Broken Bowl, Repaired

A few months ago, I was killing time by meandering through the Columbia Museum of Art one Sunday (free admission day!), babywearing Espen while he napped (the quiet and dimness of the museum was so soothing to him), while Eric was in a meeting with a client. I make a point to drop into the Asian art rooms every time I go because the pieces there — pottery, statues of horses and gods and buddhas, jade tablets etched with gold — are so satisfying and soothing. It’s the understatement that resonates with me, the simplicity of monochromatic hues and lines belying complex processes, techniques, and symbolism.

It must have been there a while, but it was the first time I noticed it — a simple celadon-hued ceramic bowl with seemingly haphazard golden veins streaking the surface. Struck by its idiosyncratic beauty, I read the card beside it to learn more. It was a kintsugi bowl — a regular bowl that had broken and was repaired using lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold. I’d never come across anything like it before, and the meaning behind the technique hit me hard — the bowl, average in wholeness, when broken became singularly exquisite. The lines created an interesting pattern in an otherwise run-of-the-mill object, the gold complemented by the muted hue around it. Rather than covering the cracks up, the repairer celebrated them, honored them.

As notable writer on Japanese ceramics Christy Bartlett explains:

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject.

This is a lesson for everyone, about everything. It hits home for me personally because I often struggle with feelings of inadequacy because I’m not (nor can I be) perfect. I have made mistakes — some big, some small — and, even beyond mistakes, I am extremely quirky. I’m also fairly vain because I tend to be insecure. Throughout high school especially, I tried so hard to project normalcy; I publicly distanced myself from anything geeky or weird for much of my adolescence. I wanted to be accepted in the mainstream, to embody that wholesome lifestyle that our culture projects and applauds in various ways.

But, to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, I am so unusual. And I’ve been learning, a little at a time, that that’s okay. It’s also okay for me to make mistakes. It’s okay for me to not try so hard to be the ideal others want me to be that I walk on eggshells around people out of fear of offending them. Of course, that’s not to say that I (or anyone else) has carte blanche to be cruel or rude or bigoted or prejudicial. It just means that it’s okay for me to accept that some people will always be prone to criticism and maljudgement, and that it’s not my job to kowtow to the rest of the world in a solitary effort to keep the peace. I will always strive to be kind and to become a better person than I’ve been, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s a process and that I am the sole person who gets to define what “better” means for me.

I have been broken. I am fusing myself back together. And I’m using gold to do it so that people can see the cracks that have been made. Because the cracks are the experiences that allow me to become better than I was — more interesting, kinder, and wiser. So that the repaired bowl is more beautiful than the original.

I don’t want to glorify brokenness per se. A bowl in pieces is useless — it serves no one and nothing, least of all itself. It’s when it’s put back together that it becomes stronger and more beautiful. It’s also important to note that a broken object repaired with mortar is less appealing, and a bowl repaired with Scotch tape is less durable, than one repaired with lacquer and gold. Not all repair mediums are created equal — the beauty and strength of the repair depends on these. I’ve had help — various people and ideas have gone into the repair work — but the main two have been Taoism and a supportive partner. With these as support, I fought against the things that drove the pieces of me apart, and I’ve replaced them with the wisdom that (and this is just an example list):

– everything has an equal-but-opposite counterpart that depends necessarily on its other in a cycle to exist
– beauty is not only relative but also not all that important
– relaxing and accepting things as they are — people, world events, change — is to my benefit (and I still struggle daily with this)
– I don’t have to wave a banner for every single issue (or for any issue in particular) to be valuable
– perfection does not exist, and I should not expect myself (or anyone else) to be perfect

No, I am not perfect; I am not the ideal anything, nor will I ever be. I am, however, mostly repaired. I’m still getting some of the pieces fitted back into their places — and some of the pieces have been lost and need(ed) to be replaced, or the spaces they’ve created may just be left open to let the air pass through — but I’m not the shattered person I once was. I am better, more whole. I am more understanding of weakness and flaws in others because of my understanding of my own, and I will be able to teach my son things that are good for him to know because of where I’ve been. To go even further, I am good and deserving of goodness, at least as much as anyone else is.

So this is my message to the world:

You may have shattered at some point; or you may just get chipped now and then. Either way, we all have broken at least a little in the past. It’s inevitable. But you can be repaired; you may already have been repaired, or at least started the work. I don’t expect you to be perfect — my version or anyone else’s. Just be sure that the medium you use to repair yourself makes you feel more whole — peaceful, compassionate, satisfied, less angry and seeking confrontation, and so on. If it fuels anxiety or indignation or self-righteousness or shame, it’s not going to hold. If it makes you feel enlightened (particularly in the sense of removing weight — darkness will always be there, but the weight of it doesn’t have to be), understanding, and accepting, it’ll make you stronger and better. It’s okay to let the cracks show.

