Nestled beneath the rim of the foothills that slope South to the Sea of Japan, midway between the Guardian Mountains of Hiei and Atago, a young couple farmed the generous earth outside their door and lived the beginning of a long and happy life together. They rose with the sun and slept when the half-light of evening turned down the sky. They were modest yet genuine, discreet yet well disposed. They had a daughter they loved well. This was the sum of their life.
One day the husband received word that he must register their land with the magistrate in Kyoto. He had never been to the city before; in fact, neither he nor his wife had ever been beyond the foothills. Business was, however, business, so he packed a rice bag and set off for Kyoto, one foot in front of the other until his feet brought him home again.
He returned in the late afternoon and told his family stories well into the night about the temples and gardens and people he had seen in the city. At long last, he took two packages from his rice bag—gifts for his wife and child. For his daughter, a yellow butterfly kite; for his wife, a highly polished circular piece of obsidian encased in a wooden frame.
The woman brought the stone to her face to examine it and her eyes grew wide!
Her husband smiled. “What astonishes you,” he teased?
“I see a beautiful young woman with eyes like saucers. She moves her mouth when I talk, though I cannot hear a word she says.
Her husband laughed. “This woman is your reflection. The stone is so finely burnished it reflects your face. It is called a mirror. All the grand ladies in Kyoto have one.”
So occupied was she by this image, by the idea that she, too, was now a “grand lady,” she began to join forces with her image of herself. Her preoccupation and dependence did not, however, take her into the understanding of her true nature. Ashamed and disheartened, she wrapped the mirror in a tea cloth and put it in a box—out of sight, out of mind, or so she thought.
Time passed and the young couple entered their middle years. Their daughter grew to be beautiful and kind. There were times when the woman wanted to take the mirror from its hiding place to see what she had become. Then she remembered how captive she’d been by her reflection and kept the mirror tucked away.
The years moved quickly. The woman and her husband grew old, and she knew her time on earth would soon reach its inevitable end. Her daughter would be lonely without her, and she wanted to ease the girl’s pain. It was then that she remembered the mirror and her eyes lit with joy.
She called her daughter to her bedside and handed her the box.
“I will soon return to our ancestors,” she said. “When I am gone, open this box and hold its contents before your face and you will know I am always with you.”
The girl nodded. The woman smiled. This, then, she realized, was the reason the mirror had come to her. A great peace came over her and she closed her eyes for the last time.
That night before she went to bed, the girl opened the box, lifted the mirror to her face and examined the stone. To her great surprise, her mother looked back at her—eyes clear and bright, lovely, and strong—just as she was when the girl was a child.
Every morning and evening the girl looked into the mirror and shared her hopes and dreams with her mother. When she felt happy, her mother smiled. When she felt lonely, her mother’s presence comforted her.
The next year the girl became a bride. It was then that her father told her about the mirror. Tears came to her eyes, and she quietly said, “Ah, mother was with me all the time.”
I first wrote a version of this story in 1984 for Mothering Magazine. I was a new writer then; an art therapist infatuated with the power of storytelling as a way to help birth our internal lives and mother our becoming. While I am still infatuated with the maternal properties of storytelling, when I tell this story now I find I am also infatuated with the way time mothers us, the way it gives us a broader, expanded perspective that feeds our stories, especially the stuff we’ve put in a box and kept out of sight (and supposedly out of mind) for years.
Some things are, of course, ours alone to know—things too beautiful, too intimate, to give voice to. Sometimes we are too young to digest the actual truth of things. Our knowing needs the wider “berth” time provides us. And sometimes we “anti-mother” ourselves—we do not give things their just due. We assume, we judge, we blame. These knot points fester within us or leak out through the cracks in our armor and puzzle themselves into our lives in ways that make us secretly feel small and stuck.
Just the other day, I heard poet David Whyte call this knot point “the mother of our anxieties.” “Mother” because it is usually an incident from our childhood. “Mother” because when we open our hearts to it, when we bring it out of hiding and have what David calls “a courageous conversation” with it, we are comforted and nurtured and freed up to run and jump and hoot in ways we could not imagine ourselves ever doing.
The beauty of it is, that one way or another, the Great Mother is making Her voice heard.
Margaret Wolff is a writer, storyteller, art therapist, and retreat leader. Her work celebrates the ways in which the collective wisdom and storytelling reveal the truth and beauty of our inner lives and connect us—heart to beating heart—to each other.
COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda (White Pearl Press, May 20201), is a curated collection of 14 modern-day stories of spiritual awakening that reflect “the most creative and transformative experience life can offer—developing an intimate partnership with the invisible God of one’s heart.”
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