When Chuck Gillet mounted his most recent sculpture near the door of my cabin, he named it – after much thought – “Harmonic Balance.” Names are very important to Chuck. He allows pieces of his work to go unnamed for great periods of time, until the right name is found. For him the name completes the work, confirming what it stands for, and stating what it says.
Composed of worn tools, dismantled parts of broken engines, and abandoned household items thought by others to be no longer useful, Chuck’s work recognizes the value in what has been discarded. Some pieces he has gathered over the years, others he more recently rescued from the ash heaps that once were homes, before our recent wildfires. Then, in protracted conversations with the parts, he begins bringing them together – welding them into a newer, deeper significance.
He asked if I knew what a harmonic balancer is, and I had to say I did not. A harmonic balancer, he explained, is part of an automobile engine that is attached to its crankshaft to reduce the stress caused by vibrations generated by the engine. His sculpture does just that, reducing the stress of past trauma and destruction by finding the intrinsic balance and rhythm that still survives, despite tragedy. I find particular meaning in having “Harmonic Balance” there on the wall of my cabin, where people come to consider the stresses of their lives.
The legendary 15th century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa is credited with establishing the craft of Kintsukuroi, or “golden repair,” when he had a broken teacup repaired with a special lacquer that was dusted with powdered gold. The seams of gold, glinting from the mended cracks, made a thing of beauty out of what had been damaged. A woman recently told me she used to think she had made serious mistakes in life – now she sees them as discoveries; the mending with insight resolved her sense of guilt and shame, by discovering something valuable about herself she had not yet known.
The eye of the artist looks into this life and this world deeply, and recognizes a certain sort of beauty in what it sees, a certain galvanizing, redeeming rapture of meaning, even – and especially – in the damage of catastrophe. The work of the artist is to bring what has been recognized to the attention of others. Insight, redemption and recovery are important functions of such works of art.
Although redemption has certain religious connotations, it refers to the satisfaction of a deeply felt need. Recovery, on the other hand, is a popular term when people talk about addiction, whether it’s about substance abuse or any other way that people distract themselves from themselves and lose control of their lives. However, recovery means much more than simple abstinence when recovering from an addiction; it is recovery of one’s self esteem, and one’s self, as well.
A fellow I’ll call John once came to meet with me after being released from prison. He wanted to become the better man he sensed he was and applied himself diligently, dismantling his past to find elements for building a better future. In time, he found menial work at the local mission where he stayed, and over the following years he worked his way up to a responsible position in their management. One day he came to say goodbye; he was moving to another town far to the north. Years passed, and whenever I thought of him I wished him well, and wondered how he was doing.
Then one day I learned that he had died, so I decided to go to his funeral to pay my last respects. It took several hours to get to the small church outside the town where he had lived, which I found surrounded by countless cars, trucks, and motorcycles. I joined the people streaming into the chapel, and saw that it was packed with hundreds of people. I stood in the back with those who could not find seats, as the minister rose to begin his eulogy.
“Over the years, Brother John has been a great gift to our community,” he began, “and we’re gathered here today to honor him, and his memory.” As the people gently wept, he went on to talk about his many contributions to the community; then he invited others to come forward to tell their own stories about Brother John, how he had inspired and aided them.
I heard story after story about the goodness he had brought into difficult and painful situations, and about the gratitude felt by so many for his presence in their lives. Finally, the minister resumed his place in front of the gathering to deliver his final words, and said, “There is someone else back there who knew our Brother John before he came to our town. I want him to know that the goodness we do never dies: it is passed on from one to another, and will always outlive every one of us.”
Haruki Murakami once wrote: “Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
I was once told, when I was hurting, “do not think this is your final crisis – there are probably many more down the road; each one will provide the opportunity to become a better person.” Where we are broken, where we feel dismayed and destroyed, pieces of us will still remain to be mended and put together in a better way.
Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org