The last time restorer Sarah Healey-Dilkes came to work on the repairs to Sassy Bear at Matara, she introduced me to a new word: sabbiatura. We had been talking about the damaging effects of weather and atmospheric pollution on marble and limestone statues.
In some circumstances, she told me, the calcium carbonate on the surface reacts to damage by transforming into an impervious layer of calcium oxalate. In other words, the stone protects itself from further damage by developing a kind of unsightly chemical armour.
I began to think about how we humans tend to do a similar thing. When we are hurt (shamed, abused, abandoned, overwhelmed, betrayed, bereaved, you name it) it is only too easy to develop protective armour. Because some feelings are so intensely painful, we unconsciously tell ourselves that it’s better to feel nothing at all.
For a while our suffering diminishes, life gets a bit easier, and the process seems to be working. But as those of us who have been there know, the long-term cost is immeasurable: when we forget how to cry (as I did for many years as a young man) we forget also how to laugh, how to live, and how to love.
The most difficult challenge that we all face, it seems to me, is to remain open to suffering, to face the world with our broken hearts, and to embrace all that life puts in our path. If we are lucky we can sustain ourselves in times of trouble with some kind of spiritual or artful practice. I don’t consider myself to be particularly spiritual but I do think of myself as an artful practitioner.
For some years now and especially since Chris died, I have sought to engage more fully with the world through the process of writing: memoir, stories, poetry, these blogs. I think it’s helped but only time will tell how much.
But no matter how hard we try to prevent it, the hardening can still happen. Eventually perhaps, things get so bad that we realise we’ve struck a bad bargain with life and we take more drastic action in an effort to blast away our deadening armour: therapy perhaps, or some physical change such as moving continents, learning to dance, or losing weight and running marathons.
Which brings me back to where we started. When stone-workers want to get rid of the hard oxalate layer on buildings and statues, they sandblast the stone. The Italian word for this process, used by those in the trade, is sabbiatura.
Most of us in the second half of life, I guess, would recognise the experience of being scoured in this way. Though it isn’t always necessary: if fortune smiles on us, we might simply meet someone whose gaze cuts through the layers of our self-protection to remind us who we really are.