The Repair Shop

Ah, good, you found this letter in a bottle washed up in your inbox. Apologies if the parchment is wet and the ink smudged, it wasn't yet dry when I rolled it up and stoppered the bottle. And, oh dear, is that a hermit crab hiding at the bottom of the bottle? Well, I hope you'll help her find a good home.

Speaking of making new homes and friendly visitors... that's what this newsletter is about, I think. We're going to find out together, in time, and only hint at it for now. There's a large and fantastic map to wander (and garden) together, so let's get ready to dive in. Today we talk of broken model sailboats and firetending...

Vignettes of repair

On the farm, my dad and I work together on a 1965 Case tractor. The tractor lays in repose, pulled apart and propped up, waiting for our work to be done so it can breathe again and help repair a wall near the barn. We work carefully and strategically, but stay improvisational. He has a general plan in his head, but we focus on what we can do piece by piece, adjusting the plan as we run into stuck points and the limits of physics. This is Zen and the Art of Tractor Revival.

On the way home, I grab a guitar from the back of his car. It needs new strings—they've rusted and one has snapped. I'm taking it home with a plan to get new strings so we might play homemade music on the remaining long summer evenings and the approaching longer winter nights.

At home, I put the kettle on for tea. The kettle has to be placed on the electric base just right, otherwise it turns itself off in the middle of heating. I angle it and wait for the water inside to stop moving around before turning it on—a trick I've learned that also decreases the chances of it turning off too early. I've poked and prodded at the kettle, trying to figure out the cause of the issue. I've deep cleaned the connections and the steel surface, and it got a little better, but it still needs a familiar touch to successfully make tea.

These acts of repair are always on the border between practical and foolish. Why not buy a new kettle? Why not rent a tractor for the project and be done with it? Why not listen to one of our many streaming music services instead of cluttering up the closet with a guitar I may never get around to fixing? Well, “practicality isn't the whole thing.”

These gloves cost only three dollars and have been restitched so many times it is getting impossible to repair them, yet I take a lot of time and pains to do it anyway because I can’t imagine any new pair taking their place. That is impractical, but practicality isn’t the whole thing with gloves or anything else.

–Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Repair is creative

I don't repair the guitar, the kettle, or the tractor just for the sake of having them fixed. I repair them in anticipation of what might emerge. Repairing is a way to make a place, an object, or a relationship ready for what might happen and what we hope will happen there. As we notice intuitive nudges about what is broken or may be missing, we attempt to restore a more stable state, and also to “make ready” for and encourage lively and surprising emergence. Repair is like tuning an instrument. We do it so we might sing.

The root of repair is reparer, re- ‘back’ + parare ‘make ready’. Repairing is like what Dr. Jason Fox calls “preparing to wing it.” We repair the patterns so they are ready for the potential rituals, activities, and relationships of life that might happen. A pattern is only a pattern when it includes both the place and the people—the scene and the events that “keep on happening” there. Repair is the setting of the scene that allows the pattern to come to life in its own time.

Often this does involve getting a pattern back to a previously stable state as a starting point (dusting the shelves, fixing a bug caused by a code change elsewhere, getting the car headlights to turn on again), but a process of repair is also an opportunity to generate new patterns. It's an opportunity to enliven existing patterns, establish new patterns between and within existing patterns, and make the environment ready for new growth. In other words, repair is creative.

In this sense, the idea of repair is creative, dynamic, open.

–Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

It’s time for the world to start all over again and for you to learn how to be what you will become.

Always whole, always new

To repair only in the sense of “getting the thing fixed” or getting it to a perfectly preserved state is to deny that the pattern is always alive and changing, whether we like it or not. A “fixed” pattern will only fall apart or change again on its own soon enough.

In this new use of the word repair, we assume that every entity is changing constantly: and that at every moment we use the defects of the present state as the starting point for the definition of the new state.

–Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

To acknowledge the creative sense of repair is to acknowledge that all patterns are organic—they are always in a state of both wholeness and growth. Repair is necessary because patterns are organic. Pattern languages often need updates, maintenance, or repair along their lifespan just as living organisms need periods of rest and repair.

A creative project is always in medias res, in a state of energeia, both actual-current state and potential future state. The results of creativity have the characteristics of life—constant change, nebulosity, pattern. The work is always complete and always incomplete, forever moving through a cycles of growth, retreat, and maturity.

