“She looked in the mirror. Despite the makeup, she could see the puffy, gray circles under her eyes. Being President takes its toll on us all, she thought.”— from Not So Dead
When I wrote the above passage in my first novel, Not So Dead, it just came naturally. When you look in the mirror, do you sometimes see more than your physical reflection? Not sure? Next time, look straight into your own eyes. You may see more deeply into your soul.
I hadn’t really thought twice about writing that passage. It just made sense for President Longford to reflect on herself during a critical moment in the story. But after publishing Not So Dead, I read The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas, in which he talks about the “Mirror Moment.” It’s that point in time where the main character looks in the mirror, peers deeply into her soul, and changes the course of her life. It usually happens when life and the situation reaches a tipping point. The Mirror Moment evokes a realization that changes the arc of the character and the story.
Once I became aware of the Mirror Moment concept, I started noticing it in almost every book or movie I enjoy. If you read on a Kindle, try this fun little experiment. Take the book you are reading now or bring up a favorite book you enjoyed in the past. Then use the Search 🔍 function to look up the word “mirror.” The Kindle app will show all the occurrences of “mirror” along with the chapter and context in which it appears. The results may surprise you.
OK, so that’s Mirror Moments in fiction and movies. What about in real life? We all experience Mirror Moments in our personal life stories too — those times when something joyful or dreadful happens causing us to reflect and change course.
Looking back, I can identify a few of the more powerful Mirror Moments in my life, breaking up with my first girlfriend, getting fired from a job when I was a teenager, the birth of my firstborn son, and, most recently getting diagnosed with cancer. There are more, but these were the first that came to mind. A couple require further explanation.
Mirror Act 1 – From Sacked to Woodstock
The teenage job incident happened during the summer after graduating from high school right before heading off to college. I was a lifeguard at an apartment building swimming pool. The building was named Crescent Park because of the croissant-like shape, with the pool situated inside the belly of the curve. Some tenants complained that they had seen me kissing my new girlfriend in the pool. Perish the thought! Besides, the building owner’s nephew needed a job, which may have contributed to my sudden dismissal.
Either way, I got fired and it was jarring to be summarily shown-the-door. The shock of it forced me to look in the mirror and ask myself the question, “So now what?” As seems to be the case with many Mirror Moments, the bad leads to good. That summer turned out to be one of the best of my life. I threw a dart at a map and set out on the first solo trip of my life to Provincetown, a historic seaside village at the very tip of Cape Cod that stabs proudly into the Atlantic Ocean. It just seemed like the end of the earth — I hadn’t been there before, and it’s where I needed to be.
At just seventeen, I rented a room in the attic of a boarding house, had several salt-air adventures, and, in the company of other residents, watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. The moonwalk was great, but nothing like seeing a woman braless for the first time — that was a seminal event for a hormone-addled teenager. After returning home, I packed a tuna sandwich. gassed up my GTO, and headed to White Lake, New York for a music festival, called Woodstock. Ironically, afterward, as I left for college, my mother moved into Crescent Park minus one bedroom — mine. I got the message. Oh, and the new girlfriend I kissed in the pool, I married her a few years later.
Act 2 – Really Bad News and a Big Decision
After being married seven years and in no rush to have kids, my wife and I, aged twenty-eight, were happily obsessed with building our careers, until… Amy started feeling weakness on her right side, often tripping and falling down. After the first doctor told us, “It’s all in her head,” we headed to Columbia Presbyterian. I can still remember the gray-green walls and the antiseptic odor of that aging hospital.
There, they diagnosed her with both MS and Type 1 Diabetes. The prognosis was grim. Expect progressive deterioration, to be wheelchair-bound and worse. Another Mirror Moment. Our immediate big decision: do we attempt to have a child knowing that our son or daughter may not have a mother long-term? What would you do? A doctor in my family advised, “Don’t have kids. It could kill her.” So, of course, we decided to try. A year later, Amy safely gave birth to our first son, nine-pounds, ten-ounces. That was one of the best decisions of our lives and a major turning point for sure. Fortunately, the dire prognosis has not come to pass yet. Amy remains active and has skillfully managed the MS and diabetes for the last forty years.
Act 3 – The Diagnosis
Now for the latest mirror moment. If you read my Scary Thanksgiving post, you know that my cancer diagnosis came a few weeks ago. My first thoughts were to get my affairs in order, enjoy my final moments with family and friends, and finish my latest novel, ironically titled NOT SO DONE. The day before Thanksgiving, I had surgery to remove the tumor and the prognosis is good so far. The doctors will closely monitor me and perhaps do chemo. A close friend asked me, “How do you live with the uncertainty?”
My answer, “We live with uncertainty all the time, don’t we?” Nevertheless, this does seem like the right time to ask the big questions, “So now what? What do I care about the most? What’s the best way to spend my remaining time on this planet?” I’ve used those questions as a guide for years, but they take on new meaning and urgency when you face your own mortality. In truth, we don’t know when and how our stories will end. The most relevant question is, “How do we live and love and make a difference today, right now?” The answer may be — look in the mirror.
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