There was something about caressing the spines of the books that charged my heart back to life. It felt a lot like bolts of electricity travelling from the tips of my fingers, up my arm and into the parts of my being I hadn’t felt for a very long time. There was nothing strange about it. I love bookstores. I love being caved in by shelves of books upon books, worlds contained in characters and prose. I love the smell. I don’t even have to touch anything for it to hold onto me. It comes to settle on my skin simply because I’m there.
But why was I lingering in the spaces between aisles feeling like an impostor?
I had walked the corners and crevices of the space, keeping everything and everyone at arm’s length. I was resisting the urge to reach out and touch, man and book alike. I didn’t want to stay. I just wanted to find the books I needed and leave. The books that would help mend the brokenness I was feeling.
And yet, I lingered. Until time stopped and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart. I could do nothing when my hand reached out and betrayed me.
I don’t go into bookstores to buy books. I go into bookstores to look for pieces of myself. They lie scattered on pages bound together by story and narrative. I find most of myself in words that drip with inexplicable emotion, in the light and darkness of faraway lands, and in the historical meanderings of the soul.
On the 28th of February this year, I completed my doctorate. The very next day I plunged into a depression. A dark hole that seemed to live right beneath where I always stood. Seconds and nano-seconds stretched into minutes, hours, days and months of holding my heart like it was a sick child, and I, its anxious mother charged with the task of saving it with my inadequate ministrations. I wanted to know what I was doing. I wanted to feel anything but lost and uncertain. The closeness and intimacy spent in the shadows of one’s own soul can be lacerating. But losing shadows and becoming un-lost is a search for liberation that is hard wired in our being human. The journey of becoming and unbecoming heals the very wounds it inflicts.
My words had died inside of me. I had lost my voice. I had spent the last four years writing a dissertation and when I got to the end, it was as though there was nothing left to say, nothing left to hold within the frames of me. I was empty and exposed. But instead of mercy the world was screaming for my blood:
What will you do for us now?
What will you contribute?
What can you offer us?
What is your worth?
Maybe the questions sound logical to you, maybe even necessary. I found them assaulting. I buried my head in my hands and tried to dredge up some kind of an answer…something, anything. There was nothing. All I could see was a blurred image of where I once stood proud and certain. So I went into hiding and I stopped looking in mirrors.
3 hours after walking into the bookstore, I was standing in the queue with 5 books in my arms. I felt like a little girl and a grown woman all at the same time. I had shaky hands, butterflies in my stomach, and pins and needles everywhere. If I didn’t know better, you would think I was falling in love. But perhaps it was much more than that.
When the queue lingered, I placed my books on the counter and wandered to the bathroom. As I washed my hands, I noticed the imposing wall length mirror that fronted me. I glanced at the outlines of my face and body, expertly blocking out the details before I quickly looked away. It struck me then that I was afraid to look at my own reflection. Almost 6 months of sitting in the dark had brought me here. But maybe I had always been afraid of looking into mirrors. I didn’t want to see what was not there; what I didn’t have. I had lived long enough in the world to be taught that mirrors are for discovering what is wrong with us, not what is right.
“Look at me”, the voice said, quiet yet compelling.
I lifted my eyes and heard my breath catch.
I was beautiful. I was all there. In the curves of my cheeks, in the lines under my eyes. In my complaining hairline. In my tired skin. I was all there. And I was beautiful. And not so much in the way that physical beauty mattered, dressed up in cultural norms and standards but I had all the parts of me that needed to be there. Those are the things that needed celebrating.
I looked at my reflection for a long time, drinking in all the light and none of the darkness. How did I come to see only what wasn’t there? Is that why I was huddling in bookstore aisles…because the world had got to me?
I did the unexpected. I thanked the girl in the mirror, for being ravishingly herself even when I didn’t extol her exquisiteness. I told her I loved her, that she was the best thing I had seen all day. Her soul was full. I could see it in the eyes that stared back at me. She was enough for the space she occupied in the world. And so I loved her through the glass until she conceded.
“Reflections in mirrors may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of beauty. But there will be no scarcity in my mirror. Not anymore. Promise me, woman. Promise me.”
And so I spoke the words, and as I uttered each syllable, my voice returned to me.