I was thinking about our guest blogger Ruthie’s recent post and her reference to the Velveteen Rabbit – one of my top favorite children’s books. Our granddaughter Opal is approaching three – old enough to be past board books and just at the right age to get the copy that we already bought for her. Of course, the point of the Velveteen Rabbit is we become more alive because we have been loved, but love has a way of being tough on us. Toys have their fur rubbed off – we accumulate wrinkles, sags, and rusty body parts. Since I recently finished sending my grandchildren painstakingly designed and seriously customized digital Valentines, both aging and love are on my mind. I think, in particular, of the glow in a picture of our somewhat older friends, Belle and Bob, as they held their great grandchild. And, how just a few years ago, another young child looked at Belle and asked with great seriousness, “why are there so many cracks in your face?” – which caused her to laugh uproariously. Love and aging, love and aging….
I remembered today that there is a Japanese concept that places greater value on a beautiful piece of pottery that has been broken and repaired than one in its perfect original form. My Japanese is limited to a few phrases like arigato (thank you) and konichiwa (hello) so I of course had to look it up. The word is kintsukuroi, and like most Japanese phrases, it thick with meaning.
The photo of an old dish shows how skilled artisans repair broken pottery with precious metals that accentuate rather than hide the flaws, an esthetic that is foreign to the increasing value placed on the new, the currently fashionable, and the disposable.
My own feelings about repairing and reusing are mixed, at best. I like to say that I dress at a combination of finds from resale stores and art fairs where I get one-of-a-kind objects to put on my body. I never throw or give the artwear away. Instead, if it starts to look dated, I take it to a tailor or just mix it up with something else. An old secondhand designer jacket goes to Goodwill, however. I think about the old-fashioned skill of darning a sock. The last time I did that was probably 50 years ago, in a pair of socks that I knit for my father. However, as a knitter, I know that the socks that I have lovingly made are cherished by specific feet, but are unlikely to be darned unless I ask for them back at the sign of the first hole (which would be viewed as excessively controlling by some of the recipients….). And I know a store where I can take precious hand knit sweaters to be repaired when the task is beyond my skill.
Kintsukuroi makes me think about these habits and their limitations. I never really considered why I cherish some things that are old and worn (for the stories and the memories – or because they are simply beautiful) while considering others to be disposable. One writer claims “Kintsukuroi is a way of living that embraces every flaw and imperfection. Every crack is part of the history of the object and it becomes more beautiful, precisely because it had been broken.” Ahh, there is the Velveteen Rabbit again — and the connection between kintsukuroi and another Japanese concept, wabi-sabi, which sees beauty in transience and imperfection. The esthetic of wabi-sabi includes an appreciation of “asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.”
While neither kintsukuroi nor wabi-sabi are immediately accessible to an American, they inspire me to not only “accept the things I cannot change” but to embrace them. I know that age, brittle bones and wrinkles are part of becoming a real grandmother, as long as they blend with wabi-sabi’s appreciation of modestly, intimacy and the integrity of human life – part of which is aging (and dying). The esthetic of loving well is not a visible one, but is enhanced by a mandatory shedding of the excessive vanity of my younger adult years. Moreover, in the last few months, I have learned about repairing some of the injured parts of my right side in Avita yoga, which focuses on gradual healing from the inside out. The shoulder that ‘froze” and the knee that suffered a bone bruise were treated in physical therapy, but Avita requires me to fully examine each tiny restriction and focus on release rather than a “fix”. I feel as if I am applying gold to the broken bits in a way that allows me to feel the beauty of the repairs.
So, armed only with the vague knowledge that the Japanese understand that becoming whole requires both letting go and loving the imperfect, I have been engaging in the process of emotional and physical self-repair. Of course, I am left with the Western desire for more. I am not jealous, but know realistically that I may not hold a great grandchild, since my oldest granddaughter is just turning 15 (and by the looks of it now, will take her own sweet time settling down…). That makes me feel some regret that I didn’t have children until I was in my 30s. When it comes to my face, I often stand in front of the mirror and pull back at my sagging cheeks, wondering what it would look like if I had a face-lift (which is, in essence, a mechanical “repair” rather than a new face….). Nevertheless, I remind myself that imperfection, brokenness and aging have their own beauty if I can slow down and let it reveal itself.
Wonderful words, beautiful contemplations.
Thank you for introducing me to the concept of kintsukuroi and reminding me of wabi-sabi. They are such good metaphors for life and aging!
I have a plate given to me by a dear friend, Walter, who gave me away at my wedding to Gary Stout. It’s Japanese with flying cranes on it. At the time, Walter said it was quite old and of some value. A while ago our housecleaner knocked over the three legged table that it sits in, and some of the edging broke off. I was heart broken as the plate has great meaning to me–of a friend and a love–so I could not throw it away. Now, reading this, I’m glad I didn’t!