Against Brokenness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you have to close the door on perspectives that don’t serve you.

There’s a narrative at work in our world in which human brokenness plays a key role. The idea that the pain of our lives, of the world, breaks us is not a new one, but social media proliferates it in different ways. Not long after my divorce I stumbled across this Hemingway quote: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I affixed myself to that notion. I viewed it as a roadmap. Not only did it acknowledge how I felt and insisted that I wasn’t alone, it showed me that there was something I could do about it – get stronger.

The first guy I dated after my divorce actually told me I was broken, and very generously offered to help put me back together – the way he thought I should be. Unsurprisingly, that situation did not work out. If I was going to be strong at the broken places, I knew my first feat of strength would be to oust him from my life. I recently saw a meme about the way dating in your 40s and 50s is like going to the dump and looking for the least broken and disgusting thing. It reminded me of the way he had looked at me, and how much I’d hated it. But it also reminded me that this “broken” narrative was also a story I had told myself for some time, and hints of it still came back. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful ones that exist. This notion of human brokenness is an idea that many people respond to, and it’s not exclusive to the way romantic relationships impact us. The world is brutal enough that we all feel this way sometimes, just like Hemingway said. The world breaks everyone, with tragedies tailored uniquely to our own hearts.

But, I’m through tolerating this analogy. Even if you haven’t thought of yourself in this way for a while it’s easy to fall back in to. We begin to see ourselves as healed, as actually stronger in the broken places, and then life pushes back. We face a challenge that’s harder to work through than we thought, or we find ourselves in the process of evolving into a new relationship, and consequently a new version of ourselves, and it naturally forces us to look at who we’ve been. That can hurt, and it can make us feel as though we haven’t come as far as we thought. Or, we witness a friend or loved one going through a tough time and it reminds us of challenges we have faced, and how maybe we didn’t come through to the other side as strong as we imagined. Through all of this, it is remarkably easy to fall back into thinking of ourselves as broken. It’s easy when faced with the pain of growth to feel as though we’re not as strong in the broken place as we thought, that maybe we are still broken, that maybe parts of us will always be broken. But in reality, we are simply changing. They aren’t called growing pains for nothing.

It’s true that hearts break, it’s true that we feel overwrought and undone by life’s pain. But it is a tragic way to think of people. It is an achingly solitary way of looking at ourselves. Whether or not we are trying to do our own repair work, or hope that others can somehow fix us, or hope to align ourselves with someone who has some sort of complimentary brokenness – as if our fractured or missing pieces can somehow fit together – the idea of brokenness still seems bleak. It is a notion filled with despair, easy to embrace, and difficult to move away from.

Within this notion of brokenness, we slide further and further away from ourselves. We imagine a fractured version of us, and insist it is who we are, and the world agrees.

I’m not saying there is something wrong with feeling broken. I think it’s pretty unavoidable. If you love any human or animal in this world, one way or another you are going to crumble. Sometimes I’ve felt that the breaks I thought I repaired are in fact poorly healed, weak spots that continue to pain me. Sometimes I’ve felt that no matter what I do, some breaks will always be there, as if their sole purpose is to remind me to question happiness that comes my way. Many of us who have experienced deep pain have at least for a time believed that the things that have broken within us have rendered us incapable of loving properly, trusting fully, of receiving the love being offered to us. But we have to stop telling ourselves these stories. We have to make other ideas just as real to us as brokenness.

It’s not enough to say, today I’m stronger at the broken places. Because tomorrow may re-break us and then what? It is certain that we need ways of looking at pain that make it palatable. We need those roadmaps, and to feel understood, and to feel less alone. Let yourself feel broken when you feel it, but don’t ever let anyone – yourself included – tell you that you are. Search the world for other metaphors.

red brick wall
Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

I spent the spring exploring the natural world in search of metaphors about renewal and growth (remember those crickets we talked about?). Lately, I’m loving this idea of rebuilding, rehabilitation, renovation – not of broken things, but of the parts of ourselves that get neglected when we the world hurts us. The process of renovation is slow, and non-binary. It is not a journey from broken to repaired, or, to come back to Hemingway, from broken to stronger. It’s a process of devoting attention to different areas of our lives and quietly reviving them, nurturing them, clearing away debris and shining a light on the strength of our foundations. It is about making things stronger, but the focus is not on the brokenness. The focus is on seeing all the potential and helping it come into being in a new way. It recognizes the past but builds toward the future.

The rest of that Hemingway quote is this: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Hemingway saw first-hand much of the world’s pain and he did a fair amount of causing it himself. Maybe we can listen to other stories than this one. Maybe there is no roadmap to renewal in quotes about the way life is either going to break or kill us. Let’s not live by quotes or memes. Let’s remember resilience, let us recall strength that comes not from how many times we’ve gotten ourselves through something tough, but the strength that’s deeper than that in us, that has always been there. There is a part of us willing to find new metaphors if that’s what we need to move forward, there’s a part of us that embraces love even though we know the risks, there is a part of us that recalls even in the most painful moments of our lives that we are more than a collection of broken parts. Let us remember that in insisting on our own brokenness we inflict more wounds.

We all handle hurt differently. I rally around metaphor, my Pied Piper leading me someplace new. I crave new ways of looking at things, hoping to understand better the world around me, the people in it, the universe of my own heart. I think our strength lies in the seeking, more so than in whatever we find.

