Breaking and Being Broken

When I was little I wore an old ring that my grandmother, Bobbie, gave me.  It wasn’t particularly valuable, but it was pretty, and it was hers, so I wore it proudly.  I loved that ring.  I loved how the colors inside the soft opal danced and glowed.  I loved that it fit my finger snugly, like I was a grown woman, in a grown-up dress and heels.

My best friend down the street was also fascinated by the ring.  One day she was at my house and came across it on the counter of the bathroom.  While I wasn’t looking, the ring slipped from her finger and she dropped it on the cold, hard tile at her feet.  The stone was jostled out of its setting, and it splintered into three neat, even pieces.  Forever irreparable.

I was so angry with her, even though I knew that it was an accident.  Even though I knew that she was just admiring the jewelry; that she was a bit envious of the gift from my grandmother.  I mourned the loss of that ring as if I’d lost Bobbie herself.  The ring represented my future, my adulthood, and now it felt like I’d remain a child indefinitely.

But there was also a time when I found the same friend’s porcelain dolphin on her dresser.  She’d gone swimming with dolphins on vacation with her family the summer before, and I knew that the figurine reminded her of the trip.  I, myself, was in awe that one could actually swim with dolphins.  This sounded like a true adventure.  Like an excursion available only to the privileged few.  So when I touched the little statue, I imagined myself twirling through clear, cool water and running my hands along the smooth flanks of the animals.  And when the little statue tipped over, and its fin chipped and shattered into dust, I was immediately regretful and sad.  Sad for my friend, who I knew would be sorry to have her treasure tarnished.  Sad for the dolphin itself, which I imagined as a living, breathing thing.  And I was sad to have the fantasy damaged.

When we’re young, we break things and have them broken all the time.  And we recover fairly quickly, because we grow up.  We have our whole lives ahead of us, and we know that hand-me-down rings and porcelain knick-knacks are only material things.  At some time around adolescence we realize that what’s truly meaningful to us is far less tangible, and infinitely more valuable.  This act of breaking and being broken becomes something altogether different.  The stakes are higher; the consequences greater.   We learn that loss isn’t actually a function of what we own; that grief lives in a dark and frightening place deep in our gut.  We sense it when our stomachs drop and our faces flush; when our vision blurs and our hands tingle and shiver.  We can’t touch it, can’t throw it away or burn it into smoke, but we recognize it when it finds us.

Some of us protect ourselves effectively.  We conserve and defend our resources strategically, methodically.  We build fortresses, locking the gates against intruders lest they damage our possessions or steal them from us.

But others don’t have this skill.  Some of us happily and willingly share what we have—too freely, at times—believing that others will handle with care.  That they’ll respect the value and fragility of those offerings.   We are risk-takers and adventure-seekers, and we throw caution to the wind, with the blind promise of a safe and happy outcome.

Conversely, sometimes we are careless ourselves, and sometimes we can’t prevent destruction despite our best efforts.  We understand with a terrifying sense of helplessness that we are the destroyers; the demolition crew; the wrecking ball.  We build something up, only to find that it must be torn down again.  Even when we desperately want to keep it upright and strong.  

Because no matter what, life is messy, and accidents are bound to happen.  Sometimes rings slip off fingers, and delicate sculptures teeter on their bases, falling fast toward a hard and unyielding surface.  It’s no one’s fault.  It’s a tiny calamity.  A small and permanent disaster.   The matter of intent is irrelevant.   

There is no secret weapon against these disasters.  There is no defense strong enough, no protection firm enough.  Things will always be broken.  Sometimes we will do the breaking, and other times we’ll be left to tearfully, painfully pick up the fragments.  Hoping that there’s enough glue, enough needle and thread, enough clothespins and tape in the world to put them back together again.  And if we’re lucky, we believe that—while we’ll never be the same, and cracks will probably always show like scars—we can mend.


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