Broken Places

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”A Farewell to Arms

We are broken in unseen places.

We are broken by divorce. We are broken when we lose a dream career because of a poor economy. We are broken by a heart attack. We are broken when we live the nightmare of fearing for the life of one of our children. We are broken slowly, callously, by impersonal office jobs. We are broken by cancer.

Even as we break, the sinews and ligaments of love and leisure hold the center.

I am broken, but I am intact because of my wife, my kids, my parents, my extended family, my friends, occasional professional success. I have been broken but not defeated, because even as the bits and pieces of me dangled precariously and threatened to fall away along the path, I found reasons to smile.

I found I could still experience happiness.

Happy is not a condition. It is a moment of forgetfulness or a flash of remembrance.

I was able to forget, or to remember, during my wedding with Beth, on our honeymoon to Las Vegas, on our 10th anniversary trip to New York City, when our sons were born, when I was chosen to read an entry from my online journal at Dad 2.0 Summit, during all the many days of enjoyment and abandon at Walt Disney World and other places where reality was paved over and I could remember or forget. These countless moments and experiences lifted my spirit and, for a time, seemed to mend the broken places.

Seemed to.

Once broken, we stay broken. Wrapped in a thick blanket of inertia, scarred and scared, yet awake and aware, I was unable to stop but unwilling to move. The broken places are not stronger. They are merely broken.

This only ends one way. Remember the rest of Hemingway’s quote from Farewell: “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 things it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

I am in no special hurry and must therefore find a way to function. I live with the knowledge of the broken places. They mount and swirl together as a swift current in a strong, cold river that gashes a drear desert. If I give in, I can drift along on that current and let it take me where it will, no will of my own. But I choose to choose my response. I can remember to forget, or forget to remember. I know I can do that, because I still can smile.

We can’t fix the broken places. So we need to know: How much can one person endure? That’s the question. Do we possess an infinite capacity to endure break after break after break, winding on endlessly into that desert? I am afraid I do not, but the evidence is incomplete.

Where are the unseen places? What do they look like?

I see a bridge, a stone passage through and over time, a safe thoroughfare imperiled on all sides by vagaries comedic and tragic. The bridge has crumbled and fallen in on itself in places. Where the stones are collapsed, the bridge veers in new directions. Crossing, thwarted by each new chasm, I leap along on wings of forgetfulness and remembrance, catching the current of love and leisure, pursuer and pursued. I land and peer along the narrow path ahead. I see only a straight road, but it is an illusion and I know that now. Inevitably, my gaze is drawn backward, where I look upon a labyrinth of my own unconscious design, a life in parts, a bridge broken but on the whole, not bad. I move on.

Where will I break again? Will I be ready and able to leap across the next chasm? Will the current slacken as I lament the broken places and fall, fall, finally and forever?

Yes. The world breaks everyone. Afterward, there are broken places but we move on. We meet new, better friends and lifelong companions. We find more fulfilling careers. We improve our diet, take our meds and promise to exercise. We relish every moment we have with our dear children and never – never – take their laughter and strength for granted. We vow to find our place in this world. We meet illness with treatment and optimism and if we are healed we cherish our good fortune and move on.

We make the leap across the unseen chasm. We turn into the current. We remember or we forget. We smile. We move on.

Swing, Fail, Swing Again

Baseball

Stay focused. Stay relaxed. See the ball, hit the ball. Failure is inevitable. How you respond is up to you, and it can make all the difference.

We played ball out back on a makeshift miniature diamond I mowed into the high, early summer St. Augustine grass. The 8-year-old stepped to the foam-rubber home plate, batting lefty, knees bent just so, arms high but relaxed, head cocked toward the pitcher — me.

I wound up and tossed the ball softly in his direction.

It occurs to me that I was 17 when I became a sportswriter. Nine years older than this boy at the plate. I stepped into that life before my life had really begun, and had no real reason to regret it for two decades. But at the end, when it was over, it could only be classified as a failure.

The boy swung and missed. The swing was handsy, too much upper body, but there was purpose to it and his head and eyes were where they were supposed to be. That’s more than half the battle when you’re learning to hit a baseball. Watch the ball hit the bat. See it, hit it. He retrieved the ball and tossed it back.

How could a career as rewarding as mine be considered a failure? Because it didn’t end on my terms. Where did the fault lie? With me alone? With a newspaper industry in its dying throes? A combination? No matter. When I began that career, I intended for it to end many years from now, many games later, when I was too old to carry my computer bag into the press box. Didn’t happen that way. I failed.

I reminded him to focus on the ball, to keep his arms relaxed, to step toward me, pivot and turn his hips, throw his hands at the ball and explode into the swing. I pitched, he swung — and missed again.

Failure of that sort — mammoth, life-altering, frightening — can derail a man. You think you’re moving along toward a certain destination, surely, confidently. And then … it stops. Even if you sensed it coming, knew failure was inevitable, it stung. Worse, for the first time in your life, you didn’t know what came next.

The ball sailed over the shrub and the external AC unit as he swung and missed a second time. It was a bad pitch, a ball in any league, but at age 8 he still swings at anything and everything. He has not yet developed a discerning eye, a well-defined hitting zone. Every pitch is a promise. Every swing and miss is that promise broken. He dropped the bat and hustled after the ball again.

You didn’t know what came next, but you understood for the first time in your life that nothing was promised. Really understood that fact, not merely the theory. That there were dead ends. 

He found the ball in the high grass and tossed it back. Insects disturbed by the lawn mower began to crowd around us. He swatted at a bug in front of his face and stepped in for one last pitch from dad.

There are dead ends. Failure is inevitable. How you respond to that inevitability determines whether dead ends crack and split and branch off in promising new directions or stay dead ends. You choose your response. You choose to move forward. You choose. That’s what failure does for you, if you let it. If you let it.

This one came in under-handed, an acquiescence to physics and undeveloped, 8-year-old muscles. His eyes grew large as it arced toward the plate.

He stepped. He pivoted. He swung.