“Broken vessel,” my mind names it when I notice it on the hearth. A large earthenware jug, a familiar vase shape, probably a shape as old as the history of pots. It’s hard to tell whether this clay was accidentally or intentionally smashed. The pieces have been fitted back together, and the fault lines are visible, but the glue is not.
* * *
Friendship is voluntary. You can point to birth or marriage as the point someone becomes part of a family. But there are no similar common events to mark the beginning of friendship. Friends who enjoy analyzing this sort of thing will play “What’s the moment our friendship began?” And we might not have the same answers.
With E, it was either a bathroom conversation, one of us inside a stall, or the moment at a concert when a song made me cry and she moved my hair out of the way to put her arm around me.
With J, it was fooling her in a breakfast line with a story about coyotes, and immediately bonding over our gullible streaks.
With L, it was sitting side by side at a seminar table and discovering we had the same name, were both left-handed, and both unpacked speckled composition notebooks, mechanical pencils, and Altoids tins.
With a different L, it was a long process, a series of e-mails, gifts crossing in the mail, questions and answers and discussions building to a rich friendship, though we haven’t met in the flesh yet.
With S, it was the night back in grad school days when I surprised her by accepting her invitation to come over and finish our fiction class portfolio together, and we made a late-night pizza run (or was it the night we went trash cruising?).
For all of them, it’s the moment we slapped a lump of soft clay onto the wheel and started spinning and shaping it together. Less fun — I assume, anyway, because I have not actually played this game with any of my friends — is “When did we have our first fight or big disagreement?”
* * *
I tried all year last year to write about shattered friendship.
In January, as I looked back over the previous year that had just ended, it took 900 words to sneak up on the subject: “I broke some friendships last year.” Then I glossed.
Some were small breaks, and soon healed. Some required a period of silence to convalesce. Some were not the first time. All involved the first aid of apologies, and the assessment of triage. Some required the debridement and salve and bandaging of wound care. One required utterly conceding to the great physician. . . .
And I don’t want to wound another. So this ends where I intended to start: About to make a list of such breaks, as far back as I can remember, and excavate the whys.
By midyear, thousands of words later, I was not much closer to making that fearless and searching wounded-friendship inventory. In true fashion for a procrastinator who loves making lists, though, I’d come up with a list of categories. Fifteen of them. Some were simple and obvious:
People I was close to or wanted to be close to and wounded in some way.
People who entrusted something to me that I cared for poorly.
People I wanted more from than they could be expected to give, or who wanted more from me than I could offer.
Then they became a little more revelatory: People whom I have pushed because somehow I believed I was special and the rules did not apply to me.
Then the hammer came down squarely on three nails. I don’t need to make that list of the whos. This already tells me the whats.
People with whom I have done that thing I do where, not having heard much about grace growing up and not always fully trusting God’s, I test it with people who are not God and who are not obligated to show it to me once, let alone repeatedly. (Why repeatedly? Why not continually? Is grace particle or wave?)
Knickknacks of memory that have been packed and carried through all my moves and stored even though I have no apparent use for them.
People who saw me, who got me somehow, who reflected me back to myself, and I saw them too, and it was good and very good for a while, but whatever measure they gave me was not enough, and whatever measure I was able to return was not enough (or maybe too much), and I began to idolize the exchange, and it filled my field of vision, until I was so blinded that I smacked into a wall or walked off a cliff.
* * *
I was at Laity Lodge for a retreat last November. On our first night in the Texas Hill Country oasis, the speakers for the weekend gave us an overview of the coming days. One gave us a homework assignment, a single question to answer for ourselves: Why are you here?
I’m here to spend a weekend immersed in friendships, I thought. To hug people I mainly know from online. To have company and conversation at every single meal for a whole weekend. To rest in the beauty of the canyon.
On Friday morning, as the musician warmed us up with song, he invited us to leave our baggage, our mess, whatever junk we’re clutching — just let it go, and sing.
I thought about my sorest sore spot on the muscle of friendship. I imagined it as a gauzy thing, light around my shoulders. I imagined the fresh wind in the room blowing it off me, out the sliding glass door behind me, over the river, up the canyon, out of sight.
A little later, the first speaker told us, “God wants a pure beginning for you, and not a happy ending.” Pure beginnings, he said, can start from unhappy endings.
I wrote my answer to last night’s homework: I AM HERE TO BE CRACKED OPEN.
That night, standing with a few other cold bodies with our backs to the fire that the singer had been stoking all day, I noticed the clay jar. The broken and mended vessel.
* * *
An out-of-town friend and I hold hands across the Formica of a table in McAlister’s Deli as I give thanks for the meal we’re about to enjoy. I also give thanks for relationships broken and mended, meaning ours. Two years earlier something happened, and I don’t remember what, except that I persisted in seeking an answer, and she persisted with silence. For months. Thoughts of her brought waves of anxiety, stabs of regret.
She eventually texted to ask for a meeting when she would be in town. We met at another restaurant, with a mutual friend there to broker a détente. It was hard, and the details are best left at the table, but it was a beginning.
Now I forget sometimes that that hardness passed between us. I barely remember what it felt like. Meetings and phone calls are warm and friendly. Our friendship seems stronger for having been through that. In the year and a half between our silence-breaking dinner and this lunch, we had celebrated another’s college graduation, grieved the car-wreck death of the friend who’d brought us back to the table, gathered with others to remember him, and reknitted ourselves with conversations across the miles. We felt like sisters again.
* * *
It’s hard to tell whether this clay was accidentally or intentionally smashed. The pieces have been fitted back together, and the fault lines are visible, but the glue is not. Iridescent stone beads adorn some of the cracks, where a little bit of pot is missing. Some shards were individually painted before they rejoined their places. It looks like people worked together to restore it. It’s no good for holding water now, but it can’t hold dark any more either. Where the water would pour out, light pours in.
Laura Lynn Brown values her friendships among her greatest earthly treasures. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, and writes at lauralynnbrown.com. Her gift book for mothers, Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories, was published in 2013 by Abingdon Press; her essay "Fifty Things About My Mother" won the 2013 Iowa Review Nonfiction Prize.