Things Break

That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
–Leonard Cohen, Anthem

***********

Sometimes, things break.

******************

It is her favorite mug, the one with the cherries on it–a thick piece of crockery, sturdy and cheerful.  It came from a local potter who’s recently closed up shop, so there’s that little ping of irreplaceability: This is a piece we will never see made again. It keeps her coffee wonderfully warm.  It is the perfect curved shape to cup with both hands, to spread warmth from palms to soul on days when warming’s needed.

And then she drops it one morning, watches in awful slo-mo as it spirals toward the sink. A big chip flies off the base.  The handle detaches with a sharp, painful crack.

She picks it up.  Oh, this is silly, she thinks, as tears spurt,–silly to mourn for a mug!

**************

The bicycle, thick-tired, unglamorous, sits covered with cobwebs and forgotten in the old garage–a building never, in her tenure here, used to shelter a car.  One day she thinks about bicycling, jogged by a scene in a movie.  Thinks, I could clean up the bike and screw a new basket onto the handlebars, and I could pedal for odd groceries, and to meetings.  Just for fun.

She grabs a pair of gardening gloves and the keys to the garage, and she goes and drags the bike from where it cowers in a far back corner.  She brings it out into the light.

And, oh, it looks sad.  The paint has flaked and the rust encroaches and the seat is flopping, barely hanging on, like a child’s desperately loose tooth.  She crouches down and tries to spin the pedals and she sees that the gears are obstinately, willfully, rusted in place.

Broken, she thinks, and she remembers riding, her son (now almost thirty) in the child seat on the back, both of them laughing at the wind whipping their hair.  She remembers riding that bike to work down the brick streets of a little college town–she can still feel the thrumming of thick rubber on bumpy brick.

She has left it for so long, and now she wonders if it can be fixed.

***************

It is such a stupid lie.  He stares at her, defiant, insistent, and she stops, frozen, unable to respond.  The silence is his undoing.  Had she spoken, had she argued, he could have drummed up righteous indignation, defensive protection, but her lack of words pries off the veneer.  He begins to cry, and the truth comes out, bitter and ugly.

He reaches for her, repentant, but she gathers the frothy cloak of her silence around her, and she turns and walks away.

Can we ever get past this? she wonders.

And then she thinks: Do I want to?

****************

Probably nothing, says the doctor, but let’s just check to be sure.  He uses the word biopsy.

Broken, she thinks. Is this broken? Her hand moves inexorably toward that bland and painless lump.

****************

Things break.

Sometimes, they can be mended.

****************

She sits at the table with the mug and the pieces, and she rolls the mug gently in her hands.  Maybe, she thinks–maybe, she can do this.  She uncaps the glue–oh, it’s pungent!–and she dots the contacts of the handles, presses them to the raw breaks, to where they split from the mug.  She holds it, patient, eyes far away, thinking of a recipe she saw in a magazine, of new curtains for the little bathroom, while she waits for the glue to seep and spread, to send tendrils back and forth in the porous interior of the pottery.  Tendrils to rebuild this well-loved mug.

She sits for five minutes, holding the pieces tightly together, and when they seem to have become one again, she repeats the process with the shard from the base.

***************
Danny from the bike store comes out to the parking lot to help her.  He wrestles the bike from her roomy trunk, sets it on the ground, puts the kickstand down, and steps back. He is silent for a moment.

“I’ve seen worse,” he says, “and this was a good bike to start with.  Worth fixing, if we can do it.”

He pulls a little tablet from his pocket and hunkers down.  His fingers, rimmed in black from all his intimacy with the greasy parts of bicycles, touch the rusty gears.  They trace the brake lines, caress the wheels, ride up to the handlebars as he stands and shifts. He stops for a moment, just looking, and she has the sense he is seeing the finished product in his mind’s capable eye.

Finally he turns.  “It can be done,” he says.  He scrawls a figure on a sheet of his little notepad, rips it off, hands it to her.  “Take me the better part of a month, but I think she’ll be good for another twenty years.”

She puts the piece of paper in her wallet and shakes his hand.  She agrees that this will be worth the wait.

