The Story Series: The Broken Stained Glass
Listen: Everybody’s broken.
It sounds like a cliche; it sounds trite, like something we all take for granted. It’s like saying, no one is perfect. We hear that, at least I do, and think, “No, of course not, nobody’s perfect.” My mind knows it’s true… yet, in the darkest part of the night, a part of me will whisper back, “but no one’s as flawed as you, either.” If I’m honest, agreeing with the nobody’s perfect phrase is really because it’s what I’m supposed to believe; it is what I’m supposed to say. The other day, a colleague was recounting a date she’d had and shared a conversation where he asked her what was wrong with her; she said, “I don’t make my bed because… why? I’m just going to get back in it at the end of the day?” and also included more flaws, “I don’t exercise, unless walking up my stairs at home counts, and also, I mean, I don’t know, I’ve blocked people on Bumble.” I listened, lamented the misadventures on online dating, of which I know zero firsthand as it has been nearly a decade since I’ve been on any sort of date at all, but, deep down, my heart felt pinched. While I know she was being light-hearted on purpose because no one sane would share their stuff with a Bumble second date, I can assure you, it would not be hard for me to list serious flaws within myself. But I don’t. Because, if I did, well, that wouldn’t earn me any friends, would it? So, instead, I stay broken alone. And the thought rolls through my mind, Add coward to the list of Tiffini flaws because I know, I’ve experienced, how speaking up and sharing can build bridges and act as the catalyst for healing and community. Yet, I can only do it at my pace, when I’m ready, and in situations I can, more or less, control. I’ve lived for others for 40 years, so much so that, in order for me to be authentic, I have to really analyze a situation and deliberately, consciously, ask myself, What would I do if no one else were around?
Over the years, many characters have haunted me. Taya, the character in Broken, shadowed me for almost a month before I wrote the first scene. During this month, she actively mocked much of life. If I tried to reread a beloved love story by Elizabeth Lowell, she was there, in my mind, laughing at me. The mocking was good-natured, but it was constant. Except when when I played with the girls or taught; then, she grew quiet. Sometimes, I’d hear her whisper, Where are the books? until panic made me open up trunks and totes so that I could touch the hand-written pages of stories written decades earlier. She grew quiet and withdrawn if there was even a hint of confrontation or anger. And, most of all, the tough kid persona she preferred? It was an act; it wasn’t who she really was. The Taya whose reflection stared back at her in the mirror was ugly; the person that the bullies said she was–that person, she was the real Taya. She carved the word freak into her skin; she blamed herself when bullies betrayed and attacked her, saying she was so stupid. (for avid readers of the blog: this is a brand new excerpt!)
Very clearly, she wasn’t stupid—but the smart things she did, like the Cinderella paper, the brave things she did, like calling the police on the father who raped her, the compassionate things she did, like the letter for her mother, the hopeful things she did, like trying one last time with her dad, the strong things she did, like dying her hair purple to control what they talk about were drowned out by the lies shouted by shame, by unfair comparisons, and by guilt until the unseen wounds grew infected and staying strong became too hard.
On the surface, Taya and I have very little in common. I’d never have played Spin the Bottle, I never went to Homecoming and in sixteen years, the thought of anonymously turning my father into the police never once crossed my mind. Telling did… but I didn’t know how. I didn’t want to disrupt anyone’s life. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted to be safe. Arrest warrants were issued for my father all the time. I distinctly remember him watching shows like “America’s Most Wanted,” afraid that his name would be on it. Calling the police and anonymously giving them our address would have been an easy thing to do–and absolutely no one would have thought it was me. But I, the “smart” one, never thought about it. Taya did. I’d never have dyed my hair purple; I’m 41 and I still haven’t had a sip of alcohol, so getting drunk was never even a remote concern. I like control too much. But… the real Taya, the one haunted by self-doubt, the one desperate to find a reason to hope, the one who craved acceptance and being good enough for others… that Taya is me. There are many, many sad things about sexual assault; there are many, many sad things about bullying. One of the saddest of both is their power to completely rob someone of hope by making her believe she’s more flawed than anyone else, that she’s too imperfect for grace. One of the saddest is that it teaches her to accept blame, guilt, for that which was no way, shape or form hers to accept. One of the saddest is how broken it can make a life, and how the broken shards poke holes through her self-esteem for the remainder of her life. No matter how healed someone becomes…memories are not erased.
