A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Repair Café: Repairing our Disposable Mentality

by Beverly Keith   

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.
Then how shall we fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry?
Then how shall we fix it, dear Henry, that hole?
–traditional children’s song

I remember tin buckets with tin can lids fastened over the holes. They leaked steadily, but, if you ran fast enough, you could get most of the water from the rain barrel to the garden, inadvertently watering the path as you went. The system worked: the grass by the path was very green and the garden grew luscious vegetables.

I was born in 1942 when the memory of the Depression was still very fresh. One of my jobs as a child was to straighten bent nails so that they could be reused. A drawer in the kitchen held stray lengths of twine to be put to use on new projects. Broken rubber bands were repaired with a square knot and used to hold together disintegrating books. (I still have my childhood field guide to the birds with a red rubber band holding it together.) Food scraps were set aside to make soup or were composted so that new vegetables could be grown.

A boy plays with his newly repaired electric guitar outside a 
Hudson Valley Repair Café. Photo by John Wackman.
One of my father’s favorite challenges was keeping at least one car running. He had four Model A Fords, including a doodlebug. (A doodlebug was a Model A Ford converted into a tractor by putting large wheels on the rear axle.)  He was continuously swapping parts in and out of these cars with the aim of assembling one fully functional vehicle. The area in front of the barn was his repair café. My little brother and I were often detailed to search the barn for needed parts scattered on the workbench or fallen on the floor amid the hay. Our mother regularly drafted us to take freshly baked cookies out to him—and us—in order to encourage this endeavor. This largely worked, although we sometimes did get stranded when yet another part broke.

Once, on our way to a car camping trip to Quebec, the back axle of our mail truck (a.k.a. the camper) broke. Mercifully, we were right near a junk car lot. My father and the lot’s owner spent the day replacing the mail truck’s axle with one off of a junked Model A Ford. Meanwhile, my mother, brother, and I hiked up a nearby mountain on a trail that the junkyard owner had pointed out to us. I was dubious about the prognosis for our continued trip, but when we came down off the mountain, we were greeted by a triumphant father and a now fully functional mail truck. We went on to have a wonderful trip through rural Quebec and Nova Scotia. Repair and recycling was a communal venture in those days, even among strangers.

Repairing, reusing, and repurposing were central to the ethos of the time. It fostered some lovely products and encouraged ingenuity—and creativity.

Recently, when I was looking through the racks of used clothes at The Big Cheese, one of the workers, Shabbat, joined me. She enthusiastically declared her adherence to the principles of the “non-disposable mentality.” That felicitous phrase of hers inspired this essay. She described how she recycles worn sweaters by turning the sleeves into warm leggings. She clearly takes pleasure in her resourcefulness and artistry, just as I took pleasure in the ingenious solutions invented by the farmers in our Vermont town in the 1940s.

I too have always loved my patched and darned clothes. Patches can be a form of art. When I lived in Switzerland, I met a young woman who cheerfully proclaimed her principles of non-disposability by embroidering the patches on her clothes. She would sit in MLF (women’s movement) meetings elaborately decorating the latest patch on her jeans, skirts, or shirts. The result was something like a crazy quilt.

To me, “crazy quilts,” with their celebration of irregularity, are the ultimate celebration of non-disposability. They were made from little snippets of fabric left over from dressmaking. The snippets were pieced together artfully, the seams elaborated by a variety of fancy stitches and images (flowers, birds, animals, etc.) embroidered on some of the snippets. A metaphor for life.

I also enjoy “crazy paving,” irregularly shaped flat rocks gleaned from the forest floor and pieced together to make a flagstone path. Moss then volunteers to decorate the joins. I find the result far more pleasing than a “properly” flat concrete walkway.

One of my favorite dresses as a child was “Mrs. Berliner’s kitchen curtain dress.” When Mrs. Berliner decided to put up new, flowered curtains in her kitchen, she gave my mother the old soft pink and pale gray plaid ones in order to make me a dress. I can still remember my mother sitting at the old treadle sewing machine refashioning those curtains into a dress for me. (There wasn’t enough fabric to make sleeves. So she put ruffles over the shoulders instead.)

I loved that dress, with its reminder of the Holocaust, which had driven the Berliners to America. Dr. Berliner, a colleague of my father’s at RISD, once suffered an episode of total amnesia, not knowing who he was let alone where he was or where he worked. He had the presence of mind to rifle through his pockets for a clue. Finding his business card, he asked a fellow pedestrian to direct him to the museum, an ingenious strategy that successfully got him back onto newly familiar ground. My parents attributed that episode of amnesia to the trauma he and Mrs. Berliner had suffered in the concentration camps. The Berliners repaired themselves and moved into a new, repaired life in Rhode Island. I was in awe of them: they had survived the war—and had emerged with enough fortitude to rebuild their lives in a new country.

And I had a dress fashioned from their first curtains in their new home in their new, repaired life. That dress connected me to history—and to the ethos of renewal and repair. I often chose to wear it when I was feeling sad. It reminded me that, if the Berliners could survive the war and repair their lives, then I could survive the abrasions of life as a seven year old.

