My friend Leena once brought me a gift from a trip to her family’s homeland in Myanmar – a small seated figure carefully carved in rosewood with great attention to his hatted face, robe and bare feet. But when Leena retrieved the figure from her suitcase after the long flight home, she discovered the wood had split. A crack, starting between the figure’s feet, extended all the way up through his torso to his left shoulder.
Leena was disappointed and apologetic. But I appreciated the carving and have treasured it for decades since, even as the crack has deepened. An added line in the wooden figure, it reminds me of the broken openings that inevitably occur in the course of every life and the new contours created by time and travel.
Today, in our disrupted era of so much brokenness, writ large across the globe and also as personal as it comes, I am wondering, what could it mean to notice and accept the broken cracks within and around us all as the gift they might be? Not denying the pain and grief caused by brokenness, but accepting that neither life nor love, relationship nor growth is possible without it. As Judith Butler once said, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact.”
This is true not only of the human heart and in personal relationships, but also of the systems and covenants undergirding our communities and nations. What might we learn by being present to the brokenness so apparent all around us today? What might be possible if we accept the invitation brokenness issues to bring our fractures together, side by side, discovering what might emerge from their reassembled pieces?
In the ancient story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, when Moses received the ten commandments on Mount Sinai, the first pair of tablets was the set Moses broke in anger, dashing them to the ground when he returned and found the Israelites worshipping idols made in his absence. The second set of tablets, created in Moses’ next trip up Mount Sinai, was the pair that stayed intact. Jewish teachings on this story suggest that both sets of tablets – the broken and the whole – were kept in the holy ark as the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, prompting poet Rodger Kamenetz to consider the fragments and muse:
how they must have rattled around until the pieces
broke into pieces, the edges softened
crumbling, dust collected at the bottom of the ark
ghosts of old letters, old laws.
Today, as the old year has ended and a new one begins, perhaps we are asked to consider, what are we each carrying in our heart, broken and unbroken? What ghosts of letters and trusted words are still whispering to us from the dust of shattered dreams, personal or shared – dreams of peace and well-being, of democracy and justice, of habitat and ecology? What old patterns of relationship remain present inside each of us, carved into our being despite the divisiveness and isolation of our times? What deeper patterns of interdependence are still shaping and supporting the tattered communities we tend today?
In the new year to come, how might we carry our covenants forward, remembering the larger wholeness in which all brokenness is nested? What new resolutions and realities might be born of a brokenness noted and tended like that?
If you wish to write about this, take a few minutes to write from the prompt, What’s broken is … describing what you are most aware of being broken in your life or the world today. After you’ve written a page or at least a paragraph or a good number of sentences, cut your writing apart into phrases or individual words. Mix them up and choose a handful to incorporate in a new passage, writing from the same prompt, this time describing where this brokenness might point or lead to a larger wholeness.