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You’re a beautiful mess, living that Kintsugi-chic life

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

It’s safe to say that COVID left us feeling a bit of a mess but is it also possible that maybe that was the point? The pandemic’s arrival was disorienting but there was this sense that we could adapt and weather the challenges ahead. We found ourselves in a strange reality: unnerved yet resolute, with lots of time and our phones, wondering, “What now?” The pause gave us time to reflect and assess.

We felt a little bit like this:

Film still from 28 Days Later (2002).

And also a lot like this:

Ben Affleck smoking outside a flat in London.

Lockdown forced us to halt our busyness (i.e., our business) which, we came to realize, is one of the many tools we employ to distract ourselves from our inner lives. If you have a lot of tasks, responsibilities, media consumption, invented priorities, a rich social life, and even addictions to any of the above, there’s not much time left over to sit and examine why it is that the memory of getting laughed at in 2nd grade still causes a hot rush of shame.

For some of us, the forced quietude during lockdown catalyzed a spontaneous recognition of traumas far more heinous than a childhood humiliation. Examining such things required labor that was puzzling or all-consuming. It was work. And, yet, silver linings emerged, too. Many discovered latent talents or passions; I’d venture that most of us recognized living joyfully is paramount, initiating what we’ve come to call the great resignation. For all of us, we were asked to accept the unknown and let go of our need to control, as much as we felt able. But could we accept these outcomes were not just happy accidents but was actually the pandemic’s purpose?

What if this forced introspection transformed each of us into a unique Kintsugi work of art?

Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

Since the emergence of Covid-19, I have drawn an analogy between the Japanese art of Kintsugi and the way the pandemic insisted on magnifying our hidden shadows. Essentially, the forced introspection brought up one shadow aspect and, once examined, another often surfaced to replace it. Rinse and repeat. Kintsugi, like the trauma of a global pandemic, suggests that by embracing our flaws and vulnerabilities, we can redefine our concept of beauty, damage, and what constitutes a life well-lived. It shows us that through the process of healing — and by extension learning to live with — your bumps, bruises, and imperfections, we can find sites of celebration rather than shame. In personal development and trauma processing, this is referred to as integration. And Kintsugi reflects this integration in its blend of form and function.

Kintsugi originated in Japan — the so-called “land of the rising sun.” Most attribute Japan’s moniker to the fact that the sun was purported by the Chinese to rise directly over the archipelago, due east. Eventually, Japan incorporated this description into its cultural identity, intertwining their relations with neighboring cultures with their native belief system known as Shinto. There’s something fleetingly symbolic about this fact to me — something about the process of human cycles, ephemerality, and renewal.

Ryoanji Temple (Japan’s most famous Zen rock garden and temple), Kyoto, Japan (2018).

And to be completely honest, I already had a bit of an obsession with the Japanese (beyond mere curiosity). I was always slightly taken by the Japanese respect for nature and their pared-down, anti-Baroque approach to living. This sentiment spurred a visit to the their picturesque country in 2018 to celebrate a milestone birthday. Japanese aesthetics and their built environment have a sober simplicity that is both understated and refined. They are a deeply respectful culture with a reserved politeness and commitment to rules and honor being pervasive attributes of the people.

Numerous details about that trip remain in my mind, like photos in an album: the surprising lack of public trash cans, for one, because the understanding is people carry their trash back to their personal spaces for disposal. Or the older Japanese woman who, despite the language barrier, went out of her way to pantomime that we were about to depart on a train heading away from Mount Fuji (our obvious destination as tourists). Thank you, sweet anonymous lady. And there is the unbelievably life-changing experience of soaking in an onsen, a peaceful and sacred practice that exemplifies the Japanese belief of nature’s ability to rejuvenate.

View of our private onsen and balcony during our stay in Kyoto. (Kyoto Nanzenji Ryokan Yachiyo)

Even their food preparation is imbued with a humble elegance, free of ostentatious elements, and marked by a meticulous intentionality. All of this, of course, is countered by the complexity and nuance in their language, which is highly situational and context-driven. Some words are forcefully obvious in their connotation while others require an expert understanding of circumstance to derive the full meaning. This is the paradox of Japan’s illustrious simplicity and layered complexity.

Thus, my initial reaction to learning about Kintsugi was along the lines of: “But of course the Japanese have an artistic tradition born of practicality and also containing deep layers of poetic nuance.” Such recognition unravels our convenient standards of beauty, such as symmetry or flawlessness. They become trite and inadequate (juvenile even) when viewed through the lens of Kintsugi. This sort of approach to beauty already sat well with me as I had long since agreed with Robert Adams about the truth of beauty being form itself. “Beauty is,” Adams writes, “a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life . . . [and] why is Form beautiful? Because, I think it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.” Kintsugi points toward our suffering as a key to the inherent beauty of our existence.

First, let me explain what exactly Kintsugi involves. Kintsugi (“golden joinery”), also sometimes called Kintsukuroi (“golden repair”), is an art form developed in Japan that entails mending broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. In some instances, the repair is completed with a lacquer tinted in a less flashy, but nonetheless contrasting, colored pigment. The process is striking and immediately identifiable by the seductive look of an organic, metallic line highlighting the damaged areas of a ceramic object.

Kintsugi from Japan. Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash.

