Kintsugi Breasts: When Broken is Better than New

December 8, 2012 § 4 Comments


When I was healing a wound a week after surgery, a friend of mine gave me a get-well-soon gift. A couple of tubes of laquer resin, a pair of rubber gloves, and a pot full of gold dust with instructions on the art of kintsugi, or the Japanese craft of fixing broken pottery, the gift symbolized a craft for healing my broken body. Instead of a chip in a china teacup, it was the my breast that needed mending. Instead of a fracture across an earthenware bowl, it was my spirit that could have used with a sprinkling of gold dust.

Last week, when washing up in a new apartment, a glass teapot hit against the metallic sink. The spout cracked off the pot and swam jagged in the dishwater next to my bleeding hand.

“Damn”, I thought, “What a fool I am.  I should have been more careful. I might be able put this back together, but it’s never going to be the same.”

Then I remembered my kintsugi repair set. A  sense of determination replaced a sense of frustration. “I’ve been meaning to use that kintsugi thing since May,” remembering how I’d been scrounging markets for the right china teacup to hit cathartically with a hammer and put artfully back together again. “Here’s the perfect opportunity.”

The kintsugi set hid in a box full of paints, twine and Japanese paper. Finding it, I unfolded the instructions, and with the spirit of a surgeon, slapped on the pair of rubber gloves, ready to mend. I’d forgotten the kind of pleasure that comes with repairing what’s been broken. Embracing attention, precision and patience is a healing art for the spirit as much as it is for the pottery.

“I love working with my hands.” I thought. A kind of gratification emerges from sewing, molding, and drawing that no conceptual practice ever reaches. Crafting returns me back to my corporeality, always present. When I delicately squeezed out the resin, mixed it methodically with a hint of dust, and eyed the faux gold glitter in the kitchen lights, I remembered how gratifying it feels to use my hands in a practical way.

A few hours later, the teapot looked better than new. No longer did it sit like an object indistinguishable amongst others like it on a shelf. No longer did it appear unreachable in its uniform perfection. Touched with gold dust, mended by hand, and loved in patience, the teapot transformed into the embodiment of wabi sabi, wabi sabi being the name for a Japanese aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience. “Imperfect, impermanent and incomplete” might describe the repaired pot, or it might describe my transient body:  on the mend from surgery, waiting to have gold dust sprinkled upon it.

In “Anthem”, Leonard Cohen sings: “Ring the bells that you still can ring / Forget your perfect offering.” When I look at my the scars across my breast I want to forget my “perfect offering.” When the chorus of our culture is one that seeks to repeat perfect permanence, it is easy to forget how life and death always sing out their imperfect transience.  So much of advertising feeds off of my sense of lack: when I look at airbrushed breasts in a magazine at times it triggers a sense of lack; when I see pictures of couples on billboards in a fleshy embrace sometimes it elicits a sense of something missing. My body has changed forever. Sex may never be the same. Last week, when I saw a student’s choreography emphasizing the sensuality of the human body with video close-ups of dancer’s breasts, I felt a sense of deficiency triggered by the images. A mastectomy has numbed the sensation across my left breast and throughout the upper arm. It takes only a pause to think how neither the perfect breasts nor perfect pleasure with a partner has the power to lead me to my self-fulfillment, and no relationship built either could ever lead to anything, but those images evoked the pain of loss and fear of rejection . It takes only few breaths to remember that the deepest sensuality is that felt in the heart and not on the surface of the skin. The cracks have opened on the surface of my body. “There’s a crack in everything,” Cohen sings, “That’s how the light gets in.”

So I look at my cracked body, and I envision a bit of repairing in the style of kintsugi, a bit of space opening for the light to get in, a bit of gold dust around the scars. Since receiving news that I am living with an inherited genetic alteration that increases significantly my chances of breast and ovarian cancer, I have been grappling with the decision of what surgery to undergo. Should I go for mastopexy on the good breast to lift it in symmetry with the removed one? A bilateral risk-reducing mastectomy to remove the tissue of the other breast and replace both with implants or  using fat from my buttocks? I know what you might be thinking, “Some women set up payment plans for such procedures,” or, “When you’re 90, you’ll have the breasts of a 20-year-old.”

“Life is impermanent,” the verses of life and death call out to me.

“Broken is better than new,” the kintsugi teapot whistles in my ear.

“Pictures of perfection,” writes Jane Austen in letter to Fanny Knight, “make me sick and wicked.”

I think of the people I have loved, and I have trouble remembering having loved anyone for either their body or for their perfection. Looking at photos of someone I’ve held close, I see how his physical quirks inspired deeper feelings. Honouring his imperfections allowed me to embrace his vulnerability. It was easier to see the gold within when I focussed less on the expectations of an appearance: an ability to forgive when there had been rupture, a capacity to open to the suffering of others and a means to mend the cracks rather than shop for the seemingly seamless.

Some think the secret behind a Stradivarius, that famous million dollar violin, lies in its imperfections. There are a lot of asymmetries found in that most refined musical instrument, imperfections perhaps intended to remove the unpleasant harmonies found in symmetrical ones. I look at my asymmetrical body, with all its quirks, modifications, and restorations, and wonder if a sonata will play from my imperfect instrument.  Looking at the mending happening now on the surface of skin, I remember the heart just beneath it, a centre aspiring to open to what’s been torn, a centre with its own song. It strikes out beneath the cracked and gold-dusted form beyond and because of a brokenness.


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