Sunday, January 7, 2018

The grace of falling apart and being put back together

A few days ago, during the first of two Polar Vortex Days off of school, I heard a crash then a cry from the family room.

As crying does in our house, it mobilized and amplified, scooting through the front hall, past the front door, up the stairs and into my bedroom. The source of it was a red, smeary-faced Jovie.

"Mama, I was playing with the Sophia ornament and it falled and now it's broken and I didn't mean to break it and I'm really sad because I loved that ornament because it was so pretty..." She trailed off succumbing to another fit of sobbing.

I sighed the sigh of a mother who had just been home with two spastic children for two weeks of holiday break replete with play dates and cookie making and present wrapping and Christmas Light cruising and family movie dates and bouts of pink eye and road trips to Pennsylvania and visiting all the friends and seeing all the relatives and returning home to an empty refrigerator and a car crammed of all the stuff doting grandparents and aunts and uncles could buy that needed to be unpacked and stowed away. The sigh of a mother who'd sent her kids back to school for two glorious days before the arrival of bomb cyclones and coinciding sub-zero temperatures that made her wish humans hibernated in a cozy cave somewhere like the sensible mammals do. 

The sigh of a mother who, not 10 minutes before, had suggested to the two sweet little apples of her eye that there were certain ornaments and decorations that should just be looked at and not really played with. Like, for instance, the aforementioned Sophia the First porcelain figurine that now lay on the living room floor in 10 or so pieces.

Suffice to say, it was a heavy sigh.

I gave Jovie a hug. Told her I was sorry the ornament broke, because I know how much she loved her. And because I'm the parent, I also mentioned the part about how she really shouldn't have been holding it to begin with and that maybe next time she'd remember to listen  ... yadda yadda yadda... [insert all the generic parental warnings and scoldings that I hate. Hate. HATE. having to issue because I'm all but certain they're ineffective at best and at worst I'm setting my children up for a lifetime of self-loathing and doubt.] 

I picked up the pieces of Sophia and deposited them in the trash.

Jovie continued to mourn the loss of the ornament. She found me throughout the day to tell me so.

Later in the day I opened up the trashcan and stared at the ornament. I remembered that poem I shared back in June. The one I'd chalked onto our sidewalk.

Maybe there was an opportunity for kintsukuroi here. Maybe I'd given up on Sophia too soon. 

I fished her out of the trashcan. Got some Gorilla Glue and got to work. There were a few other Disney friends who needed some rehab, too. Elsa had lost an arm, Elena her feet and another Sophia had been decapitated. 

I put everyone back together. 


The ornament took the longest.

When she was more or less whole (maybe less whole, but more hole is accurate) I performed some kintsukori, painting the seams of her broken parts with gold acrylic.

It felt good to fish something out of the trash and put it back together. To be reminded that being broken does not have to mean being thrown out. Being unworthy or being overlooked. Being lost forever.

The inspiration to retrieve the ornament from the garbage came from the oddest places: A pair of books about the Columbine shootings.

My niece Hannah, gave away books as favors for her "Beauty and the Beast"-themed wedding last August. I'd picked out "The Hour I First Believed" by Wally Lamb– ever since I read "She's Come Undone" he's been a go-to author of mine. In the novel, Lamb tackles enormously weighty subjects– Columbine, for one, but also Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, PTSD, broken prison systems, race, gender inequality, marital discord, familial secrets, Greek mythology and more. The narrative stretches back to pre-Civil War New England and lurches forward to the present day as the protagonist, English teacher Caelum Quirk, and his wife, Maureen, struggle to rebuild their lives after April 20, 1999, when Maureen's witnessed the horrors of what happened in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col. The couple move back to Caelum's hometown of Three Rivers, Conn. to his family farm that boarders the woman's prison his great grandmother founded, and are faced with waves of grief and pain. 

It's not exactly light reading. But I'm not much of a light reader (see that time I read a book on the history of cancer). I stuck with it because Lamb, as always, does such an excellent job of capturing how messy, complicated and paradoxical we are as humans. How we have such deep longings for spiritual and human connections. How we all arrive in this world relatively unscathed and then life happens to us in unpredictable, sometimes cataclysmic ways, and we're left to reassemble ourselves and move forward as best we can. 

I mentioned to someone I was reading this book (who, I can't remember)– and they suggested I check out "A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy" by Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold– one of the shooters behind the Columbine tragedy. So I did. I read both books concurrently, Klebold's book was my downstairs reading and Lamb's was my upstairs book. They complemented each other perfectly, not just because of shared subject matter, but also because of shared themes: How to make sense of the monstrous deeds, how to sort through the wreckage of a life, how to put it back together. 

