Even more beautiful

Pretty even without a lid, my antique Brown Betty in July 2019

“The point is that things can be repaired. That they are even more beautiful for having been repaired.”Sonali Dev

I’ve read a few articles in recent years about “wabi sabi,” a term applied to a variety of philosophical contexts. The aspect of wabi sabi that first captured attention is the idea that flaws and imperfections can be viewed as contributing to the beauty of an object. For example, a vase that had been chipped or cracked might be considered more attractive than a brand new version of the same, because the older one has a history.

I thought of this recently while engaged in the seemingly endless task of sorting through a lifetime of accumulations. Often I will find myself setting an object aside because it’s just too hard to decide what to do with it. One such object I came across a couple of weeks ago is an antique “Brown Betty” teapot given to me as a wedding gift. The woman who gave it to me was an elderly retired teacher and school principal for whom I had great affection and respect. It had been part of her own teapot collection, one item of which she lovingly passed on to me.

Though I would not become a tea drinker for many years, that teapot traveled with us through all the many moves associated with marriage, school and the career of a military officer’s family. It made the journey safely through every move except the final one to Virginia, during which the packers failed to wrap the lid separately and simply left it in place on the (inadequately) wrapped teapot, which was stuffed into a box. On arrival I discovered the lid inside the pot, shattered into a zillion pieces, of which 21 were large enough to see and count. Some of those 21 were tiny:

I remember being very sad about the breakage, but instead of doing anything immediate about it, I left the broken shards inside the pot and packed it away. Within a year or two of coming to Virginia, I started drinking tea regularly, but the pot was packed away and all but forgotten.

Fast forward 15 years to the present. I had unpacked the teapot almost a year ago, but set it aside, debating whether to keep the undamaged pot without its lid, or get rid of the entire thing. I searched on eBay and at other china replacement sites, hoping to find a lid I could purchase, but I came up empty. I did find several similar teapots without lids, but no lids without pots.

A couple of weeks ago, with the growing “now or never” determination to make some progress on clearing away the bittersweet relics of my past, I started to pitch the broken pieces and get rid of the pot. But something stopped me.  I decided to bring it to my northern Virginia home where I took the time to examine the pieces with the wabi sabi intention of reassembling them. I knew the glue would never endure repeatedly being steamed by hot tea, but I reasoned that the pot was primarily a decorative object anyway, being smaller than the practical pots I use regularly.

I started by giving myself permission to pitch the project if it became too frustrating. I had done something like this only once before, when I re-assembled a Christmas ornament I had bought in Amsterdam, and I remember that I found the process absorbing and satisfying, with the result better than I had expected. The ornament has hung on my tree every year since, and I thought of it when I first read about wabi sabi some years ago.

It was much the same experience when I began to reassemble the lid. I found it to be a relaxing pastime not unlike working a jigsaw puzzle, as it required much of that same skill. In the process, the slow nature of the work turned it into a sort of meditative path, as the limitations of what could be done caused me to adjust and re-adjust what I planned to do. How like life, I thought.

I worked on it a few minutes and one or two pieces at a time. This was not just a way of forestalling frustration; it was necessary to be patient and allow each step of the repair to dry and hold strong before proceeding. It could not be rushed or everything I had accomplished might be undone. How like life, I thought.

When I got a little more than halfway through, I met an unforeseen problem. I had started with the largest pieces, which seemed logical. The outer ring of the lid had remained fairly intact though in 5 pieces, so I reassembled that first, then built from one edge to the center where the undamaged round ball created a place to hold the lid. So far, so good. But as I proceeded on, I found that I had failed to consider what should have been obvious: no matter how closely the pieces were reassembled, there would be just a tiny bit more space between them…which left not enough room to fit the smaller pieces into the newly glued repair.

I didn’t know what to do at first, and thought of giving up and just leaving the remaining holes in the lid. But then, with a bit of practice, I found a way to hold the lid tightly in one hand to support the mended places enough to keep them intact, yet allow them to move slightly outward to make room for more. I gradually worked the new pieces in, one at a time. I could hear the grinding of tiny bits of ceramic powder being sanded off between the pieces as I wedged them in. When I was done, the cracks in the previously mended parts were much more pronounced due to the necessary expansion. Every other piece, especially the largest ones, had to “give” a little to allow the smaller bits to become part of the whole again.

How like life.

So here is the completed whole, including the original hole that was not breakage, but a steam vent. Better than the first photo, cracks notwithstanding? You be the judge.

Even if I am blessed to live to advanced age, the time is coming in the not-too-distant future when someone will be going through my possessions, deciding what to do with them. Perhaps they will chuckle when they see the glued-together teapot lid. “Was she a cheapskate or what?” they might laugh. “She had at least half a dozen other teapots, yet she chose to glue this back together. Why on earth waste all that time?”