Of Spring and What It Means

It’s spring now — the azaleas and dogwoods in our yard are in bloom; the little songbirds are singing their mating calls; a haze of pollen hangs in the air, swirls in the wind, coats everything in sight with its green-yellow hue; and, on March 22, two days after the vernal equinox, I gave birth to our son, Espen Avery.

Eric and Espen

My husband with our son

I’d wanted to have a natural birth, but after 14 hours in labor (and having been awake for 26 hours because I’d worked the day my labor started) and only dilating to 5 cm, in spite of the intense contractions occurring about 45 seconds apart and coupling, I was too stressed and exhausted to go any longer the way I was. So I had an epidural, which was a beautiful relief — an hour later, I’d dilated to 8 cm and I was finally able to get some rest. Nine hours later (with an hour and a half of pushing time), Espen was born at 4:59 PM.

Change is always a little bittersweet for me, no matter how much I’d looked forward to it, planned for it, even needed it. There’s a feeling of loss — of my old self, my old life — and a cloud of anxiety about the future that I must fight early on in the change process. I felt that way when I started grad school and attended my first residency; I felt it when I started my (now defunct) copy writing job. And, as guilty as it makes me feel, I have felt it now and then as a new mother.

One would think that I would handle change better — even whole-heartedly embrace it — since I grew up in an Army family that relocated every few years throughout my childhood. It’s not so much physical change that bothers me — I love a change of scenery, and the few close attachments I form to people and locations are never enough to keep me stationary. It’s the emotional and mental changes that I find most challenging. I think that’s true for all people — growth is difficult, anxiety-ridden. Transformation is painful. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The opposite, in fact. That’s what gets me through those periods of anxiety — the knowledge that they will pass, and that growth-oriented change (which motherhood inevitably is) is always ultimately rewarding.

Espen and me

It seems that an essential part of the human experience — and life in general — is transformation through pain. Religions the world over bear stories of transformation through death (the most dramatic form of pain) — Jesus had to die to absolve mankind of sin and return to Heaven; Odin had to hang himself from the Tree of Life to gain infinite knowledge; Odysseus traveled to the realm of the dead to learn from Tiresias the wisdom he needed to return home; Ushas, the Hindu goddess of dawn, was imprisoned by demons in the cave called Vala and liberated from it by Indra.

In life, childbirth is the most obvious and stark example of painful transformation, but any transformation involves some kind of pain. I don’t know why this is, but it is. And, as with childbirth, it seems that the most effective way to go through the process of transformation is to accept the pain, even embrace it. That’s how I was able to endure the first 14 hours of labor without reprieve — until it became clear that it was going nowhere fast and I desperately needed some rest.

Which brings me to another, seemingly contradictory (but not really) lesson I learned through labor — that there’s no shame in acknowledging and accepting one’s limitations and seeking aid in mediating pain. It’s a different kind of strength that’s required to swallow pride and admit need, but it is certainly a valuable, sometimes necessary strength. I relied on that wisdom a few days later when the baby blues, a different kind of pain, set in and I needed help getting enough sleep, not feeling guilty whenever I wasn’t with the baby, and overall battling the overwhelming feelings of fear and doubt I felt about my ability to handle the stress of raising a newborn. Fortunately, my husband and mom have been here to help, and I just needed the strength to admit when I needed them to do so. And, again, knowing that that pain was part of the process of becoming a new mother was a huge aid in enduring and getting through it.

These lessons came at a symbolically significant time — the passing from harsh, barren, cold winter to life-bearing spring. Spring is a season of new and regained life, of growth and transformations of all kinds. It’s a season of new light, and light is always preceded (and even defined) by darkness. It’s the darkness that makes the light so brilliant.

The beautiful result

Ringing in the New Year

I’m a fan of holidays that acknowledge — and even celebrate — change, like New Year’s Day. As the last few minutes of the old year tick away and we slip further into the new year, there’s a universal bittersweet feeling that sweeps over the world: for the dying of the old year, a moment of nostalgia in which even the worst of times seem briefly poetic; for the new year, an anticipation for the unknown and untried, for possibility. It’s a day when, more than ever, we’re faced with the fact that nothing in life is permanent and unchanging, and that we’re all swept along on a current over which we have no control. Here are some quotes to reflect the spirit of the day:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
-T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

“On the first of January let every man gird himself once more, with his face to the front, and take no interest in the things that were and are past.”
-Henry Ward Beecher

“The greatest wisdom is to lay no plans.”
Chuang Tzu, Chapter 23

“Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year.  Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.”
-Thomas Mann

“Birth is not a beginning; death is not an end. There is existence without limitation; there is continuity without a starting point. Existence without limitation is space. Continuity without a starting point is time. There is birth, there is death, there is issuing forth, there is entering in. That through which one passes in and out without seeing its form, that is the Door of Heaven.”
Chuang Tzu, Chapter 23