Love, Cath

Heart-Sore and Healing: On Watching Your Children Fly

By Catherine DiMercurio

Suddenly I want to bake a pie full of peaches and sugar because my heart is sore, sore in the steady sharp low hum manner of a hangnail or a paper cut straight through the meat of your thumb pad. Sore, because I know home is not the same anymore, but for all the right reasons. Right, because it was time, time for her to move to the next part, not far in miles but autonomy isn’t measured that way. Just college, not really moving out but still, away and beyond into all the next things. And here, at home, the not knowing, what you ate for breakfast, and how is that book you are reading, and did you make it home okay. And okay, it’s not just her, because he now too wears his new independence so casually, as if it is just a piece of paper that says he can drive without me, the real license hasn’t even arrived in the mail yet. But off he goes, and did you make it there okay? Please be okay, and okay, it’s more than a hangnail or a paper cut sometimes.

Do you know what it costs? We talk about raising children and I think of the way bread dough expands to fill the available space and more. It’s only air, pulling off that miracle, the same as the breath in our lungs. And by the way, it costs everything. It costs everything to have every first be one step closer to all the goodbyes, it costs your whole heart and more.

This is what we signed up for, and we knew it would be tough, but you never know all the ways it will hurt, just like we never know all the ways it expands us. I would do it all over again because I know. I would because I know her, I know him, but if we didn’t, if someone painted us a picture and depicted exactly how much it would hurt us and exactly how much it would lift us, would we believe it? Would we believe a heart could survive that much expansion and contraction, heaving and sundering and cracking like an overfilled pie crust broken apart by something as slight and brutal as steam?

I will bake the pie after I buy a peck of overripe peaches from the farmer’s market, a little bruised and bursting through their own skins.

round orange fruits
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

I don’t recommend condensing into the space of a few days the dropping off of one child at college, and the testing and licensing of the other for driving. There is so much good in it, I know that. They are strong and full of everything they need to be where they are. I can take little credit for this. I see how they were born with the spirit and the strength, always ready for the next part, even the times when they didn’t know they were. Maybe I was too. Maybe I’m ready for the next part too, even when I don’t know I am. Even when the heart is bruised and sore, growing and bursting and breaking. How many times do we mend ourselves, with something as slight and brutal as breath?

On Endings and Openness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Endings—prolonged or abrupt—always leave more questions than answers, but they still push you forward.

When I started this blog, it was with a joyful heart, and part of that joy emanated from a relationship that has now arrived at its end. Endings always take me by surprise. My habit, in the wake of an ending, is to dissect, to analyze, to try and understand. It is a way of grieving, and the endpoint—the loss—is always the same. But there are things to glean along the way. You remember the good, you arrive at new understandings about what your boundaries and values are, you learn what you can, if you are willing to look.

Here, in the aftermath of this new heartbreak, that is what I’m trying to do. Learn. Remain open, and open hearted. It’s been a dark week, and I’ve noticed a pattern in the way I cope that began to occur in the wake of my divorce several years ago. Certain types of grief and injury—those related to matters of the heart—make me want to step back and close all the doors and windows. Not to heal, not to grieve, not even as a break from experiencing the flood of emotion. It is simply a closing. Certainly many people respond to endings in a similar way. For me, I’m sure it is a method of self-protection but I find I have to monitor it closely, because it closes down pathways to everything, even to the good things, to laughter and peace. It is probably a necessary part of the process of moving through the ending of a relationship, but I am more aware of this tendency now than I have been in the past. I’ve learned that this closed place is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Open Windows, Open Heart

There is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that ends with this line “And all the windows of my heart / I open to the day.” I find, increasingly, that this is where I want to land at the end of anything: open to the day. While my instincts may initially be to shut all the windows and doors—because there is a kind of reprieve there—it isn’t where I want to live.

I went to the beach alone just before dusk recently. The kids were both working, and I had so much to do. It would have made more sense to mow the lawn or clean the house. But I longed to be by water, to breathe different air. So I drove toward the setting sun. I laid out my blanket, with its stripes parallel to the water. I deposited my book and my reading glasses and my sunglasses, slid out of my sandals, and walked slowly through the warm sand to the water’s edge. It is early in summer and the water is much colder now in mid-June than it will be by the end of August. I waded in, the chill pressing against me until I grew accustomed to it. I floated, and listened, mostly to children’s laughter, and the waves and the wind, the far off chug of a boat motor.

sea black and white sunset beach
Photo by GoaShape – on Pexels.com

Back on my blanket I let the setting sun soak into my skin and I was able to breathe deeply in the way I had been longing to. It felt like respite from all the harsh emotions that had abraded my heart for a week. And I decided to let it be this way, to be reprieve. I decided to let lake water and fading sunlight soothe, and to stop trying to make sense of inexplicable things. In a way, I embraced this as a beginning of whatever is next for me, this evening alone on the beach. It seemed to matter. In the days that followed though, I felt myself sinking like a stone, that having been skipped across the waves, finally lands and steadily makes its way to the bottom. I forgot about feeling buoyed, and about beginning. I forgot until here and now, as I write this, and as I look back on what the last two weeks have been like.

It Takes Everything

So in my endless quest for synthesis I have come to this conclusion: that it takes everything to move forward. It takes shutting down, and it takes opening up, it takes analysis, it takes embracing the ineffable, it takes effort, and it takes surrender. It takes all of these things, every single day. And when the world at large also seems to be falling apart, the personal tragedies we may endure simultaneously seem both insignificant and so full of tumult they are the only things we can focus on. Which is why it takes everything, every day, for all of us.

Love, Cath