My tenant before Terry was a young Ph.D. student who very much cared about creating a nice home for herself and her young son. She had seen pictures of the place I’d posted online (rooms mostly empty) and hoped to come right away to have a look. I’m guessing she was something like the tenth or twelfth house-hopeful who’d stopped by that week, all of whom were still “thinking about it.” After she looked at the five small rooms and asked a few questions, she said, “I love this! Can I give you a deposit right now?”
My house (I’ve kept a small back room for myself) was built in 1949. I know that’s not old by world standards, or even the standards of the eastern U.S. But I don’t think many houses in Tucson have a kitchen stove as old as mine. More of them would have the original ceramic tile countertops, but mine could probably outdo them in chips and stains. She saw all this, a well as the giant bathtub with the white finish missing around the drain and the carpet-tack holes in the bedrooms filled with the wrong color. But she had a big smile on her face as she wrote me a check. It was clear to me she was the wabi sabi type, and confident of her tastes. She stayed five years.
The Japanese term “wabi sabi” is becoming increasingly familiar to speakers of English. It can’t be concisely translated, which is the reason we still use the Japanese. So you’ll find it defined in whole sentences, paragraphs, or even videos if you want history and mythology.
Wikipedia says wabi sabi is “a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.”
Omar Hani calls it a concept that “motions us to constantly search for the beauty in imperfection, and accept the more natural cycles of life.”
Emily Bihl says it “often refers to the beauty found in nature, which is organic, asymmetrical, or otherwise ‘imperfect,’ but is still aesthetically pleasing. … [It’s] a ‘slow living’ approach.”
So wabi sabi can refer to a philosophy or way of life. But I was attracted to it as an aesthetic valuing what’s old, flawed, worn, repaired, or otherwise not attractive to lovers of new stuff. Actually, before I’d ever heard of the term, I had learned of the concept from A Gallery of Amish Quilts (Robert Bishop and Elizabeth Safanda, New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1976.)
In some quilts you’d see pieces of an unexpected color, based on the rest of the quilt’s design. I could almost hear the artist say, “We use what we have. Look more closely at the pattern of fine stitching that unites all the colors.”
Another demonstration of wabi sabi, perhaps the most famously beautiful, is kintsugi, the Japanese art of pottery repair that accentuates, rather than hides, the cracks in the piece, often using powdered gold. I think most people, shown before-and-after pictures of the whole vessel and its repaired version, would say the repaired piece was the more elegant. Most breaks will form a branching tree, a river system, or rays coming from a sun-like point. Of course a bowl with this delicate, organic “art” is going to be more striking than the often featureless original.
So these and other examples of wabi sabi are put forward and accepted as the very best art and craft. But what if I were to push the concept? What if I accidentally spattered paint all over my shoes? Do I throw them out and buy a new pair, or try to think of the unfortunate event as a plus? My shoes as the night sky with a scattering of stars…
Wabi sabi is not yet an accepted aesthetic in the West. But even the mainstream, in some ways, craves it—and shows this in some interesting, comical ways. Valuing the look of evenly rusted metal, people who can’t wait for nature will have their gate or fence rusted chemically. They may like their jeans faded or razor-slashed—and now they can buy them new that way. Furniture is artificially stressed or gouged or otherwise made to look old, sometimes skillfully or even criminally passed off as antique. Homeowners who can’t wait for plaster to start falling off their walls might paint a few select patches to look like brick underneath.
Where does this strange need for stuff to be old and worn come from?
I believe it’s a reaction to mass-production, going back to the beginnings of the Industrial Age. These days, I think we perceive the machine in the object—in its straight lines, its perfectly molded plastic parts, its complex but invisible works. However unconsciously, we sense the factory, the faceless arms of the robot. Or we sense a host of real, human faces attached to bodies become robots. Perfection and sameness flood the market.
But the wabi sabi aesthetic is gaining. People are wearing unmatched socks. Letting prairie grasses replace lawns. Making flower arrangements from wild-ranging blooms and maybe some artistic wavy twigs instead of fossil-fueled exotics. Wearing the remaining lost earring of a favorite pair—one in each ear. Cutting soda cans into sun shapes to catch the light. Using antique coffee grinders that require some arm exercise and no electricity. Driving cars with more rust than paint. Wearing—to public events—shoes spattered with an accidental Milky Way.
What’s not wabi sabi? Any new stuff you have to buy in order to get the “look.” Throwing out your current possessions and replacing them with manufactured products that look “Asian” or “natural.” Grassroots trends are usually co-opted by the forces of profit.
Our current aesthetic of perfection is costly, both to individual budgets and earth’s resources. It gives power to the wrong parts of modern societies. It has to change. Wabi sabi ideas of beauty can heal us, first by influencing our material surroundings, then by seeping into our philosophies and lifestyles. Imagine responding to a fresh young face with appreciation, as always, but then falling in love with the aged face of an elder, crossed with lines and dotted with moles—carrying essential wisdom and history.
We could go there.