Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Writing, Teaching, Language, Landscape, Life

Mosaic – Creating beauty and wholeness from the broken bits of our lives

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Mosaic bench, Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain

Mosaic bench, Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain

MOSAIC

Creating beauty and wholeness from the broken bits of our lives

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.

Mosaic bench where I sat, Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain

Mosaic bench where I sat, Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain

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.

Lakota star quilt

Lakota star quilt

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.

Light plays on mosaic.

Light plays on mosaic.

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.

Mosaic and mortar

Mosaic and mortar

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.

(Originally published in Tumbleweeds, Summer 2009)

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Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores the beauty and tensions of language, culture, and place.

33 thoughts on “Mosaic – Creating beauty and wholeness from the broken bits of our lives

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  8. This is all so deeply touching, true, and important. I love the notion of “I just always thoughts.” Like you, I held a lot of naive thoughts, and know I still do. But over the years, and over the miles, the “I just always thoughts” peel away and hold less weight. That is one of the beauties of age.
    I love what you wrote: “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?” Creating beauty along the way … yes, that’s my heart’s goal for my life. Soul sisters, we are.
    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post. xo

    • Dear Jennifer, I loved how you phrased this, “…But over the years, and over the miles, the “I just always thoughts” peel away and hold less weight. That is one of the beauties of age.” This is one of the things I love most about age, actually. So much more freedom from these weights that felt so very heavy in earlier years. Such a blessing and one I couldn’t imagine in younger years. What a pleasure to read your thoughts expressing this same experience. A gift to share. Yes, soul sisters across the ocean. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. xo

  9. Dawn,I am just now reading this. I love how you weave between past and present, mosaic and quilt, our attempts at perfection that only lead to frustration. Embracing what is and making choices based on that. Creating beauty with the pieces we are left holding or that we stumble upon. When we are broken, how we look to friends and family (and even strangers) to help us piece ourselves and our lives back together. Thank you for this reflection. I’ve been thinking lately about intention, the use of positive affirmations and the ability to create what you want in your life. I struggle with what that means for someone who lives in a stressful environment (whether in a “broken home”, in a home with physical or verbal abuse, in a dangerous neighborhood with gang violence, in a place with little seeming beauty filled with contamination, or a place with few job opportunities). Can people living in such environments/situations benefit from using positive affirmations? Are they able to “create the life they want”? Trying to make sense of balancing the view of someone coming from a life of privilege to those who don’t. Are we all in some way equal? Broken vs. Unique. Your words help me reflect on these thoughts. Thank you!

    Lauren Zaira

    Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2013 22:18:52 +0000 To: lkzaira@hotmail.com

    • Dear Lauren, I loved reading your thoughts and questions on all of these ideas. “Can people living in such environments/situations benefit from using positive affirmations? Are they able to “create the life they want”? Trying to make sense of balancing the view of someone coming from a life of privilege to those who don’t. Are we all in some way equal?” Thank you so much for taking the time to write and sharing these. My sense is that each path is as unique as the broken tesserae. I think of people of privilege who choose anger and people who grew up in violent homes who choose beauty. And vice versa. Which opens the eternal nature vs. nurture questions for me. I can think of no definitive answers – only more questions – and deep gratitude to be thinking and talking about these ideas. Thank you. Much love, Dawn

  10. I believe in synchrodestiny and definitely your article came just in time for me. After I gave birth last November, I felt that motherhood was for me like one of the beautiful vessels from Mata Ortiz but broken. The gift was so beautiful but my life seems a mosaic as you said and I am trying to put the pieces together and hopefully find the beauty of the creation again. When I married I changed my career from International Business into Teaching. Now with my child I feel I need to break again the pieces and find a new way to arrange my mosaic. Your words evoke beautiful memories in my heart. Gracias por hablarle a mi alma con tus letras.

    • Querida Patty,
      Oh, I have been so thinking about you and this new chapter of your life. Your description here of motherhood “like one of the beautiful vessels from Mata Ortiz but broken. The gift was so beautiful but my life seems a mosaic and I’m trying to put the pieces together and hopefully find the beauty of the creation again.” What a gift to mothers to share this experience expressed so beautifully and honestly. Gracias y gracias por compartir tu alma tan preciosa y sabia. Nos has enriquecido tanto con tu experiencia y la manera tan poetica y sabia en que la expresaste. Gracias de mi propia alma.

