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Trust in the Imperfect

My priorities are changing. On a jog through our little housing complex recently, this fact was called out to me by a bold message scrawled on a neighbor’s driveway. “I Heart with solid fill My Neigbors,” it declared. The big heart, scratched bold on the cracked pavement, caught my eye first. It used up the better part of a big chunk of mango chalk and meant business. No children live in this complex, so this was a serious bit of local and personal love. Her neigbors. My neighbors.

Not so long ago I’d have noticed the spelling first. The editor in me would have wanted some chalk to fix it: I could have discreetly filled in the missing “h”—no one need notice—thereby saving embarrassment (whose?) and restoring order. But not so much today. It’s the heart that carries the weight of that sentence, her message of love for the folks around her. Our guardians in this little complex are the elders, the ones like her who have kept their eye out for us all over the course of a devastating year.

Here’s another way I am changing. This year has given me time to reflect on my tightly held memories about the people and times that raised me, and the story I’d created around them. I grew up, for example, in a house full of antiques. My mother was an estate sale enthusiast with a keen eye for a bargain. Boxes full of dishes, lamps and vases came home by the armload. She’d sort them in the family room, parsing the Limoges from the RS Prussia and even the occasional Tiffany, picking out the best of them and setting aside the others for later sales. I read The Antique Trader at an age when most boys were devouring Madmagazine, proud of our home and aspiring someday to match her savvy.

When my mother died, my older sister had the job of sorting out all of her stuff, preparing her antiques for sale to collectors and dealers. As she picked up each item to examine and clean it, she saw something none of us had seemed to notice. Almost every piece had a nick or a chip or crack at the back, hidden from public view. In collector’s terms this meant they were irredeemably flawed, pretty but largely worthless.

I was disappointed—not so much for the loss of sales, but more for what it did to the story about the family I had grown up with. I wondered what else looked fine on the outside but was chipped and cracked in ways the rest of the world might never see. Or worse, the rest of the world did see but never mentioned it in front of us. In that moment my trust was more than cracked or chipped. What else had I chosen not to notice?

Somehow, a decade on from my mother’s passing, nearing the other side of a pandemic and political landscape that has broken trust in so many ways, I have begun to reflect more deeply about the damaged antiques. As I think of it now, those old collectables are much like the people that both my mother and father collected over the years: in many cases they were irreparably worn, the sort that would be passed over by more discerning eyes. Everyone got a share of dignity at their hand, and flaws were rotated to the distant side where no one needed to peer. They were generous, and people shone in their presence.

In thinking of all this today I find that my trust has deepened because of, rather than in spite of what has happened along the way. There will always be people who don’t spell well, who collect the broken, who watch over their neighbors. There is grace in this, and God knows it is more than enough.

Some questions I’m thinking about this week:

  • Where has trust served me well? Not so well?
  • Which traits have I thought of as flaws but, with compassion, become evidence of beauty?
  • What other parts of my story are ready for reframing in a new and more generous way?

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