Creation is in a constant state of motion and we must move with it.

–Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk

Move right along the way life does.

–John Gordon

Mobilis in mobili” – Moving within motion, changing with change

“I want to be whole.” –bell hooks

Any attempt at repair must acknowledge this paradox of both/and wholeness and perpetual incompleteness if it hopes to result in what Christopher Alexander called the Quality Without a Name—a deep sense of liveliness, peace, and beauty.

Creative processes that result in the Quality Without a Name maintain a state of wholeness as the project's shape evolves, gradually generating the design as though from a seed, rather than building from a pre-conceived master plan or assembling from pre-fabricated parts.

If you want to make a living flower, you don't build it physically, with tweezers, cell by cell. You grow it from the seed.

–Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Even projects that are focused on creating or building something “new” can be considered an act of repair from the perspective of the new pattern's surrounding context. Every act of building, design, or creation happens within a larger context, and seen from that larger context it is also an act of repair. It fits into, alters, and refreshes the context it lives in.

Each act of building, which differentiates a part of space, needs to be followed soon by further acts of building, which further differentiate the space to make it still more whole.

–Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Every act of building is, with respect to its larger context, an act of repair.

–Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

This perspective is essential in a world where so many people feel fragmented, isolated, or not acknowledged as whole people. We must start repair from a recognition that people don't “need fixing” or that there is something inherently “bad” about needing repair. When determining areas of repair, we must be careful about preconceived assumptions and to not deem something “broken” simply because it doesn't match expectations. We start from the perspective that both patterns and people are whole, alive, and complete as they are, and instead look to “see what is missing.” Rather than seeing problems, we see the possibilities for what could be more while grateful for and celebrating what already is.

This commitment begins with “seeing what is missing.” This does not mean seeing what is wrong or seeing a problem. Rather, something can be perfect but have a “missing” element. There is simply more that could be; there is more possibility, more magnificence, or contribution, or harmony, or alignment, or love... When you look at your world, whether at work or in your personal life, what could be more? What is missing (not lacking)? What could be even more beautiful, efficient, aligned, or productive?

The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership

Communities of repair

Repair, even when done by an individual working alone, is a community act. Repair is a way we show care—to ourselves, and to our relationships present, past, and future. We feel intuitively when a space or an object has been given care, attention, and maintenance, and when it hasn't. To know that someone, somewhere, once or over many repetitions, has cared for a place or an object is to know that someone cares for us and wants us to live fully, freely, and wholly. There is a living, horizontal relationship between the pattern-shaper, the pattern, and the people who live with the pattern.

The sense of a need for repair can be overwhelming. We can see the conflict and disconnection in our relationships in public life (both online and offline), our relationship to the environment, and our relationships with our close communities which all need tending, care, and deep restoration. No single person can repair all that needs attention. We need more gardeners, stewards, and pattern-shapers, each with the courage and freedom to act on “their own tasks,” countless individual acts of repair, that add up to a connected emergence in the whole.

How to practice repair

For as much as I've said about repair here, I’ve developed a reputation for not being great at keeping up with general life maintenance and repair. I have a tendency to put my head in the clouds and forget about my feet. My senses get lost, and my mind goes to a place that is absurdly unrealistic about the boundaries of time, space, and physical maintenance. Of course, this is not an inherent part of who I am—it's only a tendency I've acted out frequently enough for people close to me to point it out as a pattern. It's something I try to be aware of and to notice when it needs to be balanced.

From this standpoint as an amateur repairer, I'd like to share what I've learned about practicing repair in the creative, whole, and “making ready” sense—how to get into the mindset, the rhythms, what it looks like and what it feels like. For what it's worth, I'd like to take my head out of the clouds and share what has worked for me on a practical (and impractical) level in practicing repair on a day-to-day, personal scale. Of course, since repair is a creative process, creative practices are also repair practices and vice versa. This sense of repair has more to do with mindset than specific skills, and to practice repair is to practice pattern shaping and the entire creative cycle too.

So, what does repair look and feel like? How might we practice it as a daily down-to-earth activity in a way that generates the Quality Without a Name? I’m still practicing this, and I have some initial promising discoveries, but they’ll need to wait for the next letter… this is a good pausing point, and I don’t want to rush it now. That will only wear us both out, and we have a long way to go.

Until the next tide,


Wanting to be done with something isn’t a good reason to do it.

–John Gordon