A Family Mosaic

Finding wholeness and beauty in the broken bits of our lives

Date June 17, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Lodging & Travel


The sun glints off the tiles of the mosaic-covered bench where I sit. Flints of color—cobalt, fuchsia, turquoise, yellow, orange—gleam softly in the light. I run my fingers across their surface, feeling the smooth texture, the subtle edges, of the tiles, known as tesserae, and marvel at the intricacy with which they fit together. Color and light wrap around the raised plaza within Park Güell in the foothills of Barcelona. Writer Terry Tempest Williams studied with a mosaicist in Ravenna, Italy. Her teacher, Luciana, shared with her the rules of mosaics: Rule 1. The play of light is the first rule of mosaic.

When my eyes follow the waving pattern of the bench, bending in and out as it curves around the plaza, the colors of the tiles bleed and swirl together from afar. It’s only upon looking closely that the individual tiles particularize and take shape.

I watch the light of the Spanish sun shimmer across the surface of the broken tesserae. Broken. Rule 3: Tesserae are irregular, rough, individualized, unique. Broken or unique?

My mind skips back to a few weeks before, when one of my adult college students made a remark about broken homes. What assumptions underlie this phrase? That a home with two parents married to, or living with, each other is somehow inherently whole? Life is far too complex and deep for this simple perspective to bear much weight. Instantly, each of us can think of numerous homes, implicitly whole under this definition, that are anything but. Each time I hear this phrase, always accompanied with sweeping generalizations, I think of many families, all rife with humanity, that don’t come anywhere close to lining up accordingly in nice, neat rows. I think of the homes I know that were far more broken before divorce than after, when a sense of wholeness became possible.

I’m struck by the power of language crafted to interpret others’ experiences. Our national and cultural lexicon heaps these constructed phrases—broken home, friendly fire, precision bombing—to create a sense of distance and separation for the speaker, to intentionally create a sense of the other as separate, even unconnected. But at what cost to our collective conscience?

Broken or unique?

Throughout life, we all have our guideposts, the ideas that begin “I just always thought…” Mine were fairly cast in stone based on childhood experiences and beliefs. Primary among those “I just always thoughts…” was the composition of the family I would one day create—two parents, kids, friends and family, all intertwined for life. My own parents met and married in college and their circle of friends are other couples that all did the same thing. Over the years, babies joined the clan, widening and deepening the supportive web of roots and connection. This was my model to recreate.

Because of these experiences, I believed life was like a quilt, whose fabrics, colors, and design could be carefully selected and if you followed the directions of the pattern, could only result in the exact final product that the pattern promised. I once attempted to sew a star quilt. Small, perfectly measured diamonds composed the pieces sewn together to create a giant single star in the center of the quilt. I bought all the fabric in vibrant colors, laid out the pattern, and measured and cut for months. With all of the pieces of fabric cut into the requisite diamond shapes, I began to pin and sew the quilt. I discovered if you do not measure, cut, and line up the fabric to the precise millimeter required, nothing about the star lines up properly. The more I sewed and tried to fix it, pins held between my lips, the more of a mess it became, until at last I had created a four-foot misshapen blob that in no way resembled a star. Late one night, I held the twisted, miserable fabric aloft, and finally had to accept that despite my best intentions and efforts, I couldn’t make it right.

Also central among my “I just always thoughts…” was what one commonly hears about marriages that end: Marriage has to work. Every married couple has experienced what any divorced couple has and stayed married. Divorce was a choice, much like marriage. They just hadn’t dug in deep enough, hadn’t tried hard enough. You just don’t do it. I cringe now at my own naïveté. What none of these tossed-about phrases address is the presence of a sadness that swallows the world. Barbara Kingsolver describes the reality as “sharing your airless house with the threat of suicide or other kinds of violence, while the ghost that whispers, ‘Leave here and destroy your children,’ has passed over every door and nailed it shut. Disassembling a marriage in these circumstances is as much fun as amputating your own gangrenous leg. You do it, if you can, to save a life—or two, or more.”

What if life is not a star quilt, after all? Perhaps life cannot be controlled by following an exact, predetermined pattern, no matter how hard one tries.

So, how do you begin to know which direction to go without the well-traveled path of I-Just-Always-Thoughts to guide you?

When I was a child, my class went on a field trip to Colossal Cavern. We wove deep into the womb of the earth, regaled with tales of outlaws who had hidden in the cave and caches of still-missing loot. Warning signs cautioned of the bottomless pits that lined our path. Once deep in the belly of the cave, the docents turned off the lights to reveal a darkness black as space. I raised my hand in front of my face and wiggled my fingers. Nothing, no movement at all. Such is the darkness when the well-marked and worn trail suddenly disappears in front of us.

The light playing across the colors of the mosaics catches my eye—the pieces of tile catching the light, glowing and coming to life under the late-afternoon Spanish sun. I think of the light sparkling on the tiles and the transformation that takes place in the dark. Toni Morrison began writing in the dark hours before dawn out of necessity, due to her young children and nine-to-five job. She found experiencing the darkness and coming into the light essential to her “making contact, engaging in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives.”

Mystics have written for years of the dark night of the soul that precedes enlightenment, of how  light and dark are not polar opposites but complementary aspects on a spectrum, each informing the other. What if, instead of forcing pre-measured and cut pieces into a narrow pattern, we accept the pieces of tile that come our way and arrange them the best we can?

What if we follow the natural contours and shapes of the tesserae of our lives, taking the apparently broken elements and pairing colors and pieces according to their inherent form, creating beauty along the way, creating something whole and unique from the pieces of our lives?

Families come in all different shapes and sizes. The well-being of a home for children is not determined by the marital status of the parents, but the love that fills the home.

My fingertip rests on the groove of mortar, now worn smooth beneath my hand, holding the tiles together. Perhaps the spaces between the tiles aren’t empty, but as in Rule 8: There is perfection in imperfection. The interstices or gaps between the tesserae speak their own language in mosaics. The mortars that ultimately cradle and support are not social constructs or “I just always thoughts,” but are laughter, love, empathy, time together, safety, and truly listening to and hearing one another.

As we move into the light after an event like the end of a marriage, we focus on the constellation of friends and family who gently start to pick up the pieces of our lives, carefully dust them off, then roll up their sleeves and sit down with us as we try to bring order and sense to the pieces unfolding within this new composition. They’re with us as the faint outlines of shapes emerge. We focus on remembering to see the uneven or irregularly shaped pieces not as faulty or wrong, but to appreciate them for their specificity, their uniqueness.

Life is infinitely more complex and expansive than any single template contains or defines. Instead of a star quilt sewn from a pattern, we slide the pieces of our lives into our own understandings to compose individual mosaics from the treasures and scraps of the tesserae of life—arranging the tiles to catch the light.

Rule 11. The play of light is the first and last rule of mosaic.

Dawn Wink lives with her family in Santa Fe, where she mothers, writes and teaches at Santa Fe Community College.