Two years ago, after a serious bout of lymphoma and the aggressive treatment that quelled it, I developed an iatrogenic seizure disorder (partial, complex temporal lobe seizures). As my brain seized continuously, I was taken over by a manic frenzy. I saw myself as the town jester, not realizing that my behavior looked exactly like the witzelsucht of a classic frontal lobe injury patient. An alarmed neighbor shepherded me into the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. After I was released, I was profoundly ashamed, imagining that I was being perceived as the town’s psychotic psychologist. (Later, a friend and fellow clinician said, “You were fun!” I was immensely relieved by his assessment. Levity and playfulness had, in fact, been my fuzzy-minded aim.) At the time, however, I was so ashamed of my public “decompensation,” that I contemplated suicide—but then decided that there was, perhaps, still some use for this damaged old brain. So I set about repairing myself, with the help of anticonvulsant medication. I’m now pretty well patched back together. The Berliners’ story—and Mrs. Berliner’s kitchen curtain dress—were with me during the process, inspiring my efforts to repair myself and rebuild my life.

During that time, The Big Cheese was my repair café. The owners and staff, including Shabbat, fed me and played with me as I recovered from the trauma, thereby supporting a non-disposable mentality.

This is yet another example of communal repair. It may provide a model for aging and/or being sick “in place,” a combination of two old community traditions: retirement to the porch and caring for the village idiot. It evinces an acceptance of, and support for, not fully functional people, seeing us as non-disposable and providing us with a place and opportunity to repair ourselves. As we age, we increasingly need genuine, respectful repair cafés where we can fix, patch—and maybe even embellish—the torn, worn, and broken parts of ourselves.

A few years ago, The Repair Café movement was born in Amsterdam and quickly spread across the globe. A free meeting place for community and by community, The Repair Cafés reject the modern throw-away culture, instead creating a space that fosters resilience and preserves practical skills. In 2013, a good fellow by the name of John Wackman brought Repair Cafés to the Hudson Valley. Since then meet-ups have formed all over—Rosendale, Kingston, Poughkeepsie, New Paltz, Gardiner, Rhinebeck—now with an opportunity almost every week to see your treasured items get a second life. 

I went to the October Repair Café at St. John’s school in Rosendale. Arriving late, I was greeted by a woman who was leaving. Seeing me carrying my broken come-along, she rightly guessed where I was heading. She took the opportunity to sing the praises of the Café. She looked ecstatic as she showed me her repaired vacuum cleaner and bracelet. She marveled at the miracles the Repairers had wrought. I wondered whether she had been so delighted on the day when she originally bought them. It was perhaps their return, albeit in slightly altered form, that delighted her so: two phoenixes risen from the ashes of damage, two Persephones returned from Hades. Her reunion with these “beloved but broken” items was clearly cause for celebration. I, a stranger, was honored to be invited to that spontaneous celebration. 

Rob Greene, a longtime woodworking repair coach, with 
Beverly Bilder and her broken table. It took three repair 
café visits to fully fix the table. Photo by John Wackman.
On walking in, I was struck by the atmosphere of a community meeting place. The large room at the school had turned into something like a marketplace with a circle of stalls, each with a sign announcing what could be fixed there: tools, lamps, jewelry, wooden things, etc. It was a community market for fixing—not selling—things. And it was staffed by neighbors who were sharing their skills. There, for instance, was Benny half-hidden behind a wall of lamps that needed his expert ministrations.

I wandered around the room, saying hello to fellow Rosendalians and then settled at two adjacent tables where Shabbat with her sewing machine and Maria with her felting kit were fixing fabrics. It felt as though I were coming home. It reminded me of the Ladies’ Aid Society meetings in rural Vermont where the town’s women came together to quilt or knot a quilt spread out among them. We children ran around outside while they worked together and chatted. The talk at the Café was very different: transition politics rather than gossip, solar energy rather than family.

When I walked up, Maria had a sweater full of tiny moth holes in front of her. She was busily felting a swarm of moths over the holes. She then felted a burning candle up the center. Like moths to the flame, the holes in the sweater perished in her elaborate work of art. 

This inspired another woman, who had a sweater with two holes in it, to embroider butterflies over the holes. Maria did the first one, teaching as she did so. The owner of the sweater then confidently did the second one herself. When she had finished, she proudly modeled the sweater for us. 
While the newly trained darner was working, Maria deftly embroidered paisley leaves over the holes in Jen’s plaid vest—and a flower on the sleeve of my old, disintegrating favorite sweater.
As I sat there, I was reminded of our old feminist tenet that the personal is political. Then, and now, we are bringing change and protest into our homes—then in the form of changed division of labor and altered relationships; now in the form of repaired objects.

We are, as Dimitri from the Kingston Repair Café said, “outwitting Walmart” and its principle of perpetual cycles of disposal and replacement. We are reminded of the principles of non-disposability and planetary thrift each time we wear or use the repaired item. Those reminders now live in our homes. 

For more information and dates of upcoming Repair Cafés visit repaircafehv.org.