Saturday, December 02, 2006

Broken Things

"Oh, it’s getting too broken!" Bub announced urgently, handing me a small board book. (He’s at the stage where all his statements end with exclamation points and are preceded by an "Oh!" of surprise and amazement.)

I examined the book, expecting to find the cover ripped from its bindings or a page hanging loose. The book passed inspection, though, so I handed it back. "It’s okay," I reassured him, "It’s not broken."

Bub was unconvinced. "It’s a circle broken!" he insisted, fingering the tiny spot on the first page where the pages had become stuck together, transferring the colour to the opposite page.

Imperfections are a constant source of disappointment to Bub. He is offended by the slightly warped puzzle piece that refuses to lie flat, even though he has completed the puzzle correctly. Broken cookies are resolutely set aside; a slightly chipped goldfish cracker is deemed unsuitable for ingestion.

This trait will stand him in good stead if he ever wants a career with the Hanes Underwear company, but as Christmas approaches I find myself reminded of the value of broken things.


When Charlie Brown buys his pathetic, broken-down Christmas tree, the point Schultz is making is that his tree has value not because of its seven-foot height, its perfect conical shape, or its lush monotone greenness – his tree has value because it’s real, and its imperfections are the sign of its realness.

That insight is hard to grasp in a culture that has long since commodified realness. My real Mennonite quilt has a higher dollar value because of the pencil marks that run along the seams – proof of its authenticity, its superiority to mere mass-produced quilts. Realness has a price tag attached to it these days, and realness can also be faked: if you search for a picture of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, what you’ll find over and over again is a perfect mass-produced replica marketed by Urban Outfitters under the name "Charlie Brown Pathetic Tree." (It’s cute. I kind of want one.)

As the first Saturday in December, today is the appointed time for putting up Christmas decorations. The tree won't go up for a week or two, but today is the day for pewter Santas, plastic canvas reindeer, hand-stuffed nativity sets, and felt stockings. As I sort through all these treasured, kitschy items, I find myself appreciating the genuinely real things in my life – the broken, imperfect things whose realness hasn’t been bought or faked.

There’s my piano, hopelessly out of tune because it’s so hard to figure out when to get the tuner to come (while the baby’s napping? hmmm, maybe not). I begged for a piano when I was seven years old, but I didn’t get my wish until a pick-up truck drove through our living room, coming to rest in the back yard amid torn-up cushions from the expensive blue-velvet sofas my parents had purchased a year earlier. With the insurance money, my parents bought sensible, cheap furniture – and a new piano.

The only chair to survive the truck-going-through incident now sits in the Pie’s room, covered with an afghan knitted by my husband’s grandmother. The afghan doesn’t match the pink-and-white toile curtains, or the array of Ikea animal cards framed on the wall, and it may or may not be completely free of cat-barf, but it has provided a comfortable place for me to nurse both my children and to read bedtime stories to them each night.

My home offers plenty of examples of such worn, well-loved items, but it is at church, perhaps, that I best understand the value of broken things. My church does not have a top-notch music program; there is a tendency to rely heavily on 1980s-style Gaither choruses with piano accompaniment. It is an elderly congregation, singing with that trembling warble of the very old. There are no movie clips, no energetic worship leaders dancing up on stage. At first I thought that my church’s imperfections were something to put up with: in exchange for riveting sermons, I was willing to tolerate the occasional bellowing chorus of "Shine, Jesus, Shine."

And then one day, during communion, I saw an elderly woman struggling to lift the plastic, grape-juice-filled cup to her lips. I barely had time to register my usual former-Anglican disdain for the lack of real wine before I noticed the woman’s neighbour grasping her hand, steadying it, as she drank the few drops of liquid. In the naturalness of that spontaneous gesture I saw a purity that was real and humbling. I got a glimpse of what Henri Nouwen called "the theology of weakness": the idea that God is present in the broken, weak, imperfect things, that what we have to offer Him is not our strengths and abilities but rather (in the words of one of my least favourite Gaither choruses) our "brokenness and strife." I was reminded of Charlie Brown’s appreciation for the simple and real amid the rampant commercialization of Christmas.


A blessed Advent season to us all.

32 comments:

sunshine scribe said...

