The Damage

My favorite shirt was light gray with white stripes. The blandness of it made me comfortable. I also loved the fine wool fabric. There was a plain aspect to it, and a fancy aspect. It was a shirt I could wear in any mood.

When I took it off the hanger one day and found a big hole above the left pocket, I was filled with despair.

The moth traps in the closet had been working, I thought. I replaced them just before leaving on a three-week trip. But when I got back home, I discovered some tiny holes that had been nibbled in a few out-of-the-way spots on some of my lesser-worn shirts. I told myself I could live with it. No one would see those holes. But I had missed the worst of the damage.

Now that I was reaching for “light gray with white stripes” I could see that the moths had chosen the most prominent spot on my favorite shirt to chew their biggest hole of all. It didn’t even look “eaten” — more like someone had crudely gashed the shirt with a machete to cut out an inch of the delicate fabric.

“This is too much,” I thought. “I cannot accept this.”

But what could I do? The shirt was ruined.

I had taken precautions, hadn’t I? My absence hadn’t been that long, had it? What were chances that the moths would stumble upon the place where they could inflict the most painful possible damage? Everything about this situation seemed unfair. I should be allowed to have a favorite shirt and not have it get eaten to pieces — right? Is that too much to expect in life?

The Recovery

When I finally took the shirt to a seamstress a week later, she saw the hole and gasped. Her face was first full of shock and horror, then doom. That’s exactly the reaction I had been afraid of when, in days prior, I had been waffling about whether I should even bother trying to get the shirt mended.

“What can be done? What can be done? There’s really nothing that can be done,” she sighed, as she finished inspecting the devastation. “What a shame!”

The seamstress didn’t have matching wool fabric with the same color and pattern; besides, there would be no way to fill the hole without creating seams that would look glaringly out-of-place.

“Just do something, anything,” I pleaded. “Use a bright red patch, for all I care. In fact, I’d like that.”

I had come to the shop with a backup plan in mind, you see. I had been thinking about the Japanese practice of kintsugi, where broken pottery is joined back together with gold or silver, creating shiny, striking seams that bring a new beauty to the mended piece. The idea of kintsugi is that a history of breakage and repair should not be hidden, but showcased. I wondered if I should try to get something like that done with my shirt.

My plan was that if the seamstress said she could do a “normal” repair, I’d ask her to go ahead, but if she threw up her hands, I’d propose the equivalent of kintsugi.

“You can do something different with this shirt,” I explained, “It doesn’t have to look like it used to look. Make it odd. Make the patch stand out. Make it so people will see the repair. I just want to be able to wear my shirt again.” She agreed to do it for five dollars. I confirmed that I really did want her to use red.

Things were on an upswing now. A week earlier, I was ready to throw the shirt away; now it would be salvaged. But I was still pissed that the moths had done what they’d done. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get over it.

I waited six days for the pickup date on my receipt.

They say, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” It occurred to me that that’s what I was trying to do with this situation. But I still felt that I had lost something dear to me. I was still annoyed to have to go through all this trouble to try to get it back.

When I picked the shirt up, the seamstress winked at me. The patch looked exactly like I imagined. A large seam, and bright red that clashed with the gray fabric. A dress shirt with a flash of color that’s totally out of place. Damn moths!

But when I put the shirt on after I got home, I couldn’t help but smile. “I’ve got my favorite shirt back,” I thought, “Only better.” At last, I felt at ease. Things had been made right. A happy ending had been wrangled.

I’m wearing the shirt as I write, and in thinking about the journey the shirt and I have been on, I’ve got a few observations that apply to flipping any situation around, making lemonade when life hands you lemons, practicing kintsugi, or any other form of the art of creative recovery.

Observation 1: On Change

The first observation is that what I had was a dress shirt, but what I got back isn’t a dress shirt anymore. With the big red patch, it’s not suitable for a formal occasion. I’d wear it to a coffee shop, a casual party, or around the house. I can use the shirt to make a statement, or to start a conversation. The shirt still has a use, but the use is different from before.

The takeaway is that when something’s busted and you try to fix it in a creative way, you shouldn’t expect to get back the same thing or the same situation you had before. Maybe you’ve lost the original thing for good. You’ve got to be open to accepting a different thing with a different use.

Observation 2: On Practice

The second observation is that the moth damage was an extremely upsetting situation that didn’t matter a wit in the grand scheme of my life. The low stakes of this situation made it easy to try an unconventional fix — something with a large chance of failure.

The takeaway is that if you want to practice “making lemonade” — if you want to practice flipping situations around — it’s good to do your practice on inconsequential problems.

All of us face situations in life where something goes dramatically wrong and the consequences are huge. A major accident. Divorce. Loss of a loved one. Loss of a job. Those are the times we need the skill of “making lemonade” the most. But those are also the times when we’re feeling the most overwhelmed. They are not the ideal times to start building the skill of creative recovery.

Situations that are frustrating but relatively harmless and insignificant — like a hole in a shirt — are great practice opportunities. I didn’t initially think of the moth damage as a “practice opportunity” but that’s what it came to be. I’ll try to remember, next time something small but very upsetting happens: it’s a kintsugi workshop, it’s lemonade practice, it’s a chance to develop a technique and an outlook that will come in handy later.

Observation 3: On Following Through

The third observation is that I remained bitter about the damage to my shirt all the way up to the conclusion of the salvage effort.

When I first had the idea of going to the seamstress, I was still upset. When I came up with my plan to ask for the red patch, I was still upset. When I went to the shop and dropped off the shirt, I still hadn’t forgiven the moths.

The magic moment did not occur until I put the mended shirt on for the first time and looked at myself in the mirror. Wearing the shirt again — that’s when I finally felt the situation had been resolved. That’s when I finally stopped cursing the moths and actually felt a bit of appreciation for the journey they’d sent me on.

The lesson is that “making lemonade” is all about the follow-through. It’s about getting to the point where you can consume what you’ve made. Practicing kintsugi is about closing the deal — finishing the repair and putting the fractured vessel back into service.

When something upsetting happens, people might tell you, “Think positively — you can turn this situation around.” To evaluate their advice, you try to imagine something you could do to make the situation better. When you find that this thought brings no relief, you chalk off the advice as useless, impractical, or simply not right for you. But you’re drawing that conclusion too soon.

Just being aware that you could creatively reframe a situation and turn it to your advantage — that’s not enough. Just beginning to take positive action is still not enough. In my case, the idea that I might be able to get the shirt repaired didn’t bring calm and acceptance. I could have kept that possibility in mind and never acted on it, and I’d still be pissed. What helped was actually going through with it.

When you’re trying to turn a situation around, you can’t expect to feel better just by doing things in your mind — forming an intention or planning to take a restorative action or even getting started but stopping midway. I was thinking, “This is silly! This isn’t going to work,” all the way up until I got my shirt back. But when I finally wore it, then I thought, “This is one of the best things I’ve done all year!”

Patched Shirt

If someone says “You can turn this situation around” don’t try to test that idea by thinking about how you’d do it — test it by actually doing it. And when you get started, don’t expect to feel better immediately. Wait to pass judgement until you’ve gotten all the way to an outcome, like wearing your patched-up shirt as you pose for a selfie. ■

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