THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"There Is a Crack in Everything; That's How the Light Gets in"

In novels, poems and everyday life itself, if one is alert, small, ordinary things point toward the larger issues in a human existence. "Only when I am quiet for a long time/and do not speak/do the objects of my life draw near," the poet Jane Hirshfield has written. In the age of disposability, it is easy to forget that the belongings in our households tell secrets about us, and are a potent source for writerly investigation. What we save, repair, or discard -- each choice contains part of our story, and divulges a detail about how we construct and navigate our most private world.

My late father, Harold Waldo Drane, a WWII veteran who grew up during the Depression, was a man obsessed with repairing things. For him, a leap in technology never justified a replacement if the old model could still be salvaged. Our ancient Hoover upright was bandaged in silver duct tape until it resembled a botched NASA invention. Toward the end of its life, our 1964 Plymouth Valiant no longer started with its key, but by touching two wires together until the engine gurgled and trembled.

Mending is always accompanied by an element of risk. Something may function again, but differently, more tentatively -- so that every successful re-use is accompanied by a sense of luck and relief.

We know that the reprieve is temporary; how long will it last? How many launderings can a re-stitched seam endure before the fabric disintegrates? Will the car get us through the winter, or leave us stranded by the icy roadside in the early dark? The vulnerability of things reveals our own exposure to chaos and loss, hopes for rescue, and the unpredictable endings beyond our control.

My father accorded tenderness to the objects that served us. He monitored every wheeze, gasp and clank from appliances. He set the broken legs of tables, re-wired lamps, radios and toasters, and when I returned from college, I'd wake to find my shoes and purses polished and lined up in the hallway outside my room -- as if he were preparing me, in the only way he could, to set forth again alone. His repair work was meditative. The methodical rituals of repair seemed driven by a bone-marrow memory of times when family survival depended upon keeping things whole.

As his daughter, I am still drawn to objects that bear the touch of human hands. In Tokyo for a decade, I foraged at flea markets, collecting imarii porcelain and pottery. I became fascinated by kintsugi, the Japanese craft of mending ceramics with gold lacquer resin, so cracks and fissures are transformed into a web of tiny golden veins. Exquisite gold maps spread across the landscape of a bowl. Kintsugi repairs leave the history of breakage visible, while rendering the piece unique and more precious. At times, I've wondered what might become possible if all experiences of breaking could be honored this way -- if the wounds and wear of time were recognized as survival's beauty.

I suspect that my father's habit of DIY repairs constitutes a waning skill, a practice that now seems quaint and fusty, if not eccentric. These days, it is generally cheaper and more convenient to acquire a new model, rather than locate obsolete parts, and discern the inner workings of something for which the manual has long been lost. If we simply acquire an upgrade, the illusion is sustained that nothing can be irrevocably taken from us.

Yet amidst foreclosures, depleted pension funds, and job cuts, there are hints of renewed interest in making things last. This year, for instance, the UK department store John Lewis issued a booklet called "Make Do and Mend," with WWII-era domestic tips for "an alternative to the throw-away society." The New York Times recently reported on "The Fixers Collective" that meets weekly to mend objects such as umbrellas, clock radios and chairs. Repair is a creative act. "It's an imagination thing," says David Mahfouda of The Fixers Collective, "that you can imagine things can be different."

Repair necessitates revision in its most literal sense: re-vision -- to see something again, in a new way. For writers, revision is often fraught with the angst that our words might dissolve if we tug too hard, or too boldly. Writing workshop critiques can leave one feeling as if story or poem has been dismantled on the garage floor, in an unrecognizable jumble of greasy parts. Revision and repair both insist upon hope and imagination: They require the courage to tolerate, scrutinize, and engage with disarray long enough to envision what else could emerge from it. "There is a crack in everything," Leonard Cohen has been singing to us for years, "that's how the light gets in."

The Jungian scholar Robert A. Johnson has noted that "good talk" and a "well-formed sentence" possess the power "to take the fragmented world that we find ourselves in and make a unity of it." Perhaps then, writing about the things with which we share our living space restores an essential connection with our environment. That act, in itself, may constitute a form of repair, a reprieve from the loneliness of dislocation.

One of the loveliest, most compelling explorations of everyday objects I have found is the monograph,Thinkables, by the Finnish artist, Anu Tuominen. In it, Tuominen inquires into stray things she finds at flea markets, discerning hidden stories in pencil nubs, a comb woven with a strand of hair, or "soaked, curled-up leather gloves, dead insects, dried leaves, begging." Sometimes it is necessary to go forth into the world, and hunt down exotic locations, and florid stimuli to write. Other times, it's enough to let the objects of your life draw near. Today, join me in that intimate adventure; write about what is close. Tell me what you find there: what has been repaired, needs it, or resists it? (writing.workshops@gmail.com). I'll reprint excerpts in the next column.