From Vesperisms Season 2, Episode 2, January 2021
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Greetings and Salutations, and welcome to Vesperisms: The Art of Thinking for Yourself. I’m here to help you recalibrate toward an artistic worldview. So grab your coffee, and have a seat in my studio, and let’s have a chat. This is Season 2, Episode 2: Kintsugi and the Art of Reconciliation.
My friend Jeannie taught me a saying that her mother used to use, inspired by growing up during the Great Depression: use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. I have to say, that appeals to my general scrappiness. I’m not someone who holds on to things—I’m not exactly a minimalist, but ask my family, I regularly go through my house and purge redundancies. I don’t tend to hold on to sentimental things like Christmas cards or doodads. Instead, I’m always trying (often failing) to pare things down to one item per category that will perfectly fulfill a specific need: like, it would be my dream to own one sweater, one pair of shoes, and an all-purpose knife. Oh, and the perfect coffee mug. Gah! It’s so elusive!
I’ve successfully whittled my watercolor palette down to 5 colors; my paper down to one brand and finish, my brushes to good Kolinskys in 3 sizes, one type of ink, one brand of drawing pencil and one of black colored pencil. (I’ll put that list in the show notes if you feel like geeking out on materials.) If I was pressed, I could fit my entire studio into one basket or tote bag, and my entire life into a suitcase. Real life, alas, is not that simple, especially with four people who are not equally committed to my philosophy. OK, and I do have a weakness for cute frocks, as my closet attests. Sigh.
The one thing I always feel bad throwing away is broken pottery. Whether it’s a cheap bowl or a beloved mug, there’s nothing that a little super glue can’t fix, right? Only, my skill with those repairs has historically involved stuck fingers and pieces that jutted out because I’d neglected to take the time to truly fit them together right. For a while, I was using Gorilla Glue, which definitely bonds things, but then expands into an ugly yellow foam—totally not the right glue, but so handy to have around for more clunky repairs, like the duct tape of the glue world. But more often, what happens is that I just forget and forget and forget to pick up the right glue, until I have a collection in the basement of broken vessels that I intend to return to use someday, only to wind up packing them up in my next move and opening a box of shards in a new house. Oh yeah, and then I’d add to that box whatever got broken in the next move, and years go by with a box of brokenness sitting in the basement.
Well, a year or two ago, I noticed my painter friend Mako Fujimura posting pictures on Instagram of broken bowls that had been repaired, but with a difference—the cracks were filled with gold. These broken bowls were so beautiful. The golden lines drew attention to the repair, rather than concealing it. I had seen this kind of thing before, but you know how it is, when someone you know starts talking about something, you pay closer attention.
This is the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Mako told me that he was developing a training program for this practice, and even though I didn’t fully understand what Kintsugi was, either as an art form or a philosophy, there was something that drew me to it like a magnet. I practically begged him to keep me in mind for the training—and honestly, I didn’t even know why I was asking him so fervently, but the more he talked about it, the more I could see that this practice had a lot to say to what I was already doing in my illustration, my writing and my public speaking. I’ll tell you more about that in a minute. But first, what exactly is Kintsugi, and where did it come from?
Kintsugi is a compound word—“kin”, meaning “gold”, and “tsugi,” “repair.” It emerges from the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, also called the Way of Tea, and the philosophy of Wabi, Sabi, both of which were ideas developed into their modern expression by Sen no Rikyu, a Japanese tea master who lived in the 16th century.
Sen no Rikyu felt that his culture was in a state of excess—ostentatious displays of wealth and jockeying for power. Sound familiar? The tradition in his day was to conduct a tea ceremony with the most expensive tea ware from China which was fine porcelain, exquisitely decorated in high detail. Sen no Rikyu instead re-centered the tea ceremony on the relationship between the host and the guest, in the simple act of making and receiving, and being aware of the natural surroundings instead of covering them up in lavish possessions.
Central to this reform was his philosophy of Wabi, Sabi. We’ve all heard this term bandied about as a design trend, and probably read about it on a fashion or home-decorating blog, like the term Feng Shui. But Wabi, Sabi is not a style or a fad—it’s a centuries-old philosophy. The principle of Wabi, Sabi goes right to the heart of what it means to be a conscious human in the world. “Wabi” is a word connected to the inner state of things, a quiet aloneness and attentiveness, and “Sabi” speaks of the outer state of objects, especially the beauty of the effect of age on things. It’s a way of becoming still and attentive to the way things really are, what’s right in front of you.
