Illustration: Contemplating an Invisible Mirror by Salvador Dali

Staring Down The Mirror
By Maya Dexter

IT IS MY FRIENDS, past and present, which keep me mute. As I pour my soul onto this page for the eyes of thousands of unknown strangers, I imagine the reaction of those few who know me well that may or may not be reading this (hi). What will they think of the redundancy of my struggles, of the flaws that flow from my reckless experience? What will they say if they see themselves implicated in the story of my life? Flattered? Naked? Violated? I have chosen this exposure; they have not. So then, whom do I honor? Do I abbreviate and cleanse my words of feelings that reveal their involvement, which gives you, my reader, a strangled version of my own life? Or do I let the honest blood of my own veins spill freely before you because that is who I am and also what you come here for – to find yourself in me and see that you are not alone.

It seems as though much of life is lived through the filter of this sort of dilemma. This strange existence we are visiting here seems to enunciate the sharp consonants of separation, shining a light on the space between us, though we always try to merge. We exist like a convoluted dream that is beautiful and symmetrical from a distance and confusingly intricate upon closer examination. It is so easy to find ourselves in each other in the beginning, exclaiming in loving excitement our discovered reflection, our realities similar enough to attempt to relate. We feel overcome by the desire to merge. And we begin to explore each other, diving deeper and deeper into bedrock, mantle, core, until under the pressure of scrutiny lacy fissures of difference begin to appear. Oh, we take it so personally, those disagreements. We question ourselves. It feels like disillusionment, proof of our limitedness instead of our uniqueness. Ultimately we always judge based on another’s ability to be like us. And if you have enough power you are allowed to kill off anything that is different.

‘Different’ is so ingrained in our culture that we use it to measure intelligence. The more you can spot the differences, the higher your IQ. We write children’s songs to drive home the point to young malleable brains who are born seeing no difference. Genetically we are not even all that different from any other species on this planet. But oh, how we value our analytical skills, and if we seek long enough, hard enough, we can always find difference and we triumph. I wonder if those differences we spot are not some paranoid hallucination, a pattern of separation that doesn’t exist, that maybe we could somehow learn to overlook.

And still, it is difference, real or imagined, which is the source of my inner censor. My experience with another is invariably different from theirs with me. We walk different paths on this planet; we suffer in different ways and so view life through different lenses. Sometimes it seems like one experience is two entirely different planets, and somehow I am always obliged to defend my own set of illusions in the face of someone else’s. Like that old question about me seeing blue and you seeing blue, but is this thing we call ‘blue’ the same thing for each of us? We could discuss it until we are blue in the face and never be quite certain. Sometimes I am just too tired to attempt to balance the two perceptions. Sometimes I am not prepared to bare the soft flesh of my existence to the harsh winds of scrutiny. I’m not willing to hear that because I am different I am wrong, or broken. It is all a reflection anyway. If I am you and you are me, which of us is broken?

As much as I reflect the good in whoever finds good in me, I reflect the bad as well. It is wonderful to hear that I am generous, that I am loving and funny and all of those other things which generous, loving and funny people would find in me. I accept those with gratitude, but are they real? We are complex beings. Each of us as these bodies holds within us the possibility for the complete spectrum of behaviors and emotions. I am not so naive as to think that life is so black and white that it can be sorted out into good and bad. There are infinite shades between that shimmer and morph as you move around, changing your perspective. So are the flattering judgments any more concrete than accusations that I am evasive, uncaring, or cruel, which inevitably pour forth from the mouths of those who have exhibited those very behaviors? Why do we go around labeling each other and calling it real? Who the hell do we think we are?

And perhaps that is the real question to ponder. It is certainly where all the gurus tell you to start. Am I this body that ages, that betrays me with illness, that will eventually die? No, I sense that I am not so finite. Am I my actions, my judgments - those things I arbitrarily assign ‘good’ and ‘bad’ from this limited perspective within this tiny body on this tiny planet rotating a small star swirling through an infinite universe? No, those are what keep me separate; the source of my suffering but not the essence of myself. Am I those to whom I relate? Not an easy question to answer, there are ways to say yes and ways to say no. But regardless, why do we feel justified to run around making demands of each other (or our selves) like some emotional repo man? Why do we force those we care about through an obstacle course of conditions that only the truly self-loathing would submit to? Do we really imagine that if everyone would just bend to our will we would be happy? Or is it another excuse, another block to throw up before us on the road to explain away why we haven’t quite made it to happiness yet?

And what of me and my own demands? It is not long after the beginning of a relationship that the urge creeps stealthily in to improve – to leave someone "better off" than they were when they met me (notice I have already left before it has begun). Why is this? Why is the attraction that drew us at first not enough to sustain? What is it I fear that I must keep at bay with a framework of makeover requirements?

I ask a lot of questions. I’ve been famous for that since I learned to talk. I wish I had definitive answers for each of them. But for every fingerprint soul there is an answer that corresponds. I can only stand vigil with my own, waiting for answers and the inevitable changes to them as I grow and change. At this juncture in my life I think what I have been holding at bay is freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it. It sounds like a curious paradox, but then, is it really freedom if someone else pays? No, that is only reckless license, and I am prone to fits of hubris so caution is my necessary companion. Working toward freedom out of fear of being caged by another’s needs does not bring me any closer to the grail, it only imprisons me in fear and leaves me disconnected from those with whom I would share life and love. There is no freedom to be found in that dead end. The path to freedom runs through a deep hairline canyon walled in by fear. The chasm is eroded by letting go and the river of freedom allowed to run strong and clear only when I sacrifice fear, dissolve it into a fine sand, and flow over it. Somehow I must let go of my fear of imperfection, of being hurt, of a thousand unnamed anxieties that threaten to crumble the walls and imprison me in fear before my search has begun, and learn to honor another’s freedom as much as my own. That is a great responsibility and I fear the load may be too heavy for little me, but ultimately it is the thread that connects us and I am compelled to accept it and try my best to do it justice in my own flawed way. Whatever that might be. The logistics of such an idealistic plan largely elude me.

Slowly the gears in my head turn, carefully, so as not to crush the fragile mechanism of my thought process. And the thought arises…if I am you and you are me…then if I seek freedom I should set you free. Which means I must learn to be still in the face of our storms of judgment, and practice forgiveness even when the teeth of our expectations carelessly break fragile flesh. To approach these values I need to surround myself with those who value compassion, freedom, letting go, staying in the present. In their eyes I will be free to be whoever I am, unconditionally, without fear that I might not give them what they want, which in turn leaves enough space for me to give without limit. In my own eyes they would be free to do the same.

With this in mind, I have managed to answer at least one question: do I obey the censor that wags its tongue over my shoulder as I type? No. I can be no less than who I am, and for as long as I commit to writing these essays I have committed to baring my soul and its story. No one should be able to censor that.++

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