Rosh Hashanah 5779 Day 2 – Beauty from Brokenness

September 28, 2018

A story is told about Rita Coors.  I am told she actually went by her maiden name, Rita Bass but she was part of the famous Coors brewing family.  Every year, over 300,000 tourists flock to Golden, Colorado to visit the world’s largest brewery. I have not been there but my younger sister does live in Denver so maybe one day.

While Coors is part of a huge multi-national conglomerate in the beverage industry, the family actually makes more money from a little known but hugely profitable company called CoorsTek.  I read an interview with CoorsTek CEO John Coors in Forbes Magazine.  Coors said,

“People have no clue who we are, unless they’re our customers…. You could wander around… (our) plants and try to figure this stuff out for years, and you’d still be bewildered. It’s an amazingly fascinating company.”

(The article continues,) What Pyrex-maker Corning is to glass, CoorsTek is to ceramics. Name any big American manufacturer and it probably buys CoorsTek parts. General Electric, IBM, General Dynamics, Ford and Halliburton are all customers (he said). CoorsTek makes over 1 billion tiny parts for cars each year, used in brakes, airbags, mirrors and headrests. Its parts (were) on NASA’s space shuttles; its valves are used in the fountain machines at McDonald’s; its bulletproof armor protects U.S. soldiers; and its fake knees are helping an aging population keep moving.[1]

So, I learned that the beer family is actually far more interested in ceramics than beer which explains this other story I heard.

Rita Bass Coors was attending an auction for the Hospice of Metropolitan Denver. “Going once, going twice, sold for $7,000!” The auctioneer announced the winning bid and his gavel hit the table. Rita was elated. She’d just purchased a porcelain mask, hand painted by the singer John Denver.

(As we now understand, the family has a special connection to ceramics.) She couldn’t wait to hold it in her hands.  As the auctioneer at the Charity Celebrity Ball handed her the mask, it slipped through her fingers and shattered into pieces across the floor.

She just paid $7,000 for a mask which was now unrecognizable.

(According to the story,) She didn’t demand her money back or abandon the broken piece of art. Instead, Mrs. Coors picked up the pieces and took them home with her. Later, she decided to place the broken pieces around a collection of John Denver photographs.

She made something beautiful out of the accident.[2]

It is a cute story and I learned something about the Coors family.  The story resonates with me because I think a lot about how to make something beautiful out of brokenness. As a rabbi, I am honored to be invited into people’s lives at times of brokenness – a death, a divorce, an addiction, abuse, illness, bankruptcy, a crime.

I have learned that I cannot fix the brokenness.  A younger version of myself probably thought my job was to be a fixer.  It didn’t take too long before I learned I cannot fix everything nor is that the best role for the rabbi.  Over time, I learned how to walk with people through their brokenness – sometimes as a listening ear… sometimes as a cheerleader… sometimes in prayer… always without judgement.

Brokenness is a spiritual experience, though in the midst of it, brokenness just feels busted.

I want to share two more stories of brokenness and how people responded.  The story of Janine Shepherd is about how physical brokenness brought her to discover entirely new aspects of herself.  The other is about a chef, Angie Kardashian, no relation to the famous namesakes, and how she used her cooking skills to help others’ brokenness.

Janine Shepherd was on the Australian cross country Olympic ski team.  She described her experience like this:[3]

I was on a training bike ride with my fellow teammates. As we made our way up towards the spectacular Blue Mountains west of Sydney, it was the perfect autumn day: sunshine, the smell of eucalypt and a dream. Life was good. We’d been on our bikes for around five-and-a-half hours when we got to the part of the ride that I loved, and that was the hills, because I loved the hills. I got up off the seat of my bike and I started pumping my legs, and as I sucked in the cold mountain air, I could feel it burning my lungs.  I looked up to see the sun shining in my face.

And then everything went black. Where was I? What was happening? My body was consumed by pain. I’d been hit by a speeding utility truck with only 10 minutes to go on the bike ride (Janine described). I was airlifted from the scene of the accident by a rescue helicopter to a large spinal unit in Sydney. I had extensive and life-threatening injuries. I’d broken my neck and my back in six places. I broke five ribs on my left side. I broke my right arm. I broke my collarbone. I broke some bones in my feet.

(She continued to explain,) By the time the helicopter arrived at Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney, my blood pressure was 40 over nothing. (She said,) I was having a really bad day.

For 10 days they did not know if Janine would live.  There were numerous operations and she was paralyzed after the initial surgery.