Or maybe they won’t even look at it closely enough to see the cracks. Maybe it will just be set aside with the 95% of everything else that will go to some thrift store or Goodwill donation center. Nobody will remember Ms. Violet Gilman, who owned the teapot before I did and made it so special for me, nor will anyone know why I repaired the lid, if they know me at all. But none of that matters. I have the teapot today, right now, and in my eyes, it’s even more beautiful than it was before.

Today, I hope you will find many things in your life that are more deeply valued for the history that only you can remember and understand.

Note: In a purely unintentional instance of wabi sabi, I accidentally dated this post incorrectly, so it published before I was finished writing. To those who saw it…this is the repaired version! 😀

40 Comments

  1. Chris

    Hi Julia,
    Very interesting! Would love to see a photo of the tea pot.
    Why the post on Sunday morning? Just curious.
    Have a blessed day!

    • Chris, I put the wrong date on this while I was writing it! It’s not finished yet! OOPS…I guess you got a preview…

      • Chris

        Thanks; I like previews. Hey, it’s wonderful! You do great work! Liked the “give and take” analogy. Hope your week is fantastic.

        • Thanks Chris. I’m glad you liked the repairs — of the teapot, and of this post. 😀

  2. Sheila

    Good Sunday morning, my friend. Oh, how I loved this post, your analogy, and more. First, what a surprise gift for Sunday morning, even if it was intended for Monday. Is there a bit of “wabi-sabi “ there? I just know there will be a teapot photo one day to look forward to. What added character will be in your little treasure. So much in life seems disposable in this age we’re living, objects as well as relationships. I found a description of wabi- sabi that depicts living and finding beauty in imperfection of life. I’ve often referred to my optimism as a type of “Pollyanna hopefulness”! 💛 You may understand that! I sure love you and what you’ve brought to my life. Because of you, today “I’m walking on sunshine”! 🌞

    • Hi Sheila…this post was not supposed to publish when it did (on Sunday) – it wasn’t finished! I’ll get back to your comment after I do finish it. Thanks! Sorry for the mistake.

  3. Judy from Pennsylvania

    I reflect on your closing words, “How like life, I thought.” Julia, you are full of insights and I appreciate your talent for putting them into word stories. In my mind’s eye, I saw your teapot in all those changing places and your hands as they regarded it. I love that you decided to put the lid back together. The memory of your friend’s gift is a precious thing to keep in visible form. I think you would miss it if you gave it away.

    This makes me think not only about life but about broken relationships. Those are harder to fix because they require another set of hands and those hands are not always willing. Sometimes even hostile. Yet we remember the time when a relationship was whole and we often long to see it put back together again. If only we could see all the pieces, find the right glue and have another set of hands willing to participate. We long to restore what was good.

    Several years ago my husband and I spent hours and hours making a special cherry bench for a relative. It took me 15 hours just to hand carve some designs on it. But the relative’s wife abused it and the wood became badly marred as the years went by. Now the wife is no longer in the family and the bench came back to us to be refinished. It was a joy to restore it to its former beauty. I think part of the joy in restoring it was the relief that we found in seeing that the relative’s life was also being restored after years of difficulties. The bench was a visible symbol of something becoming good again.

    • Hi Judy, thanks so much for your kind words. Hopefully you can now see the photos of the teapot which did not appear in the unfinished version that I mistakenly dated too early, making it publish when it was “not ready for prime time.” You seem to be thinking of the same ideas that came to my mind. I too had thought of broken relationships and our longing for restoration, even when we know it is far from likely. What an interesting story about the cherry bench, and how generous of you to have a good attitude about restoring it. I’m afraid I would be a bit snarkier about it if I were in your shoes. But, as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well, and we can all feel happy that it will be more appreciated now than it was before. Thanks so much for being here with your encouragement and thoughtful comments!

  4. A wonderful reflection on acceptance of transitions. What was once whole, was damaged. And yet, healing came, along with a joyful recognition that life gives us opportunities for building resilience. Your post reminded me of a quote that has been with me since high school days when I read Thornton Wilder’s, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. “We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

    • What a beautiful quote! I thought I had read that book many years ago, but surely I would have remembered such a lovely passage. Thank you for sharing it. I am grateful for your presence here, and your sharing! ❤

  5. I sent a comment, but it seems now to have been posts. Anyway, just wanted you to know that I enjoyed your lovely reflection on the ability to heal…

    • Your quote did come through. I frequently get messages from people who don’t get the “your comment has been sent” message back and are afraid it has been lost in cyberspace, but sometimes it comes through. I’m glad this one did make it through! I would have missed that beautiful quote.

