When I was a little girl I lived in Wimbledon. We had a modern house with a wonderful garden. My cousins and I spent hours building camps in the rough scrub and climbing the cedar tree – its branches were easy to scale, almost like a ladder, and wide enough to lie on (provided that you didn’t wriggle too much). Nothing grew under the cedar, its aromatic scent filled the air and the ground was covered in its fine pine needles which produced a crumbly soil, easy to dig into. One year, when my sisters were very young, a delightful Swiss au pair girl came to stay; she was with us to help my mother, whilst improving her English. I liked her a lot - she was fun and caring and we soon developed a strong bond, playing hide and seek in the garden, making things together and I even helped her with the housework.
Now, being a parent myself, I can sympathise with my mother, who was newly out of hospital after a particularly gruelling caesarean. She was short tempered and easily roused to extremely vocal outbursts of anger and frustration. Both the au pair and I were quite nervous of her. My mother was (and is) a wonderful cook and she had a few unusual kitchen gadgets to help her. One of these was a “cream maker” – a small hand-plunger operated device that re-amalgamated butter and milk to make cream. It was made of sky blue and white plastic and my mother was very pleased with it. After each use it had to be carefully dismantled and washed. One piece, like a tiny white Enoki mushroom, acted as the lynch pin, connecting the pump handle to the main device. After lunch one day, the au pair put all the cream maker pieces in a washing up bowl and, when she had finished cleaning them, she tipped the sudsy water down the drain. It was only when she and I commenced reconstructing the appliance that we discovered that the vital connecting pin had been flushed away. We were horrified and knew that my mother’s wrath would be fearful. In panic we placed the remaining pieces in a plastic bag and buried them in the soft soil under the cedar tree. We hoped to buy ourselves some time to source a replacement piece, by ensuring that the Cream Maker was out of sight and hence hopefully out of mind. We failed to secure a replacement (we had to buy a whole new one) and I suspect that the original cream maker is still in its shallow grave. With hindsight, we could have created a replacement piece from a paperclip and hence not lost the ability to make cream. Mind you, my mother would still have been angry, even if we had repaired the cream maker with an ingenious solution.
The au pair and my reactions were very human. We wanted to avoid having a difficult conversation and we concealed the problem in an attempt to ensure calm. At work people often adopt a similar approach, either ignoring or concealing undesirable occurrences and behaviours. In a previous post, just after last year’s English riots, I talked about the impact of the “herd mentality” that discourages individuals from speaking out against the majority view (http://www.kategl.blogspot.co.uk/2011_08_01_archive.html). I noted that the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster could have been avoided if some individuals had stood their ground against the commercial view. People not speaking out usually occurs when people desire to conceal an issue that could impact on their own personal gain, despite having a moral duty to do so (as occurred in the Challenger incident and this is also one of the main themes of Arthur Miller’s play “All My Sons”) or out of a reluctance to share something that an individual fears will be ill-received (it took Darwin twenty years to publish “The Origin of Species” and some people say that this is due to a reluctance to upset his wife and/or to face ridicule and criticism from Society). So called Doubting Thomases can thwart innovation – the inventor of photocopying, Chester Carlson, invented the process in his spare time in 1938, but it took him ten years to find a company prepared to turn his invention into a commercial product.
Often over the course of the past week, I have contemplated how people respond to errors and things that we find unappealing. I saw an excellent and moving production of “The Suit” at the Young Vic. In the dusty heat of a 1950s South African township a husband finds his wife in bed with her lover. The man escapes leaving behind his suit. The husband then insists that the suit is treated as an honoured guest and member of their household. The public humiliation of his wife, their sad attempts to maintain a normal marital facade and the husband’s final remorse, when it is too late to rectify things, is heartbreaking. As was the backdrop and brutality of apartheid. Despite the fact that we all learn from making initial mistakes and slowly improving – look at how we learn to walk or read - as we age we become less supportive of experiential learning and hence of potential innovation and resolution.
Earlier this week I took a friend to see the filmed version of National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Millar as the Doctor. Prior to the actual film, there was an introduction in which Cumberbatch explained how he had studied stroke victims to learn how they regained the ability to walk, whilst Lee Miller had learned much from observing his young son becoming mobile and, sponge-like, absorbing information about the world around him. Both were inspired to create their performances of the Creature’s birth and learning to move and the outcomes were amazing. I had seen the staged version of Frankenstein at the National Theatre last year and I was nervous about whether it would translate to film – actually in many ways it provided the best from both media to maximise impact. If you can, I urge you to see it.
One of the themes in “Frankenstein” is the Creature’s desire for companionship and Frankenstein’s aspiration to improve on his prototype, because he is ashamed by the appearance of his Creature. Why do many adults today, especially in Western society, seem unwilling to show and share something marvellous that they have created? I suspect it is because they anticipate ridicule or worse, especially if their initial effort is functional but not attractive. By being scared of disseminating fresh knowledge (and hence seeking to perpetuate the established ways of doing things) we lose out. Often the initial iterance or the solution produced is quite ugly, but the thought and effort that has gone into its production should be lauded.
In Japan there is the practice of “Kintsugi” (golden joinery) – i.e. mending broken objects and deliberately making a feature of the damage by filling the cracks with gold. There is a belief that when something has suffered and been damaged it has a history and hence it becomes more beautiful. According to legend, the practice commenced in the fifteenth century when a shogun tried to repair a Chinese teapot. He wanted a more aesthetically pleasing effect than traditional repairs that tried to conceal what was perceived as unsightly cracks and chips. The gold celebrates the effort that has gone into the repairs, makes a feature of the history and patterns and increases the value of what were once mundane objects. We can all learn from this approach and should consider applying it in both our work and private lives – not just to enhance cracked plates but also to acknowledge people.
Back to the burial of the cream maker...we hid it because we were afraid of the reaction the loss of the little pin would provoke. Much in the same way that employees will try to disguise mistakes when they work in a “fear and blame culture”. If we had anticipated a different response from my mother it is probable that our behaviour would have been different, to the benefit of all. She might have been understanding and have praised us for providing an innovative solution - the cream maker would have been that bit more valued in all of our eyes because, by mending it, we would have shown that we cared and that we knew how much she appreciated it. Perhaps I should go and dig it up...