by Susan Dorman
Wednesday, May 21, 1983
The best thing about class today -- besides you -- was the glass box. You really did it to me with that: I may be on the verge of learning something. And I'm going to call my report on mirrors "Mr. Lewis's Glass Box." (Of course, when I hand it in only the last two words will be at the top of the page.)
You turn off the lights and give a bunch of words meaning: the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection. We saw you draw the lines on the board, we memorized the law, and we yawned. But I did not yawn. They yawned. It was the dark, the smoke-filled glass box. The thin beam of light reflecting off the mirror bottom -- at an angle to make that V. of light.... so, they were sleepy. But you showed us. I'll never look in a mirror again without thinking of you.
What a mind. (What shoulders!) Your mind understands everything, and usually even knows how to get me understanding. Not today, when you brought in the speculum of the telescope so that we could watch you coat it with the amalgam -- I thought for sure I'd learn something about concave mirrors and real images... which I haven't been able to understand. I'm such a mush mind with the scientific mysteries. I wouldn't be in physical science with the rest of the mush minds, if I wasn't. I really could not get that stuff about virtual images and real images. Just can't grasp abstracts like that.
You showed me a real image of my hand. Real? But we've seen virtual images--illusions, you call them -- all our lives in plane mirrors, and they seem more real than real images. How can light, reflecting off my fingers, reflect again off the rounded surface of the concave mirror to form an upside down finger wiggling image--hanging in front of the mirror? And that is no illusion, you say? Wicked preposterous. You increased my confusion by telling us that they use concave mirrors in fun houses to make people look like they really aren't.
So, virtual images like I see every day in the bathroom mirror are optical illusions, and real images aren't. I wouldn't be able to focus on this during a sunny day in Fort Lauderdale with a flashlight. Wonder what would happen if you tried to tackle love anytime soon in Physical Science?
Looking at my ordinary reflection is not a face-to-face thing. The right side of my face is on the wrong side in the mirror, for one thing. That's not really my face in there. It's something pretending to be my face.
The mirror maze flipped me. I don't think I ever realized what a liar the mirror can be until I went with the youth group to Fun City Beach (like you suggested) and went through the Passage of Mirrors. Talk about distorted reality...or is it? I mean my wobbly wavery self that I saw...well it may not be me, but it's something real and according to physical law, right? Something reflecting my own light.
I've been reading "The Girl in the White Ship," a biography assignment for good old understandable English class. That tragedy turned the lives of those people into a passage of mirrors. There's this little bunch of people trying to escape the killing régime, only to end up in a groping horror show. Marooned on a ship wedged in a coral reef in the middle of the China Sea, dying like flies. And here's this girl, two years younger than me, starving, watching them all die, smelling that decay--trying to save her brother. She holds a daily conversation with Buddha, a loving discourse. (I turn poetic when I get emotional. Did I tell you I once sent some lyrics to Hall and Oates?) Buddha, she said, you shall have two chickens when I get back to Mom and Dad. Chicken is your favorite. Then later, when her brother is finally gone, and she's the last living one, "Buddha, I don't care if you want to rescue me, Buddha, I don't care if you want me to die. I just want you to hurry."
How does she do that, Mr. Lewis? I would have cussed Buddha up sideways. I would've kicked the mirror in, but I groped my way out, instead.
The girl, 13 years old--she knows what's guiding the world? Knows when all the light is bounced, lying, confused into our eyes?
It sure had me fooled, all this time. It's almost my face, but not exactly.
Just before I handed in my report today (when we moved on to lasers and incoherent light), I remembered something important about the mirror, seeing my mother in a mirror.
My mother died last summer. Lukemia. Yet, it's been going around. There's this quota they gotta fill every year, lukemia. Once I couldn't even speak the word. Or write it. Lukemia lukemia leukemia.
I bet you know all about leukemia, Mr. Lewis. I bet you read the documentation of radiation rain in the newspaper. How the rain fell twice in the summer of 1953 not long after bombs were detonated in the Nevada desert. As a kid my mother used to play in the rain in her swimsuit. They had this wicked fine gutter in the street right in front of her house. She and Aunt Phil would get out their toy boats when the rain came down. Nice warm rain in the summertime.
My mother reminds me of the girl in the white ship. Know what she said when her hair fell out during treatments? She with blue semi-circles under her eyes and wisps on her bald head? "I always wanted to know what I' d look like bald." And she asked for a mirror. I didn't want her to have it because she looked grotesque.
She looked in the mirror I held out, and giggled.
"How can you stand it," I screamed. I think I screamed. Maybe I whispered.
"Come here, look at me in the mirror." I went and stood by her pillow, put my head next to hers, holding out the mirror. We peered into it.
"What are we looking at?" She was asking me.
"A bald lady and her daughter." I couldn't say dying lady and her daughter.
She had me turn the mirror over. "It's flat, see. How can it show all this depth?" Turning it over again to see our faces: "It's not really reflecting depth, it's reflecting light. Only an image of something that's real." She was looking at me. "Not considering this is like living in the world and not trying to discover what is real. It's being satisfied with the first evidence of our eyes."
She got thoughtful. "I don't understand how mirrors handle light according to the rules yet manage to turn it back deceptively."
Then, like she was trying to tell me something, she asked what I thought of her dying. I couldn't answer, Mr. Lewis. I couldn't even think then. My mind, my emotions were cracking, shattering. I broke and cried all into her sheets.
But, this morning in study hall, after Mr. Lewis's glass box was finished, I thought about that time. I remembered what Mom had said about the mirror. She was so fragile, she couldn't even hold the mirror that day... yet the her of her was fully intact. Her body died afterward, but did such a woman go that way too? I don't think so.
PS -- Can I see you tomorrow, in a more coherent light?
Susan Dorman: I'm currently at work on a series of Maine rural town novels with mythic overtones. My work has appeared regionally in Maine publications like Portland Monthly, in little magazines such as those of the Mythopoeic Society, and in journals in the Midwest. I recently received a master's degree in humanities. My thesis revolved around the historical tension between rationalism and Christianity, focusing on Mark Twain, C. S. Lewis and Johannes Kepler. A byproduct of this was a novella, Fantastic Travelogue. Contact Susan.