Norman Rockwell, Girl at Mirror, 1954, oil on canvas, 31.5 x 29.5 inches, The Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge MA. Image first appeared on the cover of the March 6, 1954 edition of The Saturday Evening Post
LOVE AFTER LOVE
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.
(Derek Walcott, 1992 Nobel Prize in literature)
My long time friend and mentor Bob Thiessen wrote:
“This poem from Derek Walcott has been like the 2 faithful sheep dogs from Psalm 23, beauty and love, chasing after me in the meadows. “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life”.
The shocking beauty of Walcott’s poem is the invitation to offer hospitality to ourselves of the sort we would extend to someone we love. As I grow older, I find that my need to be hospitable towards myself also grows stronger. To speak words of kindness in the company of disparaging thoughts. To ensure that the landscape inside me stays friendly even as I confront my darker side and a sometimes failing body.
Being kind towards myself feels like the right way to enter 2021.
And we know that learning to love ourselves is the starting point for learning to love others. How I treat myself will ultimately determine how I treat others. Even Jesus once said: “Love others as well as you love yourself” (Mark 12,31).
This poem brings me to reflection. Who is the stranger in me that is waiting to be rediscovered and loved again? What sort of hospitality am I offering to myself? Is there a love letter waiting to be written to myself? What would I say?”
To listen to the poem being read, see “Love After Love.”
Who is the stranger in me waiting to be rediscovered and loved?
A wonderful question.
And it is answered in a different way by the Norman Rockwell painting above. Russ Ramsey writes this about the Girl at Mirror:
“Each of these little composition decisions that Rockwell made to dress the scene come together to tell us that this girl is someplace between being a child and a woman, and she knows it.
When we look at this painting, we wonder what she is thinking about. Will she put on her play clothes or try on one of her older sister’s dresses? Will she lace up her scuffed saddle shoes or take her first awkward walk across a room in heels? Does the woman from whom she borrowed the brush and make-up know she took them? Is she hiding? How private is this moment supposed to be?
We wonder about these things, but we also know this girl. We’ve all been where she is, trying to look through the mirror to what might become of us. We’ve all felt stuck between two eras. We’ve all wondered how we can get from here to there. We know what it is like to sit in that posture, all gathered in on ourselves. Her eyes seem to plead with the girl in the mirror for some sort of answer, or at least help in figuring out what questions she should be asking. We’re all “trying to estimate our own charms.”
And just like that, Norman Rockwell leads us into a private room filled with weighty questions about who we are and who we were meant to be, and he leaves us there alone to pine…. when I look at Girl at Mirror, I see the brilliance of an artist whose work echoes what Frederick Buechner said: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”[*]
Or as Walcott would put in, “Sit here. Eat. Feast on your life.”