For some, the journey out of childhood is a long one, involving the healing of deep wounds to the self. These wounds are the result of feeling unloved, marginalized or dismissed, or constantly criticized or belittled by the person on the planet who is supposed to love you, your mother. Many daughters—and I include myself in that number—stumble over the word healing, which means to make whole or sound, free of injury or ailment. The word raises expectations that are difficult to realize. “Why is the healing so slow, so unreliable?” one woman emails me. “I think I’m over it and then something triggers my feelings and I am so not over it.” “I’ve had no contract with my mother for three years,” another writes,” And while it’s certainly better being free of her, I’m still hurting.”
The idea of wholeness restored spurs on the kind of magical thinking that many unloved daughters indulge in—beginning in childhood when they fantasize that their “real” mothers will show up to reclaim them, as I did—which may include hoping for that moment when everything suddenly changes and they are embraced by their mothers fully and completely with love. Daughters sometimes think that it’s only then that they will be made whole and, alas, that is unlikely to happen. But perhaps it’s not just about expectations and magical thinking; perhaps the larger problem is how we think of healing and wholeness.
And that brings me to the Japanese art of Kintsugi which takes a very different view of things that are broken or marred than we do in the West. When something precious is damaged—whether it’s Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch, Michelangelo’s David, or a family heirloom—we do what we can to restore it to its former pristine beauty. We want the repairs to be seamless, the cracks or slashes unseen, the object to be fully made whole so that, to all appearances, nothing untoward ever happened to it. Kintsugi takes a very different approach.
The term means “gold joinery” and the technique is used to repair objects of ceramic, using lacquer and a precious metal such as gold to join the broken pieces together. It’s said to date from the fifteenth century when, supposedly, a shogun sent a prized object back to China for repair, and it was returned with staples holding it together. Dissatisfied, the shogun set a challenge for artisans to come up with a more aesthetically pleasing way of repair and kintshugi was the answer. In time, these repaired objects became venerated because the visibility of their cracks and breaks testified to their history, making them an emblem of resilience, the passage of time, the inevitability of change, and transformation. It’s the transformative nature of kintsugi that’s so arresting because by flaunting the object’s history, the object becomes more than it was before it was damaged and something new that testifies to the past but is fully part of the present.
So, when we talk of healing the wounds of childhood, we should bring the image of a beautiful cup or bowl repaired by kintshugi to mind, its cracks and breaks made into shining patterns of great beauty and oneness. That image may help us focus on how our past experiences inform those in the present, to better see how the behaviors we adopted in childhood to cope may animate our behaviors and choices now, even as we move away from the past. As a layperson and fellow traveler, not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate how my childhood even now shapes the woman I am, in ways both seen and unseen, good and bad. Rather than see them as scars, seeing those wounds as lines, rivers, and patches of gold, silver, or copper brings a smile to my face.
Copyright© Peg Streep 2015
All images courtesy of and copyright Lakeside Pottery; works made by Morty Bachar.