A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

City Mouse, Country Mouse: Building and Unbuilding

Image: Yoko Ono. “Mend Piece, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York City version,” 1966/2015. Ceramic, glue, tape, scissors, twine. Installation dimensions variable. Courtesy Rennie Museum. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

One of my congregants, summering now in the Catskills, remembers an art piece Yoko Ono did at Judson during the Iraq War. My congregant is contemplating what most New Yorkers are contemplating at the moment, which is starting over somewhere summery, maybe even in the winters. A lot of people are looking at building new lives. First, though, you have to understand what that might mean.

”Yoko had tables of broken pottery and people just sat and watched her try to piece the shards together. It became excruciating to watch. Finally, someone got up and joined her until little by little the whole audience was at the table mending broken pottery. She then stood up, said something about before you can achieve peace you have to imagine it, before you can mend the world you have to imagine that you can mend it. And left the room, leaving us to our work.”

Yoko still supports our congregation, the “Judson” on the south end of Washington Square Park. But that evening, she gave us much more than money. She gave us the experience of building after broken. She showed us how hard it is to repair something that is truly broken—and how community rebuilds what individuals cannot.  

I often pray that old children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, may another sister take my place.”  

When we talk about building anew, we are actually talking about building better and building different—and waking up before we die.

Maybe Yoko was imitating Michelangelo? In his book called God’s Architect, author William Wallace says, “He had become so frustrated with a sculpted Pieta in his studio that he took up a hammer and smashed it with thoroughly professional competence. As a visitor reported in 1549, the frail old man could still break up marble with astonishing facility… No longer among the most robust, he knocked off more chips of a very hard marble in a quarter of an hour. It should have taken three young stone carvers three or four hours. It was, an almost incredible thing to one who has not seen it; and I thought the whole work would fall to pieces because he vowed with such impetuosity and fury, knocking to the floor large chunks three and four fingers thick. Luckily, the repentant sculptor saved the broken pieces of his mangled Pieta and handed the wreck to one of his students, Tiberius Calcagni, with a request to repair the damage. The way Michelangelo had broken it allowed his student to repair it.” 

If I should die before I wake, may another student take my place.

Many feel like we have come to the end of a certain kind of American road. We know this is an extinction moment for at least some of the species. We have begun to stop denying the denial we have about our racist origins in the theft of land and labor. We have begun to realize that we are NOT immortal.

The pandemic uncovered more than we wanted to know about who we are and who we are not. It took a cover off our healthcare system. It showed us how much we need and want schools, even though we were bored by them.

We are broken. And we need to work together, even to mask together, in order to begin to imagine the possibility of repair.

The Michelangelo parable matters. The way he broke the inadequate Pieta allowed his student to repair it. The Yoko Ono parable matters. The way she invited help allowed people to give it. We won’t repair our broken statues without the participation of all of us. We won’t get over the virus unless we protect ourselves as well as each other. As one wise nurse put it, masks are the best vaccines we have until we get one. You don’t have to be rich or famous or artistic to participate in reparations, repairing, even renascence. You can have really good common sense. Get out of your seat, put on a mask and join Yoko at a table.  

Donna Schaper was born in Kingston New York in 1947 when people wrote letters and went ice skating and had three channels.  She is now Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church, where the Good Work Institute had its first meetings.  She grows a great tomato at her place upstate and walks the Appalachian trail for fun.