This story is by Kitty Andrew and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lily dropped her bag at the last place she wanted to be. The retreat.
“It’s the right choice.” She kept repeating this to herself, forcing a smile as she listened to the receptionist explaining the rules she must follow. Her mum was next to her, absorbing to the advice given.
Feeling exhausted, she excused herself and left.
Walking through the hallway, Lily gazed at picture after picture hung on the walls, pictures displaying all the technique, detail and soul – the soul Lily had lost since the time she believed in worlds beyond the clouds. Her eyes were drawn to a particular object at the end of the aisle. When she looked closely, it was an art-form of an exotic flower; its brightness and delicacy captivated her.
She reached out to read the caption nearby, ‘The Art of Nothing’.
That moment, she realised the flower was made from no more than discarded rubbish and imagination. The closer she examined, the more her self-doubt grew.
Despite having the finest tools in the world, she couldn’t even complete her designs.
Her mind drifted and trailed to the mess she was in last week when her mum found her crumpled in a heap in her room.
“Why can’t I just get it right?” Lily wailed amid a pile of scribbled sketches scattered over the floor. Some were ripped, some scrunched up in frustration, all unfinished.
“Lily, it’s been two months now,” her mother whispered, as she reached out to comfort her.
“Don’t you think you need a break?”
“I can’t, mum,” Lily replied, as her hands moved back and forth from paper to laptop, frantically scribbling one idea after another. She had been unable to produce anything since Anya had walked out on her. But this time it would be perfect, she told herself.
“How can I relax when things aren’t being done right?” she muttered.
“But Lily, you’re a wreck!” Her mum’s clear voice was like a slap in the face.
She looked at herself. Her glossy hair turned greasy, her room in a tip, the stale clothes she’d worn for a week. This bore no resemblance to the Lily who was once strong and determined in her dreams. Now, she had wilted like a frail flower blown around in a storm.
The gentle creak of the door pulled her back to the present. She forced a smile for the stranger who entered the room.
“You must be Lily. I’m Athena.” a gentle voice came from the natural-coloured lips, the line of her smile kind and welcoming. The pure cotton top and flowing skirt brought to mind an Internet yogi.
She had Lily’s duffle bag in her hand.
“Your mum just left, she didn’t want to disturb you.”
In her other hand was a thin sheet of paper she asked Lily to sign.
“This is a commitment. I can’t teach you what we do here without your commitment first.”
The days passed.
Practice makes perfect, they say, but practising failure was making Lily miserable.
Row upon row of abandoned, misshapen vases, dried blobs of clay, discoloured brush strokes, chipped and cracked pots were piling up like unwanted decoration in the room. Each time she looked, they screamed back her faults, mistakes and imperfections. Why Athena didn’t just throw them away, she couldn’t understand.
Why keep them in the same room to remind her of her failures?
Beyond her table, some students were busy moulding their vases. On the next table, others were painting and adding their artwork. The difference between these students and Lily was that they had come here to learn from a master by choice, whereas circumstances had forced Lily.
As she watched them, Lily cast her mind back to the last argument with her friend, Anya.
“I don’t think I can work with you anymore. You make me feel small. I used to love my art, but now I’m hating it when I work with you,” Anya sobbed while accusing her.
Those last words still cut deep. She couldn’t decide what hurt most, that her best friend hated her work, or hated it since working with, well, her.
“You can’t live like this, Lily. You are not a perfectionist… you are avoiding yourself.”
That was it, the last words Anya said before leaving her.
If she hadn’t been so picky about every detail of her work, maybe she wouldn’t be sent here. Maybe she still had her business and her friend. Lily tried to push the thought away, but the words haunted her; she sensed the truth in them.
Gazing through the window, all she could see was trees after trees. Everything seemed so placid here, and yet she was still agitated. Many times she had thought of escape. One day she even walked as far as the gate, but then spotted Athena watching her from a distance. Lily then averted her gaze and looked down, pretending to search for something on the floor.
And yet she stayed.
She didn’t know whether she had begun to love this place, where she was free to create without criticism, this place far away from the real world. Or if she was too stubborn to walk away.
As Lily reflected, the words of her commitment suddenly flashed across her mind:
You are committed to complete your project every day. No exceptions.
“How is it, Lily?” The soft voice came from behind. Lily looked down at her work that was cooling from the kiln.
“It’s nice,” she answered quietly, avoiding Athena’s green-grey eyes. Something about her gaze made her feel vulnerable and unable to hide her true feelings.
“I love your brushstrokes. Gentle and strong, like you.” A warm feeling rushed into her heart. Lily liked it too, but she still fixated on any imperfections she could find – if only I had used the thinner brush for the gold petals, it would have been perfect.
