Kintsugi (きんつぎ) & Beauty through Overcoming

Collectively speaking, how a culture views and responds to brokenness, setbacks, and pain says something about the character of that culture. At least in my experience, trying to locate and separate this thread for purposes of comparison can be a vivid and instructive experience. One practice in particular, “kintsugi” (きんつぎ) or “kintsukuroi” (きんつくろい), literally translating to “golden joinery” and “golden repair,” respectively, is the practice of repair800px-thumbnailing broken pottery with a gold-infused lacquer. While the philosophy behind this practice is much older, the common understanding is that the practice of kintsugi dates roughly to the 15th century CE, when a Japanese ruler sent his beloved broken tea bowl to China for repair and had it returned stapled together in a way he found quite ugly. He tasked Japanese artists/craftsmen with finding a better way to repair valuable pottery, and kintsugi was born.

Underlying this practice is the assertion that the piece’s damage, its brokenness, is not something to be hidden; instead, its brokenness adds to its beauty. Relating somewhat to wabi-sabi (侘寂), there is an acceptance of the imperfect and ephemeral in kintsugi. There is not quite a parallel philosophy in the Western tradition, where more attention is paid to those things that transcend the immediate rather than dwelling on what is momentary. From the Western European tradition comes more of an interest in the manner of beauty that comes from symmetry, from a kind of perfection, as opposed to that which comes from imperfection. The European aesthetic, at least in some senses and especially in discussing post-Christianization Europe, there seems to be more of an interest in aesthetics of the absolute. This tendency is countered by the Japanese (and Zen) interest in the ephemeral, the fleeting, and what beauty it contains.

And when we push the idea of kintsugi past its literal practice and work to break open its philosophy a bit more, applying it not to lacquer and ceramic, but to people, something interesting emerges: not an abhorrence of scarring, weakness, or wound, but a whole-hearted acceptance of these things in the realization that life is so brief, and that to live and thrive despite hardship seems in some ways to be intrinsically beautiful. It is precisely the brokenness and transience of a thing that makes it beautiful.

Applied to people, this philosophy is life-affirming and all the more intense. Our broken things–our relationships, our pasts, our very selves–once mended through understanding and acceptance are all the more beautiful. This is not to say we should not strive to do better and be better, but that our imperfections and scars are things to be accepted and celebrated–these things are evidence of living.

Nerdwriter (who, if you’re not familiar, you should certainly know), built a fantastic video-essay on the concept. Certainly worth a watch.

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Iron & Wine — 4AD Session

Something about Sam Beam live is so soul-satisfying.

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Back into the Stitch of Things

I am a poet because I sit down at my desk, at my computer, to ask questions I didn’t know I had in ways I didn’t know I could express. Often, that is the reason I get up in the morning–to explore that space. But sadly, the overwhelming amount of work I’ve been tasked with recently has hurt that writing practice (if you value your free time, don’t get a PhD). I’ve been unable or at least not in the right mental space to write. And now that some of that work has waned, I can be mindful about my practice again and work back into that space. And as I work into that space, I find it more difficult than I thought.

Unlike riding a bike, it’s like trying to find a path in a dense wood that’s grown over. I catch glimpses of the path, but then lose it, and I find myself wandering. Not that there isn’t value to that wandering–there certainly is. I just have more interest in wandering mindfully, wandering in a productive space. So I do what I always do when I’m in this situation: I turn back to my poet-mentors. I re-read Charles Wright and Tony Hoagland and Allen Ginsberg. It’s proving helpful, and it’s a potent reminder that we’re not lone voices out in the void; we belong to a rich collection of voices all sounding in relation to one-another, even if we don’t realize it.

There is some romance to the rugged lone voice, no doubt. I know the allure of the romance of the rugged individual better than most, and it’s a substantial effort to be aware of how woven into everything my experience–and my voice–really is. Something to embrace and celebrate, that intricate stitching. More than the appeal of the lone voice out in the wilderness, our writing becomes an important part of that larger effort and experience.