I loved this post B&P and Charlie Brown's Christmas tree was always my favourite holiday tale. As a child my parents had a penchant for fake plastic trees with fake snow. They said they were better because they were more symmetrical and perfect. I took years of begging before once they indulged me in a "real" one and even let me choose it. At 10 I went for the crappiest looking tree on the lot because I was worried that no one else would want it and it would spend Christmas at home and because I wanted one that looked like Charlie Brown's in all its imperfect realness.

ewe are here said...

Lovely post. (I find myself saying that a lot here. ;-) )

I always loved Charlie Brown's little tree. It just needed a little love.

And my boy's favorite board books are a little rough around the edges; I think it's rather sweet. It shows how much he's enjoyed them.

Kyla said...

There is beauty in the broken. It shows realness and life...it shows that something has been well-loved. Excellent post.

Suzanne said...

Oh, what a beautiful post. I have a child who also views imperfection with suspicion; I think a viewing or two of the Charlie Brown Christmas show is a good place to start a dialogue about this!

Jenifer said...

Thank you for putting a little perpective into my day.

I can only hope the more I read of writiers like yourself who seem to do so so easily and eloquently, I can become a bit better myself.

Thanks for being an inspiration.

TrudyJ said...

I love your comment about brokenness at church. I have several friends who have left our church who I personally believe are always thinking, "How can you possibly still go there?" although they never say it. Strangely it is the brokenness and imperfections that draw me. Human beings at our weakest and least attractive coming together to worship and at least make an attempt at supporting each other. Loved your image of the elderly woman with the communion cup. I love broken things...

Lisa b said...

God is present in imperfect things
this is very timely for me
thanks

penelopeto said...

Your post was beautiful, poignant, timely and important (and i don't even celebrate christmas), and it moved me pretty darn close to tears.

Lisa's comment brought them.

Pieces said...

Your post strikes a cord with me a I gaze at the tree I just decorated with its mishmash of hand-made, hand-me-down ornaments. We are striking forward with our decision to leave our church and, as I alternate between elation and ulcer-inducing anxiety, it helps to think of the frailty of humankind and the knowledge that God has a church filled with imperfections waiting for us.

bubandpie said...

Oh, Lisa. I think I must have written this post partly for you without realizing it, because as soon as I saw your comment it all fell into place.

Penelope - Pass the kleenex, 'kay?

Kvetch said...

This is an important post, and I do not celebrate Christmas either. It is a reminder of the special things in each of us...the things we don't notice, the things that are just part of who we are. The real parts.

Mad Hatter said...

I took Miss M to a craft fair today to get a couple of pieces of pottery for the sitters for Christmas. Miss M insisted on bringing a home-made, ugly snowman that had just been pulled out of the Christmas decoration box and that had been in my family for years. She lost it at the craft fair and I am still grieving. You'd be surprised at the sheer volume of broken and ugly things you treasure once your parents die. This post was the read I needed tonight. Thanks.

nomotherearth said...

I always think that the so-called "broken things" are things that have been loved very hard. Then, it's not so bad to be "broken".

Mary-LUE said...

Very true and very beautiful. Thanks for an excellent start to this holiday season.

Red Rollerskate said...

Wonderful post. This is a message so easily forgotten.

owlhaven said...

Thanks for this, and also for republishing those two related posts from earlier...

Mary

Lady M said...

Take my breath away. Again. Thanks for the beautiful post. And the links yesterday, especially to Kvetch!

Pendullum said...

At the age of nine...My daughter now totally appreciates tradition now.
I offered to purchase a new stocking for her this Christmas as hers is a piddly thing... and she refused...

The old things in our home are memories that she will revisit whenever we open our Christmas trunk... and ony other time trusted time capsule of decorations... Whenver thr trunk opens she squealswith glee as old decorations thathave been made through the years spillout...The colours may have faded but they are vibrant in her memory...

Julie Pippert said...

Yes, I agree. Broken things...broken people...they all have more value than maybe we understand at first glance.

Very timely for me, this post.

Not just because of my blog and what I am re-living, but the season, too.

Putting up the decorations my kdis made, the things that have been loved very hard for very long and show it...and deciding that new and perfect is nice, but itsn't the only value.

