On two memorable occasions I have spent a stretch of time without the means to see myself. I mean this literally – I had no access to a mirror. It hadn’t been by choice in either instance, but it proved instructive on both.
The first was an eagerly awaited and intricately planned climbing trek on Mount Kilimanjaro. I’d been list-tickingly diligent about the packing, but my focus had been directed towards special socks, blister treatment, layers and the right kind of sleeping bag. I’d somehow overlooked the small hand mirror in my sponge bag.
Once we were walking, it wasn’t until late on the first day, on our arrival at our camp of wooden huts, that I discovered its absence. But these surroundings, a lunar landscape building to a snow-topped glacier, were so lofty (in every sense) that it seemed a misplaced concern to ask if anyone was travelling with a mirror. Vanity was somehow far from the point.
Our outlook was glorious on its own merits, but the fact that I was unable to check that small square of framed me further enhanced my attention to the outside and to the people around me. Our little group walked, talked, went to bed with the dark and rose with the light; for the four days it took to reach Uhuru peak I looked outward without any “How am I looking?” considerations. No self-monitoring of suntan or imagined frostbite. There were a few awkward moments as I tried to glimpse a reflection in the metallic sheen of my water bottle, but I soon stopped trying. It was liberating to take myself out of the equation.
I got used to not seeing myself. My fellow trekkers were my witnesses (and I still feel sure that I would have been alerted to any sign of wardrobe dysfunction, even at 20,000 feet). Being free of my reflection freed me also from the restless adjustment and monitoring of the face we show the world.
One of my strongest memories is the post-trek rush to the “amenities”, the things that get called creature comforts. Non-travel clothes, makeup and a mirror seemed to beckon to everyone. I delayed looking, even then. But when I did, I caught an expression of unlined freedom smiling back at me.
The second occasion was a rather more extreme case of entrusting myself to the help, and the eyes, of others. I was on a swimming holiday in Italy. Moments into a swim I felt the sharpest pain I can remember: a jellyfish sting.
In 20 minutes my face swelled up like a football, one eye shutting in tandem with a shooting pain across my cheek and neck. But I didn’t see the symptoms: I asked for a mirror and was answered by the group, who agreed on the application of ice cubes and cortisone – and that I should not look at the sting “just yet”.
I had only their expressions to convey the horror of what had happened to me. Initially this caused my imagination to parade the starkest of images, and by the time I did look, the very worst had passed. It wasn’t pretty, but I didn’t see my face through semi-closed, panicked eyes.
It happened to be in the context of travel and adventure that I was mirrorless, but it made me think beyond that. When I check my reflection during the day, it’s generally with critical eyes, and much more rarely with pride. Not to check it at all was freeing. I wouldn’t dictate it as something to be adopted in full-time monastic fashion – but perhaps, sometimes, we should forget the mirror.
If we take away the routine of preening, and checking, and pulling the slightly ridiculous mirror face that most of us would be appalled to be caught with, we look out in a different way. We might even secure a different view.