When I was really little and my parents were still together, I would watch them “Cheers!” each other across the table with their celebratory glasses and – the story goes – I would always flinch and say, “Broken!” I was sure the glass would break and I braced for the shatter not the clink. Ever since, it has been a family tradition to say “Broken!” instead of “Cheers!”.
For some reason, this strikes me tonight as a brilliant metaphor.
My life – at least my life since age 16 – has been broken many, many, many times. In fact, I haven’t written here in several days because it has felt on the verge of collapse, once more.
Thinking on it now, it somehow makes sense to me that even at age 5 or 6, I might have had broken on my mind. It wasn’t long after those celebratory clinks that the undercurrent of acrimony rose up and tore my parents’ marriage and our family asunder. In a kind of crude nod to those clinks, my dad told us, on Christmas Eve, that he was leaving the family.
In many ways, I see my life as a series of interruptions. I wrote in a recent post in an online group for people living with chronic pain that my life (my so-called life!) has endured so many interruptions that it is no longer a life, interrupted – it has now become more interruption than life.
More interruption than life.
These words lingered in the silence after I typed them and sent them into the ether. They rang too true, resonating like two delicate champagne flutes… what does it mean when the ellipses are the most consistent thread in your life story? What happens when you realize that the ellipses have become the story?
I picture the ellipses now. Those dark and mysterious dot dot dots. They are the vestigial tail of your old coherence. They are the amputated limbs of your aborted stories. They are strewn this way and that. They are scattered – you realize later – across wholly different parts of your landscape, like bodies in a war zone. It is only when you come upon some old battle-ravaged field and see all those dots – more dots than you realized you’d ever had to lose – and across more fields than you remember ever having traversed – that you understand: you have forgotten more than you remember.
I have often thought of my life as a series of fits and starts. Every time I thought I had figured things out, trauma would swoop in and rupture the f*ck out of any coherence or safety I thought I had built. I picture Trauma a villain in a black cape, eyes behind a dark mask, with bad breath, and a twisted mouth laughing, laughing, while wrecking his havoc and leaving nothing in his wake but enough shards of life to… well, you know… dot dot dot.
So what do you do when your life has become more interruption than life?
Coherence is hard-won, but its armor is so delicate, so fragile. It looks pretty – until it is broken. Then its sharp edges draw blood, its missing pieces summon the search.
And the search is tireless – until, Aha!, you come upon a jagged little shard that maybe just maybe could fit in here, a gnawed-down nub that maybe just maybe could be glued on there.
I have always worked hard after Trauma swoops in to put life back together again, like Humpty Dumpty. But I can’t actually remember back that far, so many shards ago – did Humpty Dumpty put things back together again? My sense is he tried to fix the broken. My memory is that he could not.
But it is not only shards and broken bits that Trauma leaves in his wake. He leaves fear, too. What he takes, though, is worse: each successive time he steals a little bit more of your faith that you can ever put it all back together again. Part of me knows in my bones the end of that tale I have forgotten.
Humpty Dumpty is BRO-KEN.
For me, this sort of broken has not, as yet, transformed itself into the celebratory sort of broken so engrained in my family mythology.
There is, I have heard, and again I’m too lazy – NO! DAMMIT, not too lazy!! I am too tired, I am too bone f*cking tired – to look this up. So I’m gonna go with my memory, AS IS. And what my memory recalls is that I read about a Japanese tradition – god f*ck if I can remember what it’s called – where when a bowl breaks, you can fill in the broken parts with gold. It becomes a bowl once more, but a changed bowl.
What strikes me about this is that it is the bowl’s brokenness that enables its beauty. Gold is not even the strongest of metals, but its malleability is its own form of strength. Its molten weaving together of ruptured parts creates a different kind of strong, one that does not deny – but honors – its own traumas. Like bones once broken can grow back stronger if given the right conditions to heal.
. . .
So, here I am, coming back around to see the ellipses of my life, strewn here, strewn there, strewn everywhere, and to try to just sit with a life that is so broken it is hard to remember it is still one single life. I still see the broken, yes, and, in my mind, I still hear the clink and the shatter, just as I did as a kid at the family table.
But I am starting to give up the Humpty Dumpty dance and let go of the impulse to re-create the pretty facade of old coherence.
I think I have come to a place where I cannot help but notice the ellipses tell a story, too – a wholly different story, with its own form of coherence, its own kind of pretty.
I am starting to feel – in my bones – that maybe the brokenness is where beauty lives. Here, if I suture my ruptures in gold, maybe – when you, my friend, find yourself lost and alone – you can sidle up alongside me and follow with your finger the gilded traces that map the history of my pain, and see in it reflections of your own. How else could we truly know one another?
These golden wounds can sparkle, in the right light.
The crash and the shatter that I still hear – and maybe will always hear – in the “Broken!,” as it clinks and winks and flirts disaster, is, also, a celebration of the pain that brings us to the table, the wounds that make us – in the right light – glint and shine.