Monday, February 6, 2012

According to legend, a 15th century Japanese shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimasa returned his favorite celadon tea bowl to China. The broken bowl had been mended with  heaps of chunky staples. Yoshimasa was displeased with the appearance of the repairs, and insisted they be done again in lacquer and powdered gold. Known as "kintsugi," this simple fix became a fashionable form of artistry by the 17th century - so much so that people were known to smash their tea bowls on purpose in order to have them embedded with the golden veins of rehabilitations.

The Japanese, of course, have a long cultural tradition of appreciating those things one might perceive as  "defective" as part of the aesthetic of wabi-sabi, and the acceptance of imperfection as part of transience, the serene melancholy brought by an object's inevitable limitations. Here in America, where we prefer the shiny and new, I have always enjoyed the art of brokenness. One can't help but look at a bowl streaked in flecks of gold, held together by an art born of necessity, and wonder about the cause of the damage. A quarrel between husband and wife? A careless child? Too much sake?

When something has suffered, it suddenly becomes an object of interest. It has a history...a story to tell. It is more beautiful because of it's damage.

We are like those broken bowls.

My children had a violin recital over the weekend. Midori had been diligently practicing her piece - Atacama Crossing - for weeks. She had figured out the abrupt changes from string to string, the tempo of the piano accompanying her, the smooth strokes of the bowing back and forth, note-to-note.

Truthfully, Midori loves everything about recitals. She loves wearing her most beautiful dresses, her slick black shoes. She loves standing on stage and playing decisively to a round of anxious applause. She loves being front and center, with her father and I staring on in adoration, and her friends smiling gleefully as they watch her perform.

Henry, on the other hand, is aloof and apart. He prefers the quiet space of the practice studio and the familiarity of routine. He has created systems for himself...a way in which he orders his world to make sense of the unpredictable, the spontaneous, the resonant sounds of a life in which he is able to decipher only those things he can first prognosticate. The unexpected rattles him to his core.

He likes watching the other children perform their pieces and, ever the critic, sits in rapt attention as the older students play Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach. His attention wanes at the squeals of the youngest pupils, who screech out the most basic melodies on a single string. He laughs at their follies. Henry has no desire to take the stage alongside them, to be among them, and to stand as the center of all attention. But, on this weekend, for better or for worse, Henry was the beneficiary of a lot of attention.

My daughter eagerly put on her best pink taffeta dress, and her little white shrug with tiny silvery pearls. She twirled down the hall, and perched herself on the sofa, where she sat "like a lady" all the while badgering her father and I to hurry along so as to be on time. My husband and I were immersed in feverish negotiations with her brother, who was refusing to don anything approximating "formal attire." Finally, I managed to wrangle and cajole Henry into a pair of black dress slacks and a button down shirt, a matching vest and some canvas slip on shoes that did not exactly work...but were not too egregiously out of sorts.

The recital was at a small church, in a sanctuary with giant wooden beams and a polished floor that made Midori's shoes clack and click as she ran about to get set up. Light - red, yellow, green - flooded in through the high stained glass windows. My husband and I took seats in the back, in case we needed to remove a disquieted Henry.

I looked down at the program, and noted that Henry was to perform second. Good. He would have a moment or two to settle his nerves, but wouldn't be subject to a long wait before going on stage. I had no doubt that his kindly music teacher, Erron, had the same notion when she positioned him in the line-up.

The first piece was short, and then it was time for Henry to walk down the aisle and ready himself to play his violin. I took him gently by the hand. Midori shot me a look, and whispered, "I'm coming, too." No, no. I explain. Henry cannot make this walk alone, and Midori knows it. "I can walk by myself, but Henry can't. I'll help him." I conceded. Perhaps, I thought, the distraction of his sister might prove a force of calm...

And so the three of us walked down the aisle to the front of the church. Erron exchanged a generous smile with Henry, and then slipped her hand in place of Midori's. We all saw it. He looked back at his father and I, and then Henry's hands began to dance in front of his face. His fingers spun back and forth in a rhythmic, almost hypnotic, motion. This movement is a hallmark of autism, much like spinning in circles and the uncontrolled flapping of the hands. Henry is trying to find his center. He is trying to come back up for air. To Erron and I, it is a moment of shared panic. We knew everything was a second from fracture. To the rest of the room, he is simply a boy with an odd mannerism.

And then, Henry started yelling. Vocal undulations that had no meaning...indecipherable noises that trumpet fear and anxiety. I gave Henry a firm look to convey the impropriety. Nothing. He raised his voice louder still...and the words poured from him, a slew of obscenities. He screamed every foul word a six year old boy might hope to know. His laughter at those utterances - a kind of nervous hysteria - only made the room more uncomfortable. Whispers, stares. Every single eye shifted from boy to mother and father, and back to boy. Erron and the piano player, Kobus, traded looks of distress, embarrassment, uncertainty. Henry was blissfully unaware, feeling only the cold of his hands and the terror of being exposed. "Smells like poop! Poop!!" He screamed and laughed, and looked to me for help.

I stood up, amid the sting of a thousand stares, the eyes of the room boring in to the back of my skull, the whispers about "that poor mother" and the million sentiments of, "If it were my son, I'd..."

I got up, and smiled compassionately at my child. Like him, I was too afraid to look at another person in that room. I knew that the stares were not forgiving, but capricious. Uncomfortable. Humilaited. And so, I looked at Henry, and I told him to look back at me. "We'll do this. Together." I knelt down next to my boy, placed his hand on his violin, and put his bow on his string. I caught only a glimpse of my husband trying unsuccessfully to restrain a determined Midori as she, too, marched on stage and planted herself behind her brother. "Come on, Henry. I'll help you." Midori knew nothing of the adults in the room and their consternation. She only knew that her brother needed help as he was languishing in unease.

And so we got through it, the three of us. We stood together as families do. I walked Henry down the stairs, back to the seats in the corner of the room, where he settled in as if nothing had transpired. Midori sprinted down the stairs and grabbed her violin. She played her piece beautifully.

Afterward, our daughter sat with her friends and shared cookies and juice. My husband, Henry and I sat alone. Not a single person who had been in that room glanced our way.

Every moment has something to teach us. In my hardest days, in the instances in which the weight of raising a child unwelcome in the world seems almost unbearable, I am consoled by the strength that Henry has given me. He has made me brave. He has taught me that, whatever comes along in this life, I can handle it. I can put one foot in front of the other, and walk through it...grow from the experience of it...and be content. He has given me the ability to shed my vanities and act with honor, integrity, absolute blinding love.

We are all a little bit broken. The fissures of my suffering were on full display this weekend, and to a room full of strangers no less. But those pores of affliction, of hardship or sorrow, are filled with aureate...infused with drops of beauty and tenderness, and a history I would not have re-written were I given the happenstance. Henry might have stood before the audience, played acceptably and walked quietly from the stage to his proud parents. That's what the other children did. The story, though, would not be so evocative without the bits of broken and the gentle mending of familial love.

Kintsugi. Wabi-sabi. The imperfect is beautiful.

No comments:

Post a Comment