From the Desk of Jennifer Sinor: To Be Broken

Jennifer Sinor is a professor of English at Utah State University. She is the author of four books, including Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World (Nebraska, 2020) and Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe. Her essays have appeared in the American Scholar, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere.

Not all that many years ago, what I yearned most for was a night of sleep where one or both of my children did not call me from the deep sea of dreams. Once up, having dispelled nightmares or found the magical sequence of songs to calm them, I would return to my own bed unable to sleep. It happened every night, or almost every night. And like many parents of young children, I wandered the daylight hours a zombie, unsure of where I set the keys, the cup of coffee, my notes for class. On nights when it was really bad, when I had been tossing in bed (quietly, as quietly as possible so as not to wake my husband, Michael) for literally hours (midnight, one, two), I would get up, put on my running shoes, and head out to run. My reasoning was that I was going to run in the early morning anyway, might as well make it the really early morning.

Logan, Utah, is a quiet town in the very north of the state. We are located between two chains of mountains, and the valley rests snuggly between. At two in the morning, Logan is even more than quiet. Nothing stirs, not even a stray cat. I would run my five miles, not entirely awake, hoping that the energy expended to push my body up and down hills at 5,000 feet of elevation would mean I could sleep when I got home. Often it worked. I would return, winded and cold, and find my pajamas, not even shower, and wait out the sweat chills beneath the comforter before finally, sweetly, letting go.

My sons are older now, and it has been years since they have called to me from their beds. Of course, now I miss it. I sleep much better, though never without waking, and I haven’t run at two in the morning for a long time. I also started listening to a book on tape several years ago. Every night. The same book. If I told you the title, you would probably think my PhD in English should be revoked. Suffice it to say, it is not literary. It is mindless and carefree and everything works out in the end—every single time I arrive at the end, which at this point is literally hundreds of times. I have the novel memorized. Name a chapter number: I will tell you how it begins.

That I listen to the same book every night would not surprise those close to me. They know that I am a creature of habit. I run the same route every day. I eat the same thing for breakfast. I welcome routine. If you read my memoir Ordinary Trauma, you might understand why this is so. Here I more interested in the false sense of security my patterns bring me. Here I am interested in all that I am losing when I try to make the world stand still.

The subtitle of my book, Sky Songs, is “meditations on loving a broken world.” And I have been thinking a lot lately (pandemic, floods, fires, protests) about just how the world is broken. I think many people would say much has broken in the past six months, or past four years, or past two decades, but I don’t think I would share their understanding of what broken actually means. For most, broken suggests something that is beyond repair: a shattered cup. For most, broken means beyond use: a glove without its mate. For most, broken conjures the need for pity: a broken man, a broken heart. For most, broken is something we want no part of. And yet, what exists in our world that is not broken eventually?

Three weeks ago, my oldest son, Aidan, decided to reorganize his room and throw out or give away things he no longer uses (the basket of rubber balls he has collected since he was two; the container of Beyblades; the box full of sling shots and compasses and bright yellow binoculars the size of his palm). I sat with him as he went through his shelves, welcoming any moment that he would give me. As he organized, he came across a bright silver dollar sealed in a plastic case. My father had given it to him when he was small.

“I need to fix this,” he said to me, holding up the case.

“Fix it how?” I asked.

“When I first got it, I really wanted to touch the shiny silver, so I snuck into my bedroom and opened it up,” he said. Then he continued, “You can see my fingerprints on the coin now, so it’s ruined. I need at least to try and polish it.”

He showed me the silver coin, all flash and gleam in the case, and pointed to the tiny index print he made when he was three.

“Oh Aidan,” I said. “This is not ruined. Because you opened the case, you have your curious fingers at age three. Forever. Something more precious than a silver dollar. Something that can never be regained. It’s a treasure now.”

Michael, my husband, is the one who taught me about the value of things marked by the world. The first time he explained the idea to me we had only been dating for a few months. We were both in graduate school, trying to make it to the end, and we often took refuge in the beauty of the natural world as well as poetry. I had recently purchased a broadside with a Mary Oliver poem that I hoped to frame. But that morning I had been rushing and ripped the edge of the page.

When I told Michael it was ruined, he responded that it had only been marked by the world. That everything is eventually marked and the marking is what makes it valuable. Because of the tear, when I come across the broadside (never framed), I am given those early months when I was just falling in love with the man who would move to the West with me and make a home. Because of the tear, I am thrown back on my younger self, the one who still thought broken was bad and had not yet learned that it is our moments of brokenness that define our spirit. And that is the idea I am trying to capture in Sky Songs, that the world is indeed broken but that only offers us more ways to learn to love, to value, to hold. Rumi, of course, said it much better: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

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