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Use a Hammer
Reflections on escaping your story
Why is it bad luck to break a mirror? This superstitious belief may date back to ancient Turkey, where chunks of highly-polished black obsidian (the first man-made mirrors, around 6000 BCE), were thought to provide a glimpse of the soul. Millenia later in ancient Rome, where life was believed to renew itself every seven years, shattering a mirror was said to leave you cursed until the next seven-year cycle began. These ancient beliefs are still with us today, where breaking a mirror is still widely considered to result in seven years of bad luck.
Breaking a mirror is what we call a “taboo” — but what exactly is a taboo? The word “taboo” first entered the English language in 1777 through the diaries of James Cook, who overheard its use while exploring the islands of Tonga. It was translated to him as “consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed” — which is basically how we use it in our culture today: something dirty and dangerous to be avoided.
However, more recent etymologies trace the word’s origins to the Proto-Polynesian “tabu” (sacred, forbidden), which is similar to the Hawaiian “kapu” (forbidden, sacred, holy, consecrated). Given this new understanding, a taboo is something that is set apart and forbidden precisely because it is sacred and powerful — like the apple on the “Tree of Knowledge” in the mythical Garden of Eden, perhaps the original archetypal taboo.
Instead of avoiding the sacred power of taboo, how can we use it with care and respect to accomplish our goals? Were the ancient Turks somehow correct — do mirrors indeed provide a gateway into the soul?
In this “thirteenth” (itself a taboo) ritual of In Fragments, I build a large wooden easel and place it on the grass outside the barn at High Acres Farm late one night in September. I place nine body-length mirrors, one at a time, on the shelf of the easel, and wearing nine different outfits, I approach each mirror and smash its reflection with my grandfather’s hammer. The nine outfits represent nine distinct identities that defined me over the years — The Baseball Card Collector, The Comic Book Lover, The Porn Concealer, The Deerfield Boy, The Water Polo Star, The Princeton Man, The Young Bachelor, The Ted Speaker, The Empty Vessel. I discard each outfit on the growing heap of broken glass, and later use a butane torch to set the pile alight.
I remember standing in the dewy grass under the stars, my naked body feeling the warmth of the fire and the cool autumn breeze. I remember taking a seat on the cold ground and watching the flames, thinking of all the many experiences wrapped up in those former identities, now tumbling through the sky in a rising cloud of sparks.
Sitting there naked on the grass, I felt that I had crossed over into something unknown, something strange and forbidden — that a new and transgressive energy was suddenly present there on our land, and within me. Perhaps it was the sacred power of taboo, called upon here as an ally in this process of liberation and healing.
Having shattered and burned my former identities, I felt lighter and freer, but also chaotic and off balance, unsure of who I was without them, and who I was becoming. I knew that another step was needed: that the broken pieces were awaiting integration into a new and larger whole (we’ll get to that next week).
This simple and iconic ritual was a way of escaping my story — that form-fitting suit that I never knew how to remove, that narrative costume that defined me for so many years in the eyes of others, which, like mirrors, reflected me back to myself.
Our stories come at a price — they help to make us who we think we are, but also make it hard to realize who we really are. By escaping the golden cage of our stories, we gain the power to create ourselves anew, itself a sacred act.
What old stories, identities, and self-definitions might be holding you back? How can you use the sacred power of taboo to help you break free?
Who are you beyond your story?
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