  11. Fabulous Dawn, appreciate the concept of light/ darkness as complimentary dichotomies. I like the long shot of the bench that swirls like a snake. It must have been an inspiring bench to sit on in Barcelona Spain. The Lakota Star quilt is beautiful; it reminds me of a glowing Sun.

    • Elizabeth, I loved that swirling bench, too. Yes, like a snake. And the light and dark – both so woven throughout our experiences and journey. It’s what we do with the light and darkness that composes our life. Thanks so much for taking the time to write.

  12. Extraordinary! I remember thinking ‘always thoughts’ and then one day without thinking about it I stopped thinking and started living the thoughts. I don’t believe it was something I did on purpose. I just did. I’ve never thought about the pieces of my life as broken – although there were a few times I’m sure I was as well as life. I believe those pieces, as you have said, make us more .. just more. Ins’t everything we go through part of the journey to the destination of where ‘we’ are now? Endings… were would we be without them?

    • Brenda, “I believe those pieces, as you have said, make us more .. just more. Ins’t everything we go through part of the journey to the destination of where ‘we’ are now?” I read this by candlelight this morning, and I find I just keep reading again and again. “One day I stopped thinking and started living the thoughts.” In my experience, that is when true authenticity, and more than a little magic, occurs. Thank you for expressing this so beautifully and for sharing your own wisdom.

  13. Thank you for sharing this with us. Such a wonderful, wonderful story! Your writing expands our mind…

    • Ivana, This means so much to me. As a reader, I love when writing expands my own mind and world, which makes your thoughts here mean so very much to me. Thank you so much for taking the time to write.

  14. Dawn—-you have been given a gift. Beautiful, just beautiful.

    Kenna—-wow, wow, and wow. As an ‘ex-social worker’ do you have any idea how rare a story yours is?? To find yourself, and to find love? Actually, to live through it?? YOU have been given a great gift as well. Good for you!!! What a happy ending!! I did not hear so many happy endings in my old career. Years ago a friend of mine and I sat across from each other. I knew she had been recently divorced but had not idea what had happened. I had been Maid of Honor in her wedding. We sat there, drinking a beer in our childhood hometown. She looked at me and said only, ‘he pushed me down a flight of stairs.’ Tears well up in me just writing this. We sat in teary silence for many minutes until surrounding distractions broke the silence. She too was able to escape and find herself and love again. She found the courage as you did to get out. Thank God!

    • Rosemary, thank you for your kind words. I never wanted to be a victim of my story, so I’ve never allowed myself to be. I guess I don’t always see my story and how I’ve handled it as rare, so I do appreciate your acknowledgement of all the hard work I’ve put into changing my life and being someone I’m proud of. My children benefited more than anyone, I feel. They are both in their late 30s now and live very close to me. They watched me learn to honor myself and now they do this for themselves. That is my biggest and best accomplishment in this life! The people in my life now find it hard to believe that this ever happened to me because I am such a strong person now. But, I found the gift in it.

    • Rosemary, Thanks so much for taking the time to write – and for connecting with Kenna and lifting up your friend’s story. The power of sharing our stories and journeys continues. I am so thankful for you both! Love, Dawn

  15. Dawn, What a gift you have for reaching deeply within and reassembling so beautifully what you find, in a way that will touch and guide others. Thank you so much for sharing it! Charlotte W

    • Charlotte, Oh, I’ll read this again and again. Thank you. I hadn’t thought of my writing in this way, and you express so beautifully what I do hope to do. This is a treasure – thank you so much for taking the time to write! Love, Dawn

  16. Dawn, so beautiful and poignant. I forwarded on to a few friends who I know will appreciate this perspective. The dark nights can be so difficult…but always the dawn and new light…and new life! Love you, Laurie

    • Laurie, yes, always the dawn and new light, as you so gracefully create in your own life and through your writing. I hope this piece might let your friends know that we are not alone. Thank you so much for sharing with them and for taking the time to write. Love you, Dawn

  17. I love the example of the quilt, Dawn. It’s perfect for this piece, just as the mosaics are.

    I also thought when I was a little girl that I would grow up, get married, have children and live happily. My dad was a minister and according to God’s plan, that was the way it should be. But, it didn’t exactly work out that way for me. I married my first husband when I was barely 18 and had my two children before I was 21. Within months of saying I Do the severe abuse began. I lived for six long years terrified daily as I was beaten and humiliated, but I couldn’t leave because my upbringing made leaving a marriage wrong. Eventually, even my father told me to leave, so I finally did, barely escaping with my life.

