Kintsugi life

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. — Wikipedia

 

The term is most often used to describe a specific way to repair broken pottery, often Japanese. I think it fits life as well.

By a certain point — for some, their teens, others their 50s or 70s — you’ve quite likely been dropped hard a few times against something unyielding. By this, I mean metaphorically and (I hope!) not the result of assault or physical abuse.

We’re not delicate porcelain or exquisite Ming pottery, but we are all fragile and all end up, inevitably, crazed; a word with two definitions, the second meaning spider-webby fine cracks.

 

In a culture increasingly devoted — paradoxically — to the rustic, artisanal and authentic and the social media offerings of glossy perfection, the notion of being broken and repaired, let alone stronger, more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken, perhaps repeatedly, seems radical and bizarre.

 

I’m into it.

Volumes have been written of late praising grit and resilience, as if — at the end of months or years or decades of being gritty and resilient — we aren’t exhausted and scarred. Maybe wiser. Maybe sadder.

I love early porcelain and china, and use several 18th. century pieces as butter dishes…stupidly undervalued. I want to enjoy them while I can. Unlike Japanese work, with its elegant crack-filling lines of gold, they’re stapled together (!), like recent brain surgery patients.

I don’t love these objects any the less for their war wounds, but am so grateful these little emissaries from the past are still with us….that having graced someone’s table in 1789 or 1832, they’re still here for us to use and share.

I feel this way about people.

The ones I most admire aren’t the shiny folk, all smooth and slippery, glittery, preening  and unscathed, but the ragged and weary survivors of physical, mental, professional, emotional and financial struggle — depending on their age and background, possibly all of these — who somehow remain graceful and fun, able to laugh and savor what’s left of their lives.

 

Feelings — and what to do with them

By Caitlin Kelly

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A box full of comforts…

Having them, acknowledging having them, processing them, talking about them, reflecting on them.

Sharing them.

Brrrrrr!

Several bloggers who reveal their painful and difficult emotions, (without becoming maudlin), are Anne Theriault, a Toronto mother of one who has written eloquently about her struggles with depression and anxiety at The Belle Jar and Gabe Burkhardt, whose new blog has described his battles with PTSD.

Ashana M. also blogs lucidly about hers, as does CandidKay, a single mother in Chicago.

Here’s a gorgeous essay about coming to terms with yourself.

It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.

Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.

I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.

I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.

No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.

My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.

As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.

She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.

We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.

It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?

I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.

When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.

I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.

Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.

I wonder if I ever will.

My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.

But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.

At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”

The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.

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Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!

I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.

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 Jose

Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.

A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.

I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.

How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?

Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?

“Oooh, that sounds hard!”

By Caitlin Kelly

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The two initial (male) designers of the Brooklyn Bridge were both felled by illness — only the fierce determination of Emily Roebling brought this world-famous landmark to completion.

 

I mentioned this intermittent fasting regimen to someone recently, a man my age, a fellow journalist, slim and trim.

I was stunned by his immediate reply: “Oooh, that sounds hard!”

Like “hard” was a bad thing, something to be feared or avoided.

Well…yeah.

It is difficult!

It’s not simple or fun to cut your consumption by 50 percent or more and try to keep going with normal activities.

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

But people cope with much more difficult challenges every single day: serious illness, unemployment and underemployment, debt, family dramas, homelessness — and the kind of hunger no one ever chooses but that poverty imposes.

 

One of the pleasures of doing something difficult, despite initial frustration and weariness with it — whatever it is — is getting past that initial “oh shit!” moment and eventually easing into an ability to handle it, even enjoy it, even do it well.

 

 

It might be the many challenges of immigration, and learning a whole new language and culture.

It might be, and often is, the first year of marriage when you think…who is this person?!

It might be a new job or your first job after college or an internship where they never really tell you what to do but expect you to do it really well anyway.

The sexy new word for surmounting difficult is “grit” and many books are being published praising it and wondering how to inculcate it into privileged people who’ve never had to scrap or scrape — hard — to get what they want or need from life.

But it’s truly enervating and exhausting to live this way for years, even decades.

It can feel overwhelming and impossible to get out of a hard situation, one you didn’t choose, whether an abusive family or origin (or marriage), a lousy job whose income you and your family really need or even a behavioral tic of your own that you now see is causing you problems.

I don’t fear most things that are difficult and generally enjoy a challenge.

