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Kintsugi cup with tea and teapot

Kintsugi: Art of Repair

By Katherine Larson

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To live alongside ghosts is to live in recognition of their warning. And in honor of their remembrance.
 

 

The story begins with a teabowl that was shattered. When 15th-century shōgun Yoshimasa Ashikaga sent his beloved broken teabowl away to be repaired, he was disappointed to find the teabowl returned with mended seams of ugly metal staples. According to historians, it was more than disappointment. He found this solution unacceptable.

 

“I’m not trying to be difficult,” the sunburnt teenager squinted, standing in front of the juvenile fin whale skeleton. “But I just don’t see why it matters.” She looked at the teenager, a ponytailed brunette chewing a hangnail. The heat was ferocious, the tiny creases of her eyelids stung with sweat. This was at the end of the free natural history talk she gave on Sundays at the field station in the northern Gulf of Mexico, after she’d explained the homologous structures of the whale flipper and human arm. “Look here,” she’d gestured to the wooden paddle fixed on the side of the fin whale ribcage (its arches towering above her head). “See how alike they are.” The whale phalanges—stuck through with metal pins—were strewn against the salt-swollen wood like a cupful of dice.

 

Yoshimasa challenged his craftsmen to find a new form of restoration. So they pulled out the staples. Painstakingly mended the seams with layers of tree sap dusted with gold.

 

In this talk, she’d been describing species that were threatened or endangered. Whale species and, in particular, the vaquita, a small endemic porpoise on the verge of extinction. “Suppose,” the teenager had continued, “we didn’t know they existed—if we were unaware of them completely, would it matter, really, if we lost them?” The teenager doesn’t say this flippantly but with a kind of bleary bewilderment. It is the kind of terrifying question—both the significance and the explanation of it—that she will spend her life trying to come to terms with.

 

The teabowl was again returned to Yoshimasa and the art of kintsugi, or “golden joinery,” was born. Each piece unique, not in spite of, but because of the way it was both broken and repaired.

 

She must have said something to the girl in response, something stark and brittle, though now she doesn’t remember. She remembers instead what she wanted to say: the world is full of secret and invisible machinery, our expression and understanding of which are utterly inadequate. She feels them, of course. Those threads that link the vaquita to the hedgehog cactus at her feet that’s tossing its fuchsia blossoms at the sun. The threads that tie herself to this strange girl asking her a question she feels entirely unprepared to answer. She’s felt them tug at her since she was small.

When she thinks of her time at the field station now, she remembers how she used to drag a thin sleeping mat out onto the porch to sleep. And of the picnic table that held the objects she used for her natural history talks—the fragile ones the children loved to stroke with their fingertips: the sea lion and bottlenose dolphin skulls, the seaweedish-looking egg cases of sharks and rays, the life-sized model of the small porpoise that was quickly becoming a ghost. That particular sound of the palms that shook their fronds at night while the ocean chewed its way up and down the shore.

 

The Sengoku period of Japan—when the art of kintsugi emerged—is noted as a time of near-constant civil war and social and political upheaval. It was also marked by several devastating earthquakes. Japan straddles multiple fault lines with the densest seismic network in the world. Fractures are part of its elemental substrate.

 

Her friend HG is making plaster casts of estuary mud from the sea where they met. Recording creatures that have passed, capturing transient marks that will be erased with the incoming tide. This feels to her an apt metaphor—that the change is nearly imperceptible yet all-encompassing. How we may inhabit a new kind of being or expanse yet, in a moment, be brought back to selves that we have left behind or outright discarded. Like standing in a room of broken statuary. Rows upon rows of frozen objects, some of them truncated, maimed. Some of them still scraping their way across the floor. If we can’t leave those selves behind, she thinks, how do we integrate them? She thinks about her own selves. The she that is the third person excavator of memory’s shifting constellations; the I that writes letters at night to Japanese authors she’ll never meet.

 

In The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, the authors explain, “The winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts—the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present…. Our ghosts are the traces of more-than-human histories through which ecologies are made and unmade.” She is reminded one day on a walk with her children, that the mourning dove eggshell they have found could be thought of as another smaller, intimate, teabowl.

