At my ballet school, there is one spot at the ballet barre where a person cannot see the mirrors that line two of the studio walls. In this spot of reflective respite, the mirrors in front are blocked by the audio equipment and to the side a window breaks up the vast expense of reflective glass.
I stand in this spot.
My teacher will ask from time to time, “Amy, can you see yourself?”
I confidently shake my head, ‘No.’
“Do you want to move?”
Once again, I shake my head no. I am thankful that talking is not encouraged in the ballet studio since I would then have to explain that I can’t quite handle the truth of the mirror yet. I am enjoying what dancing feels like right now and absorbing the truth of what my dancing looks like right now is not quite yet within my abilities. I’d like to keep what is real and what is true separate for a bit.
This interchange highlights how the way we see ourselves is not always the way that we look. I learned early on that movement does not always look the same way that it feels. I recall Ms. Mackie, on one knee, her hands molding my foot into a proper pointe en bas, arch turned out, heel pushed high, toes turned down. It felt terrible, uncomfortable, and unnatural. It looked pretty. What was real and what was true was not the same thing.
Dancers tend to have a love hate relationship with the mirror. Ironically, the stage has no mirror so we spend the majority of our time rehearsing in a false setting. In theory, seeing yourself and others can help in correcting poor placement, poor technique, or poor spacing. But when you are moving, you only catch blurry glimpses of yourself which you then quilt together in your mind with stitches of judgment, both positive and negative. In stillness, the mirror can become a torture device, forcing you into yourself in endless obsession with the inherent faults of your existence. A pointed and haunting example of the mirror’s power can be seen in the life and dancing of Nina Sayers in The Black Swan. She sees reflections of herself everywhere, none of them her and all of them her. What is real? What is true?
At NPR.org yesterday, they featured a story on a dignity therapy which was developed by a Russian psychiatrist Henry Chochinov through his work with dying patients. Dignity therapy involves facilitating, recording, and passing on the dying person’s life story. What he and family members of the deceased find surprising is that the perceptions of the past have changed in the light of death. Chochinov comments:
“The stories we tell about ourselves at the end of our lives are often very different than the stories that we tell about ourselves at other points…When you are standing at death’s door and you have a chance to say something to someone, I absolutely think that that proximity to death is going to influence the words that come out of your mouth,” Chochinov says.”
They interview Kate Frego, a bereaved daughter, whose mother used dignity therapy in her last months of life and who bequeathed her life story to her. In reading her mother’s story after her death, Frego is surprised:
“…one of the first things Frego realized was that there would be no earth-shattering headlines or dark revelations. Instead, she found the opposite: Often in the story, Frego says her mother “just dramatically underplays something that I know was actually much larger and much more meaningful or painful or upsetting to her.”
The author of the article wonders:
“Was Frego’s mother’s version a deliberate distortion of the truth, brought on because she was facing death? A whitewashing or attempt to bend the narrative of her life in a more positive direction? Frego doesn’t think so. She believes that the fact that her mother was so close to death just changed her interpretation of things.”
“It wasn’t an intentional blurring; it really was her giving us her take on things and where she was at the time,” says Frego. “She was telling us that she chose to remember the happy parts of it. And truth is the way we perceive what’s happening to us, how we interpret it.”
I tend to agree that limit experiences alter our perceptions both of the present as well as the past and open up a liminal space where we can become more ourselves in the future. As our memories and regrets and hopes mingle and dance in our minds, our stories change. Limit experiences hold the mirror of eternity up to our mortality and we must define anew what is real and what is true.
“When you face death, it’s like facing a wall, and it forces you to turn around and look at the life that you’ve lived,” says William Breitbart, a psychiatrist at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.”
Joan Hitchens from Storybooksforhealing comments on the NPR piece and shares this quote:
“I can only sum up all forms of end of life retrospective as just this: “The past determines the present,” according to Sigmund Freud, but, “The present redetermines the past,” responds Erik Erikson.”
I am reminded of Harry and Dumbledore’s final conversation in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Walking through Harry’s version of “heaven,” the two discuss the past, the present and the future. As Dumbledore turns to leave Harry asks:
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” (723)
As we ponder our hope for legacies, genetic and otherwise, our gaze into the mirror of mortality may cause us to edit the story of our existence and hope that the legacy we leave is one of real truth.