The technique has resonance with the maki-e technique of embellishing surfaces with metallic powders, minus the obvious aspect of accentuating a piece’s broken seams. Kintsugi pottery originated several centuries ago, purportedly when a Japanese shogun was highly displeased when a broken piece of pottery was sent off for repair, returning with unaesthetic metal staples joining the shards. Seeking a more aesthetic way to repair the pottery, the shogun’s craftsmen developed the Kintsugi style — an art form that bridges form, function, and philosophy in a gorgeous embrace of the imperfect. It’s said that the style quickly became vogue, so much so that people were smashing their perfectly good ceramics just so they could have it repaired in Kintsugi.

Kintsugi tools. Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Through Kintsugi, the form and function of this art form blends into nothing less than the deeply poetic metaphor of existence itself. Rather than allowing the life of a piece of pottery to end with its breakage, the artist salvages it by using a metallic medium to bind the crack’s seams and remake the object anew. As you might expect, this process is physically and philosophically transformative: The damaged area becomes the focus as a precious substance highlights the area that previously existed as a problem. The total history of the object (including a break) is honored as an essential aspect of the ceramic piece. By refusing to toss the broken ceramic away as useless and, instead, reassembling it, the fissure quite literally is illuminated. So, I found myself aware of Kintsugi and completely in love with the idea of eventually trying it out. I mean, how hard could it be? (More challenging than I envisioned but still worth trying, it turns out.)

A bit of research led me to artsy-type people who, in the spirit of experimentation, bought second-hand ceramics to break and remake in Kintsugi. I appreciated the go-getter attitude of these artists but somehow it felt more real to me to wait until an accidental break of a ceramic happened in my life. My deep appreciation for Dada and its reliance on chance-based events seemed deeply aligned with my decision to wait for the accident. As if the universe listened to my intention, the pandemic arrived, the world shit the bed, and my dear husband eventually dropped one of our Pottery Barn, Japanese-style bowls while unloading the dishwasher. These events possessed all the symbolism I required. After all, the broken piece was one we’d registered for back in 2005 and had enjoyed throughout our years as a married couple. Sentimental? Check. Accident? Check. Occurred during the trauma of the global pandemic? Checccckkkkk. The fact that the bowl was made in Japan and has notches on the sides for your chopsticks is just metaphorical cake.

An unbroken example of a bowl and square plate from our everyday dishes.

There I was, with a broken Japanese bowl on my desk, just begging me to mend it in Kintsugi. But life happened and it sat there for another few months. Ah, the messy life of the COVID pandemic and its outright strangeness. (I can see you nodding in agreement.) I might attribute my delay to the demands of lockdown— supporting a husband in the nascence of working from home and ensuring that my kids completed their virtual schooling . . . making meal after meal after thousandth meal for everyone in the uncertainty of that stretch of timelessness. If I’m being completely honest, my delay was a combination of the above and also my perfectionist tendencies. Now the practicing on second-hand ceramics seemed like a pretty good idea.

One day, I looked at the broken bowl on my desk for the last time and finally something clicked. “It’s already broken — just let go of the attachment to the outcome.” I’d grown tired of the seesaw in my mind and decided to do something about it. In the words of one of my favorite voices encouraging others to get out of their heads and just begin creating, Rich Roll, this constitutes “mood following action.” Little steps have domino effects.

If you’re at all like me, you can understand that this felt BIG and exciting. Almost like the moment you tear off a bandage. A new hobby or interest can feel scary or even daunting when you’re in the perfectionist trap. And there’s a potential to find yourself in the liminal space indefinitely. The dilemma known as “analysis paralysis” can be especially miring; consequently, you find yourself feeling stuck in the process of research and reading, unable to decide upon the right course of action. This inaction can occur if your perception of the situation has “high stakes” associations. For me, it was easier to prioritize other projects ahead of mending the broken bowl until it wasn’t. So, I sat down and got to work. (How Kintsugi of me.)

My intention was to Kintsugi this bowl back into circulation in my home, so I had to find a food-safe resin. I eventually settled on Art Resin and Meyspring natural mica powders as my materials, momentarily playing with edible gold confectionery dust before deciding it was too translucent. I combined my ingredients to create a copper gold resin that felt opaque enough and began applying. It was far more drippy than expected. I spent lots of time applying the resin and wiping the area clean. Apply, wipe, repeat. I learned I had to delicately hold the piece in place until it felt like it was setting. It came apart a few times due to vibrations of folks walking through the space. (And I only had one piece to reattach, not many.) Patience and grace as I explored my technique, as with any healing process, was key.

I realized that it might be better as a multi-step process — securing the shard in place and painting along the crack once it was attached. I got to where it was finally secure and left to go to dinner with my family. When I came back, I was surprised to see that it had continued to drip slowly as gravity took hold. The imperfection of the imperfection-highlighting technique was enough to satisfy. I laughed and accepted it immediately. This acceptance also felt like an important moment. The next day, I touched up with a little more tinted resin to make the line more distinct. That ended up dripping, too. Beautiful.

Here’s the finished product. I let it cure for a full week before gathering up the guts to wash it by hand and then eat soup out of it. It was satisfying on multiple levels. I’m also happy to report that it’s held up with regular use and dishwasher cleaning. Each time I pull it out and seek the golden crack, I’m gifted a moment of mindfulness about the importance of letting go of control and accepting the circumstances of the moment with grace. It also exists as tribute to the weirdness of the pandemic.

Keep living your beautifully imperfect Kintsugi life and try to find the elegance in your cracks and scars. That’s where the light gets in.

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