 

According to Kyoto kintsugi practitioner Kiyokawa Hiroki, “The fractured part where kintsugi is applied becomes a new landscape in itself.” In this landscape, an artifact’s unique history is honored. “Our imperfections,” he says, “can be the birth of something new.” There are times that this metaphor seems almost like a living thing to her—a cipher to be captured and held close to her like a rare and lovely moth. And then there are times when she finds toilet paper piled up so high inside the toilet bowl it resembles a wedding cake, and her pockets are full of mangy gift-feathers and band-aid wrappers, and while she’s brushing the children’s teeth, there’s a voice inside of her that’s sobbing and little fragments of poetry burning in incandescent images that she can’t decipher, much less write down. There are times during the COVID-19 pandemic that she falls asleep in her clothes for the fourth night in a row.

 

Carlo Rovelli, the Italian physicist, argues that a human being is not a being at all, but a process, “like a cloud above the mountains.” This echoes the Buddhist idea that there is, in fact, no permanent self to cling to. What’s the difference between the self and a ghost?

She remembers one day at the field station when a pickup truck pulled up. A Mexican government official had confiscated the carapaces of sea turtles—he didn’t say from where. “I didn’t know where else to take them,” he said. “I thought you could use them to teach.” She remembers what it felt like as she helped unload them from the truck. It was like standing there watching someone cut the throat of an elephant. There are seven species of sea turtles. Six are counted as threatened or endangered. Most of the carapaces were still spongy in places where they hadn’t been scraped clean of meat. The smell of mute, rotting things. Flies all around.

 

“Grief is a path to understanding entangled shared living and dying,” Donna Haraway tells us.  “Human beings must grieve with, because we are in and of this fabric of undoing. Without sustained remembrance, we cannot learn to live with ghosts and so cannot think.” Sometimes when the house is very quiet at night, empty of the sounds of young children, she thinks about the ghosts of things. The ghosts of previous selves. The future ghosts of birds.

 

The methods of repair fall into three distinct categories:

Crack, the use of gold dust and resin or lacquer to link broken pieces, usually appearing as a running vein or seam of gold

Piece method, where the shape of a missing fragment is filled in completely with gold or a gold and lacquer compound

Jointcall, where a non-matching ceramic fragment of a similar shape replaces the missing fragment of the original vessel, giving the vessel a “patchwork” look

 

When teaching her students poetic forms in graduate school, she realized how little she understood about the nuances of haiku. The skill of their compression, the “kire-ji” (cutting edge), the punning, the symbolic sophistication of seasonal references. She studied them. Then haibun, tanka, rengu, sedoka, haikai. Fiction writers followed: Ōe and Kawabata; Abe, Tanizaki. Decades of her life steeped in Japanese writers and metaphors. Literature—and this is not an exaggeration—that has kept her afloat. She thinks of Deborah Bird Rose. “Reciprocal capture,” Bird Rose explains, is “a mode of existence in which neither entity transcends the other or forces the other to bow down… it is a process of encounter and transformation.”

 

Because of the pandemic, she teaches her daughter, a fourth-grader, about tropical rainforests and other biomes at home. But between the words ecology and mutualism and symbiosis, other words creep in. Deforestation, habitat fragmentation, sea level rise, ecocide, ecocatastrophe. Her daughter builds a rainforest habitat out of a small cardboard box. Makes bromeliads from tiny scraps of tissue paper and cuts out a three-toed sloth to hang on a vine. In her report, she writes, The beaks of adult toucans can be blue, orange, yellow, green, fuchsia, and white. They are like living rainforest rainbows. Her daughter tells her that during mating season, certain toucans toss fruit back and forth as a courtship ritual. 

 

It’s been asked: Did the life of the bowl begin once it was shattered? She doesn’t particularly like easy metaphors for suffering. Finds it quietly abhorrent when people speak of being “enlarged by suffering” or “given the opportunity for suffering’s gifts: empathy, sensitivity to the pain of others, a sense that impermanence means we must live deeply, and not anesthetized.” Not because it isn’t true but because it seems reductive. What she loves is metaphor that contains space for both insight and the inscrutable. You can say, for example, that history must be recognized in a way that gives the breakage meaning. You can say that beauty can be made more whole. Or you can say that a whale is a mirror above treetops. The self is a kingdom of air.