    I married again at 25 to a man who provided a lot of safety and financial comfort for me and I began to relax enough to finally take a deep breath and began to grow up. I thought I had a good marriage because he didn’t beat me. That shows you how warped my world was. I eventually began to realize that not only did he not beat me, he didn’t even talk to me. I was so lonely, so hungry for love that I took my children and made a new life. I felt like a complete failure because I had grown up hearing the term, “broken home” and I now had given that to my children twice by the time I was 34. I did a lot of soul searching and what came of that was a deep awakening of my spirit. That’s when my intuitive life began and my spirit began to speak to me daily. From those daily insights, I finally saved myself from what I thought was broken, but had really only been me looking for ME.

    I now have had 21 years with a wonderful man who truly loves me because I took the time to finally love me. I am a mosaic and being this mosaic has open my narrow little world up to a world full of people who have all expanded beyond their limited views of how it is supposed to be.

    Thank you for sharing your beautifully written piece, Dawn. I can soooooooooo relate!!!!!!

    • Dear Kenna, Thank you so much for sharing your own story. Wow… I had no idea that your journey had involved these chapters. I am so sorry that you experienced this. You wrote, “From those daily insights, I finally saved myself from what I thought was broken, but had really only been me looking for ME. I now have had 21 years with a wonderful man who truly loves me because I took the time to finally love me.” Thank you for sharing this wisdom. I am so happy for you to have found the peace and love that you so deserve. I knew that you daily create beauty in your life – and now I realize the depth to which you do this. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. Love and love, Dawn

      • Dawn, I believe our souls create life situations to wake us up so we can remember who we really are. My life’s journeys have been difficult, but they woke me up in some big ways. I don’t know if I would have truly known the depth of my life like I do now had I not had the challenges that I turned into opportunities for self awareness. The deeper the pain, the higher we reach. right? I have had to reach very high. I never take any part of life for granted. Ever. And, I believe that was my soul’s intention. 🙂

  18. Beautiful, beautiful piece, Dawn. The imagery, the colors, the senses that you touch piece together into profound words about our purpose here. When you say, 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?” it inspires me to take what I have, work with it, mold and shape and form it into something that I find beauty and purpose in. Thank you.

    • mamawolfe, “…to take what I have, work with it, mold and shape and form it into something that I find beauty and purpose in.” In my experience, that’s what it’s all about, even when I sometimes forget, this is what it comes back to. Thank you for expressing this so beautifully – and for taking the time to write. xo

  19. How beautiful! Thank you for sharing such a personal story. I think many of us have “I just always thoughts…”. Mine was living in my movie. I remember one time thinking that my husband and I were going to pack up our baby in the stroller, put the dogs on leashes, and go for a lovely sunset stroll. I had the whole scene planned out according to the movie showing in my head. What happened? Well, it was terribly windy. Our son was miserable and cold, and the dogs didn’t think that walking along next to a stroller was such a cool idea. They pulled on their leashes and ran in front of the stroller and got tangled up in the wheels. Not to mention that strollers don’t stroll on dirt roads. It was the exact opposite of what I had envisioned! I was completely shattered…and thank God! Because from that broken film reel in my head came all the little shards that make up the colorful and vibrant mosaic which is the life I have. And sometimes, a perfect movie moment slips in, like the time my little kids started singing “Down to the River to pray” as I drove through a lush green valley, wondering if life could be any more beautiful. And I think the answer is yes it can, if you take the time to look at how all of the little pieces make up the larger picture. So thank you for the reminder.

    • Rebecca, Oh, yes, the movie in our heads… I had to chuckle as I thought of the perfect stroll with the baby and dogs, and the oh-so-different reality. I’m glad to know that I am in good company. How many, many times that has happened to me! And then those unplanned moments where magic appears…Thus, is life, I’ve discovered. Thank you for highlighting how all of the little pieces make up the larger picture. It’s what we do with those pieces that composes our life. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. xo

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