Tag Archives: china

Kintsugi, art and life

I wrote a column about my collection of cracked and chipped blue and white china thirty years ago. Some people received the idea of a collection of cracked china with derision and laughter… something cracked or chipped had lost its value, usefulness and good looks was the unspoken message, or I must be too poor to have such a pointless collection instead of perfect objects.

Undeterred, in the years since, I’ve saved shattered fragments of blue and white china when I’ve dropped or broken something, intending to stick them all together in a splendid mould and make a bird bath. I still have all the bits … but though the spirit has been willing, the body has been weak, alas.

So when a few weeks ago a possum knocked a precious piece of pottery off the bird table I was heart-broken. It was a large platter given to me by its maker, a potter of some renown, whose pieces now on sale in the national museum cost more than I could ever have dreamed.

But my platter came into my hands over thirty years ago when I used to take my daughter for piano lessons with a beautiful woman who played the cello in the city orchestra and taught the piano. While my daughter tackled the music of civilisation’s finest composers, I whiled away the time chatting to her teacher’s husband, the potter, admiring his work which was all around and even then, out of my reach to afford.

They lived in an enchanting house he had built himself, and where in the romantic rambling garden black and white speckly bantam hens roamed, kicking up the flower beds with their stubby tufted legs and fearsome claws. One day the potter gave me one of his platters and a few months later by chance, another came into my hands.

I’ve always treasured them, and since I love using beautiful things for mundane purposes have always used them as bird baths. Now in our forest, I use them as bird tables for bird seed, balanced on pedestals made from other treasured ceramics. A possum must have clambered up and knocked the platter off. It had broken into three pieces. I found it when I awoke and got up to fill it with bird seed and scatter seed on the ground for our visiting quails.

Going back to bed with my early morning tea I brooded over this unexpected event, and idly let my mind roam over the five hundred-year-old Japanese art of kintsugi, when cracks or breaks in a piece of pottery or porcelain are pieced together again with glue and gold… the name means golden repairs. They become so beautiful that some pieces have been broken deliberately in order to restore them with veins of gold.

Mentioning this to my love, he immediately Googled, and over the weeks he mastered the technique, and the platter was returned to me on Christmas Day with beautiful veins of gold now holding the broken pieces together… the platter is even more beautiful than before… which is the idea … this exquisite art form has developed to become part of the Japanese philosophy of life… where respecting the past with ‘awe and reverence’ adds to the beauty of the object. It is not seen as flawed or broken, but as re-stored… not to wholeness, but to a beauty reflecting life, its impermanence and poignancy.

Since discovering the concept of kintsugi I’ve thought how though it is an old instinct brought to perfection by Japanese craftsmen, it’s also been used by so many others for so many centuries … I thought of the ancient ruined monasteries scattered around England, dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530’s in order to enrich himself and turfing out the monks, leaving them homeless and destitute.

Local people were the ones who ruined those abandoned monasteries, dismantling exquisite abbeys, priories and friaries, and using the stones to build or enrich their own homes. Even in this day and age, I have stopped the car in a muddy lane in Cumberland to exclaim over a carved Gothic window blocked up to make part of the wall in a rough stone barn – relic of a local monastery.

I used to walk in a Devon village where the red post box was set into the thick wall of a house rising straight out of the street, which would once have been a cart-track, and next to it in the wall was a small beautifully carved blocked up window from another medieval building. These small architectural gems ennobled the old stone walls they were set in – another Japanese concept – ‘wabi sabi ‘– finding beauty in old or broken things

Shakespeare found beauty in old things, and using the principles of kintsugi, rewrote the ancient legends he had learned in his classical education at Stratford Grammar School, re-creating and transforming the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida – to name a few – into enduring works of art.

Not sublime works of art, but definitely kintsugi, are the pre-loved clothes – as they’re sometimes called – which a friend finds. By changing the buttons, adding a trimming, altering the neckline, edging hemlines or cuffs with contrasting fabric she turns each found item into an enviable work of art as well as a desirable item of clothing.

And there’s something touching and very sweet about the darns or patches in a piece of old linen, or a carefully repaired scrap of precious old lace. I love the chips and worn places on old painted furniture and the scratches on the polished wood of an antique table, or the kicked legs of a well-used chair.

These are the scars of a life well lived, and to iron them out, re-paint, sand them away and restore them to what is so often wrongly called ‘their former glory,’ chills my heart.  I know this means their honourable scars have been destroyed, and their character obliterated. In trying to make things look as good as new we are not honouring their past… the spirit of kintsugi.

When we were told on our personal growth courses to turn sour milk into yogurt, this was the same thing, re-creating and restoring the broken, cracked or scratched parts of our lives, and using them to teach us strength, compassion, insight. Acknowledging the hard places and tough times we had come through, and the buried pain, we were able then to see how they had shaped us.

We learned to face these times with ‘awe and reverence’, and with gratitude too, since without these scars, we would not be the people we had become. Our lives regained both magic and poignancy as we learned to see the mysterious patterns of events which we had endured and previously dismissed or de-valued.

Patterns of pain, loss, anger or despair, once recognised, became our golden repairs, our kintsugi, which enriched us and gave us a sense of the beauty of our lives. The cracks of character and kindness round our mouths, the lines of laughter softening our eyes, the deep furrows of thought and intellect above our brows became testimony to strength of character, to acceptance of the challenges faced, and rejection of bitterness or resistance.

Maybe this is why I find the faces of celebrities who have had a face lift or a botox injection rather sad… they are not honouring the medals earned by a well-lived life.

The most precious example of kintsugi in this place where we live is a diver’s rusty old tank, found while we scoured a demolition yard for re-cycled goodies. It was brought joyfully home, carefully cut in two, sanded, gently polished and re-painted, so it is a dull antique grey, with a few antique coins stuck to the circumference.

It’s mounted at the bottom of our drive with a striker made from an old fishing weight attached to a handle of weathered wood sitting by it. When visitors arrive, they ring the bell to tell us they’re here. Every day at dawn, and in the gloaming we ring our bell in gratitude. It reminds us that life is precious. And so we honour life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

We always used to have goose at Christmas when I was a child, but on the one occasion we had turkey I remember my father saying he wasn’t going to eat cold turkey or turkey sandwiches for the next week. So he devised a rechauffe of turkey eaten on rice.

Faced with lots of left-over turkey this year, I decided to follow his example. I had saved all the turkey juices, so after frying mushrooms and chopped bacon in butter, I stirred in a table spoon of flour to thicken the mixture and added the turkey juices. When this had thickened, I added chopped turkey and a little cream, salt and pepper, nutmeg to taste, and a small chicken bouillon cube.

Served on boiled rice, with peas, chopped parsley and butter stirred through, it was much better than cold turkey sandwiches!

Food for Thought

The self-actualising person is not a normal person with something added, but a normal person with nothing taken away.         Abraham Maslow

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Is less really more – or less?

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To keep or not to keep – that is the question. I look around my tiny kitchen and think I should de-clutter, simplify, get rid of all the surplus stuff overflowing on shelves and in cupboards. No good asking the question, do I need it – of course I don’t … next question – do I want it? That’s the trouble, I think I do…

So do I need the cream Italian stuff we eat off every day? It’s also perfect for summer meals to be served on the veranda when we have guests, the bowls are perfect for pasta and winter stews, and I love them. So do I need or want the white French provincial china, which looks so elegant when I want to serve a dressy meal to guests, and looks wonderful on a white lace table cloth? … Yes, I do, and the big carving plates which make mounds of summer vegetables or heaps of roasted winter vegetables look utterly delicious.

I particularly love the deep white pudding bowls – perfect for my comfort food  -cornflakes,  or for porridge, on a white tray with all white cup and saucer, milk jug, and coffee pot. And sometimes I yearn to treat myself to eating off the antique French flowered plates… some I bought myself as a Christmas present, and that same Christmas my daughter thought to herself: “she’d like these,” and gave me matching ones which completed the set.

Or I want to serve pumpkin soup in the big shallow blue and white Victorian soup plates with a wide brim, so much more enticing than pouring the hot orange soup into something small and plain. My husband loves to have his lunch on a big square green modern French plate, and on those days I eat mine on a pale turquoise and amber coloured pasta plate I bought in Melbourne.

I don’t need those earthenware dishes, I think to myself, but cauliflower cheese looks lovely in the big one, and then the vegetables look perfect served in the smaller dishes, all found in junk shops and markets for the proverbial song. Each one is imprinted with a memory of the person who gave it to me or the place I found it. And I do need the little white dishes for chocolate mousses for the grand-children.

Then there’s the glasses – big green glass goblets for water with the cream plates, generous French country wine glasses for smart occasions, fragile cranberry pink champagne glasses for special events, the old crystal glasses which are so old fashioned nowadays, but look so charming on the aforesaid lace cloth with silver and the oval white china dinner plates. I could pare down the whole collection and we could use one set of this or that… I don’t need them all, but I enjoy them all.

I could split up the beautiful antique tea service with pink Chinese pattern – ten cups and saucers with all the bowls and jugs that go with them. I could sell six and keep four for myself… but it seems like vandalism to split up something that’s been intact and unchipped for over two hundred years … and what about my old jugs … some of them cracked, but all loved.

In the end, it’s the enjoyment which wins…. no trouble getting rid of gadgets – there are few, and the only ones I really use are the hand held beater, and the new stick beater. I find that the  crock pot makes all meals taste the same, I don’t need the blender now I have the stick, and the really expensive juicer I hardly use since I discovered that drinking so much vegetable and fruit juice was making my arthritis worse from all the sugar in the fruit and veg. The coffee grinder which I also used for grinding nuts, can go… the ancient hand – held cheese grinder can do the same job for nuts, and I was never much of a one for grinding my own coffee beans, though coffee afficionados may wince at hearing this.

Wooden spoons stay! As does the old-fashioned boy – scout tin-opener. I’ve never mastered the efficient modern variations. The same old saucepans for thirty or more years need no sorting … I know exactly what I can cook in each different size, and would be thrown into confusion if I had to start with something new, or cope with fewer. Ancient saucepans and baking tins stay.

And as I look at this inventory of my kitchen I can see that it’s the looks that count! Few nods to super duper efficient kitchen gadgets and inventions… a pop-up toaster and a wooden spoon were the only gadgets I had until I was nearly fifty, until the day I discovered a blender… which is obsolete now anyway with my new simple stick blender.

But all of this is dodging the point… that in a world where we are trying to come to terms with less is more, as the scale of the waste and destruction of the planet becomes more apparent, to harbour so much stuff seems counter-productive. Consumerism is what is driving the rush to planetary ruin, chopping down more forests for furniture and newspapers, using all our resources for more clothes, more sheets, more gadgets, more cars, more of everything, even when we don’t need it.

So far my one step towards the goal of less is more, is to announce to the family that I’m not buying any more stuff at Christmas and birthdays… what they will get is things of mine they like, books of mine that they’d enjoy, or pots, jars and bottles of food made by moi – or a cake – also home-made. Or I will grow them a plant. Not only does this save me money, but it also means one less consumer buying useless stuff to give to people who already have more than they need, and whose houses are also filled with stuff.

And yet in the meant-time I’m still indulging my whims using different plates and dishes and cups. I think to myself of William Penn, a swashbuckling young cavalier when he became a Quaker. The one thing he couldn’t let go from his former courtly life, was the sword which  he wore every day, like all his contemporaries.

He discussed this problem with George Fox, founder of Quakerism, who being a true mystic was also profoundly common sense, and understood that deprivation is bad psychology. George Fox gave William Penn this wise counsel: “I advise thee to wear it as long as though canst.” Not long after this they met again, when William had no sword. George said to him, “William, where is thy sword?”  “Oh!” he said, “I have taken your advice; I wore it as long as I could.”

So I placate myself with the thought of these two men, and think that I’ll take George Fox’s sensible advice. When I am ready I will be able to part with these things that I love, at the perfect time and in perfect peace. Until then, I will savour the enjoyment of them, comforting myself with that Hebrew saying that when we arrive at the other side, we will be called to account for all the permitted pleasures that we failed to enjoy…

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

In the last post I gave a recipe for rice salad. We eat it with cold chicken in a lightly curried mayonnaise dressing. Allow enough chicken for each person. I steam a chicken for this, or if there’s only a few of us, poach a couple of chicken breasts in water with an onion, carrot, bay leaf and garlic clove. If I’m really up against it I might use a cooked organic chicken from the supermarket. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces. In a deep bowl put two generous table sp of good bought mayonnaise for each person. Add a few tablsp of cream, a good tablsp of golden syrup, a tablesp of curry powder and mix together. Taste and adjust – more curry powder, more golden syrup, more mayonnaise, until it’s to your liking. Mix in the chicken. I put this in the centre of a large carving platter and surround it with the rice salad.

For the vinaigrette for the rice, (this is vital to the taste) mix one third wine vinegar to two thirds olive oil, stir in a good teasp of Dijon mustard,  sugar to taste (I use about a desert sp) a very generous grinding of black pepper, and then some salt. Mix this through the rice just before serving, and eat with a green salad. It makes a lovely summer lunch with friends.

Food for Thought

Give us the honesty to examine our own acts and thoughts as scrupulously and severely as those of other people.

Pierre Ceresole  1879 – 1945    Quaker, and son of a former Swiss president. An engineer, who in 1920, dedicated himself to working for peace, and who founded The International Voluntary Service, working wherever there was need. He was imprisoned many times for refusing military service, and for entering Germany several times with messages of peace.

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