Today’s story is a re-post of a piece I wrote last spring. My new book, My Vices Collide, a Celebration of Being a Little Messed Up, is set to debut on October 1st, and this little story is so representative of a major theme of the book–and of my life. I’ve also published a couple of stories from the book on the shop page of this site. Just click here–SHOP.
(The amazing sculpture featured here is REPAIRED HEART (KINTSUGI STUDY, #4) 2015 by TJ Volonis
I like the broken ones. I really do. For the most part—like 99.9% of the time—I only pick up the broken shells. There is one exception, though—one little seashell that I find myself actually coveting. I know this greedy thing about myself because just last week I happened upon a little boy and his mommy down around Avenida 15 with their bucket of collected seashells. They showed me their treasures, and there it was—amidst all the mangled and broken whelks and olives—a bright white, perfectly formed Scotch bonnet. It was no bigger than a ping pong ball, helmet-shaped and delicately ridged, without a single ding or divot.
I was so excited. You’d think the Excelsior Diamond had washed up on our shores. The little boy reached into his bucket and handed it to me to admire, and for the briefest moment I considered making a run for it. Surely I could out-run a toddler. But his mom looked kind of athletic, and though I was pretty sure she wouldn’t leave her baby standing there in the shore break to pursue me for a seashell (even a Scotch bonnet), I decided to let them keep it. How gracious of me. Ha!
A few weeks ago while shelling, I happened upon a small cache between my house and the pier. I started filling my little shell bag with broken treasures, and there it was, small and seemingly perfect, glistening in the receding tide—a Scotch bonnet. I crouched to pick it up, admiring the perfection I could see. I held it in my hand and turned it over. Was I disappointed to learn that the other side, the side I couldn’t see, the side it didn’t show me, was chipped and broken? Or was I delighted?
I was thrilled. This little shell is me. This little shell is you.
How much of my life have I spent trying to portray perfection, keeping my cracked side hidden, hoping you’ll pick me up and love me before you realize how messed up I am?
Ha! And it’s really understandable that I’ve learned to do that in this culture, in this age. I wonder how many tourists on the beach would have ignored that shell if it was the broken side that had been visible.
Not me. Not today. I really do like the broken ones best. They are the only ones I trust.
Because we are all broken. Every last one of us—in ways great and small. We are all messy mortals. And I’d just as soon establish that common ground with you sooner than later. I am capable of loving you whether you show me your brokenness or not, but I can be your true and intimate friend only when you allow me to turn you over in my hand—in my heart—and see past the fractured part to the lovely spiral of humanity inside. Because the inside—even of my sacred Scotch bonnet—is far more beautiful, and meaningful, than the outside. And you can’t see inside without the cracks.
There’s an ancient Japanese art form known as Kintsugi. Roughly translated it means, “to repair with gold.” It originated in the fifteenth century as a way of mending broken pottery with lacquer infused or dusted with bright gold, silver or platinum, visibly highlighting—or actually showing off —the repair. Instead of trying to conceal the fault lines with a clear or matching bonding agent, Kintsugi celebrates and showcases the reconstruction of the piece. Instead of attempting to make the piece visually “as good as new,” the philosophy of Kintsugi suggests that the broken vessel may be better than new, more beautiful, more interesting, after repair. In fact, some collectors were accused of intentionally smashing their pottery to have them “improved” by this method.
I don’t recommend this—life can be crushing enough without deliberately seeking to be damaged. (Though I think I’ve done that too.) But I do suggest that our fault lines can be beautiful. And I know, from personal experience, how tedious, exhausting and even lethal, it can be to feel that we have to hide them from everyone all the time.
Am I suggesting that we carelessly flaunt our flaws, announce our inadequacies, advertise our weaknesses? No, not necessarily, though I do think I prefer this extreme to the other extreme of staunch denial and secrecy. But there is middle ground.
And it is found in the willingness to experience the discomfort of vulnerability. To feel the fear of being “found out” reaching out. And then to do it anyway. And to be courageous enough to reach the other way too—to reach inward, and begin to grasp truths about yourself that may be hard to accept.
Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” And that can be scary for a couple of reasons—it illumines your wound from both the outside, where others can see it, and perhaps pass judgment; and the inside, where you can see it, and be obliged to make changes. But as Augusten Burroughs says, “It is always safe to see yourself truthfully…No matter how ‘terrible’ a feeling may seem, it’s never terrible to recognize and admit it to yourself.”
Yes, I like the broken ones. I am a broken one. Many people (often the guys I talk to more than the women), are not comfortable with the metaphor implied by the word, “broken.” I get that. The word, especially in our culture, really does connote dysfunction, uselessness or obsolescence. If it’s broken, we usually throw it away. When was the last time you tried to repair a shattered plate or coffee cup? No, we toss it and replace it. Actually, we often don’t even bother replacing it. We have so many others.
But brokenness through the centuries and in many cultures and sacred texts is a truly beautiful thing. In Zen Buddhism, the aesthetic philosophy of wabi sabi celebrates beauty in simplicity and reveres the evidence of the wear and tear of life—the cracks, the rot, the tarnish. In the Bible, the Psalmist declares a broken and contrite heart a holy sacrifice to God. The name of the Hindu deity Akhilandeshvari, can be roughly translated from the Sanskrit to mean “She-Who-Is-Never-Not-Broken.”
Ha! I love that. I am a She-who-is-never-not-broken. And now that I’ve come out about this, I don’t have to pretend that I’ve got it all together. I don’t. Ahhh, I can relax.
You see, I’m never not broken in some way, just so you know. And it’s not a pitiful or self-deprecating resignation or abdication. No, it is something I celebrate (As is implied by the title and sub-title of my book—My Vices Collide, a Celebration of Being a Little Messed Up). I am learning to love my golden cracks and fissures, to be proud of my wrinkles and rust. I am so much more beautiful this way, more valuable—more useful. I am more compassionate this way. Oh, so much more compassionate. For if my imperfection is beautiful, then so must be yours. It is. You are. I can see that now.
All of that said, I will never give up on myself—I will seek healing when I am sick, comfort when I am grieving, and repair when I am damaged. But I will not be ashamed of my brokenness. I will try not to hide from you. I will live cracked side up.
I will leave the “perfect” ones for the toddler and his bucket, knowing full well that it is just a matter of time. Shells become sand. And the wabi sabi of that is undeniable when you look out over this glistening, bright-white shoreline that is Pensacola Beach. It is lovely, and it formed from brokenness.
As all things are.
I wrote the final four words of this story and headed to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, and there on the counter, all by its lonesome was the little Scotch bonnet shell shown in the photo. Freaky. My friend Kathy would call that a “God wink.” I call it lovely. Thank you, Amy, for leaving this treasure for me to find right here in my own little kitchen.
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