A decade after the cluster-bomb of events that shattered my early thirties, I think now that what saves us, and makes us strong, is neither what we own or whom we love.
I think our essential survival kit is composed of what we do: the everyday habits and routines that help us build and repair what we care about.
The Japanese art of Kintsugi has become in recent years a cultural shorthand for this: The tradition of mending pottery with golden lacquer so that the repairs are visible and insist on the object’s value. We send images of these beautiful things around social media — our shared circulatory system for heart and soul — and feel better for a while about what is broken or fragile-feeling in our own lives.
But we can forget I think to do ourselves this slow and painstaking maintenance work.
I was lucky, I see now, to grow up in farming country amid the exertions of looking after land and animals. Every evening, my grandfather walked his fields with a knife and ball of baler twine. Always a new hole worked by a fox coming in or a sheep going out, and by trussing it up with strong orange cord he kept everything in better order than if he’d waited for money and time to replace his fences.
I was fortunate, too, to be part-raised by a woman who survived brutal bereavement — the sudden death of her beloved husband in a minute after she kissed him and reached for a cup of tea — through this same belief in care-taking. My young years with her were a life’s lesson in everyday effort, in seasonal routine. Every spring I was set to paint a new coat on the garden gnome who’d faded over winter. Each November she bore the anniversary of her husband’s loss by taking his clothes from the spare room and making small repairs. Every evening, however bad her knees, she knelt to light a fire, saying it kept the spirits up.
When my own hard times came — waiting in a distant part of the country for that darling woman to die, enduring the suspended time of infertility, living with chronic pain after a medical emergency — these deep ancestral traditions saved me: My hands knew what to do. I bought orange wool and began a blanket for the child I might still have (which now covers my son and daughter when they are poorly, needing comfort). I spent a year painting the railings that had gone brown and brittle on my long street. Swept leaves for my elderly neighbours. Began, through these efforts, to belong to a place and people other than those I’d lost, couldn’t have.
Recently I found a book my husband bought in our distant undergraduate days, before anything bad happened to us. When we were carefree, unblemished. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built
It fell open on a chapter called The Romance of Maintenance. Yes, I thought, that’s what it takes, this life. To fall in love with what happens afterwards: when things fall apart. And to become, as Hemingway wrote, strong in the broken places.