We were given a beautiful pottery dish as a wedding gift, shallow and wide, decorated with wild fawn lilies. Once I made paella and served it in the dish. The lilies were a gift you saw when you reached the bottom of the paella. When our first child was about a year old, he managed to lift the heavy dish from its place on a glass-topped coffee table and when he let it drop, it broke. The glass broke too. I kept the pieces for a time, wondering if there might be a way to repair the dish but eventually I must have thrown it out. I wish I’d known then about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer made originally from tree-sap, dusted with powdered gold. Some call the process “golden joinery”, some refer to it as the art of making what’s broken beautiful again.
When the red-breasted nuthatches are preparing their nests in the abandoned holes of woodpeckers, they collect fir, pine, or spruce sap to paint around the edges of their nest. This repels some predators and pests and increases the possibility of the nestlings coming to maturity. The adults dive into the nest without touching the edges of the entrance.
Years ago I read the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie’s account of working with an artist, Brigid Collins, to record the visual possibilities of her healed mastectomy scar. I looked at Brigid’s images and read Kathleen’s words and I remember how I wept.
Whatever it was, it was a line, drawn on my body. A line, in poetry, opens up possibilities within the language, and brings forth voice out of silence. What is the first thing an artist does, beginning a new work? He or she draws a line. And now I had a line – quite a line! – inscribed on my body. It looked like a landscape. Because it was changing colour as it healed, it seemed to me as if it had its own weather.
My mother had died two years earlier of metastatic breast cancer and three days before she died, I accompanied her to an appointment first for a chest x-ray and then to consult with her specialist. Her breast cancer had first appeared in 1976. She awoke from surgery without her right breast and because she was private about her body, I never saw her scar. Until the day of the chest x-ray. I led her from the room with the machines to the change room so she could put on her clothes and she was too weak to do that herself. Taking off her hospital gown, I saw the line across her chest, puckered and slightly darker than the rest of her skin. It was like a path on a contour map, a path leading to what would happen in three days. Our eyes met. We were both crying. When I looked at what Brigid and Kathleen had done together, I wished I’d been able to commemorate my mother’s scar in a way that would honour its complicated beauty, the years between her first surgery and her death.
John returned home yesterday after spending 4 nights in hospital. After his bilateral hip surgery two and a half weeks ago, he was recovering quite well, despite the added difficulty of a paralyzed foot due to nerve compression during the surgery. But then he had some new things to contend with and I took him to the hospital early in the week. While he was there, one of the incisions on his legs became infected. Before he was allowed to come home, I was shown how to dress his wound. Last night I cleaned it with a saline solution, dried it with sterile gauze, and then taped the special padded dressing along its length. There were 22 staples in each incision and I think one or two came away on the infected side. One day we’ll look at the scars and remember the surgery, the hospital stays, what it felt like to sleep in the living room with the blue moon hanging just out the window, a scattering of stars around it, and then waking to moon-set over the low mountain beyond the lake.
The story of kintsugi’s origins is interesting. In the 15th century, a Japanese shogun sent a cracked tea bowl to China to be repaired. He wasn’t pleased with the results, a bowl mended with metal staples. Craftsmen were tasked with the challenge of coming up with a more pleasing way of mending broken pottery. The practice of using tree-sap lacquer and powdered gold or silver was what evolved, embodying the ideas of finding beauty in imperfection, of embracing change, and avoiding waste.
One of my favourite objects, bought when I was about 19, is a raku tea bowl made by Wayne Ngan. It called to me in the little gallery in Victoria where I first saw it. And I’ve always loved the tiny imperfections on the rim—you can see them in this photograph, one at the front and one at the back—and imagined Wayne wavering. Was it worth selling? Should it be discarded instead? But look at the colour! Such a saturated red!
I hope that one of us might write about John’s scars one day. That I might try to replicate them on fabric, metallic thread for the staples, the deep mysteries of what happened. That a surgeon cut through the layers of tissue at the tops of his legs, reached in to remove damaged bone and cartilage, and then implanted a prosthetic joint into the bones of his pelvis, closing the incisions with staples. The smooth skin of his outer thighs will hold the pathway of this mystery, what opened, what closed, what was lost, what is held.
So, I wrote a few lines from notes I’d made when I was recovering. It seemed that they were falling into themes, though the themes blended into each other. Healing, certainly. Mortality, of course. The idea of the gift. Intimacy. The natural world. The notion of the line. Memory and heredity. All had arisen during my treatment and recovery, but none was strictly medical. In Brigid’s work the texts are not repeated whole, but as fragments, fugitive.
–from “Frissure”, by Kathleen Jamie & Brigid Collins
Watch the red-breasted nuthatch tracing its line down the trunk of the Douglas fir, watch it pause, bury seeds in the scales of the bark, watch it pause in the making of its line, alert, watch it pluck a bead of sap and disappear.