*****************
She meets him in the therapist’s office, and they sit down warily side by side.  He is staying across town; she has surprised herself by enjoying the solitude, the freedom to shape her day.  Some nights she eats a bowl of cereal in front of her computer for dinner.  Others, she cooks up a wonderful stir-fry with vegetables that would appall him. The house is clean and there are long stretches where the anger and betrayal recede, and sometimes she thinks, I am a capable, single, woman.

But there are other times, to her chagrin, when she wonders if he’s all right.  If he’s managing.  She knows his weak spots and his doubts and his need for company.

He is subdued and pale and seemingly eager for the therapy to bring them close again, and so they begin, cautiously, gingerly, looking to see if what’s been badly rent can be slowly, carefully mended.

*****************
The doctor’s face swims into focus.  She is groggy, still punch-drunk, but his words come through the haze.

Looks like we got it all.

Words appear like a banner in her waking brain: Let the healing begin.

Sometimes,–with care and skill, with the investment of resources and a big dose of mindfulness,–sometimes, things can be fixed.

****************

Sometimes things break.

They break, and they can’t be restored to their original state.

But they can be put  to new use.

*****************

She pours steaming coffee into the mended cherry mug.  But when she slides her fingers through the handle, she feels an ominous slipping. Sure enough, with a wiggle and a twist, the handle comes clean from the mug.

She sighs and pours the coffee into her second best mug, puts the cherry mug sadly into the sink.

But later, home from work, she realizes just how much she loves looking at those bright and brazen cherries, loves the shiny shape of the mug and its cheerful, upbeat colors.  She washes it out and dries it carefully.  She takes it to her desk and gathers up wandering pens and pencils, and she ceremoniously morphs her favorite mug into her favorite pencil holder, a pleasant thing that she’ll still use every day.

*******************
It was a cheap bike in the first place; the price for repairs that Danny quotes is far beyond what she paid for it.  She can, he points out, buy a really good bicycle for less than that cost.

So she bundles the old bike back into the trunk and she drives home.  She pulls it out, sets it up on the black-topped driveway, and she ponders.  She fills a bucket with hot soapy water; she scrubs the old friend down and lets it dry.

The next day she spray-paints it white, uniformly white, from tires to handlebars to basket.

That weekend, she parks it in the front yard, maneuvering it to a completely upright status with sunken blocks concealed on either side of the tires.  She lines the big old baskets–one on the handlebars, two on either side of the back tire, with moss, and she fills the moss with rich, loamy dirt.  She plants the brightest petunias she can find and adds some trailing ivy that waves down the sides of the baskets and sways in the breeze. When the winds lifts, she thinks, it almost looks like the bike is in motion. 

It is cheerful and pugnacious, and she can shop now for a new bike that will serve well her augustly seasoned status.

*******************

Therapy has helped them to be civil, to understand what each of them needs.  But it has not brought them back together.

She revels in her independence, and she thinks now of a condo, a place with no yard work but with enough room to entertain and a kitchen that will allow her to explore her increasingly adventurous cuisine.

He admits that he doesn’t miss her in THAT way, that his interest in his pretty young colleague grows exponentially.

They still have the ability to hurt each other, even while they lose the means to make each other happy.  They work with the therapist; she helps them come safely through those woods.

Because, of course, there is Tess, who is only twelve, and who dearly loves them both. Needs them both; needs them to be civil and caring and moving forward, and moving without bitterness.

It is cautious and awkward at first, but they are both committed to the quest, united in this, if in nothing else.  It requires constant work; it requires mindful vigilance, but they come through.  Where once there was a marriage, a warm friendship begins to grow.

She sees Tess, who has been tense and worried, begin, at last, to relax.

*********************
There are ways to bypass what must be removed, the doctor tells her.  He sits down next to her, shows her a glossy diagram.  They’ll just remove this, re-route that, take a little of this from there to repair what’s missing here…and voila--she will be disease-free and fully functional.

She stares for just a moment at the chart in his clean, clean hands, stares just long enough for him to clear his throat uneasily.