  6. Heba

    Wow, Julia! Love your reflection, the mended teapot, and the whole post. I’m truly touched ❤ You have your way with words, bless you!

    • Thank you, Heba! It’s wonderful to hear from you. I hope you and your loved ones are doing well. I so appreciate your presence here, and your encouragement! ❤

      • Heba

        We’re doing great thanks God.. I’m very happy to be a follower of your precious blog 😃😘

        • 🙂 ❤ 🙂

  7. Wabi-Sabi, “the Beauty of Imperfection,” I hadn’t heard this term, but had read about kintsugi, or golden repair. Lovely concept and great article.

    • Thank you so much for introducing me to this term! I had never heard of kintsugi before but I enjoyed a brief look at this website and hope to learn more soon. It’s a concept that has great significance to me right now as so many of my life’s hopes and dreams have been shattered. I appreciate your visit here and your sharing so that we all learn more. I learn so much from the comments on this blog– thanks for being part of that.

  8. Rene

    It is indeed a beautiful gift and a wonderful story. You need to make sure you share the story and pass the pot on to someone who really appreciates both!

    • Thank you, Rene. I’ll keep that in mind. Perhaps one day I will come across just the right person with whom to share it. I’ve gotten self-conscious about trying to give people things I treasure. Most do not seem to care about the kinds of things that are priceless to me. I appreciate your encouragement!

  9. Elena

    My brother and I have sometimes used cyanoacrylate glue to repair broken whiteware (we are both lovers of jigsaw puzzles by the way) but we never used the cup/dish for contact with food or beverage afterwards. Anyway, while reading I thought about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold. The golden scars make the ceramic uniquely beautiful but sometimes it’s the scars not the gold.

    • Elena, thanks for mentioning the kintsugi. Someone else in the comments here mentioned that term– I had never heard it but I found a lovely website about it. I am happy to have the teapot as it is and without ever planning to serve any tea or other beverage from it. My Mama used to keep spare cash in a sugar bowl and I could use the teapot to hold all kinds of trinkets so it can still be useful. What sorts of jigsaw puzzles do you enjoy? I just took a lot of very nice 1000 piece puzzles to Goodwill, many of them still shrink-wrapped– Ravensburger, White Mountain, etc.– because Matt seldom works any with that many pieces (750 is about his limit), and he likes working the same ones over and over so he has way more than he needs. Most of the puzzles I gave away were given to us over the years, but I could never get Jeff interested in working them. I saved a few for myself but gave the rest away. I wish I had known so I could have sent them to you!

  10. Susan

    Julia, I just read this today — fascinating and lovely!
    I have a little pink stuffed doll that my grandfather gave me when I was a toddler. I carried her around all the time, so her fluffy fur rubbed off and she was threadbare and grubby. But I loved her. Once while visiting my grandparents, around age six or seven, I lost her and was distraught. A few days later my aunt found her buried in the leaves. My grandmother’s best friend was over and she took pity on my dilapidated doll — by slipcovering her! In dark green plaid couch material! When we next came to visit the adults proudly presented her to me. I was appalled! But back then we didn’t voice negative thoughts to adults, so I said thank you and then went into the bathroom and cried. I was heartsick for a while but she was still my doll and after a while I got used to her new look 😉 . I still have her! Someday someone who doesn’t know the story might find her and think, like the patch teapot, what the heck?! But I have such fond memories of my grandparents, the best friends (the husband looked like Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy), my aunt, that backyard, the house — so as an adult I just think back and laugh affectionately.
    I love the story of your teapot — thanks for sharing it, with the pictures ❤ !

    • Susan, that’s an even better story than the teapot! The well meaning friend whose “cosmetic surgery” on your beloved doll was something only an adult would think a good idea. I can’t help but wonder if that’s how we look in God’s eyes when we start trying to alter ourselves physically in search of improvement. But, just to carry the analogy a bit further, we are still loved no matter what. My heart goes out to that heartbroken little girl who had to say thank you for something that wasn’t wanted or needed in her world. I am happy you still have that doll. I think you should copy and print this story and keep it with the doll because it conveys so many important lessons. It would make a great picture book for children, I think. Thanks so much for sharing the story!

  11. Mike B,

    Wabi Sabi. Neat concept. And this also reminds me of the Jewish Mystical concept ot Tikun Olan (sp). That when the world was created it was shattered into a million little pieces-like a broken mirror and our job is to work with God to try and put it back together. We are still trying to put things back in order and the patience it takes for this is well immense.

    • Mike, thanks for introducing me to Tikun Olam, a term I don’t remember hearing before, though it has been so often used (according to my very brief research) that some feel it has lost its meaning over time. I found a number of interesting articles about it online; this one gives a good overview from an analytical, distinctively Jewish viewpoint. Thanks again for mentioning that idea. I learn so much from these comments!

