WHAT IS WABI-SABI?
The Japanese view of life embraced a simple aesthetic that grew stronger as inessentials were eliminated and trimmed away.
-architect Tadao Ando
Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.
It's simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all.
Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass.
It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind.
It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came.
Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.
Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It's a fragmentary glimpse: ... the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud.
It's a richly mellow beauty that's striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time-Katherine Hepburn versus Marilyn Monroe.
For the Japanese, it's the difference between kirei-merely "pretty"-and omoshiroi, the interestingness that kicks something into the realm of beautiful.
(Omoshiroi literally means "white faced," but its meanings range from fascinating to fantastic.)
It's the peace found in a moss garden, the musty smell of geraniums, the astringent taste of powdered green tea.
My favorite Japanese phrase for describing wabi-sabi is "natsukashii furusato," or an old memory of my hometown.
Daisetz T. Suzuki: "Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau," he wrote, "and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall."
In Japan, there is a marked difference between a Thoreau-like wabibito (wabi person), who is free in his heart, and a makoto no hinjin, a more Dickensian character whose poor circumstances make him desperate and pitiful.
The ability to make do with less is revered; I heard someone refer to a wabibito as a person who could make something complete out of eight parts when most of us would use ten.
For us in the West, this might mean choosing a smaller house or a smaller car, or-just as a means of getting started-refusing to supersize our fries.
Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature.
Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi.
Undertones of desolation and abandonment cling to the word, sometimes used to describe the helpless feeling you have when waiting for your lover.
Sabi by itself means "the bloom of time." It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust-the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled.
It's the understanding that beauty is fleeting.
The word's meaning has changed over time, from its ancient definition, "to be desolate," to the more neutral "to grow old." By the thirteenth century, sabi's meaning had evolved into taking pleasure in things that were old and faded. A proverb emerged: "Time is kind to things, but unkind to man."
Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough.
An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America's contribution to the evolution of sabi.
An abandoned barn, as it collapses in on itself, holds this mystique.
There's an aching poetry in things that carry this patina, and it transcends the Japanese. We Americans are ineffably drawn to old European towns with their crooked cobblestone streets and chipping plaster, to places battle scarred with history much deeper than our own.
We seek sabi in antiques and even try to manufacture it in distressed furnishings. True sabi cannot be acquired, however.
It is a gift of time.
So now we have wabi, which is humble and simple, and sabi, which is rusty and weathered.
In home decor, wabi-sabi inspires a minimalism that celebrates the human rather than the machine.
Possessions are pared down, and pared down again, until only those that are necessary for their utility or beauty (and ideally both) are left. What makes the cut? Items that you both admire and love to use, like those hand-crank eggbeaters that still work just fine. Things that resonate with the spirit of their makers' hands and hearts: the chair your grandfather made, your six-year-old's lumpy pottery, an afghan you knitted yourself (out of handspun sheep's wool, perhaps). Pieces of your own history: sepia-toned ancestral photos, baby shoes, the Nancy Drew mysteries you read over and over again as a kid.
Wabi-sabi interiors tend to be muted, dimly lit, and shadowy-giving the rooms an enveloping, womblike feeling. Natural materials that are vulnerable to weathering, warping, shrinking, cracking, and peeling lend an air of perishability.
The palette is drawn from browns, blacks, grays, earthy greens, and rusts. This implies a lack of freedom but actually affords an opportunity for innovation and creativity. In Japan, kimonos come in a hundred different shades of gray. You simply have to hone your vision
so you can see, and feel, them all.
so you can see, and feel, them all.
WABI, NOT SLOBBY
Wabi-sabi can be exploited in all sorts of ways, and one of the most tempting is to use it as an excuse to shrug off an unmade bed, an unswept floor, or a soiled sofa. "Oh, that. Well, that's just wabi-sabi."
How tempting it might be to let the split running down the sofa cushion seam continue on its merry way, calling it wabi-sabi. To spend Saturday afternoon at the movies and let the dust settle into the rugs: wabi sabi. To buy five extra minutes of sleep every morning by not making the bed-as a wabi-sabi statement, of course. And how do you know when you've gone too far-when you' ve crossed over from simple, serene, and rustic to Uber-distress?
A solid yellow line separates tattered and shabby, dust and dirt from something worthy of veneration.
Wabi-sabi is never messy or slovenly.
Worn things take on their magic only in settings where it's clear they don't harbor bugs or grime. One senses that they've survived to bear the marks of time precisely because they've been so well cared for throughout the years.
Even the most rare and expensive of antiques will never play well in a house that's cluttered or dirty.
Cleanliness implies respect.
Spaces that have been thoroughly and lovingly cleaned are ultimately more welcoming.
When the bed is neatly made, the romance of a frayed quilt blossoms.
The character imparted by a wood floor's knots and crevices shines through when the crumbs are swept away. A scrubbed but faded kilim, thrown over a sofa that's seen one too many stains, transforms it into an irresistible place to rest.
"If a friend visits you, make him tea, wish him welcome warmly with hospitality," Jo-o, one of Japan's earliest tea masters, wrote. "Set some flowers and make him feel comfortable." This is embodied in a common Japanese phrase, "shaza kissa," which translates, "Well, sit down and have some tea."
What if we adopted that phrase and learned to say it more often-when the kids get home from school (before the rush to hockey and ballet), when our neighbor stops by, when we feel our annoyance level with our spouse starting to rise? If we just allowed ourselves to stop for a moment, sit down together, and share a cup of tea, what might that moment bring?
...we're constantly reminded that every meeting is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion to enjoy good company, beautiful art, and a cup of tea. We never know what might happen tomorrow, or even later today.
Stopping whatever it is that's so important (dishes, bill paying, work deadlines) to share conversation and a cup of tea with someone you love-or might love-is an easy opportunity to promote peace. It is from this place of peace, harmony, and fellowship that the true wabi-sabi spirit emerges.
Wabi-sabi is not a decorating "style" but rather a mind-set. There's no list of rules; we can't hang crystals or move our beds and wait for peace to befall us. Creating a wabi-sabi home is the direct result of developing our wabigokoro, or wabi mind and heart: living modestly, learning to be satisfied with life as it can be once we strip away the unnecessary, living in the moment.
You see? Simple as that.
What if we could learn to be content with our lives, exactly as they are today?
It's a lofty thought...but one that's certainly worth entertaining.
(The word are condensed from here. I found the writing to be quite soothing, as I struggle to reform from seeking perfection in housing to "good enough" and simple, and also in accepting the effects of time on myself and those that I love.
The pictures are ones I took yesterday after work, while I drove through the Wasatch National Forest, which is about three miles from my house. The fleeting beauty of the wild flowers reminded me of the words of this essay about Wabi Sabi. )