And then she begins to laugh.

He looks at her, warily, and she explains.  She’s a great believer in re-purposing, she tells him.  She just never thought she’d be applying the concept to her innards.

***********************
Sometimes, things break.

And sometimes, they can be mended; sometimes they can be re-imagined.

Other times, nothing helps.

*************************
The mug shatters on the concrete patio, explodes into tiny needling shards too small to do anything but pierce and harm. She sweeps them up and throws them away.

*************************
The rust seeps through the paint, the tires are bent; the bike leans precariously.  Even as a planter, it is untenable.  She puts it out on Big Trash Day; the boisterous sanitation guys throw it into the masher, and she can hear, from where she sits with her writing and her morning coffee, the grinding as her dear old bike is mangled and eaten.

*************************
He has made fervent promises; he does not want, he vows, to lose what they have built together.  She even–where was her head???–sleeps with him again.  The next day–the next DAY: what is wrong with him??–she discovers that he has cleaned out her savings and maxed out her credit card, and her friend Bessie sees him canoodling cozily with his new young thing at the coffee shop.

She is bereft and impoverished in more ways than just financially.  She needs the chance to rebuild.  Resolutely, she dials the lawyer’s number that Bessie found for her. There is no fixing here: a clean break is called for.

*************************

The doctor sits with her in the quiet after their talk.  They have walked a long road together–she has walked it with hair and without, walked it seemingly plump and healthy, and walked it clearly gaunt and exhausted.  He has taken her midnight calls and talked with her through other patients’ appointments; he has been honest and caring and innovative. Together they have tried everything they could find to make her healthy.

And today, he has admitted that they have come to the end of all that doing. They have walked together to the limit of the options.  They are standing at the end of the road, standing together at the lip of the abyss.

But only he will turn and walk back down that road. He grips her hand, as the firm friend that he’s become.

She thinks:  I am going to die.

She thinks: No more treatment.  I will be able to taste my coffee again.  I will be able to sit in the sun.

That is one of the things she has missed the most–sitting in her tiny backyard garden, watching the squirrels fight, enjoying an occasional hummingbird visit.  Her friend Roger has built her an amazing bower with roses and daisies and cone-flowers and trailing ivy; he fills it in each year, sweet man that he is, with splashy annuals and fragrant herbs.  It is her favorite spot in the entire world.

And now, soon, as the medications leave her weary body, she can sit out there again.  Take her books, take her colored pencils.  Take the healing naps she has longed for so much.  Just sit in the sun and prepare.

The end of fixing, she thinks, will lead her back to light.

***********************

Things break.

Things break and sometimes, with long and careful work, they can be mended.

And if they can’t be mended, sometimes they can be re-purposed, becoming something vibrantly new.

And sometimes, broken things are just that: broken.  Broken beyond repair, beyond use, and the decision has to be made to let them go.

Their leaving opens a space, and in that space, there may be growth, there may be silence.

There may be, for a miraculous little slice of time, the chance for bright clear light to shine.

*********************

Sometimes, things break.

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A Stitch, A Patch: A Time to Mend

The button tin, the sewing box, the pants that needed mending...
The button tin, the sewing box, the pants that needed mending…

I was folding the whites, shaking each garment or piece of linen up out of a hot, fresh mishmash in the basket. I morphed them into soft, neat squares or rectangles, and I piled them on the dining room table. A feel-good job: to take a thing rendered rootless and rumpled, smooth it out, neaten it up, and return it to meaningful usability,–an item with purpose and place.

Then I realized that one of the white t-shirts had a hole below the sleeve; the rest of the shirt was intact, but there was that gouge, that gap, on the shirt’s torso. Does it matter? I thought.  No one will see it. It’s an undershirt, after all.

I started to fold the shirt again, but something stopped me.  A little inner voice, said, ‘Sew that up.’

Reluctantly, obediently, I smoothed the shirt and folded it over the back of a chair,–on top of a pair of pants that needed a button.