A special day. Easter: today is Easter. Easter is a much celebrated, much loved day in our house. Easter encapsulates the Gospel. The Gospel tells the story of a man who was laughed at (Matthew 9:24), mocked (Matthew 27:29), and doubted as an outcast (John 1:46). The Gospel tells the story of a man who voluntarily (John 10:18, 1 Timothy 2:6) chose to forgive those who crucified Him (Luke 23:24). Jesus was holy, yet He allowed Himself to be broken; we know this because He asked for a different way (Luke 22:42) which tells us He was scared. He was wholly flesh and blood man as much as He was wholly holy (John 1:14). The Gospel tells of how much love Jesus felt for every person: enough to be scourged, mocked, doubted, laughed at, pierced with a sword, hated and murdered. More than that. The love He had enabled Him to literally bear the weight of every sin that has ever been committed on Himself; just like a blood smear can be transferred from one thing to another, everything that has ever made me broken was transferred off of me and onto Him. The guilt for my silence, every hurt I’ve caused others, the failure to be better… it was placed into Him. And then He buried, burned, cast aside, got rid of, cleansed the sin, and when it was gone, He defeated death by rising from the grave. Logic will not allow you to believe this because it defies logic, it defies comprehension. It requires faith. But I survived my past because it is true. More than that, I survive today and tomorrow because of it. When I mess up in ways far worse than not making my bed in the morning, the story of Easter promises me I am still loved. And, if that is true, then we aren’t broken anymore, but whole.
Broken. Deep down, it is hard for me to reconcile the flawed and imperfect, messy person I feel I am with the loved and worthy person Scripture promises me I am (2 Corinthians 6:18, Isaiah 54:10, 1 John 1:9, John 15:3, Isaiah 43:25). But stained glass is made out of broken pieces, and stained glass is flat-out beautiful — it’s also captivating because it changes depending on the amount of light shining through it. So you can look at a piece of stained glass at noontime and see one thing, come back and look at the same piece of glass near sunset and you’ll see something different. I’ve been afraid most of my life of being broken because I’ve known all my life that I am. I had people whispering encouraging, optimistic things about me — my mother used to tell me that she knew on the day I was born that I was special; I believed her but I also had others tell me traumatizing things, things I don’t even like to think about twenty years later, things like I was cold, selfish and unlovable. I believed that, too. Sometimes, most days, at least some part of me still does. I can compare myself all day long to women like my colleague who are beautiful and smart, who block men on Bumble because they know how to set appropriate boundaries—or I can re-read the story that hurts my heart a little too much, the story of the teenage Tiffini who wasn’t sure she deserved to breathe, and see with wiser eyes what she did right.
Life is not easy. We all have a story. Mine is made up of chaotic memories, clouded in a level of fear that is hard to describe. Fear so intense it manifest itself physically decades later. I’ve come a long, long, long way. Five years ago, I’d never have been able to write Haven. And, tonight, I found the brave and re-read parts of Broken, which I have not done since I don’t know when. I’ve avoided reading Taya’s story because it is the only book I’ve written from the first person narration of a teenage girl. People call me creative all the time. But I’m really not: I just write what I know. You’d be amazed at how many memories come forth for me when I write; during the writing of a book, I’m generally just fine because I can tell myself all day long that it isn’t me, it’s my character. The characters generally shadow me: I can usually see them in the corner of my mind, it’s like a movie is playing in my head. All I’m doing is transcribing the movie into written words. I don’t have stop to think, Good Lord, I remember this. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to finish the stories. I feared reading Taya because the teenage Tiffini knew how to make it stop… and I didn’t do it. Inaction is action, right? It takes two to tango. Shame can be as palpable as a black-out; it can color everything you see and how you view the world, and I work really, really, unnaturally hard at keeping shame at bay so that I can still see the world as colorful and hope. I don’t want to forget the awe I felt when I looked at the grass and realized how green it was. So, I write what I need to write, convinced it’s God’s way of helping me process things in a safe way, and then I let it be. I only re-read the “fluff” — the stories of love and coming-of-age like The Storyteller and Me. These are far enough removed from my personal experiences that I can reread and enjoy them. But, every now and then, I feel God moving. Like today, on Easter, when He prodded me to write this blog post I’ve put off writing for a month or more. And then, I grow.
Easter is the story of the Gospel. He is not in the tomb anymore (Mark 16:6). And, broken or not, I have enough miracles in my life to believe that, whether I understand it or not, He does love me. That gives me hope, and encouragement and strength. Tonight, re-reading Taya’s story, I stopped short of the ending. I wasn’t able to do it. Since February 24, one day after my precious daughter’s 18th birthday, Russia invaded Ukraine on a lie; I’ve followed the developments every day. Until this last week, when the similarities to the Holocaust prompted one too many flashbacks of a young Tiffini who felt her Christian God’s presence in a Jewish synagogue, and who found solace in collecting the stories of miracles from the death camps. The teenage Tiffini clung to those survivors’ stories as proof that the impossible was possible and that God would not abandon her. The grown-up Tiffini saw video footage of mass graves, heard stories of children forced to watch the rape of their mothers, heard the rumors of Russians moving these people to camps, and I literally just could not (links not provided on purpose). I didn’t want to have to search for the miracles anymore. You can feel it when your heart cracks; the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming; the terror of flashbacks that make you shake can be traumatizing. The feel of brokenness can mimic the feeling of hopelessness. Tonight, though, this evening of Easter, I’m picturing stained glass, imagining all the light shining through each tiny little crack, and thinking about how light dispels the darkness. And I’m clinging to the Scriptures that promise a redemptive love so massive, powerful and overwhelming that the wholeness it brings is something I can only imagine.