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From fragility to kintsugi

By Siri Myhrom. Reprinted from The Huffington Post.

My friend Jessica invited me last year to be a part of a project she is developing. She co-hosts and organizes intimate Living Room Conversations about Race and Ethnicity, with people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities. It’s a place for real connection, honest questions, intentional listening, genuine friendship.

I agreed to join in – but why did her asking me make me feel a little panicked?

When I sat with that question, here’s what I saw. The reality was that I had very few close relationships with any non-white people in my day to day life, and I could not, for the life of me, come up with a good reason why. Sure, I would sit around my table over kale salads and craft beer and lament racial injustice – with my white friends.

I knew this, too: it was safe for me to do that, and I had worked hard to protect that safety. I liked having the appearance of concern and involvement without the personal vulnerability or risk of actual involvement.

I liked the distance I could create by reading about racism and recognizing it in others and feeling angry about that, but I still kept mostly quiet.

I was afraid to ask questions directly of black people, too, because I didn’t want to ask the wrong questions. I didn’t want to look like an idiot – or worse, like a racist.

Here was the truth, then: I hated racism, sure enough. But deep down, I still wanted to hang on to the fantasy of myself as the exception. I wanted my feelingsabout it to be enough. I didn’t want to risk my place in the tribe of my upbringing. I didn’t want to make anyone too uncomfortable – least of all myself.

All around this issue of race, I felt cracked and exposed and inadequate. How could I sit in a room, with other people, and do or say one single thing of use when I am the kind of person who sometimes struggles to make conversation at the bus stop? Whose neighborhood is 99% white? Who is nervous about driving alone in North Minneapolis? Who claims a faith but can’t quite seem to figure out how to love my neighbor when it is too inconvenient for me? Who wonders with casual fluttering concern about why a black man is in my yard, only to find out he’s a city inspector looking at the wiring on a construction project we’re doing – and I suddenly recall with hot remorse the dozens of white men over the months who have walked into our yard for this very project, and I haven’t thought twice about it?

What would people think? How could I contain or offer anything real with all these obvious fractures? I have spent years and years trying to press together the pieces, hoping that it looks to the outside like there is nothing that divides me internally or snakes across my surface.

This is fragility: the frantic need to preserve the illusion of rightness at the expense of accepting the invitation to restoration.

When I decided to join in with Jessica, interesting stuff started to happen. I met Tiffany, the other co-host of our Living Room Conversation. She’s black, and when she realized she had no white friends and had for years resisted getting to know white people out of fear and anger – she took a job in White Bear Lake, a very white Minneapolis suburb, working in a very white school. She joined a church where she was one of the only non-whites. She made an effort to meet, connect with, and to start to see white folks as human beings, not just representatives of a system. Do you know how much courage that takes? In the end, she said, it was healing for her soul. She said, “I’m a Christian. How can I be a Christian if I’m shutting out half the population?”

Living Room Conversations is an organization that is committed to creating opportunities for civil discourse and has conversation guides available on dozens of topics, all for free. I see how these intimate exchanges are not just a nice thing, but a critical element in the commitment to healing and transforming the wounds we don’t want to face. Minnesota is a great place to live – but this is also a state known for racial disparities in education, housing, healthcare and employment. We need to address these issues, and we start building momentum towards real, workable solutions when we’re willing to sit and listen to each other’s stories, to approach another human with the assumption that he is telling the truth about his experience, even if it is different from mine.

Attending conversations, I saw something: walking into the primal terror of being found out, and basically being found out (along with everyone else in the room), and surviving, and actually coming away with friends who still want to know and love me – this is fundamentally changing the shape of my life.

I have noticed three layers in moments where I confront my brokenness, a practice that is still clumsy for me but is nonetheless informing many areas of my life. The first layer says, This is not how I want others to see me. The second layer says, This is not how I want to see myself. The third layer, so close to the bone, finally tender enough to break open, says, This is not who I want to be.

The Japanese have an ancient art called kintsugi. This is the practice of repairing broken ceramics with lacquer that is mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The end result is visually arresting: the seams along the fractures are totally obvious to the viewer – but the object is undeniably whole again. It can hold nourishment and bring beauty. It is more solid along its shimmering scars.

The philosophy of kintsugi is the embodiment of grace: rather than seeing our shared human histories of brokenness and restoration as something to hide, they are brought out in the air and light, and they thread across our lives and make something that is, counter-intuitively, more intact, more receptive, more beautiful, more useful.

A couple of weeks ago at a Living Room Conversations gathering, I met Nelson, an addiction counselor originally from El Salvador.

“This is so hard to do,” he said, “but in the therapy model, you have to look at what is before you can really start to heal. As a country, we have to say, This is what we are right now, before we can really begin to be something else.” We are still skimming that first layer of our collective brokenness. We are preoccupied with the scuffs in a shiny veneer – marked by the shutting down and shaming of anything that shines a light on that imperfection. We have not dared yet to probe the raw splintered interior.

And Nelson’s right, of course. Individually and collectively, every moment of healing is preceded by a moment of radical courage. Our true transformation demands a kind of vulnerability and trust that, from this side, might look an awful lot like destruction.

In the end, though, we have to declare: It’s not perfection we’re after. It’s wholeness. And wholeness occurs because we have been put back together again, because we are repeatedly mended by love and listening and redemption and grace-full companionship.

Where our brokenness meets our honesty? That’s kintsugi.

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