  12. Mike B.

    Interesting article. May be an overused term and probably not used at all in Orthodox circles,but I like the idea of partnering with God to make a little better world, and deal with a little brokenness. It is a partnership. I also know that Madonna kind of popularised this term as she considers herself a Kabalist. So I guess am focusing more on the fourth area of Lurianic emphasis.
    I had some interesting experiences with the Orthodox community when I was an intern in NYC. I did not realise the cross as a symbol could be such an offense.

    • Yes, it’s easy for us to have a warped view of the cross, as if it were simply a piece of jewelry or a benign symbol. But in Galatians 5 (in some very strong words about freedom from legalistic constraints) Paul speaks of “the offense of the cross.” And of course, Jesus offended people regularly with the radical nature of what he taught. I Corinthians 1 is a beautiful and powerful chapter that speaks to this subject.

  13. Mike B.

    In my chaplain intern group there was a young Jewish divinity student who I believe is now a Jewish Campus minister at Princeton. He refused to step into the hospital chapel, where the interns had traditionally met and was offended by the cross and the whole idea of Jesus as Messiah. I got some push back from him about using too many Jesus words in my verbatims.
    He was Orthodox as are many folks in NYC, This was an eye opener for me. St. Luke’s hospital in East Harlem had a wonderful stature of St, Luke just outside the little chapel with some wonderful stain glassed windows. It is now part of the Mt. Sinai system. And I wonder if the chapel is still there

    • Was that student Hasidic? Many, many years ago I read a fascinating book by Chaim Potok; the title was My Name Is Asher Lev. WOW, was it powerful. I need to go back and re-read it; it’s one of the relatively few books I’ve kept all these years. It taught me a lot about a world previously unknown to me. We had friends in California who were very observant Jews and I assume they were either conservative or orthodox (even the Fisher-Price magnet letters the kids played with were in Hebrew, and they called their father “Abba”) but they were very welcoming to us and even invited us to their house blessing ceremony, where we shared something that was almost exactly like Christian communion. It was there that I learned what a mezuzah is, and we were able to see it before they nailed it over their door. They never expressed any sort of offense about anything as far as I can remember. In fact, I had much in common with the wife/mother of the family in terms of our basic outlook on life and child rearing, and I always enjoyed her company. She had grown up on a kibbutz in Israel and was highly creative and resourceful. It’s easy to forget that all religions have countless sects and divisions, and such a broad spectrum of beliefs that one cannot generalize based on the conduct of just one or a few adherents.

  14. Mike Be.

    And here is another interesting things abouit Harlem. Many of the Baptist churches were at one time synagogues and when you visit you see these beautiful mosaic Star of David crosses on the ceiling. There is even a tour of Jewish roots in Harlem visiting several of these chuches. when I mentioned this tour to the Jewish intern= Isaih he was mortified.

    • Mike, that is interesting. I had never heard that. I’d love to spend some time in Harlem and particularly visit a church service there. I’ve been only on the fringes of it but never really seen much of it. Perhaps your young friend has mellowed somewhat with age. When we are young, idealism tends to be untempered by experience and reality.

  15. Mike Be.

    My Lord those are tiny pieces. I suppose brown play dough would not work to fill in that little missing piece?

    • Actually there are no missing pieces now. That hole is an intentional part of the lid; it’s a steam vent.

  16. Mike C

    Of course it is. Today is Marietta Art in the park celebration. I hope to go. They even have a chalk art section. Last week Norah started cheer with Creekview school. It is part of the K-2 system. It was so hot. She has two -two hour practice sessions a week and a game every Saturday. It seems to be popular here-Football and cheerleading?Could there be a connection. The mother’s seem to take this very seriously. It was so hot.,One of the mom’s kept gesturing to her little one to smile more. She would make a sign pushing her lip and the corner of her mouth up with her index finger. Smile baby smile. But she- the daughter -was beet red and miserable in the heat. Oh well.
    Yes football is right popular here.

    • Mike, it always disturbs me a bit when the parents are way more excited about something the kids are doing, than the kids themselves are. But maybe the kids are excited about it too and just need to learn how to work through the tough aspects of otherwise rewarding things, which I guess is a good lesson in itself. But I’m old fashioned enough that I’d rather emphasize that sort of perseverance when it comes to school work or some sort of community service such as used to be done by school clubs, scout troops and faith-based youth groups. What really gets me are the occasional horror stories one reads in the news, about parents getting violent with each other at the athletic events of children. Having said that, the positives hopefully outweigh the negatives.

  17. Mike C

    Well isn’t there a famous movie about a lost item from youth? ,”Rosebud.”

    • Yes, Citizen Kane. I know that movie is widely regarded as a masterpiece but it didn’t do much for me.

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