In Wabi, Sabi philosophy, it’s not perfection and wealth that are prized, but a return to nature, simplicity, and the history contained within an object. It’s an acknowledgement of mortality and decay. Where perfection and wealth seek to hold these at arm’s length, Wabi, Sabi embraces the inevitable and seeks to find beauty in it. Sen no Rikyu restructured the tea ceremony according to Wabi, Sabi. Instead of a grand palace, the tea was served in a small, humble hut tucked into a natural setting, with a low door so that even the most powerful ruler would have to bow to enter. He preferred the humble pottery of Korean peasants to the perfectly-detailed and expensive Chinese pottery that was prized at the time. And by simplifying it, he sought to have the tea ceremony be a kind of communion—a place of deep honor between both the host and the guest, who had equally important parts to play in the ceremony. Where the host seeks to honor the guest by creating a beautiful cup of matcha for that particular, precious individual person, the guest seeks to honor the host by receiving the gift of grace and care, in the form of the tea.
So where does Kintsugi come into play in all of this?
Legend has it that Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga had a favorite bowl for his tea ceremony, and it broke, so he sent it back to China to be replaced. The kind of pottery was no longer being made, so the artisans attempted to repair the bowl instead, with metal staples. It didn’t honor the bowl. So artisans drew on work with Urushi, or lacquer, to develop a repair technique that allowed the bowl to become even more beautiful than it was before. In the tea ceremony, the guest turns the tea bowl in her hand and really looks at it, taking in its uniqueness. The vessel in which the tea is served speaks its own language and tells its own story, and becomes part of the connection between the host and the guest. Tea served in a bowl repaired by Kintsugi has an especially unique history to tell.
Above all, Kintsugi is not a process to be rushed. Sometimes, the practitioner will keep fragments of a piece for a long time until it’s time to mend it. The repair takes place in stages, namely: Piecing and gluing the vessel back together, filling cracks and sanding, and finally, painting the repair lines with gold or silver, or even other colors of lacquer. It’s a simple enough practice, but depending on the repair, each of these stages can take a long time, forcing you to sit with the work, to sit with memory. This simplicity combined with precision allows time for the practitioner to slow down, to experience the act of reconciliation itself—just like real relationship work, which is tedious and takes work and time. In order for true reconciliation to take place, the love and commitment to the relationship outweigh the hard work required to reconcile.
The first Kintsugi piece I repaired was a bowl my mother-in-law gave me. It accidentally broke only a short time after she gave it to me, and I don’t remember if I broke it or someone else did. But I repaired it badly with the wrong glue. She and I have a bit of a fraught relationship when it comes to gift-giving, and I know that sometimes my reactions have been hurtful over the 2 decades we’ve been family. My first question in my training was, should I re-break this bowl so I can glue it back properly? I was told that no, the repair I attempted is part of the history of that vessel. I was surprised—so this wasn’t about erasing the messiness as much as accepting the history. It wasn’t about perfection—it was about truth.
I used putty to fill the large gaps and bring back integrity to the vessel. As I patiently formed and then sanded the putty, I was forced to confront the ways I’ve hurt my mother-in-law, and to forgive and extend grace to her in my heart. My heart softened toward her as a result. The bowl now resides prominently in the dining room, instead of being hid away in the corner.
The other piece I repaired in my training was a small orange Japanese teacup, painted with gold lines that I bought on the day my grandfather died, before I got the phone call to come to the hospital to say goodbye. It broke in the move, but it held such a memory of him that I could never throw it out—not for 18 years. The repair of gold integrated with the gold lines already on the cup, and allowed me to honor him once more, thinking of how precious and important he was to me.
One repair I’m working on now is a small Japanese saucer that was my grandmother’s. I remember it propped up on a shelf in her kitchen, back when I could rest in the safety of her house in the midst of a tumultuous childhood. She is now in a home for dementia care. My daughter accidentally broke this dish, but instead of being devastated about it, I thought, Ah! There’s Kintsugi! Repairing the dish is a way for me to make peace with the growing distance between us, to honor the past, and to prepare for the future.
