One might say it’s a cop-out to just blog about whatever I’ve been watching on television recently. As the person tasked with editing this blog, I am constantly wowed by our writers’ depth of lived experience or vast wealth of highly nuanced texts from which they draw inspiration. However, these are the times of Covid, creative pickings are slim, and so I will continue doing what most of us have been for the past year or so—making do.
As it happens, making do is not always the bland experience you might expect. In fact, if I’ve learned nothing over the past year, it’s that there is a beauty in the ordinary. Through the simple pleasure of taking a walk outside, or the much-deserved focus we’ve been placing on essential workers, I think most of us have realized how much we take normalcy for granted. I would also posit that spending additional time at home has led us to view our everyday stuff through a slightly different lens.
That’s certainly the experience I’ve had—both through the process of moving during a pandemic, and through my new favorite show on Netflix.
The BBC’s The Repair Shop predates the pandemic by a few years, but its arrival on Netflix could not have been more fortuitously timed. Unlike some of the more notorious, though highly bingeable (think Tiger King) shows of the pandemic, The Repair Shop takes a decidedly more wholesome approach.
The central premise of the show is fairly simple—each week a handful of guests bring in a variety of treasured items that have been broken or damaged at some point in the past, and the shop’s carefully assembled team of experts attempt to repair them to their former state. The heirlooms brought in are wide ranging—from cuckoo clocks and music boxes, to paintings, porcelain, and jewelry—and consequently the show’s resident artisans possess an incredible array of skills and expertise. The level of care and attention to detail in these repairs is staggering, and the end results beggar belief.
In many cases, the finished items show no sign of their former damage, even ceramics and ornaments that have been dashed into hundreds of pieces. In other cases, the story of the piece matters more—for instance a music box that survived the Blitz when its owners did not, or a much loved Victorian teddy bear—and the finished repair still reflects the item in its familiar, “loved” state.
What has no impact on the restoration, however, is the object’s monetary value. Many of the items are historical fascinations, to be sure, but many are simply household objects with a treasured memory. In fact, these restorations take place at no cost whatsoever to anyone who brings in an object. Not only that, the show’s experts demonstrate undeniable joy and gratitude for the opportunity to play a part in the story of the item, and to know that their work will allow that item to be preserved and treasured for many years to come.
In many ways, this show flips the paradigm of shows about “stuff” on its head. There are many shows that fill a similar niche—Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars, and American Pickers all feature fascinating historical items—but they all boil down to one question: How much is this item worth? At The Repair Shop, what matters most is the object’s story. In many cases, when owners return to pick up their items, they react to the item as if greeting an old friend. In other cases, repairing the item is a way to honor the memory of the loved-one with whom it is associated. Very rarely is stuff just “stuff.”
Watching this show, and witnessing the shared joy of those both restoring and receiving these beloved items, it’s hard not to contemplate the “stuff” in my own life. Do I really have much stuff that is going to matter 100 years from now?
Living through this pandemic has led to us giving up a lot. At St. James’ Church in Manhattan, many of us have traded vestments, vaulted ceilings, and music for an 8am service in Central Park. One would think that in the dead of a New York winter, each week would be a sad reminder of what we’ve given up. One would also think, especially as a church musician myself, that a spoken Rite I service outdoors would feel tremendously empty. But it just… hasn’t. At least not to me anyway. Doing church without the “stuff” has led to a far deeper appreciation of the whole point of church in the first place, and conversely the ways in which the stuff can help, or hinder, that purpose.
What has become apparent this year, is that stuff is pointless without story. In the case of The Repair Shop, it’s the connection to family history and shared memories of loved ones. In the case of church, it’s the Gospel. Every institution, secular or religious, has had to face some kind of period of introspection over the past 12 months. I hope the drive toward a return to normalcy doesn’t trump the possible lessons to glean from this year-long Lenten period. What are we holding onto that is holding us back? What is so important we want to preserve it for the future? And what are we holding onto from the past that is in desperate need of repair?
Jonathan F. Cooper is Communications Manager for the National Association of Episcopal Schools.