Athena’s raised voice broke Lily’s thought.
“Students, can I have your attention!”
Everyone stopped to listen.
“Today we will learn a crucial lesson,” She scanned the students’ faces before continuing, “You are all going to smash up your works of art!” Her voice rang around the room.
“To release your anger and frustration… and free yourself from your attachment to your work!”
The students gasped quietly, then the room fell silent. They all looked at the artwork they had lovingly created, afraid of what they must do next. Lily observed the student nearby. She watched as the student took a deep breath and steeled herself. Her lips were tight and hands shaking as she reluctantly picked up her vase, hesitated, then brought it crashing down on the hard desk.
Soon the room filled with the sound of shattering ceramic ricocheting off walls. Their hard work and effort scattered and broken like the vases strewn around the floor.
Three days passed since that day, and this was now Lily’s last day at the retreat. She returned for one last look at the workshop. It was empty now, and all the broken vases had been cleared away, ready for the next class.
She was still turning over her confused thoughts and feelings of that day.
Her vases were not perfect, but for the first time in a long time, she had felt the thrill of creation and the appreciation from others. It hurt to know she would never see them again. And yet, smashing them had also felt good. As if it released a deep frustration within.
In the afternoon, all the students gathered in the gallery to say goodbye. Athena was waiting as they arrived, standing before a long table that was covered by a white, silky sheet.
“You all came here for different reasons. Some of you to discover art, some to improve your skills… and some to learn about you.” this last word hit Lily as if she spoke it directly to her.
Athena then walked over to the table and slowly removed the sheet. A gasp rippled around the room. All the students closed in around. On the table were name cards for each student, and beside them was a sculpture. They all looked closer.
Lily found her name and artwork. It was a collection of ceramic shards moulded into a beautiful shape. She looked at an exquisite painted detail that ran around the sculpture.
Where had she seen that before?
Then, Athena declared, “Kintsugi is the art of honouring the flawed. It is all part of you,” She paused, “Embracing that is where true creativity lies.”
Lily studied at her sculpture. The gold petals that hadn’t been quite right now looked beautiful as part of this new creation. It was broken, misshapen, and perfect in its unique way.
She felt a rush of exhilaration as she realised, striving for perfection was just an illusion that caged her mind.
Suddenly, she felt released and free to create again.
Victory Jo says
I love the journey your final story took me on. It has really grown into something beautiful, just like the sculptures at the end of your story. Your descriptions really brought this story to life. Awesome job!
Thank you, Jo. This means a lot to me as it is my first short story. Thank you for spending time reading my story and giving me such a nice feedback.
Robert Burns says
This is a strong story, well told. I live some of the little passages: “Her mum’s clear voice was like a slap in the face.” Really good.
Good luck and keep writing!
Thank you, Robert. Reading this feedback really encourages me to write more.
Marien Oommen says
I loved your story coz you’ve described my own girl quite a bit here- artistic, creative, perfectionist, never satisfied with her work. I read it out to her and so I loved your story even more.
She said creative ones have set their own bars really high! Unlike engineers and doctors who work on set models.
This should be the highest compliment to you – that it resonates here with me.
How strange and surreal that I got to read yours!!
All the best to you! Great story!
Thank you, Marien. I’m glad that it resonates with you and your girl.
I also have a standard and got frustrated about it —sometimes those standards can stop us to be a wonderful creator. How ironic is that I needed to learn that fact from my own story? It was like the spirit message for me as for everyone who reads it.
Michael Barker says
I loved your story. The story evoked memories of learning retreats I have gone to over the years. Although the settings were different, I shared similiar experiences. Great job getting it from mind to paper.
Thank you, Michael.
I have never had an experience in any retreats before. When I was writing this story, the word ‘retreat’ just came to me and it just stemmed from there. It was a struggle to get it on the paper but I’m glad it came out just right. Thank you for reading and giving feedback; I appreciate all the comments here.
I loved your story. You have some beautiful descriptions that really drew me in, and I found myself empathizing with Lily because I definitely find myself being too critical of my own work. This felt very cathartic to read, thank you for writing this piece. Good luck and keep writing!
Hi, Kitty, your story flowed well and captured a side we all struggle with to some degree as Lily did in your story. It was freeing seeing her “break” from the enslavement of perfection.
Nice story and encouragement for whom it is struggling in their own stressful situations.
Keep going on your writing! 🙂
Julia Gandolfi-hornyold says
That’s a beautiful story kitty. Another illusion revealed… there are soo many! What a talent you have!
I like the life of the vase/sculpture. The restricted beauty is broken down to its base form. Free of restrictions, its true beauty is able to evolve and shine its brightest.