Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Imperfect Life, Embracing Wabi-Sabi

Every day we look at ourselves in the mirror. Some of us see faces marked by time, by experience, by sorrow and joy. We see the inevitable evidence; the laugh lines, the little lines caused by worry, the scars that never quite faded. All of these things can make us feel less than perfect. We all have our own uniqueness from a combination of experience and genetics. The crooked little smile, the cowlick that makes our hair stick up in a peculiar way, the not quite perfect profile.

Rather than feel bad about these self-imposed imperfections, we should all adopt a way of looking at life that celebrates these things, that gives a name to this state of being.

Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection, of accepting the natural cycle of life. It's simple, slow, and uncluttered and it reveres authenticity above all else. It is modest and understated, the kind of quiet undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered.

Wabi-Sabi means flea markets not mega malls, aged wood not laminate, patina not new, bright and shiny.

Cozy Cottages not Mansions. Country roads not Interstates. Family dinners not Fancy Restaurants.

It celebrates cracks and scratches, weathering by time and loving use. It reminds us that we are all transient beings, destined to return to the dust from which we came.

Through Wabi-Sabi, we learn to embrace laugh lines, rust, and frayed edges, and the passing of time that they represent.

It is humble and accepting of life's inevitable wear and tear.

It's the fragmentary glimpse of the moon reflected in water, the branch that represents the whole tree, Autumn leaves filtering the sun. It's the subtle, mellow beauty of something that has been around for a long, long time. It's the difference between being merely 'pretty', and what the Japanese call, Omoshiroi, the interesting characteristics that turn something ordinary into a thing of beauty.

An old stone church not a glass sky-scraper.

It's the mossy clay pot, the musty smell of fallen leaves, the subtle sounds of rain falling. It is finding beauty in the simple things of life.

Wabi refers to harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. It means 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.

Sabi by itself means 'the bloom of time.' It is the natural progression; tarnish, rust, the understanding that beauty is fleeting. It means taking pleasure in things that are old and faded. Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace. An old truck left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape. An abandoned barn, as it slowly leans toward the Earth.  There is an aching poetry in this process.

But there is a difference between patina and just plain dirty. Wabi-Sabi in the home is never messy or unclean. Worn things become worthy of being poetic only because they have survived long enough to bear the marks of time precisely because they've been so well cared for throughout the years. Cleanliness implies respect. Spaces that have been lovingly cleaned are much more welcoming. When the bed is neatly made, you can appreciate the romance of an old and frayed quilt. An old and faded handmade rug is a thing of beauty on a neatly polished wood floor.

Similarly, as we age, as we all inevitably do, we can all add to our own subtle beauty by eating healthy, exercise and fresh air, good grooming, and tasteful attire.

I once knew a woman 'of a certain age' whom I greatly admired. She always had fresh flowers on her table, used hand made pottery on her table, collected art that she rotated around her small cottage to keep things interesting, and had a closet full of her 'signature' style; earthy colors and natural fabrics. Every time I came to her modest but stylish home, she had rearranged her collections and art to give her home a fresh new look. She had frequent dinner parties, all with an ethnic 'theme'. As I got to know her better, she revealed her secrets to me. She shopped vintage and thrift stores for all of her treasures. She grew a 'cutting garden' for her flowers and everyone who came to visit went away with a little bouquet in a vintage tea-pot, glass canning jar or unusual vase, all from thrift shops. This allowed her to save her money for travelling, and also gave her a way to constantly update her elegant and tasteful style, and give heartfelt and charming home made gifts. All of her friends had much more money than she did, but she had the most style and everyone considered it a special treat to be invited to one of her amazing dinner parties. She was completely herself, humble, and appreciated the simple things in life.

She embodied Wabi-Sabi.

Wabi-Sabi is living modestly, learning to be satisfied with life as it can be once we strip away the unnecessary, living in the moment, embracing who we are for our own unique beauty. Being content with things exactly how they are.

Wabi-Sabi is seeing the beauty in nature. Seeing the beauty in age, in simplicity, in our own uniqueness.

And as the frenetic Holiday Season approaches, I have made a vow to keep things Wabi-Sabi. To keep things simple. To use what I have, old and tarnished, chipped and weathered. To decorate with nature. To take the time to enjoy the beauty of the season and family moments. To cherish old traditions.  

After all, isn't that what life is all about? 


  1. Wow, Karen! Another post by you that I wish was an essay in a book so I could re-read it in bed. That's such a wonderful concept, and you've explained it beautifully. I've been reading "One Thousand Gifts" by Ann Voskamp. She also talks about cherishing the simple things in life: a different way of seeing.

  2. Thank you, Christine. I will be sure to look for that book and put it on my reading list. xx


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