The initial breakage is utter chaos. Your feet are bare, and there you are, standing in the middle of shards, that cup of coffee you were so looking forward to splattered on the floor, the wall, the table and chair legs. Who knew liquid could travel so far propelled only by the force of a mug hitting the ground? Who knew the pieces of the mug could bury themselves in dark corners, under the china cabinet, in the next room over? Who knew a mug could break into so many individual pieces, each one a memory of the lovely thing you once had?
And that’s the tricky part—the way the mug’s pieces are suddenly so lovely to you. Suddenly, all you can see is the work and love that went into this handmade thing, the investment of time and energy at the wheel and hope in the firings, the beauty of the glaze.
Somehow, in your grief, you don’t remember the hairline fracture that ran through the whole thing—the flaw that meant it was simply a matter of time before the mug broke anyway.
When a favorite mug of mine broke a few years ago, I was devastated. I guess that’s a little odd, but my feelings about mugs run deep—I’ve made many of the mugs I own, and when I'm in my active pottery-making mode, I am, in fact, a little obsessed with the making of them. And while this particular one wasn’t made by me, it was one I loved dearly, and I’m sure most people won’t exactly be able to relate to the level of grief I felt about breaking it. I cried a good bit. I kind of hated myself for losing my grip on the poor thing. And I couldn’t bear to throw out the pieces. I had no idea what I would do with them—the mug was far beyond any hope of repair—but I gathered up as many pieces as I could, washed them carefully, and set them in a bowl on my kitchen counter, where they stayed for about a year and a half.
Over the next few days, I came across a shard or two of the worst kind—the little slivers that get stuck in feet or fingers and make them bleed. There weren’t many left at all—we did a pretty good job cleaning them up. But the ones I found hurt a lot, and they made me so sad all over again.
The other night, I was looking for a photo to use as a new blog header, and I kept opening photographs that were just like those little slivers of stoneware—painful reminders of something I’ve shattered. Unlike the mug, this shattering was done consciously. And somehow, that makes the shards feel that much sharper.
Eventually—just last fall—I had an epiphany about the shards of mug. It occurred to me that stoneware is fired well above the temperature at which I fire silver clay, which meant that I was easily able to incorporate those shards into my jewelry designs. I could create with this broken thing; I could transform the mug and my grief about it into something new and very beautiful.
Is grief always like that, on the other side? And is this what people mean when they say that you have to sit with grief? That you have to clean the shattered pieces, gather them into a bowl, and go about your life as best you can, taking whatever comfort you can manage in the knowledge that you needn’t throw out the pieces if you don’t want to?
And then one day, when you’ve seen that bowl so often that you’ve almost reached the point of no longer seeing it, you’ll glance in its direction, and you’ll see it as if for the first time, and with enormous joy, you’ll realize exactly what you saved those pieces for.