When she was pregnant and so sick she spent months broken on the tiles of the bathroom floor she read, sentence by single sentence and with terrible clarity, Mishima Yukio’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Some of the loneliest books she’s ever lived. She remembers having to lie down on the floor the one time she went to Target to try to buy maternity clothes. Under a wall of enormous bras. The carpet—a palpitating blue—was stained with something indescribably filthy. Her partner had to leave her there to find a wheelchair. Most days, she couldn’t shower without help. Most days, she couldn’t stand without help.

 

Another story of the beginning of kintsugi mentions a bowl that was shattered, and a clever guest, Hosokawa Yusai, knowing the host’s hot temper, quickly intervened by improvising a poem about the bowl whose deftness dispelled the host’s dark mood. Language was a part of the mending. Even now, this story is a part of the mending. Mending is a thing that continues.

 

Discovering Japanese women writers was another revelation. Enchi Fumiko, Miyamoto Yuriko, Nogami Yaeko, Uno Chiyo. Notice that she’s writing their full names and didn’t with the others. She hadn’t realized how underrepresented they were—if she’d talked to someone that happened to have read Kawabata, they wouldn’t know Sakiyama Tami, Nogami Yaeko, or Ozaki Midori. She began to dream of writing a book in which small fragments of certain stories could slip in. Not in her voice. But more like joint-call pieces. As the writers themselves had written them.

 

Vulnerability. Mistakes. The history of what’s been broken and how we managed or not managed to mend it.  The word nagori can be translated as “remnant, traces, memory.” In those last two weeks of October, the nagori-no-chaji tea ceremony in which the mended objects are not just displayed, but used, involves savoring the last tea leaves collected the previous November. It is a time to let go, to enter the sadness of passing even as one recognizes the old season must die before the new one begins. To live alongside ghosts is to live in recognition of their warning. And in honor of their remembrance.

 

If she hadn’t been in the police station filing the paperwork for her stalker. If the officer hadn’t shown her the stack of papers that was a single night’s domestic violence calls—many of them repeats, she was warned. If she hadn’t decided then and dragged her mattress down the street to the dumpster in the middle of the night to dump illegally because it was too stained with cat pee to give to anyone. If she hadn’t had to drive across the country and into another to get as far away as possible. She would have never arrived at the field station. She would never have started this life. This self would have become a different self.

She met her friend HG in that country of whale bones and palms. HG had driven to the field station as part of a project to clean the curio cabinets and set them up as an educational exhibit. Together, they pulled black widows and their messy webs out of the cavernous spaces. Hung mako shark jaws against the wall. When they sat for a break at the picnic tables in the courtyard, the ones where the sea wind gusts through, they noticed a jumping spider. It followed their conversation, swiveling its head when each of them spoke, as if listening in. They would remember it always as a sign. Like being inducted into the secrets of the ruins at Delphi.

 

Chanoyu, or “The Way of Tea,” practitioner Christy Bartlett explains, “Mended ceramics foremost convey a sense of the passage of time. The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as ‘mono no aware,’ a compassionate sensitivity, an empathetic compassion for, or perhaps identification with, beings outside oneself.”

 

She thinks of how it’s an invisible language, the language of species. When one studies ecology, one studies relationships between living and nonliving things. What it meant to her was that one studies the invisible in order to make it more visible. The astonishment of which she sometimes has to hide. Like the time in her botany class when the TA chastised her poetic language. He’d circled the phrases with red ink, explaining that a lab report was no place to describe that under the microscope, the chloroplasts had seemed to tumble around like green, sentient pearls.

 

She’s been teaching her daughter haiku: Bashō and Issa, Buson and Sōseki. Still, she is startled when she reads one late night this haiku of Katō Shūson:

                  I kill an ant
                  and realize my three children
                  have been watching.

She, too, feels inexplicably ashamed.

 

Items for the nagori-no-chaji tea ceremony are carefully curated. To drink from a bowl that has been cared for by another is to recognize a lineage to which one belongs. To recognize in a single moment both rupture and continuity. Inheritance.

