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East and West: Growing in the Broken Places

July 4, 2014

By Angela Jeffs

I read the I Ching* the other day.

Irish Margaret was staying for few days of respite from home life in Tipperary. Due to start a Masters in Creative Writing this autumn, she wanted to talk about books and words, movement and change.

She left Japan just after the earthquake and despite her ticket having been purchased well in advance, still feels guilty. This is an emotion with which I can fully empathise. We left 18 months after 3/11, and I still feel bad to have enjoyed all the good times and then left what appeared to be a fast sinking ship.

Margaret walked and read. She basked in the quiet of the garden and its environs. She slept like a log. And loved being driven north into mountains and glens, saying that while Perthshire reminded her of home, anywhere north of Pitlochry was as foreign as any of the other countries she has explored and even lived in over the years: India, Brazil and Portugal to name but three more.

She also admired our teapot.

I had dropped the lid months before and carefully preserved the chip. Then the week before Margaret arrived I’d felt impelled to buy adhesive and gold paint. I began by simply painting the cracks, but soon enough was painting a sun, rising from the main body of the Brown Betty (as this style of teapot is called). Not what I had intended at all, but now I’m quite fond…

Japanese culture is ruled by the aesthetic of wabi sabi, which the West – lodged historically and culturally in solid and rigid perfectionism – finds quite the anathema. In my household, as a child, if something was damaged, it was thrown away. To present food on a cracked plate, and especially a fragment of a broken plate, would reflect on the owners: they were too poor to do otherwise.

In Japan though, some of the most beautiful meals ever eaten are from supposedly spoiled yakimono (ceramics).  It was this tradition I was following in not simply repairing the pot so that it looked “good as new” but accenting its history of breakage, emphasising the repair.

I had read the I Ching (Book of Changes) because Margaret had wanted to know how it worked. And once again I was struck how perfectly the Sage’s message resonated with what was going on in my life: No 18, KU/Work on what has been spoiled (decay).

A challenge to improvement: that which has been spoiled through neglect can be rejuvenated through effort.

My changing lines provided illumination on this: Second line: An underlying fear keeps you from seeing the truth. Fourth line: Tolerating what is wrong leads to ruin. Decay must be met with clarity and firmness if we are to progress. Sixth line: A withdrawal from the affairs of the world is appropriate if you use this time not to condemn, but to further your own development. By improving yourself you improve the world.

Initially I was discomforted, but like skilfully thrown clay on the potter’s wheel quickly recovered my equilibrium, found my centre…  Clearly my relationship with my partner was in danger of being broken beyond repair. Not through any particular action on either part but simply from careless neglect.  If indeed I continued on such a path, we would indeed be heading for ruin.

So I put fear behind me – fear that clarity would bring to light damage beyond repair – and began brushing away the cobwebs that filled the cracks.

Several readers of Bitch of a Month (May) had been shocked that I could write about my partner so openly. And to be honest, I had not checked my copy with him for one simple reason: he never reads anything I write. But when I opened up the subject he reiterated that he had no problem with my using him as material in my writing: “After all, that’s what writers do… And it doesn’t really matter anyway, does it.”

With that out of the way, we could progress and I am once again reassured of a) his love & b) his commitment to make our lives work – and work well and fruitfully.

Much of the feeling that permeated Bitch of a Month has dissipated. On a practical level I am trying to be more open, and indeed at breakfast this morning, instead of inwardly seething at the thought of trying to write in company, asked if I could use the office for a couple of hours to write this in solitude.

He’s out now, raking hay in sunshine, perfectly happy.

Yes, we are filling the cracks with gold.

We are striving to grow stronger and more beautiful in the broken places.

* The I Ching or Book of Changes: A Guide to Life’s Turning Points. Brian Browne Walker. St Martin’s Press, 1992  The only true aristocracy is that of consciousness – D.H. Laurence

Also by Angela:

- East and West: Bitch of a Month

- East and West: Stepping Stones

- East and West: Putting Japan to Rest (part 3)

- East and West: Putting Japan to Rest (part 2)

- East and West: Putting Japan to Rest (part 1)

- East and West: Walking the Wood

- East and West: Clearing the burn


About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs ( stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within. Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, can be ordered via
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