When I go into schools as a visiting author, much of what I do has to do with showing students examples from history about how everyday people react in extraordinary times. When we lose our consciousness of things like love of neighbor, personal integrity, and allowing others to have freedom of speech and conscience, we can find ourselves committing acts we never imagined.
Maybe those students have been victims of abuse or other trauma. Rarely are we truly taught that not only are we able to recover from trauma, but that we can integrate our past into our total life story, building resilience for the present and future. We can choose to become people who steel ourselves against fragmentation in ourselves, our neighbors and our societies. This is ultimately why I wanted to learn Kintsugi: it is a vivid example of this kind of redemptive message: we can first of all learn to allow our wounds to be bound up in love; we can forgive and reconcile, we can share that resilience, and we can rehumanize each other through a slow, intentional process that mimics the slow intentionality of reconciliation.
So what is the deeper meaning within the practice of Kintsugi, and what can it mean for us now? There are a lot of words being thrown around in my country at the moment. Things like culture war. Banning. Disenfranchisement. Vengeance. Consequences. Secession. Even…civil war. It’s a time of violence both physical and rhetorical.
Another one of those words is “sustainable.” As much as we say we value sustainability, In our culture there are many things we still view as disposable—from paper goods to batteries to phones. But we also have also disposable people. I’ve said it before—2020 could have been our chance to come together in solidarity over our common suffering. But we screwed it up. All of us. Every single one of us has participated in the fragmentation of our society. All of our leaders ham-handedly bungled the response to one disease, and sent millions teetering into other diseases, including mental health. A recent Gallup survey showed depression and anxiety disorders skyrocketed over the last year, and that’s over and above an already existing mental health crisis.
As a historical fiction novelist, I see us repeating dangerous patterns built on group division that I promise you, are leading nowhere good. The parts of history we vow never to acknowledge…our personal, family, national or world history…instead of being new scar tissue that makes us stronger right in the wounds, they fester, never healing, allowing disease and infection to come in and poison us. I feel it. Daily. In my own body. Part of what I feel called to do is to make work for my readers so they don’t have to delve into the darkness as deeply as I do—I try to metabolize those dark things and deliver only what’s salient—in the form not of a news report or an academic analysis, but of a story. And a story with pictures.
Sometimes if feels like the world—the past, present and future—and other people’s emotions and turmoil are constantly crisscrossing through my body and mind like a toll bridge. I feel fractures grow in myself. I need repair and restoration after days, months and years of putting myself into those places. So how do I repair? There are a lot of things I do, but one of the ways is through Kintsugi.
Kintsugi necessitates slowing down. Appreciating the small. The precision or fitting pieces back together well so that the whole vessel maintains and strengthens its integrity. Kintsugi means accepting and even celebrating imperfection, not hiding our fractures and flaws. Kunio Nakamura says that in Kintsugi, we are creating not a repair, but a landscape—a series of rivers, tree branches—we see the picture created by the cracks themselves. Kintsugi honors the vessel, yes, but also the person connected to it. Maybe the vessel was a gift by someone special, or someone no longer in my life. Maybe the vessel belonged to a loved one, and it makes me smile to hold it, whole, in my hands again.
Kintsugi is an enactment of redemption. Again, the repair is not meant to return the vessel to its former perfection. Instead, we are mending to make new. As Mako Fujimura says, even “trauma mended becomes something new.” It can be an initial act of reconciliation, preparing me for a difficult conversation with someone with whom my relationship is fractured. In fact, like a restored relationship, the vessel mended by Kintsugi becomes MORE valuable for what it’s suffered.
What if we were to look at our current world, recognize it for what it is and not what we wish it would be, and accept its brokenness? What if we could respond not in rage, but in hope? And what if we could determine to bring beauty into the brokenness, to begin to pour in the gold of peacemaking, of love, of seeing people as individuals imbued with glory?
So often, as artists—myself included—we see ourselves as clenched fists communicating to power. We narrow the power of art into a tool to combat the power of injustice, like two superheroes flying up into the stratosphere to clash in a supernova of good triumphing over evil. This is the nature of the culture wars.
But what if, instead of closing down in a clenched fist, the artist saw himself or herself as an open hand—a witness of possibility—one who lays out new landscapes, rivers, trees, in the midst of dark valleys—a new creation born out of a broken world?
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