I was walking with my son at MASS MoCA on a recent rainy day. He was collecting Pokémon on my phone, and I was letting my mind wander with our footsteps. The asphalt of the pavement beneath my feet was cracked in several places. As in many places, the cracks had been filled in and repaired.
But then I noticed that these repaired cracks weren't quite like the ones I see everywhere else. They gleamed. They were golden. And then I noticed the small plate on the side of building 11 indicating that this is an art piece by Rachel Sussman, part of an exhibition called The Space Between. Here's how the artist herself describes the piece:
Fracture is investigated by Rachel Sussman, who restores cracks in pavement in the museum parking lot by adapting the Japanese art of kintsukuroi. On the ground in the interior courtyard behind the museum’s main building, resin and gold powder fill the cracks on the ground caused by cars and weather. The tiny streams of gold create fractal patterns recalling aerial topographical photographs. The philosophy of kintsukuroi treats cracks as fundamental parts of an object, noting that value lies in accepting change and underscoring the aesthetic qualities of imperfection and use rather than disguising flaws.
I learned the name of the art as kintsugi, and I've written about it before (see From trauma to healing, a d'var Torah I shared for Shemini a couple of years ago.) I learned about it from a blog reader, who told me about it after I posted the poem Find in April 0f 2015. The art, as I understand it, inheres in repairing broken things with gold so that their brokenness becomes a focal point and a locus of beauty, rather than being a cause for shame.
We all have broken places. Our bodies break -- I became aware of that in a new way when I had my strokes. And even absent something dramatic like a stroke, our bodies all have flaws, and the older we get, the less our bodies match the supposed ideals of youthful slimness that our current culture so prizes. Our hearts break -- we experience love lost or unrequited, seasons of loneliness and invisibility, the personal griefs that we all come to carry. Our minds break -- over time they lose their elasticity, and remembering things becomes more difficult. And our spirits break -- the world is unfair, children fall ill and do not recover, world news can be horrifying and disheartening. We are all broken, sometimes.
It can be tempting to try to hide the brokenness. To put a bandaid on it, or cover it over with makeup, or put on the proverbial happy face and pretend it away. And there are times when pretending at gratitude can help us actually get there. But there are also times when pretending away our brokenness and our grief is a form of spiritual bypass. I think that often authentic spiritual life demands something different: that we feel what we feel, and that we call it what it is, honestly and openly. Sometimes we feel broken. (Sometimes we are broken.) And that's okay. Granted, it doesn't feel good. Nobody wants to be broken. But pretending that we are otherwise doesn't actually change anything. The art of kintsugi offers a different path: paint our broken places gold.
Paint our broken places gold, and embrace them. Recognize that the more life we have lived, the more scars we are likely to have -- visible or invisible -- and that our scars are not a flaw in us, but an intrinsic part of what makes us human. Beyond that: our broken places can paradoxically be a source of our wholeness. The sages of the Talmud taught that if an earthen vessel becomes tamei ("impure," charged-up with spiritual energy in a dangerous way) the way to make it tahor (pure) is to break it and glue it back together. Torah teaches that we are beings of the earth: we too can become pure and whole not despite our brokenness, but in and through it. Or as the Leonard Cohen z"l wrote, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
I'm grateful to Rachel Sussman for adding a little bit of beauty and sparkle to the rain-drenched pavement outside of MASS MoCA, and for reminding me to find the beauty in my own broken places.