Lifestyle / Making Lemonade

Making Lemonade #4: Lemonade Kintsugi

The art of transforming suffering

Cross-posted from Substack. View original post

Hey friends,

Life may give us lemons, but it also gives us art and words and sunrises and sunsets, and beaches and forests and otters that hold hands to stop each other from floating away; like lemonade kintsugi for the soul.

Golden-hour bike rides are my current favourite soul-cup-filling activity

As a writer, I love words, but as a human, I love art. I love how since time immemorial we’ve told stories to keep ourselves safe and created art to remind us of all the beautiful things on this planet that are worth living for.

This is something that feels especially true in the corner of the world I now find myself in — where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People have been creating incredible rock art and passing down stories from generation to generation to ensure their collective survival and morality for tens of thousands of years.

Rock art depicting Namarrkon — lightning man — (top right) at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) in Kakadu National Park

In fact, their storytelling traditions have launched an entirely new field of science called Geomythology, where stories, myths, and legends from pre-scientific cultures can be used to pinpoint geological events, like meteorite impacts and tsunamis.

In my writing and storytelling workshops, I talk a lot about art, because, to me, the two are inseparable. Art – in all its forms, from storytelling to poetry and painting to weaving and pottery to making food and gardening – is how humans have always made lemonade.

On the darkest, coldest nights we’d tell stories around the fire, we’d gather in caves and paint the walls, drawing around our hands, recreating the animals and plants we shared the landscapes with.

We’d tell stories of how humans came to be, we’d make sense of the constellations above and give our fragile lives meaning – creating ourselves an anchor in the chaos of swirling sands, crashing waves, creaking forests, and electric lightning storms.

Quick aside — can you tell one of the other most influential trips of my life was visiting the Lascaux Caves in France?! Unfortunately, this was the pre-digital camera era, but I’ll never forget the way entering that cave made me feel — even if it was a life-size replica of the original (which has been closed to the public since 1963).

We’ve always been creators. Not specifically of the planet – although we’ve definitely created a new world on top of the old one we were born into – but also of our own futures, of our lives, our stories, our dreams.

It’s what separates us from the rest of the earthly residents: this ability to create, envision, and build. To take one thing and transform it into something else.

Even now we tell children stories to soothe them to sleep, we read stories or consume art in any of its many forms, including movies and music; finding ways to bring peace to our own shattered hearts and minds.

We travel across the world to see art, reread old stories, or go back to old movies when we feel sad, knowing that for a while, we can escape into another world and take the hard edge off this one.

These days, I don’t travel as much to see things as I do to remind myself of how incredible this world is and how lucky I am to be here

To me, art is lemonade; kintsugi for the soul. I talked last week about another Japanese word I love, ikigai, but as a writer, I have a lot of favourite words, and as a traveller (and a rather rusty linguist), it’s probably unsurprising that most of them aren’t in English. Kintsugi is another.

One of the things I loved most about my East Asian Studies degree was the variety of subjects we got to study.

While I struggled a bit with politics and international relations, I loved learning about Japanese and Korean literature and art, and how both countries have unique styles that were born and honed during times of struggle and censorship — including the impact of US occupation after WWII, which helped pave the way for Japanese animation like Studio Ghibli and Pokémon.

Kintsugi, however, is a lot older than that. Roughly translated as “golden joinery”, kintsugi is a Japanese art form where broken pottery is glued back together using lacquer mixed with powdered gold.

There are different stories about the origin of the technique, but over the last 600 years or so it has also evolved into a philosophy akin to wabi-sabi, another Japanese term I love – and a topic one of my writing mentors wrote an entire book on – about embracing imperfection.

I’ve adored Japanese aesthetics since I first visited Japan as a rebellious 15-year-old on a school trip and fell in love with the art of tea ceremony (sado) and flower arranging (Ikebana).

Photo evidence of the last time I liked being the centre of attention

I definitely didn’t see that coming, especially Ikebana. Although finding out that Samurai used to create flower arrangements both as a way to prepare for battle and as a way to create art – the temporary flower arrangements were said to reflect man’s own mortality (because of course, women weren’t allowed to participate in this ancient art until 1831) – definitely made it a little cooler.

Just like my trip to the Lascaux Caves, that trip to Japan was transformative in so many ways.

I’ve never felt more alone in my life than I did staying with a Japanese family who didn’t speak any English and travelling more than two hours back and forth to school on crowded trains every day – a journey far removed from my own 10-minute mad dash across a muddy field (I was always running late) – but I’d also never felt so alive. So challenged. So human.

I believe life should be challenging, because with challenges comes growth, and with growth comes transformation. Suffering is going to happen regardless, because — to very poorly paraphrase the Buddha — life is suffering (dukkha). But we get to choose transformation, just like we get to choose to turn all those lemons into lemonade.

While Buddhism’s approach to transforming suffering into enlightenment is the Eight-Fold Path, I believe things can be a little more simple: we can choose to suck on the bitter fruit we’re given or we can use our powers of creation to turn it into something else – just like how artists and writers and creators take the world and the times we’re living in and transform it into something tangible.

Something meaningful. Something real. Something that helps everyone else find solace and comfort in trying times, and something that reminds us that we’re all here, together. We’re all in this, together.

And even in these times of strife and division, we’re still here, together, all of us dreaming of a better world.

My favourite place to dream (also one day I will edit these photos, I swear!)

Also, just for the record, when I say artists and writers and creators, I don’t mean people separate from you and me, I mean humans. A lot of us feel like we “can’t draw” or “can’t write”, or that these skills are things some people have and others don’t.

I believe to be human is to be creative, and that we all have a creative spark inside of us – they just sometimes come out in different ways. All of us are the creators of our lives. We create and build things into existence on a daily basis, from homes to friendships to gardens and meals to dream holidays.

Being human means being able to dream of something and put steps into making it our reality – even despite the devastation that is happening around us every single day. Or perhaps even because of it.

We can’t all just go down with the ship. We’ve got to build ourselves a new one so we can keep going, so we can keep riding the waves in search of a better shore.

That, to me, is lemonade kintsugi. That’s what this whole life thing is all about.

Love always,

Cass x

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