I don’t respond well to people who expect life to be a smooth, easy ride, cushioned by wealth and connection and social capital.

Because, for so many people, it’s not.

It’s hard.

(Witness the current U.S. Presidential campaign and the face-palming reaction of those who had no idea life was so difficult for so many fellow Americans.)

And being scared of things that are hard can paralyze you from taking action.

But there’s also a crucial difference between a chosen challenge and one imposed from beyond your control.

Then the real challenge is how to meet it, if possible with grace and courage. (And the biggest posse of support you can muster.)

How about you?

How do you get through difficult situations?

Got mad skillz?

Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry.
Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people possess certain skills that leave me gobsmacked, thinking they’re simply not possible — when, clearly, they are.

Just not by me. 

While house-sitting, I  needed firewood. I didn’t dare try splitting logs without supervision, so asked my friend Sally’s husband Rick to do it. Which he did. (They live at the edge of a lake, in the woods, year-round, and have for many years.)

Sally designed (!) their house and adjacent studio and Rick, a professional carpenter, built it. Every time I step foot in their cosy, lovely, light-filled home I’m in awe of this fact. How pioneer-esuqe to be able to design and build your own home!

In my Dad’s fridge were some gorgeous jams and jellies made by his 80-year-old neighbor.

Being surrounded by all this self-sufficiency made me think about my own skills, few of which would allow me to survive without electricity, running water or heat — all things that many of us in the more developed world take totally for granted.

The new American television season offers the weekly drama post-apocalyptic Revolution,  set 15 years into the future after every form of technology has died, shoving the world back into an eat-or-be-eaten set of warring tribes. It’s a popular fantasy and one I think about as something quite likely to happen. People know how to use axes and arrows, a skill set fairly unusual in suburban New York where I live.

The city-dwellers I know consider “skills” as being able to steal a cab from someone at rush hour on 42d. Street or snagging a reservation at the hot new bistro or making sure your new book gets a decent review in the right places.

Not exactly life-saving.

I took a class last year, and wrote about it for The New York Times, that was — like my silent retreat a few months earlier — life-changing, this one in how it made me relate to the natural world and wonder much more deeply about my place in it. It’s taught by Shane Hobel, whose skills left me open-mouthed:

The day’s class began with a lesson in cordage: turning virtually anything, from a cocktail napkin to the soft and pliable inner bark of some trees, into a length of rope useful for lashing branches together to build a shelter, to make a fishing line, or to string a bow. Mr. Hobel patiently showed everyone how to make cord by twisting raffia that he brought in lieu of cutting open a tree, and how to double or triple it in strength and length.

Within minutes his students happily saw the fruits of their labor. “This feels familiar,” said Ms. Browning, a knitter.

“These are time-tested skills,” Mr. Hobel said. “Many years ago we all used to know them, and now we’re bringing them back.”

The key to surviving in the wilderness, he explained, is conserving precious time and energy by remaining calm and aware. “The more skills we have, the more capable we are,” he said.

Spending a few hours in the woods reminds me that I’m simply one species among many, and one extremely ill-equipped to survive, or thrive, without the trappings of domesticity. In the woods, I observe more carefully. I can usually tell the time within 20 to 30 minutes by the quality of the sunlight. I notice things like mushrooms, and if I really knew my stuff, I’d be able to forage some safely for dinner.

I wish!

Some of the things I know how to do well, some well enough I’ve been paid for:

Teach writing

Edit others’ writing

Translate French

Shoot a gun, whether rifle, shotgun or handgun (best with a Glock 9mm); yes, I’ve had professional training while writing my first book, about women and guns

Sell on a retail floor, the subject of my second book

Translate and interpret Spanish

Take photographs

Draw and paint

Cook

Design an interior

Trim a jib for a sailboat race

Build a fire

Sail, canoe, row, kayak

Ride a horse

Buy 20th, 19th and 18th century antiques fairly knowledgably, having studied the field

Ski, downhill and cross-country

Ice skate, (fast and backwards)

Play acoustic guitar

Orient myself quickly in unfamiliar territory

Speak publicly

Organize a public event

Some I long to acquire:

More sophisticated cooking

Making pottery

Speaking a new language, or several — (but which ones?!)

Use a sewing machine

Knit

What sorts of mad skillz do you, or people you know personally, have?

Which ones would you like to acquire?