Rupture and Repair By Ian Layton

It is on those particularly still and heavy days that I sit and remember the birth of the universe.

The memory contained in my every cell.

My mind’s eye catches the moment when life burst forth and set us on this divine course. All life that was, is, and will come to be was thrust in motion by the violent forces of creation:

Chaos, friction, confrontation.

At the same time the carnage was tempered by disparate energies:

Affinity, unification, fecundity.

The forces of what we often call love, held it all together like a skilled matriarch who moves with tact and precision. The emergence of the universe marked the end of an infinite dream. The ancient Israelites, who worshiped a God with many names, conceptualized of this dream and named it the Garden of Eden; a timeless and holy place.

Within the collective Jewish imagination, there is something we call tikkun olam; an imperative to repair the world.
Ian Layton
Rupture and Repair

The sweet bliss of completeness came to an abrupt end, signified by the proliferation of life itself. Sitting with this image I ask: how could our world not be full of darkness and injustice? Is all of our collective and individual pain not rooted in the myriad ways that we experience separation?

A baby separated from her mother’s umbilical cord.

The head of a dandelion whisked away by the mischievous dusk winds.

Tear gas propelled from its canister, intoxicating the lungs of freedom fighters taking their final stand of the crisp fall night.


Within the collective Jewish imagination, there is something we call tikkun olam; an imperative to repair the world. To gather the broken pieces of ourselves, our community, and the world, that lie scattered across time and space.

Is it not the work of all of us to locate the shattered pieces, bring them together, and revel in their feverish reunion?

It was in the 5 months that we spent together that my heart would fill, and break a million times over. Rene, your own great separation brought our paths together. After two long years, you stepped out from the suffocating walls of Batavia Federal Detention Center and entrusted me, a stranger, with your shelter.

You caught me at a time when my world had begun to splinter. Isolation, fatigue, and my sense that our collective lives were to change forever, rendered your companionship a welcome gift.

Our first days were marked by shared meals and conversations by the lit fire

Discussions about the nature of power and oppression, the essentials of a life well lived, and the priceless wisdom passed down to us by our elders. These conversations held us. I admired your sharp political mind, which informed your own struggle against the forces of the militarized state that sought to break you. I came to know you as a man after my own heart: deeply dedicated to the work of healing a broken world.


A month later, we would find ourselves wandering the streets of downtown Rochester, our skin lightly peppered with tear gas, the flipped government vehicles engulfed in flames burning fiercely behind us. Exhausted, we ordered Chinese food, and sucked down sautéed noodles as our adrenaline slowly drained away. “Was this your first time being gassed?” I asked timidly. “No. In Chad, as students of public university, every year we would protest and make demands of the government. Buildings were burned.” Your reply tempered my own fears. Fixing my gaze on you I felt humbled: a comrade.

As the stale winds of summer passed us by, and our collective stagnation soured the air, you revealed the details of the weight you carried. Your words haunt me today. “I should be a doctor by now.” “I have never met my son.” “Do you know how much it hurts that I was not there to bury my father?” Words escaped me in those moments. I remember the first time your cheery smile and distinct chuckle morphed into a tight, empty gaze. You sat across from me, tears streaming down your face. Your eyes fixed on the fruit basket in between us.

My heart sank, and tears welled up in my eyes. A deep sense of helplessness overtook me. My emotions transported me to the moment my father informed me that my Oma, my grandmother, had passed away. A continent and an ocean between us, I missed my chance to say goodbye to her. I have so many questions for her still. “What were your memories of those early days in Berlin before you and your family fled persecution?” “How did you make peace with life as a young exile?” Loss burdens us with the weight of the unknowable.

And in the beginning, just as the cosmos could no longer tolerate the stillness of divine unity, Rene, our Garden of Eden would be no more. That somber night in September you shared that it was time for you to move on to the next chapter of your journey. Saddened and relieved, I prepared to say goodbye.

Deep in the thick of their bound pages, epics feel like nightmares. Rene, I dream that your nightmare will end. On restless winter nights I conjure up images in the hope that they will unfold in time.

Your soft gaze fixed upon your child for the first time.

Your hands blessing your fathers’ grave, no longer deprived of that sacred act.

Your wife in your arms again.

My Oma and I, sharing morning tea one last time.

No longer separated.

Primordial wounds healed.


Photograph by Evan Zachary
All audio, video, text and images are under copyright © Neelum Films LLC

Comments (1)

  1. Katherine Denison

    Thank you, Ian. I miss seeing you, and it’s a comfort and a remembrance to find you here. I appreciate the tender relationship you have with Rene and your thoughtful telling. Glad you weren’t brought low by the relentless tear gas of those terrible encounters.