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Lucius — Until We Get There (Live)

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On Trump

Donald Trump is an unconventional, untested, and polarizing presidential candidate, and I think many who plan to vote for him will do so holding their nose—but the fact remains that his ascendance to candidacy represents a significant trend in American politics and cannot be dismissed. The more one investigates Trump and his move from liberal-leaning Northeast blue blood to tentative champion of the GOP, the more interesting it becomes.

It seems, in many ways, that there are two Donald Trumps: the relatively quiet, thoughtful Trump of the 80s and 90s, where in interviews and TV appearances he worries about our national debt and OPEC’s power, saying we need a capable president but admits he’d rather not do it, and then there’s the Trump of now, the loud, brazen, fix-it man, the autocrat in training itching for the reigns. Trump in 2016 looks an odd amalgam of these people, and this seems to make him complex enough to allow people to see what they want to see in him. He is both a successful business man who knows his craft and a pompous windbag who flexes his relative power to exhibit pettiness and solipsism (read his Twitter feed sometime).

If we could extract the competent (though, if we’re being fair, not any kind of amazing self-made) business man from Trump, the man who understands how the market works and what a government can do to make a mixed market flourish, we might end up with a capable commander in chief, but that person and the unbearable, self-made caricature are inextricably connected. Much like we can’t in Hillary Clinton have the experienced and intelligent lawyer without the lying, scandal-ridden politician, we can’t have the best of Trump without the worst.

And if this is the case, then what Trump supporters get from him, even knowing his significant downsides, must be worth it, and what that seems to be is an “I’ll get things done” mentality. Trump posits himself as a doer, and argues that this country needs fixing—just hand him the tools. And in this, his primary urge and appeal, he is his most un-conservative and unappealing. Much like Clinton, Trump represents America’s increasingly external locus of control.

If one wants to learn about American sensibilities and circumstance in the 20th century, one can examine trends in automobile manufacturing and marketing. The models that role into the showroom provide a mirror of American values: the gargantuan luxury-mobiles of the 1950s, the power-laden cars of the 1960s, and the economic cars of the late 1970s tell a story about who we were collectively in that moment. Politicians work very much the same way, and if Theodore Roosevelt reflected the American desire for independence and autonomy, Trump is the latest model of let-me-take-care-of-you.

In this, he is decidedly not conservative—at least not in any small government sense. He supports eminent domain, the federal reserve, Social Security, government-funded healthcare, the Patriot Act, and closed borders. If the dominate sensibility of the GOP is fiscal responsibility and individual liberty, then Trump is an imposter. Or, more troubling still, we’re moving away from these values entirely in favor of a demagogue who vows vaguely to make everything “great” again, though he never really explains what that means (allowing people to quietly pencil in their own meaning there). I fear that Trump supporters might be right: Trump will get things done. I fear that what he’ll accomplish is contributing to an ever-increasing and overreaching federal government.

So, what’s a liberty-minded, fiscal conservative to do? Both parties are differently-packaged brands of big government, both promising, if you just give them the power, to fix our country. Certainly, Gary Johnson provides an appealing alternative, though it seems that Johnson will be more like a Nader and pull votes from Trump rather than a genuine third-party contender—as unfortunate as that is. If any substantial benefit will come from this election cycle, it’s that we might recognize the uniformity of American politics—that the oft-touted values of both the Democratic and Republican parties are simulacra, artfully-crafted lip service—and recognize that the push-and-pull that matters is between individual liberty and politely forced conformity, and that it’s not always easy to tell who’s on what side. And if our political system is broken enough to leave us with no other choice but one, I hope we might have the sense to change that system.

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Penn Jillette on Trump, Hillary, and Johnson

Naturally, this will be one of those videos whose context will change as this year’s election cycle continues and eventually ends. Still, I think Jillette has a lot of interesting things to say–and he’s such a likable person.

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Alan Watts: Moving in Toward the Idea of Zen

Alan Watts, if you’re unfamiliar with him and his work, was a student of Zen and of philosophy in general, who worked to bring Zen and other Eastern traditions to the West (though certainly, the juxtaposition of East v. West reveals part of the problem of translating things like Zen in the first place into a culture that sees things binarily). In this brief excerpt, he does what all great Zen teachers do: attempt to help the student or listener arrive at an understanding through illustration rather than direct instruction. Enjoy–I hope your Wednesday is treating you well.

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