Wildcard Weekend Book Review: “The Beauty in Breaking” by Michele Harper

I have been broken many times. I suspect most people have. In practicing the Japanese art of Kintsukoroi, one repairs broken pottery by filling in the cracks with gold, silver, or platinum. The choice to highlight the breaks with precious metals not only acknowledges them, but also pays tribute to the vessel that has been torn apart by the mutability of life. The previously broken object is considered more beautiful for its imperfections. In life, too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

In her memoir The Beauty in Breaking, emergency medicine doctor Michele Harper draws on her experiences with patients to slowly address and heal the deeply-seated emotional pain of her traumatic childhood, chaos that landed her in an ER waiting room as a young teen.

All of us had converged in these hallowed halls for a chance to heal our wounds, to offer up our hurt and our pain to be eased.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

That experience led her to the decision that ER medicine would be her life’s work.

Unlike the war zone that was my childhood, I would be in control of that space, providing relief or at least a reprieve to those who called out for help … That would be my offering to the world, to myself.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

Harper offers us multiple opportunities to experience redemption as she reflects on the people in her care. The crushing blow of losing an infant makes way for healing.

After all, only an empty vessel can be filled by grace.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

A young Black man lies dying from a gunshot wound, crying for his mother:

… as he was absolved by the bright lights of the trauma bay.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

A woman in the psychiatric unit reveals an awful secret in a moment that feels like the shattering of a glass house:

We had trod mindfully over the shards and escaped with nonfatal wounds to a new freedom.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking

Over and over again, Dr. Harper sees the person, not the patient.

I read this book in the early months of my ongoing recovery from a near-fatal ruptured aneurysm while on vacation in Holland in 2019. I could see myself through Harper’s eyes — a woman lying on an ER gurney bleeding internally to death. I felt her “call down the gods of repose and silence, to take the measure of their power in the moments when I need it most” just as those ER doctors in Amsterdam did in finding and sealing the rupture, snatching me back from death.

It was a short-lived victory. I was in the ICU for another month as my body failed and failed again. But, at every turn, the Amsterdam doctors and nurses not only pulled me back from the brink, they held me and my family up with kindness and compassion. As I emerged from the fog and began to recover my wasted body, my OLVG caregivers continued to treat me as a person, not a patient. They filled my heart as they healed my body.

My story has been refracted a million times over by the coronavirus pandemic as compassionate, exhausted doctors stand between COVID and death around the globe. What a time in which to see the struggle through the eyes of this passionate woman and compelling author.

In life, too, even greater brilliance can be found after the mending.

Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking
Portraits of hospital workers by Steve Derrick. See his Facebook page here

NOTE: The photographs on this post are portraits of hospital workers by Steve Derrick of Clifton Park, NY, who was featured by CBS News some months back. See his Facebook page here to see more paintings and to learn how to purchase them.

Letting the World In

As the tears fell down my cheeks this morning, I realized how much I’ve gotten used to being hard to the world.

Tracking Florida’s COVID-19 numbers helps me know how the Coronavirus pandemic is going on in the world just outside our door. I was trained for this new project of mine during my nearly 30 years in the New York State Division of the Budget in Albany. There, we knew about how to tell a story by using numbers, and the real story that the right numbers deliver.

We see pictures of people gathered in bars, unmasked. We hear that our daughter’s friends are going out as usual, and are grateful that she has her eyes open to the danger and is staying home. Governor DeSantis stands by his position that it is testing that is creating these numbers, not an increase in the virus. He tells Floridians to be brave, sounding like a World War I officer commanding his soldiers out of the trenches and into the bullets and bayonets of the enemy.

The news alarms me, even when it’s presented by smart people with broad, educated perspectives. I read the paper, scan The New York Times’ alerts throughout the day, and take in the nightly PBS News Hour, but otherwise it’s light reality — there is really no such thing as too much Say Yes to the Dress — or fiction diversions — the new Perry Mason on HBO, Vera on PBS, and we may make it through the crime/horror/Arctic drama Fortitude, if only to remind ourselves why we migrated south.

So, all in all, my relationship with television has been pretty passive as of late.

Yet, here I was this morning, freely weeping while we watched today’s CBS Sunday Morning. Two segments touched me, and the first was a story from back in our old haunts, Albany, where amateur painter Steve Derrick has taken the time to honor the front line in Albany Medical Center by painting the portraits of what they look like after a long shift, showing them in a local gallery, and giving the paintings to the doctors, nurses, aides, and others have inspired him so. A nurse was in tears as she thanked him for seeing who she is. This is soul food.

As you may know, the OLVG Nurses and Chapel in Amsterdam gave me the support to begin my recovery last year. The time my husband and I spent in that sweet chapel gave us time alone in the presence of something more than ourselves. The music we heard there lifted us up.

I grew up singing at home. Dad played the guitar and sang baritone, my sister was the soprano, I was the alto, and Mom was the audience. School choirs broadened our repertoire. I sang in church choirs in Albany churches. That was my form of worship. When Mom died, Susie and I sang The Lord Bless You and Keep You, following harmonies we learned at Herbert Hoover Junior High School in Potomac, Maryland.

Several years ago, Grammy composer Eric Whitacre figured out how to create a virtual choir. He videoed himself conducting a piece, and the singers filmed themselves singing to his conducting and the accompanist’s music. Then, he pieced together all the videos and audios. The first year, he had several hundred. This year, it’s more than 17,000. Here it is. Happy tears!

Eric Whitacre’s Sing Gently