Everyday, with great pleasure, I use comb that is missing half its teeth. It was once a beautiful rectangular tortoise shell comb given to me by a friend. Over the years, one tooth broke off, and then another, and another. Often I didn’t even see when it happened, until the comb transformed into a surprising version of itself. The toothless part became a handle, making it easier to comb out my snarled curly hair.

Sally Schneider

The old comb has an odd beauty; it reminds me of my friend and all the years of life it’s accompanied me through. It is useful in a new way.

I can’t use it without thinking of a poem written over a thousand years ago by the great Chinese poet Su Tung Po.

Sound sleep, sea of inner breath stirring;
boundless, it ascends to the cerebral palace.
The sun comes up, dew not yet dried,
dense mist shrouding the frosty pines.
This old comb’s been with me so long –
teeth missing, still it makes fresh breezes.

Like Su Tung Po’s old comb, mine still makes fresh breezes.

It got me thinking about the tools I’ve had that have broken and then, after a while, became reborn, as I suddenly saw a new way to use it.

Like the long thin salmon slicer whose blade snapped partially off one day when I was using it to try to slice through the old caulk between the countertop and the cabinet. Snap! What to do?


I had the knife man grind the jagged edge into a curve to make an oddly stubby knife that has proven endlessly useful, mostly for working around the house. Because it’s already broken, I don’t worry about hurting it. (I gut another thin, flexible knife that I use JUST for slicing salmon paper thin.)

My Greek grandmother used this old fork with its bent tines to cook with; it was her main utensil for testing if the lamb in her stew was tender, or scrambling eggs, or breaking open a baked potato.

Somehow the crooked tines work better for these tasks than a perfect fork.

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

This century-old tortoise spoon given to me by a beau when I was twenty had a handle then. Somewhere along the line it broke off. The bowl part is curiously perfect for scooping sugar into coffee or tea…

It acts as a private little time machine to transport me back to another time in my life…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

I especially love the homemade utility knife I found one day during the renovation of my space.The very brilliant carpenter had fashioned it out of a broken saw blade and painter’s tape. He honed the blunt edge razor sharp, yielding a dual-sided, reversible knife that fit in his hand either way.

Sally Schneider

All these re-envisioned tools have their own uniquely pleasing aesthetic and curiously hopeful vibe.


Poem: Getting Up in the Morning and Combing my Hair, from Three Delights in My Place of Exile, from Selected Poems of Su Tung-P’o


If you’ve found illumination, joy, or inspiration in this post, please consider supporting Improvised Life. It only takes a minute to make a secure donation that helps pay our many costs. A little goes a long way towards helping Improvised Life continue to live ad-free in the world.

Support Improvised Life ♥

2 replies on “Re-envision Broken Things As Newly Useful Ones with Memories (Su Tung Po)

  1. Great article!
    ,..thuroughly enjoyed it.

    Gave me ‘hope’ about myself(!),
    ….what I am becoming(!..!),
    thru the years!


  2. On the subject of knifes I trimmed the plastic handle of butter knife so it would fit inside the butter dish so it stays hygienic (the flies cant get to it) and you don’t have to keep on getting new knives buttery (cuts down on washing up). With my butter dish I have to make a diagonal cut off the corner of the butter pat to make room for the knife to start with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *