Broken things

Ugly inside of me
taught me of beauty.

I was a cheap bastard, even when I made a living wage.

This won’t surprise any of the coworkers from my careers in marketing or journalism. I once salvaged the jeans I was wearing when I took a rough tumble on a motor scooter by sewing no less than five patches onto the pants — including one that proclaimed me a proud member of Homestar Runner’s militia, the “Homestarmy”1 — over bloodstained holes. This proved embarrassing to one female coworker who tried to do me the favor of peeling off what she thought was a Walmart smiley-face sticker from my bum before realizing it was a sewn-on smiley face without ties to an evil conglomerate.

That was the last time she tried to grab my butt.

Last week, when I accidentally elbowed the earthenware tumbler that holds our toothbrushes over the ledge and into the sink, breaking it into four pieces, it went without saying that I’d glue it back together.

But, in neither case was I just being cheap. Nor was I so sentimentally attached to these objects that I just couldn’t let them go. (Most people probably would’ve ceremonially burnt the jeans. They could make a good case, as the wreck took from me two of my favorite teeth.2)

Thing is, it’s also an aesthetic choice. There’s a beauty to stuff that’s lived in.

Give me worn edges and faded glazes on ceramics, frayed seams and comb-over holes in denim, cracks and nail-head craters in wood. And I’m not alone. This is why you can, foolishly, pay a premium for pre-weathered clothes, full of unearned knee holes and swatches of faded dyes.

There’s a concept in Japanese culture called kintsugi, which celebrates the brokenness, or at least the former brokenness, of things. They consider the shattering of my little tumbler, for instance, as an important part of the history of the piece. Oftentimes practitioners will repair ceramic by mixing gold dust in with laquer to make the repair and highlight the crack. The word kintsugi literally means “gold joinery.”

Left: An example of kintsugi. (Haragayato [CC BY-SA 4.0])
Right: Kylo Ren gets it. Look at the lava-colored gilding on his repaired helmet!

Kintsugi is related to the idea of wabi-sabi, which is an acceptance of the transience of things and the imperfection that comes with it. Wabi-sabi apparently has its roots in Buddhism’s three marks of existence — most notably impermanence and the absence of self-nature (which works out, in this case, to being satisfied with your cracked tumbler, as it still holds your toothbrushes just fine, thank you). But I’m no Buddhist scholar, and I don’t want to go so far down a rabbit hole that we miss the key element here.

Which is this: Wabi-sabi is really fun to say.

Wait, that’s not right. Which is this: I need someone to manufacture superglue that’s gold-colored so I can wabi my own sabis.

Seriously, though, if all this talk is too high-falutin for you, what with the “gold-gilded ceramics” and the “holders for toothbrushes,” here’s something we all can relate to.

That’s right, “Jaws.” When Hooper and Quint try to one-up each other in their famous scar showdown, they are proud of the marks the world has left on their lives. Of the 700,000 hours they will each spend on this planet, the five ones they’ll most remember are the ones that went by in slow-motion; the ones that left permanence on their bodies and psyches.

“Ugly inside of me taught me of beauty. I wouldn’t trade that work of art for all the silk of perfect skin,” sang Maria McKee, in “Scarlover,” way back on her trippy 1996 album “Life Is Sweet.”

This week, the prevailing New York Times profiled an Aboriginal artist who combs garbage dumps for pieces to adorn her acclaimed art. The artist, Karla Dickens, “foraged among discarded building materials, broken toys and industrial waste. She cast an expert eye over the sea of rubbish, not looking for anything in particular but knowing from experience that the right things ‘will come to me,’” writes reporter Charlotte Wood. Of course, untrained “outsider” artists have done this forever, assembling objects found in the fields and on street curbs into art, but perhaps with less aesthetic appeal than Dickens’ work, which, at one point, covered the famed roof of the Sydney Opera House.3

Anything can be taken too far, and there’s a danger in over-celebrating brokenness. Kintsugi artisans have been known to break perfect plates or bowls so that they can improve their value with golden repair.4 I laugh when I see home-improvement shows whacking lovely wood with block-and-tackle or chains to artificially weather the wood. They’re both missing the point. They’re creating a fictional narrative for the objects to evoke a history that didn’t exist, to trigger some squirt of endorphin in our brain. No matter how deep the divot that chain puts in the wood, it’s still just a veneer.

It would also be disingenuous to ignore the fact that not all battle-scars bring beauty. When I lost my two front teeth in that bike wreck, I couldn’t book my dentist fast enough to get him to put in a bridge to cover the gigantic gap in my word-hole.

Still, it’s important to remember that many scars and imperfections do nothing to hinder the beauty of something. Sometimes they enhance it, or at least make it more interesting. And sometimes living with it is the best way of living.

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1Oh, Homestar Runner, that venerable, lovable web cartoon that laid waste to so many work hours around the country in the early 2000s. As to the etymology of “Homestarmy,” do the math: Homestar+Army=Homestarmy, duh. Recruitment literature for the Homestarmy included a poster that asked this important question: “Do you has what it takes to join the Homestarmy? The guts? The determination? The five bucks?” Watch the original clip for a laugh, though if you don’t already know the characters, prepare to scratch thine head.

2Which calls to mind my favorite scene from Spike Jonz’s “Where the Wild Things Are”:

3For whatever reason, the Chattahoochee Valley seems particularly rich with folk artists, whose work often resonates with me. A big chunk or our home’s hang-able real estate is devoted to the likes of Butch Anthony, John Henry Toney, Floria Yancey and Buddy Snipe.

4Maybe it’s just job security.

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