As the daughter of parents who went through the Great Depression of the 20th century, I grew up hearing–and believing–that “just because something broken is no reason to throw it away.”
Your tea cup broke? Glue it back together and pray the seams are waterproof. Your jeans ripped (before ripped jeans became “a thing”)? You sewed them back together or patched them with iron-on patches and embroidered flowers. Your socks got holes in them? You got out the handy darning egg and darned them together again.
I took great pride in the repair work I did on broken things, and making the repairs was a pleasure almost as great in the making of things. Repairing a thing requires that I work closely to the broken object, that I observe how the break is structured, how big it is, where the break started, and what it will take to make the object whole again–with the slight alterations my repairs will make.
I visualize what I think each step of the repair will do to the integrity of the object, and whether I will be improving or adding to the beauty of the object–or rendering it unattractive or dysfunctional.
I think about the materials I might use to repair the object–matching color thread, or glue? Or using contrasting colors to create something new, an object that is in balance with its “imperfection”?
When I was young and not as financially comfortable, repairing things was a necessity; I had to try to save as much as I could to pay rent and so forth. But also a source of pride to me. And repairing was work of love.
To this day, as I darn socks, or repair holes in sweaters, my breathing immediately begins to slow, my concentration is rapt, and I feel as much “in the flow” as I do when I’m making something from scratch.
But there’s more to it. I’ve now expanded to regarding repairs as important “human signatures.” When I teaching knitting and new knitters become despondent over a dropped stitch, I tell them that the mistake demonstrates that a human being made the garment they are working on. No robots or machines were involved. The mistake is their signature, and carries with it the warmth of their beating, loving human heart.
“My first scarf was a weird shape, but when I was done, I gave it to a friend because he knew how much work, how much of me
went into the scarf. He loved it.”
— Karen D., knitting student
Over time, I have been able to appreciate the human-ness of my knitting boo-boos and to stop being ashamed of something that is far from perfect, but functional and often quite pretty. I feel like the mistake–and its repair–are indeed my signature on an (im)perfect garment. The recipients of the chemo hats, radiation sleeves, and Knitted Knockers I donate have always been grateful for the gifts–even with the mistakes and repairs.
Nonetheless, it’s often embarrassing to be a not-great knitter because I am surrounded by REALLY good knitters (who make sweaters in a day, write their own complicated patterns and even spin their own yarn). They don’t make mistakes like I do. Their knitting is complex and perfect. But I’ve also noticed that while I’m impressed no end with their work, I don’t feel the same tug to my heart that I get when looking at a new knitter’s first chemo hat to be given away with its few “signatures” barely visible, but with an aura of love and devotion surrounding it.
Over time, I’ve taken to heart the belief expressed so well by Nicholas Baker, that “…in repairing the object you really ended up loving it more, because you now knew its eagerness to be reassembled, and in running a fingertip over its surface you alone could feel its many cracks – a bond stronger than mere possession.”
Besides being a far from perfect knitter, I was also a far from perfect potter. I never became a ceramics artist with the things I made, but I loved the process of throwing pots, and glazing with abandon. And I signed everything I made, no matter how heavy or wobbly it was, with a large, legible signature.
The pieces I didn’t throw away or lose in moves have have become better (to me) with age: the inside of a tea cup becoming cracked and stained by tea, revealing the wisdom of an elephant’s hide in its intricacy. The little fillip that used to jut off the bottom of the handle of the cup broke off in the early days as it was ornamental, and not necessary, I suppose. I could have repaired it, but felt that it was a “good broken” just as it was. My fingers have learned to love the familiar feel of where they fit into the handle without the extra clay.
And I now see the colors of retreating waves at the seashore on the pot with the creeping blue and green glaze. It reminds me of the many wonderful beach trips I’ve taken with my sister, and how I always come home with bags of broken shells and rocks that have been worn down by eons of sand polishing them into soft, pocket companions. The shell pieces–and worn rocks–evoking the peace, timelessness and expansiveness I feel at the beach.
There is a Japanese aesthetic, an appreciation of broken-ness and imperfection called wabi-sabi. I believe that’s what I’ve been practicing–in a Western way–all my life.
“Wabi… connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object.
Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.”–Wikipedia
I feel connected to Nature, and to our planet and that’s why my house has a lot of wood and stone in it. Besides the beauty of stones, I feel an energy from them that comes from deep in the Earth. The twists and polish of the driftwood I collect remind me of the wisdom the comes from aging, of beauty that emerges through a wearing and sculpting over time. I have a lot to learn from these objects, their shapes, and how they became what the are. But in the mean time, I keep them close, studying their uniqueness, and appreciating the signature of Nature in every molecule.
“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
— Richard Powell