I signed the kids up for a soapstone carving class this week. I love that it’s both artistic and has a cultural and historical significance in Canada.
As I listened to the teacher tell my children how to carve the stone so they could do it at home, I could feel my fingers itching to try it.
She pulled out the blanks for them to choose from, shapes rough-cut with a saw to reduce carving time. There was a buffalo, a seal, a beaver, a duck, a whale, an owl … and a loon.
I love loons. We have a pair that return every year to the lake behind our house. In the summer, I lie in bed listening to the loons while I fall asleep and then wake to them in the morning. The first call of the loon each spring is a big event.
So the minute I saw that loon blank, I wanted it. I could feel my fingers reaching for it even though I didn’t move.
Unfortunately, the stone was flawed. There was a hole in the place that would be the loon’s back, a weakness in the stone that resulted in about an eighth of a teaspoon of material crumbling away.
Still, I wanted it. The teacher said I could fill the hole with a mixture of stone dust and glue, but it would still be visible. I said I would decide later whether or not I wanted to, and took home the stone and a file.
There’s a scene in Trudy J. Morgan-Cole‘s unpublished novel Prone to Wander (spoiler alert!!) where Liz — a very strong female character who is a poet of no small acclaim — is hurrying through an airport with a roll-around, carry-on bag. The bag has a broken wheel, which creates an annoying noise and makes it unwieldy.
It’s been several years since I read the manuscript, so my memory of the specifics is sketchy. But I believe someone suggests she replace the bag with a new one, one without a broken wheel.
The scene resounded for me. Like Liz, I don’t mind broken things. I won’t throw away something functional just because it’s no longer perfect. I don’t trash plates that get chipped. I don’t polish the first parking lot ding out of a new car. My dog is a purebred dachshund with one withered foot, which makes her unregisterable.
When I refinished my antique grand piano a few years ago, Del Fandrich (the artisan at Fandrich Piano Company) asked if I wanted it restored or refurbished. A restored piano would be like brand new, with no sign of the nearly hundred years my piano has spent making music. The process is considerably more expensive, of course, but the truth is, I didn’t want it restored anyway. I just wanted it to be pretty.
When I got it back, it was stunning. The wood (which had been painted black before I got it) had been restored to a warm walnut color, and cast iron plate that holds the string was a gorgeous bronze (Fandrich’s signature color).
I found myself fingering the top, looking for the dimple that had been pressed into the wood by generations of careless pianists dropping the lid. When my fingers dropped into the familiar hollow, I felt a warm connection. Yep, it was still my piano. More beautiful than I’d ever seen it before, but still my piano, with its long history of mistreatment and singing out anyway. That gouge — a flaw in anybody else’s mind — just made it more beautiful to me.
I take it back. I don’t not mind broken things. I like broken things.
I spent several hours Tuesday happily carving my loon with a large rasp while dust — soft, like talcum powder — coated every surface. Yesterday, we went back to the studio to sand and polish the stones with three different grits of sandpapers and then varnish them.
And you can probably guess: I chose not to fill the hole.
I worked very diligently to smooth out every sign of the rasp, until the stone was slippery, like wet glass, but I left the hole.
Yesterday was Maunday Thursday in the church’s liturgical calendar. It’s the day we remember the New Testament Passover at which Christ broke bread, a dinner that began as a feast shared by dear friends and ended with Him being betrayed by the same friends.
At Holy Spirit, we celebrated with a big feast, where we laughed, sang, and ate foods we’ve denied ourselves throughout Lent. We broke bread together and passed around a communal wine glass.
Then we moved into the sanctuary, the symbolic garden. It even looked like a garden, still decorated with palms and flowers from Sunday. We sat in silence for a long period — symbolically trying to pray with Christ, though in truth, we are more likely to fall asleep, like the disciples.
And then, while three cantors sang an odd, contrapuntal song in a minor key, a cappella, we stripped the altar.
I love the ritual of the church. I love that the altar is beautiful. I love the bright colors and how they change with the seasons.
I hate watching the color be stripped away. It strips away my joy.
When the altar was bare, we sat in silence as the lights were slowly extinguished, one by one. We were left in a dark, gray place, and we slipped away in silence, one by one.
As soon as we got outside, my kids rounded on me. “Mom, why were you crying? Why were you crying, Mom?”
When I watch the color and the light leave my world, I have to face myself. I recognize that I, too, fall asleep. I am not the person I should be. I complain too much. I’m selfish and bitter. Petulant at times. I don’t give enough of myself. I don’t trust enough. I don’t love enough. I betray, not only Christ, but the person I could be by remaining small. I am flawed.
I tried to explain this to my children, but my son didn’t understand. “You are a good person,” he said.
“I’m not as good as I could be.”
“I don’t think that’s a good thing to think about,” he said, with some anger.
I tried to explain, to tell him I need to be reminded that I’m still a work in progress, so I don’t stop working on myself. If I wasn’t forced to face my own darkness, I’d become complacent, and then I’d stop growing. And I don’t want that. Ever.
I don’t think he understood, but in the bustle of getting in the car and buckling up, the subject was dropped. But I thought about it all the way home, and then I thought about my loon.
See, my loon is flawed. Visibly damaged. It is not, and can never be, perfect. I could have filled the hole, and the color would have matched because I kept the dust from my stone, but I’ve seen those kinds of repairs in soapstone before. And they only repair the shape. You can still see the flaw.
When I got the loon back, varnished, I was shocked to realize it is beautiful. The imperfection — the gaping flaw on its back — just makes it more interesting.
Left alone, the flaw adds to the beauty. It doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is: a brokenness. A hollow, much like the dimple on my piano. Evidence of time spent. Of grief and pain survived.
That’s the point I should have made to my son. Just as the dark, gray chapel helps us value the bright, flower-laden sanctuary on Easter morning, my confrontation with my own darkness helps me appreciate my own beauty, flawed though it is.
It helps me realize that while I am not what I could be … I also am not (thank heavens!) what I could have been.
And perhaps with a bit more sanding and polishing, even the visible flaws can add to the beauty.