And then, of course, I started noticing.  A washcloth had an L-shaped tear. A dishtowel had a hole big enough to waggle a finger through.  Another hole-y t-shirt.  A towel with edges flying into fringe. I piled them all neatly on top of the t-shirt and the buttonless pants, and by the time I was done folding the basket of laundry, I had a sizable heap.

‘Mending,’  I thought.

I hadn’t had a pile of mending for years.  Things got busy, I guess.  Life’s accouterments grew sort of disposable. But once, mending was a regular chore.

My mother mended, of course; in the 1950’s and 1960’s, most women with children did.  They had big, rowdy families; they had small, puzzling incomes.  They made things last.

Jeans and corduroy pants, as long as they were decently wearable as what we called ‘play pants’,  passed down from kid to kid regardless of gender.  Ours all had thick pads of patches on the knees.  We joked that the patches were so sturdy, the pants could stand up on their own.  We could stand them in a corner of our bedrooms and leap off the bed and into the pants–one hop dressing–in the mornings.

Our socks had yarn lumps that filled holes; when we put them on, we took care to turn them so the darns were on the top.  Otherwise it felt kind of like walking with a golf ball in your shoe.

Mom had an old-fashioned Singer treadle machine which sat in the dining room.  It was a pretty piece of vintage furniture, but it was also a functioning tool.  On certain days of the week, she would slam the heavy old ironing board into place and pull her big basket of mending from where it was tucked, on the black iron treadle, and it would be mending day.

The old treadle still works
The old treadle still works

Mom liked the heavy old treadle because it handled denim, and its thick, sharp needle pierced easily through the layers of patching.  She might save an old pair of jeans, finally past redemption, and cut its viable parts into squares. She had a stash of potential patches; some were cut from old flannel shirts, too.  When the shirt was too far gone to stitch up, Mom dissected it.  She snipped off the buttons, picking out the thread, and she put them into the button tin that was her inheritance from her mother.

I don’t think mending was one of Mom’s favorite jobs; she attacked it grimly, resolutely, that task of taking the worn and torn and making them usable once again.  It seemed, no doubt, never-ending; none of us–with the exception, maybe, of my oldest brother Dennis,–were careful children.  I could simply turn a corner and catch a sleeve and hear a wrenching tear.  My brothers played catch on the way home from school, slipping on slick wet patches of leaves, opening vents in their school pants.

Clothes that left the house intact in the morning came home destined for the mending basket.  We would bundle off the damaged item, stuff it down the laundry chute, and pull on play clothes.  On laundry day, Mom would wash the piles of clothes, dry them on the line, and then fold them, either to be put away, or, very often, to be patched or sewn. I’m sure there was never a wash day that didn’t add to the mending.

I was the only girl child, and Mom taught me how to hand sew.  I learned how to replace a button–the burgeoning button tin always offered a close facsimile of the missing culprit. I learned how to measure and fold up a hem, ironing it flat, and securing it with a whipstitch.  Our goal was to have as little thread as possible show on the outside of the garment; I worked carefully.

I liked sewing; I dreamed of embellishments and enhanced designs, but I was  neither scrupulous nor determined.

“Are you going to FINISH that?” my mother would yell after me as I hopped up, lured by the sounds of a kickball game taking place in the backyard.  I would sigh, heavily; I would sit back down and finish the job, with quick, sloppy stitches and bad grace.

Once I went on a play date to a friend’s house, and noticed she had very regular–I’d call them die-cut–patches on her play pants.  I asked her about them, and she said her mother bought the patches and ironed them on.  Her mother, she said, didn’t have time to sew patches onto all of her kids’ pants.

Her mother, said mine when I told her of the wonder of iron-on patches, was a SLOB.  It was the worst thing my mother could think of to call a person.  I didn’t bring up the subject of pressing on patches again.

By the time I hit eighth grade, skirts had gone from below-the-knee length to mini.  I was glad of my hemming skills, and my mother, I know, rued the day she’d taught me how to hem.  We had endless wrangles over appropriate length, endless bouts of, “You are NOT going out like that!” countered with “You are determined to ruin my life!”