Her Bad Mother said...

Ah, yes. It's such a powerful, poweful idea, the theology of weakness, the Charlie Brown epiphanies about where beauty and value (in all measures) really reside.

I get all weepy just thinking about a Charlie Brown Xmas (same way that I do with the Velveteen Rabbit...)

Beck said...

Beautiful post! I want the little Charlie Brown tree, too.
Funnily enough, I wrote about communion today TOO. My church is also of the grape juice tribe - ah, good ol' United Church...

metro mama said...

Beautifully said.

Not-so-Sage Wisdom said...

What a beautiful post, echoing the thoughts of Henri Nouwen. It reminded me of the many holidays my family spent at a l'Arche community when I was growing up.

I have heard that at least one traditional culture purposefully builds one mistake into every work of art, in acknowledgement of the fact that only their higher power could make something which was perfect. I always thought that was a beautiful sentiment (not to mention a good excuse for gifting the inevitably flawed homemade craft).

Thanks again.

Jenifer G. said...

Wonderful. So true. Most of my most cherished things are those broken in with love.

We have several books held together with several layers of packing tape...wouldn't have it any other way.

Best wishes for a wonderful week.

Jenifer G.

Momish said...

As a person who always goes for the underdog, the broken one, the mismatched item and the helpless, I love this post with all my heart and soul. You are an amazing woman!

Terri B. said...

Now that I'm finished wiping up the tears I have to tell you that this was a great post. The idea of broken things made me realize that so many of my relatives became so much more beautiful as they became broken. My first thought is of my Dad who became a much kinder and gentler and expressive person once he found out he was dying of cancer. I have the most wonderful picture of him, taken about 2 weeks before he died. He had the biggest smile on his face. One could often find him laughing or telling a joke, but it was unusual for him to just smile away. He did a lot of smiling in his final days. A wonderful memory and a real example.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

When my son was younger he often was upset by broken things -- or things that just weren't quite how they were supposed to be -- like Bub. For example he would always exclaim over the dashed yellow lines in the road, saying, "Uh oh!" Or any painted line in the road that had partially faded. He was very young then, just learning to talk -- maybe 24 mos.

Anyway, thoughtful post, really nice!

Heather said...

Your church could be my church at home - up to and including the grape juice. I too have many treasured, worn, and unmatching items, and need to learn to appreciate their beauty more instead of getting caught up with all our friends who seem to have lives filled with sparkly new kitchens, perfectly painted walls, and huge room after huge room. Our current christmas tree is a hand-me-down from his late aunt, and is actually fairly nice (though it reeks of years of cigarette smoke and is doused in febreeze regularly) but for years I had my dad's hand-me-down charlie brown christmas tree - a 1 1/2 foot high artificial tree from when they were first made and I still have a sentimental attachment to the thing. It survived many years in dirty portables, and many moves from one city to the next with me and would always tide me over during exams when I was missing home. Our tree isn't one you'd seen in a store window, but it's filled with ornaments that have tremendous value to me, which makes them all the more important.

Kristen said...

We just watched a Charlie Brown Christmas the other day; I also love the Christmas Tree. Beautiful post. It's making me think about some things...

whymommy said...

Beautiful post. So timely with Christmas coming, and the pressure to create a perfect tree and a perfect holiday for all. The important part is treasuring the memories and cherishing the times together.

My favorite ornaments are made of yellow and white felt, glued together with a cotton ball for stuffing, that we made in Sunday School the first year I was old enough to go. They are on my mother's tree every year, and I cherish them in part because she did, and she let the imperfections into our lives.

I'm reminded also of the Velveteen Rabbit, and I want to go read that to my kid at naptime. Of course, he's way too young, but one day....

Thanks for the lovely read this morning.

Rock the Cradle said...

*blink*

A truck drove through your living room. I. Cannot. Even. Conceive.

I always loved the Charlie Brown Christmas, for precisely the reasons you gave.

What a beautiful image of communion.
Thanks!

bubandpie said...

RTC - Thank you!!! I was waiting to see if anyone noticed that bit. Everyone was asleep upstairs, but the living room was right underneath my parents' room. I slept through the whole thing.