Kintsugi: Thoughts on Mental Health Awareness week 2014.


This week is Mental Health Awareness week, the morning news informed today via a smug bald doctor who was so slick I could almost hear the rattle of the antidepressant bottle in his pockets.

At the same time, the Guardian ran an article about mental health issues ( in academia which made my blood run cold. I initially felt dreadful for the people bravely interviewed. If I’d known anyone in my uni was in such a state, I’d have made sure they knew I was there to whine at, cry with or just lean on til they gained some second wind, enough to say ‘ I can and I will’.

I thought of a lovely friend who recently shocked me with their admission they’d went into academic meltdown. Again, I’d no idea, and that made me feel utterly awful. I’ve lost people through the years to despair, and am terrified, as I get older, of losing any more.

I’m a pretty unflappable kinda gal, and when I think of these things, I feel some trepidation at my own encroaching time as a PhD. I like company and fun, although often like solitude and silence too. But I’m not a machine, any more than you are, gentle reader. We all have days of just wanting to curl up with a blanket and tea and watch Star Trek repeats. We get days of terrible sadness, and probably equal amounts of joy.  We’re all made of flaws and fear, with a few dollops of swag and bravado chucked in. The workplaces I spent the longest in, and learnt the most emotional intelligence from, acknowledged these things and knew they made for productive, creative and vibrant souls. Valuable. Sometimes, just knowing the value of frailty, humanity and having equally fragile and human folks to laugh and cry with, who would think no worse of you for doing so is just enough to buy someone a tomorrow.

I remembered on the bus today about a Japanese art I’d read about once, the art of the broken and mended: Kintsugi. Possibly dating to the 15th century ( but very possibly earlier), kintsugi takes the broken and repairs it with gold-dust, or equally valuable sparkly material. Before it was broken, it was just lacquer ware – a pot, or vase. Pretty, maybe but mundane. The scars of the breaks are not made invisible, as people seek to restore in the West. They are made conspicuous, and valuable, part of the history of the object. No deliberate destruction and dumping in boggy waters here — the life of the object continues after it is damaged or smashed. It becomes more valuable by the flaws that threatened to make it useless.

It is not hidden, not hushed up. Not feared or rejected because somehow it‘s not perfect. The object transcends its damage, and becomes something as precious as jewels or gold. It survived, and the scars are part of the story of survival.

The simple aesthetic is that it through damage and repair the vessel becomes a unique and beautiful thing, complete in itself and more valuable because of its transformation and continuance in its new form.

I think the news should have told that story, and left the smug doctor out of it.



Who knows where the time goes?

It’s been a while since I blogged on this page. Well, not since I blogged ;I’ve been popping up all over the place these days –I help out on a Pleistocene one, Twilight Beasts, here on WordPress. Work and university came and bit my metaphorical butt hard, and there was nothing else to do but knuckle down and learn magical things like Bayesian probabilities and calculus, age-depth models and so on. And before you think I’m whining, I’m not — I’m writing it with a slightly nerdy grin, as I do feel somewhat blessed that I have learnt these things from the best in the business.

So, I’m now packing my bags as a MSc and getting ready to move up to the next phase — again, more secular, academic blessings showered on my big thick culshie head. When I’m not panicking about work deadlines or research, I find myself looking back on the past nearly-four years in academia and smiling at all the amazing things that have happened.

My year as a Fresher, 2010. Oh my what a year! The winter of 2010 was one of the coldest on record here. I remember when the temperatures plunged to -20C, which at that moment was colder than Kazakhstan. The snow did not melt away as it always does here but compacted into thick sheets of ice — was an interesting time to be looking at Glacial Maximums and Milankovitch Cycles, with more than a hint of living the Ice Age Dream!

We were meant to go to the National Museum of Ireland to do a critical analysis of displays , but there were warnings about travelling through blizzards, so ten days passed before we were told there was one window of travel that Friday, and lets get the bus rolling to complete the module coursework.

There was even a strange, still magic on the motorway that day, with a silver ice-mist hovering over the Boyne river, and fields of platinum snow replacing the normal grasslands of Meath. Every time I hear Fleet Foxes ’ White Winter Hymnal’ I think of that ethereal landscape, as I had that song almost on repeat on the oul’ iPod. By the time we reached Dublin, there were flurries of grubby, weary snow drenching Grafton and Nassau Streets. The dark days of Christmas, my granny used to call that early dusk of December. No matter — a museum is a museum and they exist in their own blissful space-time continuums, detached from weather or any other external influence.

I remember the famous last words of a young friend as we stepped into the rather magnificent reception area of the NMI in Kildare Street, Dublin. “ I suppose this would be where all the business in archaeology is done. Suppose you’d have to travel up and down to here a bit as a professional“. I agreed, and added it really would be a bit of a bummer, all those early morning starts. I’ve a feeling, at that moment, somewhere in the Kingship and Ritual display, several bog bodies held their sides laughing at what perhaps they, in their Great Kingly Beyond, knew what would happen! That in a matter of a year I’d be travelling up and down to Dublin every week to research my first research project.

The years go pretty fast at undergraduate, and before you know it you’re doing a dissertation. Mine was Iron Age based, not what I thought I would ’ grow up’ to be, but I find myself inextricably drawn to all times of chaos and change, where we see the two strands of humanity — one trying to maintain some semblance of normality, and the others capitalising on the confusion that societal upheaval creates. I’ve lived through those sorts of times, which I think explains the fascination. I was the girl who obsessively watered the houseplants which had sat on the window ledge, after the windows have been blast shattered and boarded up during the height of the Troubles in Belfast.

People either despise me or look at me as if I was crazy when I tell them my dissertation was a thing made of joy and freedom. But that’s the truth. There were the turquoise dawns standing at the bus stop accompanied only by sullen cats slinking homewards, and birdsong echoing the empty road. Those 430am starts were needed to make it to Dublin for the NMI opening at 10am, to start a days work in the magical basement, surrounded by artefacts you’d only dream of. I felt I was the richest woman ever born, and certainly the happiest. The smell of Tom Fords Lys Fumee ( liberally sprayed on at the perfume counters of Brown Thomas), merged in sultry summer heat with the scent of 2000 year old bronze harness pieces of a warrior elite, proving that swag and bling are timeless.

Mind, the NMI is pretty swaggy and bling as well, with that exquisite domed building in Kildare Street, and the fabulous zodiac mosaic on the floor. It was built in 1877, by Thomas Newenham Deane, who was somewhat in love with old things too, and it shows. I’ve always classifed the NMI as the museumophiles’ museum. I love all museums, but the NMI will always have my heart as the place where the professional me started to develop, somewhere in the basement among the ogham stones and beehive querns.

This postgrad year I’ve got lab experience, working on soil from 2000 years ago, looking for metals and pollens to tell a story of a people steeped in legend, and aware of it as they dwelt close to a very important ritual site. The peat is as dark as the history of the times, and I’m loving it. But that being said, I’m looking forward to going back to a place I classify as some sort of ‘spirit home’, where there are friendly faces and kindly hearts who took sufficient pity on a wee ageing undergraduate who regularly got lost in her head and artwork, somewhere towards the end of the Bronze Age, and had to get fished out with the lure of strong tea.