(Janine continues,) The next concern was whether I would walk again, because I was paralyzed from the waist down. They said to my parents that the neck break was a stable fracture, but the back was completely crushed…. (Janine) woke up in intensive care, and the doctors were really excited that the operation had been a success, because at that stage, (Janine) had a little bit of movement in one of (her) big toes, and (Janine) thought, “Great, because I’m going to the Olympics!”

But then the doctor came over to (her) and she said, “Janine, the operation was a success, and we’ve picked as much bone out of your spinal cord as we could. But the damage is permanent. The central nervous system nerves — there is no cure. You’re what we call a partial paraplegic, and you’ll have all of the injuries that go along with that…  And if you walk again, it will be with calipers and a walking frame.” And then (the doctor) said, “Janine, you’ll have to rethink everything you do in your life, because you’re never going to be able to do the things you did before.”

(Janine describes that she) tried to grasp what (the doctor) was saying. I was an athlete. (Janine thought.)  That’s all I knew. That’s all I’d done. If I couldn’t do that, then what could I do? And the question (Janine) asked (her)self is: If I couldn’t do that, then who was I?

(Janine said,) I remember one night, one of the nurses came in, Jonathan, with a whole lot of plastic straws. He put a pile on top of each of us (in the common room), and he said, “Start threading them together.” Well, there wasn’t much else to do in the spinal ward, so we did. (The tip of one straw into the end of the other.)

And when we’d finished, he went around silently and he joined all of the straws up till it looped around the whole ward. And then he said, “OK everybody, hold on to your straws.” And we did. And he said, “Right … Now we’re all connected.”

(Janine tearfully recalled,) as we held on and we breathed as one, we knew we weren’t on this journey alone. And even lying paralyzed in the spinal ward … there were moments of incredible depth and richness, of authenticity and connection that I had never experienced before. And each of us knew that when we left the spinal ward, we would never be the same….

(Janine said,) I can remember Mom sitting on the end of my bed and saying, “I wonder if life will ever be good again.”

And I thought, “How could it? Why me? Why me?”…

(Janine said she) had never before thought of (her)self as a creative person. I was an athlete (she said); my body was a machine. But now I was about to embark on the most creative project that any of us could ever do: that of rebuilding a life. And even though I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do, in that uncertainty came a sense of freedom. I was no longer tied to a set path. I was free to explore life’s infinite possibilities. And that realization was about to change my life.

Sitting at home in my wheelchair and my plaster body cast, an airplane flew overhead. I looked up, and I thought to myself, “That’s it! If I can’t walk, then I might as well fly.”

Janine tells the story of her first flight lesson and how she was so determined to earn her license.  With a new goal, she focused intensely on her recovery.  Slowly, she regained enough feeling to stand and even to walk gingerly and then confidently.

Little goals kept me going along the way, (she said) and eventually I got my private pilot’s license. Then I learned to navigate, and I flew my friends around Australia. And then I learned to fly an airplane with two engines and I got my twin-engine rating. And then I learned to fly in bad weather as well as fine weather, and got my instrument rating. And then I got my commercial pilot’s license. And then I got my instructor rating. And then I found myself back at that same school where I’d gone for that very first flight, teaching other people how to fly … just under 18 months after I’d left the spinal ward.

But then I knew for certain that although my body might be limited, it was my spirit that was unstoppable.

The philosopher Lao Tzu once said, (Janine pointed out,) “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be.”

I now know that it wasn’t until I let go of who I thought I was that I was able to create a completely new life. It wasn’t until I let go of the life I thought I should have … that I was able to embrace the life that was waiting for me. I now know that my real strength never came from my body. And although my physical capabilities have changed dramatically, who I am is unchanged.

(Janine concludes,) I know that I’m not my body. And I also know that you’re not yours. And then it no longer matters what you look like, where you come from, or what you do for a living. All that matters is that we continue to fan the flame of humanity by living our lives as the ultimate creative expression of who we really are.

Today, Janine Shepherd is a certified aerobatic flight instructor.  She was able to eventually see her brokenness as an opportunity for something new.  She found new goals for her life and drove hard to achieve them.  It meant giving up her old sense of self in order to make room for the next version of herself.

I think Janine can teach us many things from her experiences.

And now a brief story about Angie Kardashian.

