It started with a bad day at school, in the 5th Grade — one of those “terrible-no-good-horrible-very bad” days that Judith Viorst wrote about Alexander having. I forgot to do my homework for Miss Blanton’s class (“I left it the bathroom last night and my brother flushed it down the toilet by accident. We had to get a plumber to fix the toilet and Mom was really mad and…” — Miss Blanton didn’t buy it and sent me to the office).* Ricky and Walter sat with some other friends in the cafeteria and left me alone to eat my three-day-old egg salad sandwich. Some kid I didn’t even know called me a “bucket face” (what did that even mean?); and the first true love of my life, Suzie Winstrom, broke up with me after just one day going steady!
I walked home full of fury. I was feeling “mental” as I contemplated how I would enact my vengeance on the Cosmos for creating this kind of depressing day. Someone, or something, was going to pay for the injustice done to me — something involving broken shards — or perhaps stitches!
The house was empty. Mom wouldn’t be home for some time — plenty of time to consider my path of destruction as I stormed from room to room. Thankfully, I bypassed the more valuable items of my grandmother’s china and the pictures on the wall. I looked out the kitchen window. Stacked on the corner of the backyard wall were clay pots Mom stored for Saturday gardening — something she said helped her “blow off steam.” I considered using them for the same purpose, only with a slightly different slant.
I opened the kitchen drawer, removed a hammer and went out back. I inverted the clay pots and lined them along the three-foot wall in descending order of size. Then I slammed the hammer down on the first pot. “Thanks a lot, Suzie!” It shattered to pieces. I shattered another — “I hate egg salad!” One by one, I enacted my revenge . . . on the pots. I raised my hand to strike the final blow on the last clay pot — and that’s when I saw Uncle Mac through the kitchen window.
He raced outside. “Tommy McDermott, what the devil are you doing?”
Shocked, I responded with that time-honored, all-encompassing, universal response that teens still use, guaranteed to sidestep the consequences of any and all inappropriate behaviors: “Nuthin.’ ”
He stepped closer, “Why are you doing that?”
Again, I answered calmly, employing the second most time-honored, universal response (sometimes referred to as the Argument of Ignorance): “I dunno.”
Uncle Mac took the hammer from my hand. My heart pounded. I feared the worst. Then he smiled, ever so slightly,and then, looking behind as if to be sure no one else was around, he asked, “How would you like to get paid to destroy things?”
I was confused at first, but he helped clean up the broken pieces and took me straight to one of his laundromats.
The job description was simple: “Slide in between the rows of washing machines. Tear apart the motor, belts, and tub from any machine that has a yellow tape across it.”
Best job ever! I even had an official title — Manager of Large Appliance Reclamation.
Then he added, “If a part comes off intact, put it in the large box labelled ‘Useful.’ If it breaks into pieces, or if you’re not sure about it, put it in the box labelled ‘Less Useful.’ Nothing’s wasted.”
From that day forward, Uncle Mac picked me up after school three afternoons each week. It was really fun and rewarding. Eventually, I came to find great pride in removing parts carefully enough that most of them made it into the “Useful” box.
Uncle Mac didn’t bring up the clay pots again — or mention it to my mother — until about five weeks later when driving me home after work.
“Tommy, you seem to be having fun and you’re earning money,” he said. “What do you think you could do with some of that money?”
We stopped by the garden store on the way home and I replaced all the broken pots. My mother never acted the wiser.
The second practice of peacemaking in the Prayer of Saint Francis is sowing pardon where there is injury.
Certainly injury can be far more destructive, frightening, unjust, societal, and horrific than someone calling another person names or breaking someone’s clay pots. But my uncle’s clay pot life lesson taught me a little about looking for the bigger picture and creating a space around me that looks for connection and a positive solution. Turns out that the Latin root word for “pardon” means “wholeness,” “wholehearted,” as if it’s about pursuing wholeness with others, with God and creation, wholeheartedly.
Where one person sees wrongdoing or injury, another looks for hope and possibility. Where one sees anger and injustice, another sees (“sows”) opportunity for wholeness and reconciliation. It is not about forgiveness as much as it is about giving; recompense (while perhaps feeling justified) will never be a substitute for re-connecting.
I know I learned something about finding creative ways to channel anger or revenge impulse by working with my uncle. But maybe more than that, I’ve learned to re-think that line from Revelations 21:5 — that what may be once deemed “less useful” can be re-deemed “useful” with just a small shift in how we choose to relate to the world around us.
* Miss Blanton was a teacher at South Hi Mount Elementary School and a long time member at First United Methodist Church.