Having been born in Japan—granted, on the Americanized soil of Johnson Air Force Base near Tokyo—I carry with me an affinity for things Japanese. Red chopsticks, black lacquer rice bowls, slick sweet sesame crackers, loose dark tea, nubby raw silk, and of course an aversion to wearing shoes indoors. I have never visited the country of my birth, yet I believe that when I do I will find a missing part of myself—in a meandering gold fish, a silent monk in his cone hat, or a cloudy view of Mount Fuji. Until then, I have wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi is my new approach to life. A natural off-shoot of Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic that encourages us to transcend the way we are accustomed to looking at and thinking of objects around us and even life itself. If Zen Buddhism suggests that all things are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete, wabi-sabi values nature, simplicity, and the unpretentious. With an eight-year-old boy, a work-at-home husband, three cats and one dog, a home renovation underway, a full-time job and a side-bar writing life, my life is very wabi-sabi. The cat boxes need to be changed (unpretentious), we still don’t have a dishwasher (simplicity), and the gritty-sticky kitchen floor wants mopping (nature).
Truthfully, wabi-sabi has freed me.
Having tripped upon the term by accident, I had to delve deeper. Wabi means things that are simple, perhaps even flawed, and possibly unique—one of my friend Spike’s knitted hats, for example, or perhaps my Father’s Day Eggs Benedict, lopsided and slightly congealed but still cholesterol-shockingly yummy. Sabi, on the other hand, means beauty which comes of age. As I face 43, but sometimes feel 17, other times 86—enough said.
The aesthetic of wabi-sabi values natural processes. In gardening that might mean placing a moss-encrusted stone or twist of driftwood in a place of honor. At my house that means letting my son develop at his own pace. With my husband at home looking for jobs and growing his tai chi business, this is the summer of Jim’s Cheap Summer Camp. Featured activities include: Shopping for Sheetrock at Lowe’s, Putting Wet Clothes in the Dryer, and Hanging Out at Ramsey Pool. Trying to be involved from my distant air-conditioned office across town, I suggested that Cope join the swim team at the pool. A committed non-joiner, he didn’t go for it. Jim and I debated whether the need for a child to “be part of something” outweighs his own need to assert himself, or put more simply: Was this worth a fight? It was not. It was wabi-sabi. Growing crooked as the Prosperity rose bush I planted when he was born, Cope swims like a clownfish, not a baracuda. After completing early summer swim lessons, he has gained confidence and, who knows, might even be a shark next year. Until then, he’s wabi-sabi.
I glance around my life and everything is wabi-sabi. My second-hand leather couch is aging with beauty (and a new tiny rip) because we three squeeze on it to watch movies and car races, the dog sneaks onto it so she can peer out the window for us to come home, and we make love on it, naked, when the boy is on sleep-overs. The car I drive, a ’95 Grand Marquis inherited from my father-in-law, is wabi-sabi because it leaks enough oil to be flawed, its odd combination of left-leaning stickers (including Austinmama’s own “Supermom Shmupermom”) render it unique, and because we don’t owe a thing on it—beautiful! My yard is wabi-sabi—the lawn is going brown from lack of water, a natural process we observe bleakly each July, while rosemary threatens to take over the front walk, releasing its dark head-clearing scent in the heat of the day. My 21 year-old black-and-white cat sitting solitary on the bed, docile as a statue, is the picture of wabi-sabi. Even my hair, variegated gray, the closest I’ll get to blonde naturally, is wabi-sabi.
I have been working on a novel I won’t say how long. It once was another novel and then short stories and after that a memoir. I am nearly finished with it and I may even have a title. I have said this before. Having nearly published two other books, I cannot bear another “almost” and so I sense in myself a fear of letting go, of finishing. The perfectionist in me wants one more round, wants to be absolutely sure before putting down the last scenes, wants to stall by writing this column. And yet out there somewhere is an agent and a publisher who want to read it. No guarantees. Until I discovered wabi-sabi I feared I might blow this one by simply stalling. Seasons pass and still I dither over periods and commas. But wabi-sabi gives me courage. There is beauty in flaws. There is perfection in the unfinished.
Would I rather buy a brand-new house where everything works and there’s an extra room—or one that needs my careful thought and a fat loan to shape it into its best imperfect self? Would I rather sit in church and sing along with the pretty hymns I know by heart—or sit meditation every morning while my hips cramp and the cat demands petting and my coffee-deprived mind wanders or shuts down completely? Would I rather have a perfect life, a tidy house, plenty of money, a president I can trust, a governor without a potty mouth, a kid that does as I say, a husband with a job, and cats that stay outside?
if that doesn’t happen, I am content with this hand-made, worn-smooth,
lop-sided, love-handled, morning-breath life I lead. What to an American
sensibility is decay and disorder might just be beautiful to someone
else, very wabi-sabi.