all of the selves we Have ever been
Man is born broken.
He lives by mending.
The grace of God is glue. Eugene O’Neill
I pull into a parking lot where others wait in their cars for the office doors to open. Soon people begin hobbling into the waiting room. My son and I follow them inside. Their wardrobe accessories include slings, braces, and walkers. Winter coat sleeves hang loosely from shoulders. Slippers cover bound feet. Here, no explanations are needed for limitations that are so evident. Here, human brokenness is not just acceptable, it is the reason this place exists. The unique wardrobe accessories are badges of courage for a kind of brokenness legitimized by doctors and their prescription pads. People eye each other and joke about their state of dress, their appliances, and their injuries. I sit among this community of the broken as it gathers for mending. Some might call this church.
Instead of St. Peter at the gate, there is a woman named Brenda at the front desk. Her affect is bright and she greets each patient by name and with enthusiasm. While Brenda is not a physical therapist, there can be no doubt that she is part of the therapy. Brenda recognizes and greets each patient and regular caregiver. She knows each patient’s name, schedule, health insurance, and balance due. She remembers the weather the last time one patient was seen, and she jokes with another patient about wearing shorts on a cold December morning. On the rare occasion when Brenda is not at her desk, the entire experience seems off. I experience the feelings of unreality known to the lost: Where am I?
The high priests here are the physical therapists. They are generally young, fit, and sure of themselves. They are friendly and kind and greet each patient with that brand of humor that comes with familiarity. Patients seem to feel the need to urgently confess their sins the minute the therapists call their names: “I didn’t do all my exercises this week,” or “I re-injured myself chasing after a toddler.” There is no shame here, no reason to hide the truth. The therapists offer quick reassurance.
In a couple of months, we will all say good bye to Brenda and these high priests as we each go our own way with bodies healed. All-in-all, it is a pleasant experience. I ponder the example as I wait for my son to finish his therapy. Rarely, in our daily lives can we be so open about our brokenness. And rarely, is there such a clear remedy or so much hope. There is no sling for a sagging self-esteem, no brace for a broken heart, no boot to correct the steps of a wayward child, and no assurance that the suffering will be temporary.
We piece together our lives with threads that are not always sturdy. There seems to be no end to the threats that can break us. And yet so much of what hurts is hidden. What if we could be as honest about our brokenness and as open in our mending as these folks inside the physical therapy office? What if there was someone who could see to the place inside us where it hurts? Determine how much weight we can bear? Legitimize our suffering? Write a prescription for the cure?
We find ourselves preparing for Christmas in a time when the whole world seems broken. We await the birth of a savior. The example in the story of Jesus is that of a man who was born and then broken. He mended and rose again. Along the way, he healed the sick, found the lost, and welcomed the outcasts. He did this largely by seeing them.
May we celebrate this holiday season by seeing each other and by offering to others some of the glue and the grace that holds us together.
And in the New Year may we follow this advice from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner:
When you see something that is broken, fix it. When you find something that is lost, return it.
When you see something that needs to be done, do it. In that way you will take care of your world
and repair creation…realize the awesome power God has put into [your] hands.”
Happy holidays my friends. Good tidings of comfort and joy!
You might say we’re hair-brained.
I blame it on Ali McGraw. During our teen years my friend Kay and I wanted to look like Ali. Mostly, we wanted her long, thick, straight hair. It was difficult to tame our fine, wavy locks. The hairy romance turned into a horror story starring Dippity-Do and sleepless nights with our heads covered in hard plastic curlers the size of orange juice cans. As the years went by, we continued to be out of step with the latest hair styles, but that didn’t stop us from trying. We slowly shifted from Love Story to the Hair Wars Trilogy: stress, menopause, and aging. Dippity-Do didn’t do it for us, and our hair disappeared faster than Jedi morals. At last I could claim thinness, but it was the wrong part of me.
With the invention of the internet, Kay and I trolled like a couple of conspiracy theorists looking for ways to overturn natural selection. We both consulted dermatologists. We spent small fortunes on shampoos, chemical potions, powdery fibers, and essential oils. Nothing worked. At some point, we began to weigh the hope of voluminous heads of hair against the health risks of so many potions. We moved on to the more benign products: concealing haircuts, hairpieces, wigs, and a variety of caps.
We made frequent vows to “not worry about it,” to live in a Zen-like state of mind, to be brave and magnificent in our self-acceptance. That usually lasted until one of us heard about a new product or strategy. With the internet offering a cure a minute, our bravery and magnificence became as straggly as our graying locks.
Most recently, Kay called me with a new discovery: “apply raw eggs to your hair—it’s some kind of high protein diet for your head.” My friend continued with the internet advice: “Don’t get the shower water too hot or it will cook the egg making it difficult to remove from the hair.”
We discussed our reservations. Kay shared her fear that she would not be able to get the egg out of her hair and would awaken one morning to find mice nibbling on her head. Kay has a mouse phobia. In addition to growing more hair, her life’s work includes a daily inspection of her property for signs of mouse activity. The quality Kay desires most in a man is an exterminator’s license. And yet, she remained invested in this strategy. Ever-supportive, I said: “You go first.”
I checked in with Kay a week later. It was a hot summer day. “How’d it go with the eggs?”
“Well, it was hard to get them out. I went for a walk, and my hair puffed up like a soufflé. When a car door slammed, I ended up with egg all over my face. I am trying to salvage my sunglasses.”
There should have been a lesson in that, but I left the conversation with the idea that maybe I could tweak the recipe and achieve a better outcome. No longer one to say dye, I cannot seem to put the idea to rest. If you hear that I am being pursued by a fox, assume it’s not an extremely handsome young man.