In her memoir, Sue Klebold details the story of her life, her son's life and her family's life in the years leading up to and after the Columbine shootings. Every page is weighted in heartbreak, guilt and regret. This isn't her attempt to redeem herself or her son– she knows forgiveness isn't for her to ask for and probably wouldn't feel deserving of it anyway. Rather, she sifts through all she knows about her son, or thought she knew about her son, to try to make sense of what happened. Not that she can. And she seems to know that, too. How does a mother reconcile the kind, funny boy she raised with the monster responsible for the deaths of 12 students, a teacher and the injuries of more than 20 others? She can't. She recognizes that as much as she thought she knew her boy, she really had no idea what was lurking inside his head.

As I read the book, I couldn't help but think of my own high school experience. I graduated from a large, affluent high school in the D.C. area. I was a junior when Columbine happened. It was one of those events that brand themselves into your personal narrative, no matter how close or far away you were from it. As a teenager, I felt immediately connected to those students half a continent away. I remember sitting in the newspaper room– where I spent most of my time the last two years of high school- shell-shocked. My classmates and I attempting to process that level villainy and despair. Learning about who Dylan was– at least from his mother's perspective and that of his friends– I realized I knew kids like him. I was friends with them. No- not kids who went on murderous rampages. But kids who were introverted. Who felt like outcasts. Who could've been facing debilitating depression or social anxiety and who were daily teased and picked on by other kids. 

I recalled this one incident- I think it was junior year. Someone had called in a bomb threat. The whole school was herded out to the football stadium and seated in the bleachers. At one point, two boys I was friendly with went out on to the 50-yard line of the football field and kissed each other. Why? I don't know. I don't think they were, like, together or anything. I think they were bored. Maybe it was intended to be a joke or a statement of sorts. I remember a bunch of guys from the lacrosse team running them off the field. Beating at least one of the kids up. I remember one of the boys coming back to a class we had together with his lip split open. 

As Klebold writes about the environment at Columbine– the bullying and teasing- I thought about this long-forgotten day. Because the dynamic was the same at my school. It's easy to sit on the outside of any situation and pass judgement and damnation; it's harder to realize just how much of ourselves is reflected in those we cast stones at. 

Parents, educators and those passionate about mental health should definitely pick the book up. Also, anybody wanting to deepen their well of empathy. At first glance, Sue Klebold could easily come off as someone who is just trying to tell her side of the story for personal gain or redemption or who's trying to profit off a tragedy. But I don't think either is true. She's donating all proceeds of the book to research and charitable organizations focused on mental health research and is passionate about raising awareness about brain illness and suicide. Maybe, after years of silence and feeling like a pariah, she is looking for the chance to explain herself- to share with people who assumed she was a terrible parent– ignorant or unloving or uninvolved– that she was really none of those things. 

She's just human. Like the rest of us. Fumbling through this life. 

Whatever her reasoning for writing the book, I'm glad she did. I've found softness in my heart for people who might otherwise be considered beyond redemption. The broken ones who belong at the bottom of the trash bin.

I was re-reading my old journals from the years leading to and following Columbine– trying to see if I'd written anything about the tragedy in the days following it (I hadn't). I'm not sure why I didn't reflect on it. 

Looking back the period in my life between my freshman and junior years was rife with tragedies closer to home. There were family members struggling drug addiction, the feeling as if siblings I'd always been close with were drifting away and becoming people I didn't recognize. I had a mentally ill aunt who committed suicide and a grief-stricken grandmother who came to live with us in the aftermath, slowly fading away into a shell of herself before passing away seven months later. A friend from school– not a close friend really, but always a friendly face– committed suicide the fall before Columbine. He was just 17. Then, of course, I wrote about boy drama and friend drama and school stress. And a lot of non-specific rambling about feeling lonely and ordinary and like an outsider, which I'm pretty sure reading back was reflective of significant (though undiagnosed) depression.

Is this what they mean when they talk of "coming of age"? Columbine was just the tiara on all of that. Sept. 11, 2001 would be the crown just a few years later.

So, you see why this idea of kintsukori is so appealing to me, who at 36 is basically an assemblage of little chipped pieces. 

And for everyone, really. Because we are all, I think, the same. Cracked by the quakes and tremors of existing in this place. We are called, each of us, to pull each other out of the trash bin– even (and maybe especially)– the most broken, hopeless looking cases. We'll find our own humanity and our own grace by glueing each other back together. By lining the cracks with gold and silver. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Pretty sure you are a genius in being able to dissect these things about life. I find your column to see cute kid pix and get blown away each time by your talent..........Ginny F.