I have a woodworker friend who refuses to work with mesquite. ‘Firewood,’ he calls it. ‘Makes excellent steaks, horrible furniture.’ He has a point.
But as I stood in the lumberyard two days ago with my new clients, helping them choose which slab of wood would make the headboard for their new bed, I was hoping they’d pick the cracked and battered mesquite over the smooth, perfect walnut.
I’m not sure why. I must have a strange draw to broken wood. It probably relates to my affection for broken humans. I’m pulled to people who have lived real lives, who are fragile and cracked but still holding together somehow. They make me feel more at ease, less worried about my own flaws. They teach me about survival, about real beauty, about God’s grace. And they usually have space for me in their hearts, what with all the gaping holes those cracks have created.
Perfection in people, and in wood, can be pretty uninviting.
As I’m driving back home with the crumbly nine-foot-long slab standing between the seats in my minivan, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake not steering them toward the walnut. I wonder why I’ve just created so much more work for myself.
Because it’s going to have to be filled. Those yawning cracks can’t stay like that, not if it’s going to be my kind of furniture. I don’t do rustic, I do refined.
The industry-standard way of refining mesquite is with a two-part, clear epoxy. You mix the stuff up and pour it into the cracks and wait a day. It hardens like glass and you sand it flat. And it looks like just that, like you’ve filled it with glass. Which is…okay, I guess. I’ve done it many times, and it’s never looked wrong.
And it’s probably what I’d do with this piece if I hadn’t recently become haunted by the idea of kintsukuroi.
Japanese for ‘golden repair,’ kintsukuroi is the centuries-old art of fixing shattered ceramics using resin that’s been mixed with gold dust. The idea is to highlight the repair, not hide it. To celebrate the mend, and even the break itself, as a thing of beauty instead of a reason for shame.
The image of kintsukuroi won’t leave me alone. Without a word it tells a whole story, speaks a profound truth. Like that Migrant Mother photo from the dust bowl, or a still, secluded pond on a quiet morning, or that crescendo in that piece of music you love so much. It holds infinity in a single moment.
Kintsukuroi reminds me that in the real world, things break. Bowls, hearts, dreams. Hopes for how our lives will turn out. It makes me think of my friends who died way too soon and all the shattered hearts they left behind, of the marriages and friendships that seem to crack into pieces almost daily, of the once-sharp minds that lose their grip because of time and stress and disease.
And it makes me more aware of my own broken heart.
Kintsukuroi doesn’t stop there, though. It also tells me that a heart can be put back together, that it can be done with delicate care and careful respect. That a new and unexpected arrangement of the same old pieces is possible. That a repaired life in which the cracks are beautifully displayed draws the eye and stirs the heart far more than one that’s never been broken.
But most importantly right now, as I contemplate this stress-shattered board of mesquite, kintsukuroi reminds me that I have a choice to make. I can try to hide the cracks by filling them with a color that’s close to the rest of the wood, hoping they’ll disappear. Or I can fill them with the epoxy, the way I’ve always done it, which is easy and gets me by so I can move on.
Or, says kintsukuroi, I can celebrate them. Highlight them. Draw the eye straight at them. I can fill those cracks with something unexpected and beautiful. Maybe stone or metal or another kind of wood. Something bright and exotic, like figured maple. I can invite people into the story of a mesquite tree. The stress and trauma of life in the hills of central Texas, the droughts and floods and scorching temperatures. The winds and the bugs. The will to survive, to live, to become beautiful anyway.
I can choose a golden repair.
Everyone I know is broken, somehow. It happens when you get to be forty five. Not many perfectly intact people around any more. Not many bowls or trees make it to forty five without cracking either. Time has a cruel and beautiful agenda to break everything into smaller and smaller bits, to grind it all into reusable pieces. Even souls, I suppose.
We don’t get to choose not to be broken. But we do get to choose how to deal with the cracks. We can try to hide them, from others and from ourselves. We can fill them with the same old stuff we’ve always used, just to get by (addictions of all sorts come to mind).
Or we can do something different. Unexpected. Try some sort of golden repair. Let our cracks make us more beautiful, not more ashamed. Fill them with new and unexpected materials, things that require effort and care and might even cost us something. Like giving our time to other broken people, or creating something beautiful, or simply choosing to emit love and light and healing to the people around us instead of pain and fear and hopelessness.
We can choose to be broken, or we can choose to be beautifully broken.
2018 update: See the finished bed here.