Fixing things

In many ways I’m still a product of the sixties: I’m always on the lookout for ways to mend the world -it’s the right thing to do. The problem is, since I retired, I find that I’m not as deft as I used to be. Daft, yes -age leaves that pretty well untouched- it’s the deft it mucks around with. And besides, fixing the world is pretty ambitious even when you still have leaves on your branches. Be that as it may, I’d like to think I’d have it in me if the instructions were written in large font.

That someone would take the trouble to print out a set of directions seems unlikely, though. I certainly haven’t seen anything like that on my Facebook feed, but perhaps I’m signed up in the wrong bubble. Anyway, I always seem to be the person locked outside and forced to look through the window. I suppose I should make up a more clever-sounding avatar, and re-register, but would I actually recognize a real solution even if I saw it?

I mean, apart from the usuals -stop using plastics, don’t eat meat, and never shop when you’re hungry- they all sound like retreads: veneers coating veneers all the way down -matryoshka dolls. None of them sound like they might actually lead to solutions; they are patches only. Surely we need more than that, otherwise my mother would rule the world, and I’d still be doing dishes.

But, every once in a while, in my ceaseless Googling for remedies, the search engine directs me to an interesting article whose title contains all of the desired words. That’s how I happened upon Melanie McGrath’s essay in Psyche: ‘Could the art of Sashiko help to mend our frayed world?’

To tell the truth, I am always a little hesitant about pretending to understand a custom not native to my prairied childhood in Winnipeg, and besides, Sashiko sounded a little too much like Sushi to be of much use to my quest. And then I remembered some essays I’d written a while back about concepts involving mysterious foreign words and I was emboldened to embark again upon the journey. (

As McGrath points out, ‘Sashiko, which means ‘little stabs’ in Japanese, is the traditional art of fabric repair… In sashiko, the goal is not to hide the repair but to celebrate it, hence a patch is attached to the inside of the fabric using neat rows of tiny stitches, leaving the tear still visible.’ The jump from fabric to world repair seemed rather braggadocious but in the end, you sometimes have to trust people who write essays. Anyway, I have always had an abiding curiosity about the less obvious trails and where they might lead, so I stumbled onwards, my eyes ever wide. And, I did not hesitate over sentences like: ‘Sashiko is not for the slapdash or the impatient’ -I was determined to watch where I was going, and to leave crumbs along the way like Hansel (of Gretel fame), if necessary.

It was only once I was thoroughly ensconced in the verbal woods that I discovered not only that had I forgotten the crumbs but that I had not realized that McGrath was also an integrative psychotherapist. I began to wonder if, as in the Brothers Grimm story, I had been invited to a gingerbread house on a ruse, with the excuse that ‘therapy is itself a process of repair that, like sashiko, is not designed to conceal breaks and tears – the places where life has worn us to a state of near collapse – but to support them with new and more robust frameworks for thinking and feeling. ‘Little stabs’, and occasionally bigger ones, are an inevitable part of the process by which therapy seeks to strengthen the fabric of our being.’ Had I been click-baited?

Perhaps, but I was intrigued by a point she made about Japanese aesthetics -or at least what she has garnered about it from the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, ‘We Orientals,’ he wrote, ‘tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce, then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.’ Hence the beauty of patches.

I suppose it sounds like a requiem for progress though, a threnody to hope: closing our eyes to whatever damage is happening to the climate, accepting whatever pollution we find in the ocean, and living with whatever ills befall us -or just covering it up… But maybe not.

The reason we even need patches, after all, is because of overuse -or maybe misuse- of whatever requires the repair. Perhaps we could not only mend the damage, but at the same time, mend ourselves. There is a reason things break down isn’t there?

But does it really work that way? Is a patch ever the answer, or only an excuse to keep doing the same damage? It’s interesting how these profound philosophical conundrums sometimes boil over into conversations in Food Courts, isn’t it?

My favourite is the Tim Hortons coffee shop in a big shopping mall on Vancouver’s North Shore. The bus stops close by, so a lot of elders gather there on rainy winter mornings when their wives have shooed them out of the house for a while. I have no such excuse, though, so I merely show up to listen to the domestic travails and add my astonished tsk-tsks while I pretend empathy for things well beyond my ken.

Only Kenny was there today, though, sitting lonely as a stump in a field of chatting tables. He waved when he saw me, although he would have been hard to miss, to tell the truth. Bald as a door knob, and dressed in his usual frayed brown woolen jacket, and duct-taped spectacles that always sat askew and half-way down his nose, he seemed to discourage strangers from taking up residence at nearby tables.

I waved back and weaved through the intervening chairs holding my 12 grain bagel and small cup of dark roast coffee. He watched my progress over the top of his glasses and smiled. “G,” he said after readjusting his lenses to make sure he had the name right.

“Where are the guys?” I asked him as I sat down.

He shrugged. “Only John showed up today.” He sipped the dregs of what was left of his coffee. “And he only stayed a short while,” he added after a few moments of scanning the room for any interesting new arrivals. “Apparently he had to go home and fix the toaster, or something…”

“There’s always something that needs fixing, isn’t there?” I said, more to break the silence than to attempt profundity. But it reminded me of McGrath’s article. “Do you think that’s enough though, Kenny?”

He repositioned his glasses on his nose and looked at me curiously. “Huhh?”

“I mean, just repairing things?” I clarified, although it obviously didn’t.

“Well, if something’s broken, G…” He rolled his eyes at my question. “Short of throwing it out and buying a new one, what else are you going to do with it?”

I wasn’t sure I could explain my concerns, so I just shrugged.

“I’m always patching things,” Kenny said -to cheer me up I think. “Sometimes stuff needs repairing through no fault of its own. And let’s face it, some things are hard to replace…” He blinked as he thought about it some more. “Well, not without risking screwing everything up, anyway…”
I sighed and shook my head. “But come on Kenny, you can’t simply patch up the atmosphere or the oceans.”

“Whoaa,” he said and smiled at the earnest expression on my face. “I didn’t think you were going to go all existential on me.” He sat back in his chair for a moment, watching me all the while. “So, what else are you going to do until you actually have a remedy? You have to start somewhere, eh?”

I shrugged and nodded my head reluctantly. He was probably right -although I tried not to look at his glasses.


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