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Facts illustration by Emily Flake for The Globe and Mail (for the Globe and Mail/Emily Flake)
Facts illustration by Emily Flake for The Globe and Mail (for the Globe and Mail/Emily Flake)

Fixing what’s broken, and accepting the scars Add to ...

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

When I was healing from surgery, a friend gave me a get-well gift: a couple of tubes of lacquer resin, a pair of rubber gloves, a pot full of gold dust and instructions on kintsugi, the Japanese craft of fixing broken pottery.

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The gift symbolized the healing of my broken body. Instead of a chip in a china teacup, it was my breast that needed mending. Instead of a fracture across an earthenware bowl, it was my spirit that could use a sprinkling of gold dust.

I put the set away, meaning to look around for the perfect china teacup to hit cathartically with a hammer so that I could put it artfully back together.

Last week, when I was washing dishes, a glass teapot hit the metallic sink. The spout cracked off, and swam next to my bleeding hand.

“Damn,” I thought. “What a fool I am. I might be able to put this back together, but it’s never going to be the same.”

Then I remembered my kintsugi repair set, and a feeling of determination replaced the frustration.

“I’ve been meaning to use that kintsugi thing since May,” I thought.

I retrieved the set from a box full of paints, twine and Japanese paper, unfolded the instructions and, with the spirit of a surgeon, slapped on the rubber gloves. I had forgotten the pleasure that comes with repairing what has been broken.

To embrace attention, precision and patience is as healing for the spirit as it is for pottery. A kind of gratification emerges from hands-on crafts that no conceptual practice ever reaches.

As I delicately squeezed out the resin, mixed it methodically with a hint of dust, and eyed the faux gold glitter under the kitchen lights, I remembered how satisfying it feels to use my hands in a practical way.

A few hours later, the teapot looked better than new. It no longer sat like an object indistinguishable from others on a shelf. It no longer appeared unreachable in its uniform perfection.

Touched with gold dust, mended by hand and treated with patience, the teapot had transformed into the embodiment of wabi sabi, the name for a Japanese aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience.

“Imperfect, impermanent and incomplete” might describe the repaired pot. Or it might describe my transient body: on the mend from surgery, waiting to have gold dust sprinkled upon it.

In Anthem, Leonard Cohen sings: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering.”

When I look at the scars across my breast, I want to forget my “perfect offering.”

When the chorus of our culture seeks perfect permanence, it is easy to forget how life and death always sing out their imperfect transience. So much of advertising feeds off our sense of deficiency: When I look at airbrushed breasts in magazines, or billboard pictures of couples in a fleshy embrace, they trigger a sense of something missing.

My body has changed forever.

Sex may never be the same.

Last week, when I saw a fellow student’s choreography emphasizing the sensuality of the human body with video close-ups of dancers’ breasts, I felt a sense of deficiency.

A mastectomy has numbed the sensation across my left breast area and through my upper arm. It only takes a pause to remember that neither perfect breasts nor perfect pleasure with a partner can lead me to self-fulfillment, and no relationship built on either could ever lead to anything. But the images evoke the pain of loss and the fear of rejection.

It takes only a few breaths to remember that the deepest sensuality is felt in the heart, not on the skin. But cracks have opened on the surface of my body.

“There’s a crack in everything,” Cohen sings. “That’s how the light gets in.”

So I try to envision repairing my cracked body in the style of kintsugi, seeing my wound as a space for the light to get in, treating it with gold dust around the scars.

“Life is impermanent,” the voices of life and death call out to me.

“Broken is better than new,” the kintsugi teapot whistles in my ear.

“Pictures of perfection, as you know,” writes Jane Austen, “make me sick and wicked.”

I think of those I have loved, and don’t remember loving anyone for either his body or his unattainable perfection. Looking at photos of someone I’ve held close, I see how his physical quirks inspired deeper feelings. Honouring his imperfections allowed me to embrace his vulnerability.

Some think the secret behind a million-dollar Stradivarius violin lies in the imperfections that are added to remove unpleasing symmetrical harmonies. I look at my asymmetrical body, and wonder if a sonata will play from my imperfect instrument.

Looking at the mending happening now on the surface of my skin, I remember the heart just beneath it, a centre aspiring to open to what has been torn, a centre with its own song.

My heart strikes out beneath the cracked skin; it’s a fine spot for the light to get in.

Nancy Miller lives in Toronto.

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