My husband Ben and I and our teenage son spent a year caretaking a 641-acre sheep station in regional Victoria. I’ve always imagined myself as reincarnated from some Australian colonial character, romanticizing about the era of long, layered skirts and cookstoves and reading in the evenings by the light of oil lamps and such. The reality is on the farm I painted about two miles of white post and rail fence, swept enough possum poo to fill a hipbath, and learned more about sheep than I’ll probably ever need to know.
Apart from possum poo, I also picked up a peculiar habit. I became addicted to wandering through the various abandoned houses and cottages, scouring the paddocks and sheep ruts with my eyes fixed on the dirt looking for – well – stuff. It started when I first spied a few pieces of broken pottery embedded in the field next to our cottage; fragments of blue and white china, or a chip of smashed plate. It was then I noticed thousands of pieces of broken bottles and other household vessels in the ground; bits of blue, green and brown, some the pinky-violet tint of amethyst. I hadn’t seen them before, but suddenly, they were everywhere.
Every little fragment spoke a story, each tiny treasure the seed left behind of the whole they once were. A piece of plate, perhaps part of a set stacked away in a cupboard, probably saved up for in pennies and pounds, the darn thing carted out to the farm across miles and miles out back of a horse. A shard of broken glass half an inch thick, the same minty color of the sea, perhaps the remains of a medicine vial or wine bottle or a pot for some tincture, ointment or perfume.
I imagined a story for every bit I collected. Elegant wine glasses for celebrations, elaborately decorated dinner plates for reunions and rustic bowls for end-of-day meals by fireside. Medicine bottles clutched during fervent prayers murmured down on knees. Liquor vessels for blessed relief and raucous laughter. Scent and cosmetic jars for luxury and indulgence. Milk bottles for sustenance and nourishment, preservation, nurture and health. Coffee and teacups for conversation – sit a while? Pass the sugar. Share a moment with me.
My family think it’s amusing. Whatcha want with all that busted stuff? You’re mad, you know.
I bring my treasures back in plastic bags and the cradle of my shirtfront, washing them carefully in the kitchen sink. I hold each one and give it a story, bless it, place it aside with all the others around the house in bowls where I can see them. Now, I muse, they all have a story. No longer worthless, they belong somewhere, to someone, again.
During our time on the farm I thought about the process a thing undergoes when it stops being of value to people because of its use and beauty. Perhaps it ends up miles from anywhere in pieces, discarded, forgotten and invisible. But those broken bits were not lost, forgotten– not really. Not to the earth that held them while they slept. Not to the sky above them, or the sun or the moon, who saw each fragment and smiled on them without judgment. Not to the stars, made from the exact same stuff, just like you and I are. Not to me. They were broken, but they were, just the same. And their value and their stories were there, for every seeker with enough inclination and imagination to seek out and find them.
Just like all those broken pieces, we too may become broken, shattered, cracked or worn, our stories rendered useless or imperfect in our eyes or those of another, but we are not ever lost, worthless or invisible. Our stories are not forgotten, nor our value stripped simply because we are no longer perfect. Each fragment of us holds not only beauty, but also the fullness of our lived experience and our essence – where we came from, where we have been, and what is to become of us. Know this. We are broken, but we are not unseen or lost. We are remembered, known and loved – at the very least by the earth, and the sky and the sun and the moon. We belong. We are all a beautiful, broken, if sometimes buried treasure. Even though it may seem so at times, despite the things that happen to us our intrinsic value is never removed. Our worth is in our very dust, in our grains, in our shards and in our stories. And it remains ready to be found, by us, and every friend, lover, seeker and storyteller willing to get their hands dirty.