Breaking: A Life Story in 10 Fragments
On the night before Easter, 1981--late, too late--I got a phone call. My younger brother Chip had been in a car accident. He was not conscious. The next call came early Easter morning. He was not responsive. I called again. The nurse, who knew me from home, said, "Anne, I don't think he's going to make it."
I went to my husband, who was caring for our daughter. Standing beside her changing table, looking out the window--this was a West Philadelphia row house, we could not look far out--looking at her, not looking at him, I whispered, "I'm afraid he's going to die." Jeff said, "He can't die. He won't die." He said this with certainty, and I took comfort from his assurance. So when I got the next call, I couldn't understand what I was hearing. I asked, dumbly, "Is he DEAD?" My mother, dully: "Oh, yes. He is dead."
This is (certainly one reason) why I teach the way I do—because once I was comforted by that which was not true, by a comfort that turned out to be no comfort at all. "He can't die." Oh, yes he could. I think that, in my teaching, I refuse such false comfort, am impelled by the hope that I will not be surprised again, by facts I do not have. (Or: facts I have, but am not willing to face. Facts others have, but will not speak. Chip was dead when I spoke with the nurse. But she did not think she should be the one to tell me.)
A colleague figured this one out for me. At the end of a semester when we’d taught together, she suggested that we go 'round, ask our students to say something about what they had gotten out of the course, what they had learned, what they had found useful. I said, "No. Maybe they did not find it useful. Maybe they did not like it. We will not be hearing the truth."
She was just looking to end the course on an affirmative note. But I was after the truth, which impels me...in the searches I conduct both in my classes and in student conferences. That is the cause of my questioning, unremitting, my refusal of complacency, my insistence that, hard and deep as we may dig, we will never, ever get to the bottom.
2. On Getting to the Bottom
A core activity for English majors at Bryn Mawr College is the “keyword exercise”—which actually aims at getting to the bottom. Taken from Raymond Williams’ project of the same name, the assignment requires students to research the historical development of a word through a range of dictionaries. When was it first used? What form did it take then? How have its form, function and meaning changed over time?
I try this with “break,” which first appeared (as the Old English “brecan” ) in the year 1000, and has since come to mean
a. To sever into distinct parts by sudden application of force, to part by violence.
b. To disable, destroy cohesion, solidity, or firmness, crush, shatter.
c. To violate.
d. To make a way through, or lay open; to penetrate; to open up.
e. To make a rupture of union or continuity
f. To sever or remove
g. To burst.
What is remarkable in this etymology is, of course, its unbroken, invariant evocation of destruction.
3. A Break in the Story
In narrative terms, a break interrupts a story, destroys the continuity. A great-enough trauma can prevent a story from being told. We might hazard that trauma is what cannot be told, cannot be contained. What exceeds the story.
Paradoxically: what compels it, repeatedly, to be told.
Alternatively: breaking may be a means to telling the story. In Once Upon a Number, mathematician John Paulos suggests that the world is a contest between complicators (humanists, storytellers) and simplifiers (scientists, statisticians) --a.k.a. “lumpers” and “splitters.” Both assume that meaning-making derives from the presumed correspondence between parts and wholes. The splitters are the ones who break it down. They make the story simple.
4. Symmetry Breaking
One of science’s most puzzling—most beautifully simple--stories is about the breaking of symmetries.
Symmetry implies complete equivalence between existing alternatives, with no sufficient reason for choosing between them (as, most outrageously, in the case of Buridan’s ass, who had no means for adjudicating between two equivalent bundles of hay, and so starved to death). It was long thought, in physical systems as in philosophy, that symmetry could not “break” without a reason. Asymmetry could not originate spontaneously. Without some explicit input, the initial situation would remain unchanged.
However, in the move from classical to quantum physics, it became possible to observe the phenomenon of spontaneous symmetry breaking, now thought to be applicable to infinite, many-body systems (such as ferromagnets, superfluids and superconductors). Wherefrom the asymmetrical? Why do we assume that symmetric laws are the norm, and that an observed asymmetry requires a cause?
5. Break dancing
Breaking has been the source of creativity. Think of street corner disc jockeys, stringing together the rhythmic breakdown sections of dance records without any elements of the melody. These “breaks” provided a raw rhythmic base for improvising and further mixing, and allowed dancers to display their skills. Break dancing became one method for rival ghetto gangs to settle territorial disputes. In a showcase of dance routines, the winners were the dancers who could outperform others, displaying a set of more complicated and innovative moves.
Spelled differently, this might slow things down a bit.
7. “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”
I have been married for 36 years to a man I met in kindergarten. Our grandparents played bridge together. His parents were been married for 50 years; mine have been together for almost 60. I do not come, in other words, from a broken home.
Or do I?
8. Broken Glass
Whether you’re Jewish or not, you know the part of the ceremony where the groom smashes the glass with his foot. And you know some of the interpretations. That it represents the end of the couple's lives alone, the beginning of their new lives as one. Or the destruction of the Holy Temple: a reminder that pure joy will not exist until the temple is rebuilt. Or the idea that the world began with breaking of glass vessels, and—importantly--that humans were put here to put the pieces back together.
Tikkun olam, repair of the world.
9. Broken Valve
The repair man comes to clean our furnace. He breaks a valve. Ten days later, we discover a slow leak—the oil is dripping from the tank into the French drain, from the drain into the sump pump, from the pump into our driveway, from the driveway into our yard. This initiates an unbroken chain of legal entanglements. Arguments about broken promises, broken contracts.
I must depart from this volume. I do not belong here, amid all these breaks. I’m a belonger. I cling.
This is my broken record: Breaking out of the repetition. A pattern of no-pattern. Breaking the pattern.