Angie was born in a little town in Massachusetts and until she was 21 her life was pretty normal: school, sports, dancing nothing very unusual. At 21 she moved to California and worked for a large lumber company called Georgia Pacific.  She sold lumber, plywood flooring and nails. Most people don’t even know what a 16d green vinyl sinker is – but she learned. After 7 years and becoming one of the top sales people for the company, she decided to shift her path.  She opened a restaurant in Tustin, California – “Angie’s Cuisine Italiano.” For 22 years she owned and operated the restaurant and became very involved in the community.[4]

Angie also experienced brokenness and responded in a very special way.  It was not her direct pain but she saw trauma and felt the need to act.  Let me read from a transcript of her StoryCorp interview.  I share this particular story also as a way to honor the fallen 17 years ago today.

Angie said:

When 9/11 happened, I watched so many people that went into those buildings and that was it, that was the end of their lives and I wanted to give back so I decided that I would sell my restaurant to come to New York to cook for firemen. I stayed with a cousin who lives on the Upper West Side and I said to her, ”Where’s the closest fire house?”

She said, ”Down the street and around the corner.” So I went and knocked on the door and I said, ”I know you think I’m crazy but, I want to cook for you.”

I showed them my menu and I gave them my business card and I guessed they believed me. And so I went into firehouses throughout all five boroughs and I cooked right in the firehouses.

The first firehouse was just six guys so it was very intimate and very sweet. And then other firehouses. I cooked the food, we had coffee, we had dessert, they told me stories about all of the things up on their walls and I would say to them, ”Okay, where should I go next.”

And somebody would always pipe up and go, ”You know, Engine 53–call them and ask for Joe.” So the next day I’d get on the phone and I’d call them and they would refer me to the next one, to the next one, to the next one. And basically I thought, ”I’m going to cook for as many firehouses as I can in six months.” Well, I stayed two years. And, you know, people always ask me, ”Are you sorry you sold your restaurant?” And I say, ”Not for a minute. Not for one minute.”[5]

Angie shared more in an interview with the Orange County Register, her local paper back in California.  From that article:

“The more time I cooked in the firehouses and the more time I spent in New York, the more connected I got,” Kardashian said. “It was really surreal.”

Her adventures and close friendships have resulted in numerous sentimental — and historical – gifts.

“I didn’t want to see all this stuff go to waste because in 10 years, no one will even know,” Kardashian said.

Her desire to treasure every gift led Kardashian to designate a room in her house for all of her gifts and mementos. Her friends affectionately refer to the room as “Angie’s Museum.” Kardashian calls it her “9/11 room.”

Half of the room is painted red. A string of red, white and blue lights provides mood lighting. In addition to her collection of serious artifacts, she has a flag-colored lunchbox, an FDNY teddy bear that sings “I’m Proud to be An American,” and 120 New York-themed T-shirts. Every shelf, every wall is covered.

She even has two World Trade Center Observatory tickets dated Aug. 9, 2001 — her proof that she had visited the towers a month before the terrorists’ attacks. “It could have happened that day,” she said.

These days, Kardashian keeps busy flying back and forth from New York as a Jet Blue flight attendant. Though she is frequently out of the city, Tustin will always be called home. And her “9/11 room” will always have a place in her heart.

“It’s my life,” she said, choking up. “It’s become a goal in my life now to make sure that America doesn’t forget and that’s why I still give presentations; I want to make sure that no one ever forgets.”[6]

Angie saw the massive scale of brokenness following 9/11.  She was not looking to fix things but help as she could.  She broke it down to a more digestible size – one firehouse at a time.  She did not plan on cooking for over 100 firehouses or staying for 2 years.  If that was the goal, it would have been overwhelming and insurmountable.  But she knew she had to respond by doing one little thing at a time.  She shared her gift of food as a way to let the firemen know they were not alone.  She let them know people cared; she cared.

These are three amazing stories – Mrs. Coors and the broken mask, Janine learning to fly and overcoming her accident and Angie cooking for firemen.  Each responded to brokenness in different ways.  Each were able to think broadly and openly in order to find their meaningful response.  They made something beautiful out of brokenness.  And that is what we need to do in the year ahead.  What are we going to do with our own brokenness?

You know the Hebrew word Shalom means three things – hello, goodbye and peace.  The root of the world – Shin, Lamed, Mem also makes up the word Shlemut, wholeness or completeness.

The opposite of wholeness is brokenness.  Ironically, Judaism holds that the opposite of peace is pieces.

My hope for this new year is that whatever shards of brokenness we carry around with us, we will be able to make something beautiful out of them.  I hope we are able to move through our own brokenness and find Shlamut, wholeness, completeness with ourselves and each other.

Shana Tova.