Jessica Ireju: Beautiful Imperfections and Stained Glass Windows

Who else has experienced a random memory popping into their head and taking them back to a specific moment in time? In the last couple of weeks, I’ve thought about life, reminisced on my childhood and the past. It’s just this thing that happens every time I have a birthday coming up – I replay the past events of my life and attempt to decipher how those events led me to the present.
For some weird reason, I’ve had this particular memory on replay in my head: I was about 7 or 8 and I was tracing my finger on the patterns of the stained glass window at school. This memory ignited a sudden curiosity in me, I had to look up stained glass windows on Wikipedia. To me, they mirrored life and all its beautiful imperfections.
Stained glass windows are basically coloured glass, enhanced by painted details and yellow stains, that’s what gives the design its intensity and beauty used to create windows. I thought about the things that have smeared my life, the shocking details that have made my story imperfect but also how those imperfections have given me a story that is uniquely mine. It’s like how in random conversations with people I’m meeting for the first time, they smile at me and say “I love your name, Ireju, what does it mean?” And when I tell them it’s a reminder of worry, they’re always shocked that something beautiful has an uncomfortable history. When people send me a DM and say I love how you write, I don’t know how to say I wish I didn’t have to experience pain to weave words beautifully.
Stained glass windows, as an art, requires design skills to create beautiful pieces but also engineering skills to hold it together. It cannot just be beautiful, it must function, according to design fitting, into the space it was made for, resist strong elements, and support its own weight, especially in larger windows. It’s not enough to create a beautiful life but holding it all together – balancing family, career and other obligations – come with a lot of calculations because at every point in life, we must make sure the pieces fit together or it’s all going to shatter into a million pieces.
Then there’s the question of purpose – one that almost everyone wants an answer to. Why am I here? Where do I fit in? But it’s not like you get free time away from life challenges to come up with the answers to those questions. The reality is that the elements of heartbreaks, loss, and pain are hitting you hard while you’re still trying to support yourself on the journey to who you think you were created to become.
As someone who studied Archaeology, I’m fascinated with the past and heritage preservation. I understand that sometimes, a piece of something – as simple as glass – can be the only data left to tell an entire people’s story because guess what? We die and hundreds of years later, there’s no one living to tell our stories. Stained glass windows remain intact sometimes for hundreds of years, they are like you and me – resilient! No matter what life throws at us – pain, failure, even death, we remain standing.
One of the major forms of pictorial art to have survived in parts of Western Europe are stained glass windows. In this context, the purpose of these stained glass windows is not to allow those present in a building to see the world outside; to admit light but rather to control it so that they can focus on the beauty of these windows.
In life, we will always have a season when it’s just us. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to close out the outside world that has some of our favourite things and people so that we could focus on ourselves. Just like these stained glass windows, we can discover the beauty, gifts inside of us – away from the distractions of the outside world and in the silence of our thoughts, hopes and dreams. We have to control what we let into our space so it doesn’t cloud our beauty. Even good things like light, when it’s overwhelming, can mar beauty. It’s just like how too much lighting can ruin the perfect selfie.
Some stained glass windows are donated to churches by members of the congregation when a loved one dies (they are popular with churches), as a reminder of how they’ve decorated their life with love in their absence.
If you ever read Nicholas Sparks’s “The Last Song” (or you saw the movie adaptation where Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth met and began their real-life romance), the stained glass window is donated by the lead character at the death of her father to a church. Because people are but memories when they die, they leave us with their quirks, habits, and funny stories to remember them by.
Recently, 3 days after the 2nd year anniversary of a loved one’s death, I was looking at the exact bricks in the same hospital parking lot and mourning another family member who passed away this month of May (death has a sense of humour, it picked the same month to visit again) I’ve had to decide how best to remember the ones I’ve lost, maybe not with a stained glass window, but in the stories that I tell – the words that I string together to create features like this.
How do you honour the memory of your loved ones? Life is a beautiful imperfection. Like stained glass windows, it’s not smooth, clear or devoid of obstructions but those stains are what make them beautiful. What’s the current beautiful imperfection in your life?
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