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Tea set

Tea set

Way back when, my mother offloaded on me a miscellany of family china, because (she said) I was interested in “old things”. Among the dozens of Victorian plates of various sizes (only plates — someone else had the rest of great-great-aunt’s service for 12) there was one curious set: a small highly decorated teapot with matching sugar bowl, milk jug, and cups and saucers. The pattern was mysterious, complex, unusually subtle, with lots of old-gold touches and stylized flowers that looked old but not washed out, in formal rose, blues like pool water, gentle greens.

The set had clearly had a hard life. There were two cups and three saucers, presumably out of an original set of four. The sugar bowl was intact, but the milk jug had a glued-on handle and the teapot itself had suffered greatly: it was a jigsaw puzzle of mended porcelain. The mend was skillfully done, something you couldn’t see from a distance, but the pot was unusable.

There was no way of telling where or when the set had been made; a good antique dealer confessed himself unable to tell if it was pretty trash or something good but obscure. Nor could anyone tell me who it had belonged to, or when it had been acquired. No history.

I thought of that teapot when I read online* about an exhibit in at the Smithsonian in Washington of the Japanese art of kintsugi — “golden joinery” — which mends broken china with seams and fill-ins of golden resin. The results are startlingly beautiful as the gold erupts from the background of formal pattern or rough stoneware, following the lines of breakage, filling in smashed or missing bits. With golden joinery, my little teapot, already mysteriously lovely, would have bloomed into something extraordinary, seamed with beauty.

I thought about other broken things: broken relationships, for starters. Some relationships, while perfectly okay, are as disposable as paper plates: they require hardly any investment, serve a particular purpose for a particular time, and then vanish without regret. Nothing wrong with that. Others, in my experience, are far more valuable, even vitally important, but they too are meant to last their time and no longer. And so on and so forth until we get to the good china, the stuff we really value: the wedding-pattern Spode, a child’s two-handled milk mug with Peter Rabbit on it, the flowered plate on which a loved greataunt used to serve her legendary soft molasses cookies when you went to her house for tea. Break something like that and it’s serious.

Sometimes you can replace a piece (usually not), but you can’t restore it — can’t turn back to that moment before it shattered or undo the foolishness or carelessness that left it in pieces. You can (as someone obviously had) glue the thing back together, but unless it’s archaeological treasure, most pottery loses most of its value when it’s mended. It may or may not be serviceable, but it will never again be fresh and whole.

Same goes for friendships and loveships and other situations in which the object being shattered is your heart or your trust, or both. Time only runs one way, and you can’t get the thing back to where it was before it broke. You can patch it up as best you can — and perhaps that’s in fact the best outcome. If a teapot is worse off for being cracked, a badly set bone may need to be re-broken before it can be properly mended. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” has a corollary: “It may need to be broken before it can be fixed.”

Forgiveness is about giving up all hope for a better past, as Lily Tomlin neatly put it; it’s also about giving up on getting repayment for that broken heart/trust. It’s about seeing the part you played in the breakage: yes, you knocked my precious teapot into the fireplace, but what on earth possessed me to put the thing on the mantlepiece in the first place? Forgiveness is the prerequisite, the necessary first step towards — what?

Reconciliation, we hope: the ability to say “I know you didn’t mean it, and I’m over it; let’s just get on.” I particularly love the expression for forgiveness that I ran into in a novel somewhere — I can’t remember what, except that the scene had an ancient Middle Eastern patina: “It is forgotten.” Not “it never happened” or “it didn’t matter” or “what teapot?” but “my love for you endures, and so the debt is abolished.” The best of all is when we can simply sweep up the pieces, put the dustpan down, and walk away, arm in arm with the one who dropped it.

The end may be an end: you make your goodbyes and set off on your separate journeys. The end may be acceptance: he’s not going to change, but I still love him and I’ll learn to live with him as he is. It may require detachment, preferably with love. The end may be a new and different relationships: we were lovers, then enemies, now good friends. Or it may be a complete parting of the ways without reconciliation because the shards are too sharp to handle until time’s long, slow erosive power makes their edges less dangerous.

Or something else entirely may happen.

If I had to pick an image for the concept of redemption, kintsugi would be it. It’s more than just putting back together what had been whole and is now broken; it’s about using brokenness to create something new and altogether astonishing.

For kintsugi requires brokenness to work. Moreover, it creates at least as much beauty from broken kitchen crockery as it does from fine porcelain, because brokenness may mock refinement and gentility but it gives a simple, powerful elegance to what seemed rough and contemptible before. Which is why, perhaps, Jesus spent so much time with low-lifes.

And perhaps that’s why the resurrection is at the centre of Christian faith. Jesus the man, Mary’s son the rabbi, was broken as my teapot was broken, beyond any conventional mending. But God’s grace is the golden resin that not only puts him, and us, back together, but made him, as it makes us, into something new and radically different.

God in God’s mercy looks at the ways in which we’ve broken our own hearts and others’ trust and says “It is forgotten.” Not that we haven’t sinned — we have, of course, and there are usually consequences, not all of which can be managed with white glue and duct tape. (Repentance sweeps up the pieces, at least.)

But God’s purpose is to bring us into a new beauty, not to break us more than we’ve already broken ourselves. God is more interested in loving us and accepting our love than settling scores.

I packed the broken tea set up and moved it from house to house until I settled here, in reach of the two rivers, and here it did not want to be. So I sold it to someone who wanted it more than I did. We never did figured out a fair price, so we guessed. Who knows what the price should have been?

*Kintsugi exhibit story

Molly Wolf plays hackysack with theology in Gananoque, Ontario, among the Thousand Islands. She lives with her resident offspring Ross and with Magnificat (aka Maggie), a sizable calico with tortitude, whose personality fits her name. She (Molly, not the cat) is the author of four collections of applied meditation and Scrambling towards Zion: A weekly essay on finding Godstuff in real life. (Reposted by permission ~ed.)

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