Monday, January 22, 2007


Greg and I had a long talk tonight about people who are "broken." We both know some of them, although few who are up close and personal in either of our lives.

Greg is more accepting of such things than I am. Maybe because Greg is a stronger person. I know I cannot have that influence in my life. I am barely holding my own broken self together most days, I can't take any responsibility for anyone else. And I can't risk any unravelling.

While we were talking I looked down at my middle finger on my right hand. Although it's not something most would notice, it is crooked, and it's a continual reminder to me of how broken I am.

I fell when I was in 5th grade and broke my right wrist. Unfortunately, I also dislocated a number of the bones in my fingers. In one of those amazing by-the-grace-of-God coincidences, the ER doctor happened to be a specialist in setting bones. They worked for some hours to get all my finger bones back in the right places, and they did an amazing job, although they don't all bend and line up perfectly.

The family doctor, where we'd gone first, had told us my hand might never grow again. At that point I started to wail. I was young, but I knew that would be a bad thing. My mother told me later that while standing behind me the doctor mouthed, "it won't."

So, during that 45 minute drive to the hospital my parents were assuming my hand would never grow again. It must have seemed incredibly tragic to them, to have their child hurt and perhaps permanently damaged. I think one of the things that has always struck me about that trip is that it was the only time my father was ever involved in my medical care.

But, in one of the many ways in which I've always led a charmed life, my hand did grow to an adult size. My slightly twisted middle finger - the tip leans to the right and the lower half to the left while the middle knuckle is enlarged, and my fourth finger that overlaps that one slightly at the tip - remind me of being broken. Some kinds of broken are things you can see and some are things that are invisible. At least we try to keep them invisible.

When I catch one of those talk shows were the seeming dregs of humanity air their dirty laundry, all I can think about is the ways in which those people are broken. They don't live their lives that way because it's what they want, it's because it's the only way they know. They are broken. They are broken in ways we don't have a clue how to fix.

The really frightening part of it is that it's not just TV. We walk amongst people every day who are broken. We may not notice. And if we do we may not do anything more than note it and move on. What can we do, after all? And, ultimately, we're afraid it's catching. Most of us have spent the last few decades patching our own broken selves together and some of those patches are holding better than others and we're not risking anything tearing them off.

People get broken in lots of ways, but much of it happens in childhood and it's with us always. You never do get "past your raisin'." I think it's one reason I never wanted to be a parent. It scared me to death to think I had to try and get another human through the trauma filled time of childhood and adolescence - and that's before you even get to the daily pressures of being an adult.

Kids are physically knocked around by adults, and their fragile egos are damaged with words and actions - from adults and peers. They are sexually abused and emotionally abused. They are left out and left alone and left behind. And we chalk it all up to "growing up" and "kids will be kids" and "kids are resilient." We give a lot of lip service to protecting our children, but we do very little real about it. Of course parents try, but some things are beyond our control. Lots of things.

When I see a woman who's hopping from one bed to another I know it's not because she loves sex so much. It's because sex is her currency. When I see a young girl who wants desperately to have a baby I know it's because she wants to know what love feels like. She thinks that maternal instinct will kick in and carry her through and she's finally finding the love she's been longing for her entire life.

When I see people who thrive on crisis I know it's because it's what they know or it's because they know it will make someone rush in to "save them" and they want to feel worthy of being saved. We've all been there and done that. Some of us do it occasionally in weak moments, and some of us do it because we truly have troubles over which we have no control, and some of us make it a lifestyle.

I have always known how fragile a "stable" life is. We all work hard to build them and don't acknowledge how little we really have to do with it. All around us others have lives that aren't so stable, because they had different parents, or different friends or different thoughts.

One crisis leads to another and lives spiral out of control. People grow up seeing no way to lead any other kind of life. People make bad, or mediocre, choices because they don't even understand there are other ones from which to choose. People want to be loved and don't know how to be loveable. People have accidents, they have illnesses, they have misfortunes.

We're all walking around broken. It's just a question of if they're things we can see, like long ago fused finger bones that aren't quite right, or things we keep hidden. We can't keep the symptoms hidden, however, and they manifest in dozens of different ways. We make bad choices in men, in colleges and in jobs. We don't know how to negotiate the politics of the workplace, or the delicacy of a relationship.

But, most of us learn to function. We figure out how to work around our broken parts. Even if we can't heal them, we apply a permanent ace bandage and only fall apart when it's necessary to change it. We do whatever is necessary to keep ourselves together. And we keep quiet about it.

A few years ago, very late at night after a bottle of wine, lying in our Paris hotel room, my friend Matthew turned to me and said, "You know, you seem to be keeping a lot of things 'under control' all the time." It was one of those things people only notice when you're far from home and away from what's familiar, or maybe it's only when you've had a bottle of wine. Or maybe it's because you only share your broken parts with someone you'd also share a Parisian hotel room with.

Whatever the reason, it's always frightening to know that others can spot your broken parts. You just hope they're impressed by how well you've patched them up instead of horrified by what they've made you do. I didn't ask Matthew which category mine fell into.

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