Even when I grumpily acceded, I rolled the waist of the skirt up in the girls’ room, usually remembering to roll it back down again, to avoid the reverse argument (I can’t believe you went to school like that!) on the return home.

And I didn’t mend my jeans.  Holes and tears were cool; some people took razor knives to their denim.  I was enough of my mother’s daughter not to do that; and I still ironed creases into my blue-jean bell bottoms, but as the wear and tear appeared, I welcomed it.  I embroidered flowers or peace signs or slogans on my jeans, but not particularly to cover holes–more to be clever and cutting edge.

Sometimes I added extra denim around the leg bottoms, ensuring that the jeans were suitably lengthy.  Those were the days when the wearing of ‘high waters’ or ‘flood pants’ was a huge fashion faux pas. The bottom of your jeans should drag on the floor.

There was little need for mending, although I did still sew buttons on when buttons were needed.

I shlepped through high school and college, walking holes in my overlong pant cuffs with my funny-toed earth shoes. And then, there I was, in a late 1970’s marriage, trying to figure out the role of a wife in a time of liberation. We both worked; we both cooked. He took care of the car; I took care of the clothes.

Our apartment was a welcoming pass-through for a wonderfully wacky assortment of friends and relatives.  One day, Patrick sat with me, keeping me company while he waited for my husband.  I was mending socks, and he asked me why.

“There are holes in them!” I said, and I did not add, ‘Duh.’

“Then you throw them out and buy new ones,” he told me.

I looked at the tube sock, lacy with long wear, in my hand, thought about the hours I spent in mending, and decided Patrick was right.

I had never mastered the art of darning, anyway.  Like my mother’s, my mended socks were lumpy and uncomfortable. I wasn’t able to be so cavalier as to just toss those old socks; I stashed them in my rag bag, and used them to polish furniture and wipe down freshly hosed cars.

But I never again attempted to darn a sock, and as life went on–that marriage ended, my jobs intensified, another wedding opened up a whole new, wholly busy, way of life,–the art of mending itself was not one I often practiced.

Culture changed, too, I think.  New became good; old became bad–except in the case of really old, when terms like ‘antique’ or ‘vintage’ could be aptly applied, and those fragile items would be more for show than for use.  My rag bag grew to hold so many hole-y socks that I did indeed wind up culling them by throwing some away.

I did not feel a twinge of guilt at abandoning my mending roots.

But.

Yesterday, with an enticingly open early morning hour, necessaries performed, work-ready, I sat down at the dining room table with my sewing box and button tin–the very same tin my mother had from hers.  I took the white thread out first, rued my changing eyesight that makes, as I season, threading a needle more and more of a challenge, and I started on the mending.

I sewed up the gape in the t-shirt.  I repaired the L-shaped rip in the washcloth, trimmed and whipstitched the fringy towel, and I  stitched together the holes in the dishcloth.  I realized that a pair of denim shorts no longer offered enough fabric to be mended; I found an old pair of blue plaid sleep pants, and  I cut and sewed a patch. I tested the shorts when I finished, tugging them this way and that, and I felt a strange sense of pleased satisfaction when I realized the patch  would surely hold.

I finished it all in that hour, all except the left cuff on the pants that had needed a button.  The button on, I realized that the cuffs were frayed, with threads flying and dangling, so I trimmed the rough edges and, finding thread that just exactly matched the fabric, I whipstitched one pant leg. Tonight I’ll do the other.

How odd.  How odd that this comes back to me now, after years of aggressive avoidance, and that the practice should bring so much pleasure–I’d venture, even, to say it brings me joy.

I am tempted to create some kind of old lady’s metaphor, to talk about life in term of stitching up the gaps, and about the importance of knowing when the fabric is too flimsy and some kind of patch-type reinforcement is needed.  But that would be placing way too much ponderous weight in the common cup of mending.

It’s enough to savor the simple act of taking something damaged and returning it to the land of the functional. A tangible satisfaction that goes, maybe, with ages and stages of life.  Maybe I start out by learning the skills and the tools, and I come back to use them when the act again means something to me.

Whatever.  I enjoyed, this week, doing my mending.