 

Her favorite is a teabowl from the 18th century. Kihara ware. A joint-call where a fragment of a bird from another teabowl has been spliced into the broken section of the bird of another. When she looks at the fragile veins of gold that mend that joining, she thinks of words like palimpsest. She thinks of breakage and repair as the intimate history of an object. Sometimes, she thinks of her own body as a bird’s.

 

This is not just metaphor—one of the genes involved in human language has a homolog in the song genes of certain birds. We share DNA in common with zebra finches, sea urchins, daffodils.

Her daughter has broken her favorite pot: one with hand-drawn marks that look like waves. For a while, she keeps the pieces in a little pile above the washing machine. There are kintsugi kits one can buy off the internet but one morning, after looking at the pieces, so many pieces, she takes the pieces outside and throws them in the trash. She almost immediately regrets the decision, but even though she stands there with her wild hair and ratty pajamas, she thinks she could do it—she could be that crazy person who empties out and then digs through her entire trash and finds each piece—but the whole thing has an air of finality, of something that’s already been unequivocally and quietly decided and even though she knows that she will likely regret it, she walks back to the house instead.

 

As a child, she was terrified of fire. Of the house beginning to burn as she slept. That she would wake trapped in flames, hearing the screams of her family—she couldn’t make it out of the fire to reach them. She’d lie awake in darkness that felt malignant, felt it skim her body like oil. Even at the time, it embarrassed her to have such a secret, dramatic anxiety. In her family, drama was frowned upon. They were pragmatists and stoics. They were not burning alive in lakes of fire.

 

And yet. Once she woke and the house was filled with the smell of smoke. When she screamed, her father came crashing from the bedroom and into the kitchen. On the stove was a pot of bones her mother had left on low heat, wanting to sterilize before giving them to the dog. The smell of singed bones: like having your lungs stuffed full of burnt sand.

 

Collectors became so enamored of the art form that some were accused of deliberately smashing valuable pottery so that it might be repaired with golden seams. Were there ever pieces that once broken, they realized they could not mend? There must have been.

 

She wants to believe that the extinction crisis can be slowed, halted. She wants to believe that something can be born out of it that does not negate the understanding of the damage that’s already been done. Yet she secretly fears the tipping point at which the cascade will produce an uncontrollable unraveling.

 

They say some of the teabowls would simply fall apart and then again be remade. Those many hands, those many years.

“We have never been individuals,” biologist Scott Gilbert tells us. “If most of the cells in the human body are microbes, which ‘individual’ are we? We can’t segregate our species nor claim distinctive status—as a body, a genome, or an immune system. And what if evolution selects for relations among species rather than ‘individuals’?” She thinks again of the golden threads. Of entanglements. She thinks of her nine-year-old daughter’s haiku:

                  Raindrops so shiny,
                  And delicate on pavement
                  The worms and snails slide.

 

Bartlett says, “One of the most deeply held values in the tearoom is that of collaboration, of multiple hands producing a seamless whole in which each individual contributor still remains distinct…. In this bowl, we can see the hand of two artists, the original potter and the later lacquerer who brought… remarkable sensibility to the way in which the repair is highlighted.”

The plaster casts HG is making contain the tracks of hermit crabs, shorebirds, waves.

 

Maybe that golden thread of repair reminded Yoshimasa of a river. Or the asymmetrical silhouette of a leaning mountain. Whatever it was, in its gold-seamed brokenness, Yoshimasa found he saw, and loved, the teabowl differently—more deeply than he had before.

 

Now, when she teaches her daughter about mollusks, she shows her a video of the tiny blue orbs that line the edge of a living scallop. “Most people don’t know,” she says, “that scallops have eyes.” And later, with her son at the tidepools she used to wade into drinking her morning coffee, in whose hand she places a still dripping clam. “Or that Venus clams have nervous systems. Hearts.”

 

 

Katherine LarsonKatherine Larson is the author of Radial Symmetry (Yale University Press, 2011), winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and The Speechless Ones (Interlinea Press, 2016), winner of the Vercelli International Civic Poetry Prize. A poet and essayist, Larson’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals including AGNI, Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, Notre Dame Review, Orion, Poetry, and Poetry Northwest. Larson is active with organizations and artists dedicated to conservation and environmental education in the Gulf of California. Her next book, a book of creative nonfiction lyric essays, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2025.

Header photo by edchechine, courtesy Shutterstock.

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