This poem by young British poet and playwright Caroline Bird has more than a whiff of Pentecost about it. Caroline Bird was born in 1986. Already she has had five collections of poetry published. This poem is from her latest collection In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet, 2017).
When love comes through
the vents, you press wet rags against
the grill, lest you are smoked out
of your loneliness, you tape egg boxes
to your ears so you can’t hear
the hissing, you swathe yourself
in shame like vinegar
and brown paper. At sundown,
you gather up the rags
and press them to your face
like the dress of a lover, hoping for
a slight effect, the remnants of a rush –
not enough to change your mind – just
enough to pacify the night.
Yes, I’ve done all that. And now I am full of questions.
How do we make the most of love?
How do we make the most of every minute of love?
What do we do about our preoccupations and those things which make us unprepared for love?
How dare we hope for love and remain openminded to recognise love?
How do we avoid leaving it all too late?
How can we let love do her work in us and through us?
Things break. We break things. We break. But what do we do with the pieces?
When I have broken things I have sometimes pretended it’s never happened (playing the innocent) or I have hidden the evidence. When I’ve broken I have pretended it’s never happened, or I have hidden the shame. This is shocking dishonesty.
The prophet Jeremiah knew a thing or two about brokenness and shame. The broken thing he had his eye on was the nation itself. He came to see hope in brokenness – not shame – by studying the work of a potter. The potter was making a vessel of clay and it was spoiled in the making. Instead the potter reworked it into another vessel “as seemed good to him”. He heard God say, “can I not do as this potter has done?”
There is another school of pottery which makes something of broken pieces. This is Kintsugi. Kintsugi is known as “golden joinery” because of the method of using gold dust to mend the broken pieces. The repairs themselves become the work of art. While we might be tempted to use superglue to mend a broken ornament and then turn the damage to the wall, Kintsugi works in a different way. The repair is brazen and flaunted. The breakage gives the object a story and the object becomes more valuable than it ever was before.
The Japanese art of Kintsugi has given rise to a philosophy and metaphor for life. Also known as the “art of scars” it signals a way for us to value what is broken in our lives and to celebrate what has re-paired us.
We can look at the broken pieces of our society. Those broken pieces all have labels to identify one piece from another, and we continue to break into new pieces. We’ve got new labels, more broken pieces with Leavers/Remainers. They go along with more worn labels such as Workers/Shirkers, Gay/Straight, Black/White, North/South, Red/Blue etc etc. I like the suggestion that prayer is like the gold dust of Kintsugi – when we pray we seek to make a-mends and pray for repair and reconciliation. The putting together of the pieces is the answer to that prayer.
Kintsugi is one art of scars. Writing this as we come into Holy Week I am conscious that Christianity too is the art of scars – though crimson rather than gold. Brokenness is taken with utmost seriousness. All the repair work and the reconciliations stand proud as witnesses. Repaired brokenness makes us more precious and valuable than ever.
PS. Here’s more about the spirituality of mending by Laura Everett
PPS. #Visiblemending is trending on Twitter
PPPS. Mending is seen as practice for “tikkun olam” – for the “mending of the world”
The sunflowers weep. Anselm Kiefer has done several paintings of sunflowers. He was born in 1945 in Germany, two months before the end of the war. It is hard to imagine the state of mind of the German nation at that time – on the edge of a shameful defeat, confronting the horrors of their totalitarian regime and, of course, the Holocaust. How does a society ever recover from sinking that abysmally low?
Anselm Kiefer has been determined to confront his culture’s dark past. Here, the sunflower weeps. The sunflower looks so different in Kiefer’s work to the glory of its portrayal by Van Gogh. In Kiefer’s work, the sunflower stands for the national shame. Once proud and tall, the sunflower hangs its head in shame and disgrace – and weeps.
We can see the tears falling – they are the sunflowers going to seed. The seed is watering the earth for a new cycle of life – for a better season.
I was hoping to use this picture in a sermon – (particularly appropriate for Holocaust Memorial Day). I asked myself, “is Kiefer a Christian?”. Then I thought, “what is the point of that question?”, and “what an ugly question to be asking”. In that question there is a “as opposed to what?” – as in “if he is not a Christian then what is he?”. It becomes “Is he a Christian – (as opposed to a Jew)?” See what I mean. It’s an ugly question, particularly on Holocaust Memorial Day.
Kiefer is an artist in the business of lament and hope. There are plenty of others – largely inspired by the Jewish artists and prophets of the Hebrew scriptures.
I didn’t know what “negative space” was until I joined an art class and discovered just how important negative space is. Negative space is the space that surrounds an object in an image. Negative space helps to define the boundaries of positive space and brings balance to a composition.
We highlight what we do. In conversations we talk about what we do, showing some things, hiding others. In our work meetings we report on what we are doing. But what is going on in the negative spaces? Do we get asked to share what we are conscious of not doing? What are the things that lie in the shadow of those things we highlight? What about those things we don’t have time for, or can’t find time for? What happens when we scrutinise the composition of our negative space?
When I think of my own negative space I am conscious of the thinking, the theology, the sharing I could be doing but can’t because of a mixture of my laziness and my preoccupation with other things. I also become conscious of the people I have forgotten and who have receded into the shadows, the neighbours I should know, the circumstances I should understand and empathise with.
It is not a pretty picture. Like many in pastoral ministry I am sure that I failed to take account of negative space. It was the people in front of me who got my attention – those who could talk, those who could demand a hearing. It was the people who were privileged enough, well enough to walk the same streets as me. The assumption was made that if you didn’t see someone they were OK. So we judged how well bereaved were coping from what we saw – the evidence before our eyes, sometimes forgetting that the very reason we don’t see some people is because they are hiding (or being hidden), because they are not well enough to be “out”, because they don’t want to be a burden or because they are shamed by a society that only seems to know positive space.
We forget that positive space is a privileged space, a space for those who are able to stand proud. Negative space, on the other hand, is a much larger space – a pit of not knowing, ignored and forgotten by those who don’t occupy such space. In the dazzle of positive space it is easy to forget God’s light shines in darkness. It is easy to forget that there is much love in that negative space.
The image of The Bomb, is by Israeli artist Noma Bar