I know a man who collects mirrors just so he can break them.
When the mirrors have been broken to pieces, he takes the shards and cements them to the side of his house in spirals that reflect the treetops – green in springtime, red and orange in autumn. In winter, they reflect the warm light from neighbors’ windows in the evening, the silver of the moon at night. When Christmas comes, this man hangs multi colored lights from his trees and the shards of glass on his house dance.
I don’t live next door to this man, but I walk my dog past his house every day at 7:30 am, before work. By 8 am, I am sitting behind a computer and plugging numbers into spreadsheets – all of them adding up to some cumulative score I don’t care about, or understand. While I work, I sometimes think about those spirals and the time it must have taken him to make them.
In college, I worked as an assistant to an artist, a job I found advertised in the student newspaper. The artist worked with things she found lying around in the forest or near the beach – driftwood, bent wire, fallen limbs from trees. That winter, she had found a rug on the sidewalk outside a dime store, and my job was to trace the pattern on the rug through a thin skin of tracing paper. She said the pattern was a tree of life. “A family tree,” she said. She was very wealthy. I worked in the studio behind her house, let myself in and out with the key she had given me. I could work as few or as many hours as I liked, and I often lost track of time as I followed with my pencil the curling lines and leaves of the pattern. Before I knew it, I would have worked four hours, five.
I wonder if it’s like that for the man with the broken mirrors. Does he lose track of time making his spiraled patterns? Is he trying to forget something?
The artist I worked for in college had recently lost her son in a tragic accident. I knew this because I overhead an argument between the artist and her teenage daughter who had come running out the backyard sobbing, saying she wanted to see him one last time and her mother the artist saying, “There isn’t anything to see.” The daughter ran through the gate, into the neighborhood. The artist watched her go from the open gate, and she stood there for a very long time, waiting for her to come back.
When I came to the studio the next day, the rug had been completely traced and the tracing paper pinned to a blank, windowless wall. After that, she had me whitewashing driftwood, organizing bits of twine by color, sharpening pencils and washing out brushes. I can’t describe how that work was different from the work I do now. Both are monotonous. Both are accomplishing a task I don’t fully understand for someone I don’t really know. Still, it was different. Somehow, it was very different.
Maybe because when I left the artist’s studio, I felt buoyed by some unknown presence. The artist's grief was untouchable, but still knowable, somehow, and the winter branches of the trees seemed imbued with the simple promise of life. In the spring, they would bloom. There would be green again. Life was so sad and there were so many things about it I didn’t understand. I have never felt more alone, or more comforted.
In the spring, I graduated and left that city for good. When I remember that place, its not the university I remember, or the classrooms, or even the dozens of tiny apartments I inhabited. It’s the artist’s studio I remember. And the regret I feel most poignantly, still, is that I didn’t go back to see the opening of her show, “A Family Tree.”
Tonight, I leave work early. After I park my car and step out on to the driveway, I walk towards the street instead of towards my house, despite the insistent barking of my dog. Streetlights in our neighborhood are scattered sparsely through the tall oaks and though it is just past 5 pm, it is dark. When I turn the corner, I hear the sweep of a large bird’s wings in the trees above me. The mirrored house is dark except for a single light in the front window and I walk up to the driveway, drawn towards the house, suddenly wanting to touch it. Then the man is walking out on his front porch, asking can he help me? By then I’m already touching the house, my palm to the smooth fractured surface, cool beneath my warm palm. I hear myself tell him that I don’t know if he can help me. And then he comes down the stairs and hands me what looks like a trowel, but smaller. And at our feet is a tub of still wet cement and also a bucket of mirrored shards. When I look down into it, I can see my own face looking back up at me, but broken into pieces. I lift a broken piece of mirror from the bucket and hold it to the house. “Here?” I ask, and the artist nods. “That’ll work just fine,” he says.