The Wisdom of Five
When I was about five, I’d sit in front of a mirror and stare at myself. Stare and stare and stare at a small brunette body sitting on the floor in front of a full-length mirror that ran the length of a bedroom door. I focused on myself unblinkingly, until I hit a daze-y, hazy state, and felt a lift-off, a separation that took me from inhabiting my body to being on the outside and observing.
My bedroom carpet was shag, in a two-tone pink: magenta and rose. There was a cherry tree outside the window. The closet occupied one side of my room and was kept shut because my grandmother’s Russian Orthodox icon was in there, and I had a nightmare about it one night.
It was 1968. The citizens of the world were shaking things up, but I was in my little five-year-old world of contemplation.
Don’t ask me what possessed my bike-riding, tomboy self to get existential, but my guess is that a lot of children have this soft opening, untouched by a hardened shell of self-consciousness; maybe a five-year-old is more naturally intimate with universal mysteries, before life piles on a series of programmatic and defensive thought-habits.
This was also decades before computers, social media, endless streaming entertainment, video games. All we had were outdoors, books, a couple of TV shows, and for me, the quiet of my bedroom — the space to develop solitude and a rich internal life. I had my own room, and I loved it. I loved being in my pink-carpeted sanctuary, flipping the pages of my latest Dr. Seuss book, and staring into a mirror, wondering what the hell . . . I was.
Here’s what I remember from the mirror-staring time — two main hits:
1. Observing myself — or really this corporeal presence that was holding the seeming consciousness of “me”. I observed it with a neutrality that I now, 50 years later, have to remind myself to hold when I’m in my challenging moments or moods. I watched and watched this reflection, floating above myself until I got freaked out by the indefiniteness of things. Before returning to myself, the internal commentary was along the lines of: “Hmmmmm.”
2. The second thing that happened in front of that mirror was a koan that went:
“If there was NOTHING, there would be nothing to be nothing about.”
This blew my mind a bit, imagining a royal, universal Nothingness, a galaxy existence that ceased to be in the first place. W H A T ?
I never talked about my bedroom inquiries with anyone. This was not the “tell me everything” generation of parenting, and it never occurred to me to talk to a friend about it, while we ran through the “Creepy Woods,” or rode bikes up and down our sloped road.
When I was 38 and in grad school, a poetry teacher spoke of these profound thoughts he’d have as a very young child. That was the first time I heard someone talk about their own bedroom mirror experience. I thought of my six-year-old niece, wondered: did she have these moments, too?
It seems like we talk about awakenings as something that happens in our adulthood. But what about as young children?
At some point in our very young lives, we must all have these moments of awakening or realizations of Life — unless we’re already awakened and we’re just seeing it, the way that babies come to learn that those feet overhead are part of their bodies.
Do I know for sure this experience happened? I want to tell you YES, because I remember it so vividly — but I also remember a dream from the same time period, also featuring the mirror but starring a flock of two-inch humans who wanted to cut my limbs off.
I write about a memory, an illusion, of a little existential girl with a mop of brown old-lady hair, with a penchant for vivid dreaming, an overactive imagination that she brought to life in the solitude of a bedroom where there were so few distractions she was left with only her own consciousness and the world around her. There she was, contemplating the mystery of aliveness and the language that is used to describe it.
Do kids get the solitude to ponder the mystery of the universe anymore?