised.
Before beautiful had a reference point in your head of what it is and it is not .
Before photographs and photoshop, before catwalk models and sample sizes. 
This story is from those far off days when what was beautiful was all in the eyes of the beholder.

There was once a young farmer who had a small farm in the rice fields of Japan. 
And being a young man, he fell in love with a young woman and they were married. 
When he looked into his wife's eyes, he only saw  beauty and when she was with him, the world was more beautiful than it had been before. 

One day he set off for the city of Kyoto and he returned with a gift for his wife -  a shiny, smooth reflective surface, a mirror, surrounded by a black, bamboo frame. She had never seen a mirror before. As she looked into it, she had never seen her face reflected so clearly. And what she saw made her smile, because what she saw was beautiful. Her eyes beheld beauty as she looked into the mirror.
Here I have to pause and acknowledge one of those gremlins that sits in the shadowy part of my head and spits insults at this woman and calls her vain and imagines her looking like all those pictures in all those magazines - she has no cellulite, no spots, no wrinkles, no bags under her eyes, no fat bits, no rough edges. How dare this woman look into the mirror and be satisfied with what she sees? 

This is a story from before - before we told ourselves that self-love was arrogance, before we convinced ourselves, or let something other convince us, that we aren't beautiful, that what is looking back at us in the mirror is anything other  than beautiful. 

She looked into the mirror and she smiled, because she beheld beauty and what she beheld was beautiful. 

The mirror became one of her most treasured possessions (and why should it not - why should anything that shows us beauty be anything other than a treasure). If she was feeling sad, if she was feeling low, she could look into that mirror and be reminded of beauty. 

The young man and young woman, the young husband and the young wife loved each other very much. One spring morning, the woman gave birth to a beautiful, bouncing, black haired baby who had the same eyes and mouth and smile as her mother. 

They were very happy, but happiness does not always last; one cold, sad winter, the young woman contracted an illness and found she had to leave her dear husband and daughter behind.

In grief and sorrow, the man put away the mirror for it no longer reflected beauty, but only the absence of his beloved. He put all his energy, soul and spirit into making the world as beautiful for his daughter as was possible. 

One day when she was almost a woman, but not quite done being a girl, he called his daughter to him and told her tales of her mother, including the mirror. When the father went to bed, the daughter was consumed with curiosity and she went to the room where all her mother's belongings were packed away into boxes  and she found the mirror, with its black bamboo band.

She stared into it. Tears formed in her eyes and her breath caught in her throat.

That is where her father found her the next morning, surrounded by unpacked memories and gazing into the mirror, a sweet, sad smile on her face. 
"Father, father, look - the mirror is showing me Mother's face."
It was her own face she saw, but her father didn't tell her. 
He couldn't. The words were caught in his throat and tears were rolling down his cheeks.

So let me explain why this is on my blog. In the process of 'rewilding' I have found a huge amount of my time is spent reconnecting with myself as a woman, unashamedly loving myself and believing myself to contain that same wild beauty that I see in the naked, winter trees. And so I have spent a lot of time exploring narratives and stories about being a woman and this is one of them. 

We so often associate the mirror with vanity - the smooth surfaced pool of Narcissus comes to mind and a plethora of voices criticise us for liking or loving ourselves or thinking we are beautiful. But here is  story about a woman who was pleased with what she saw staring back at her and maybe we are angry with her and maybe we are jealous of her for being capable of looking into the mirror and beholding her own beauty. We are never  told that she fits the socially constructed standard of beauty, we are never told what she looks like at all, just that she is beautiful and she can see that she is beautiful. 

It would be wonderful to re-member a time where beauty could be about  beholding, instead of buying. There are these moulds we can go out and fit ourselves into and then we feel beautiful... Or   so we like to believe.

It is no accident, however, that it is her husband (her partner) that gives her the mirror - if we take this story as a model of the psyche as a whole, then it is important to find that hard-working, home-building part of ourselves and give the softer, feminine side ourselves the mirror so we can see, reflected back, the love and beauty we feel for that part of ourselves. But maybe that is too restrictive - maybe the story contains another message and one that is harder to swallow. If the young woman had been given the mirror by her evil step-mother who did nothing but hate and criticise, would the young woman have beheld beauty or would she have only seen the story she had always been fed- unworthy, ugly, unloved. If the evil step-mother is just a media-fed part of our psyche, we can start to deal with her but if she is a living, breathing person who formed what we thought of ourselves when we were very small, then to believe that we are beautiful is much, much harder. It is often said that you can't receive love until you love yourself, but it is also much easier to love yourself when you have been loved by others. So loving others is an act of loving ourselves and loving ourselves is an act of loving others. 

Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them "Love me"
Of course you do not do this outloud, or someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about it, this great pull in us to connecct.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to Hear
- Hafiz

Other stories on the topic of beauty - Strongwind (Algonquin), Olga the Cockroach


  1. Hi Abbie, just happened upon your blog! I love this story, and like you, as soon as the mirror made its appearance, I felt myself thinking ' oh, here we go. Vanity, narcissism!" And it wasn't at all, and how beautiful for a mirror just to be a reflection of what's there for once, rather than what is lacking. On the subject of mirrors/vanity, I think there's a definite gender bias in our society. I remember reading a few years ago ( and I'm afraid I CANNOT remember where now) about excavations happening in Siberia somewhere, of 2000 year old burials in the permafrost. The first few mummies discovered were all female, and as part of the grave goods they found polished mirrors. This was not considered particularly important. However, then male mummies were discovered, also with these mirrors. This sent the archaeologists into a frenzy, suddenly the mirrors took on great importance, they must have some spiritual or shamanic significance, they couldn't just be about vanity, not if men had them too. And I was so shocked that they couldn't see their own cultural bias in this. It seemed immensely sad to me, and also immensely limiting in developing an understanding of these ancient people.

    1. Thank you Mermaid in the Attic- I'm glad you like the story and what a tale about the Siberian expedition - it's a terrifying reminder of the bias that still exists. I love your artwork! If you ever want to collaborate on a folktale-retelling picture book for adults or children, let me know!

  2. Thanks Abbie. I must try and hunt down the Siberian Mummy story, I remember the impact it had on me, but can't for the life of me remember WHERE I read it! And thank you for your lovely comment about my work. Ahh, a book, one day! It's on my dream-wish-to-do-list!