A decade after the cluster-bomb of events that shattered my early thirties, I think now that what saves us – once medics have healed our bodies, and friends or social care systems have supported us through a sudden loss – is neither what we own nor even whom we love. I think our essential survival kit is composed of what we do: the everyday habits and routines that help us repair or rebuild 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.
And although my mother and I were abandoned by my father in a small bungalow down a remote and lampless lane on short rations, our frightened nights gave way each morning to defiant daytimes in which we cleaned and gardened and studied and cooked. My mother lost so much weight in those years that she could share my five-year old’s t-shirts, but we agree now that she and I both grew in trust – in each other, ourselves: what we could recover from.
I was fortunate, too, to be part-raised by a grandmother 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 darning them. 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 manual labours, to belong to a place and people other than those I’d lost and couldn’t have back.
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: once things fall apart. When the times call forth our courage and skill to piece things back together.
A Wild Patience Exercise
In this unsettling, home-bound time we are all now cast into, it is hard for most of us – even those with wellworn creative routines – to reach deep and concentrated thought. But any gentle tasks of caretaking that we can do in our new and necessary solitude, or which can be done while children circle and call, will make a clearing in the anxious thoughts which may otherwise crowd in.
Cleaning windows; kneading dough for simple bread rolls; untangling wool or thread; peeling veg and letting preschoolers make an anarchic mix from the leftovers; mending hems and seams, even if our stitches are uneven and improvised; sorting jumbled clothes cupboards; sanding window-frames: Anything rhythmic which grounds us in the material world, and leaves our things and our souls a little better tended than before, is right for this time.
These tasks can take the weight of our disquiet, sparing our close relationships when there is already so much talk to metabolise. The crochet blanket made during my infertility holds a hundred thousand interlinked O-shapes – all the much I could not say – but for my husband across from me, my knitting was a balm in that otherwise unyielding season. My mother’s constant gardening was a way to exhaust the nervous fear that made sleep difficult, but I delighted in playing beside her. Granny’s mending of her dead husband’s clothes was likely a needle-sharp time of remembering, but it gave comfort to me – small child from a broken home – who watched. We can be these still centres for those around us at this difficult time – whatever private worry moves our hands.