Thursday, August 4, 2011

Are you Wabi-Sabi?

I bought this dinged-up tin at an antique store when we lived in England.
It just represented a lot of what England meant to me--
tea with neighbors, my children there. . .
I still love it. It brings up many sweet memories.

(Click photos, as always, for a closer look at wabi-sabi-ness!)

I picked up a book yesterday that I once bought used. It had appealed to me then, and I half-heartedly thought I’d reacquaint myself with the book’s contents to see if I wanted to keep it. Probably not. Who needs another book with another decorating philosophy, especially when I’m really not interested in following decorating guidelines. But the title captured my interest once again and made me flip through the pages of the book: The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty.

And, immediately, I recognized myself inside. On the most simplistic level, I am wabi-sabi. My house is wabi-sabi. My life is wabi-sabi. You don’t have to know what wabi-sabi is to be it, and you definitely can’t be wabi-sabi by merely adopting a style. It’s a value system, really. And in this case, it’s a Japanese value system—very eastern in orientation, which I am not. But that doesn’t matter because to value this way of life, does not require embracing an entire system of belief. A wabi-sabi expert might disagree with my view of this because, likely, to the Japanese, wabi-sabi really can’t be divorced from its fundamental “spiritual” roots. True wabi-sabi is very complex, and it is also rooted in an age-old tea ritual. But it’s more than that, too.

I won’t try to explain the real meaning of wabi-sabi because I am looking at it on its most superficial level and do not entirely understand its roots (it’s extremely complicated and debated amongst experts), but I will take some excerpts from this book to give you an idea of what makes a wabi-sabi home. Perhaps you have some wabi-sabi spirit in you, too!

You might be wabi-sabi if you value: rituals and routines, tradition, patina, imperfect beauty, natural materials, handmade, simple, weathered, humble, meaningful, history, balance, harmony with nature, depth, age, ordinary, quiet, uncluttered, and flea markets.

Or from the back cover, wabi-sabi values: bare branches vs. floral arrangements, handmade vs. machine-made, crumbling stone vs. polished marble, unbleached cotton vs. cashmere, cobblestones vs. concrete, recycled glass vs. crystal, dry leaves vs. cherry blossoms, clean vs. cluttered, clotheslines vs. electric dryers, hand-mixers vs. food processors, and rust vs. dirt.

Of course, there’s some leeway here, and, anyway, we shouldn’t be trying to fit ourselves firmly into a category. This is all about being real (right?), and not everyone leans toward wabi-sabi, nor should they. I’d certainly wear cashmere, but I prefer cotton. I use my food processor, too, for certain tasks and am so glad I have it. I do love bare branches (this spring I kept apple branches with blossoms in a vase), and I prefer, as Nigel Slater phrased it, “flowers unceremoniously plonked in a jar” to careful arrangements.

Wabi-sabi is not so much a style as a reflection of a value system. It doesn’t mean you go out searching for items to create a wabi-sabi look. It just means that what you value dictates the things that gather around you, the things that you keep. (I think I’m stating the obvious.)

I definitely value this simple, uncluttered, slowed-down, imperfect approach to life and beauty. Wabi-sabi is about taking time, being content, valuing age (in people and objects), being grateful, loving imperfect beauty, looking beyond appearances, paying attention, and loving nature. It’s really the way I’ve always preferred to live my life, and it’s the best way I can keep my spiritual focus sharp. Whatever wabi-sabi is to the Japanese, the values it upholds (again on a superficial level) are very much part of my Christian spiritual life and view. And those values are reflected throughout and across my life, including in my home--even in the most mundane, ordinary items and routines.

A wabi-sabi home retains something that is well-made, well-used, and well-loved, even when its stylishness fades. But not everything in the home will be wabi-sabi. It just means that your home does have much in it that is meaningful. You should be able to tell stories about much of what you graces your home.

I buy some new things and don’t really care to create a museum in my home, but I’ve found that old things—often worn things, imperfect things that have been used by others—are often more pleasing to me.  I don’t mind that there’s a ding on that corner, or a bit of rust in that seam, or that the paint is roughed-off in places. In fact, I like it that way.

According to the book, even the fact that I keep a little stone from the summit of a mountain I climbed in a glass dish with a note identifying what it is is wabi-sabi. And it’s probably “wabi sabi” that I keep what looks like an ordinary, small piece of wood on display (surely this is puzzling to those who look at it and don’t bother to ask what it is). It’s a “beaver stick” that my brother gave to me—a foot-long piece of wood, chewed to a taper at both ends by a beaver. I think that is so cool, even if no one else does, so it remains in my house. When my brother kept it in his house, I told him I loved it so often that he gave it to me (oops—not my intention, but, after some weak refusing, I took it!).

There is some excellent commentary in this book about contentment, decorating obsession, imperfection, and more, and I will share some of it in the next day or two.

Today, I’ll end with a little wabi-sabi photo gallery. You know that I like thrift shopping and buying used. You know that I not only don’t mind worn things but often love them. You’ve seen photos of parts of my house. I have several pieces of wabi-sabi furniture and large items, but, today, I’m going to show you a few small, almost insignificant, things that I keep around because they have some kind of beauty or meaning for me. Some of these are extremely mundane. I didn’t try to photograph my “coolest” stuff because I wanted to show you how wabi-sabi works into even tiny little niches of my life. I’ll add more pictures in the other posts.

The summit stones from the top of the South Sister.
It was a beautiful day, a good climb, and a reminder
that God has blessed me with health and strength.
The round, smooth stone was given to me by my little granddaughter.

This tin belonged to my great-grandmother who died sometime around
1920 when she was still young. I treasure it.
It has her mending things and her glasses inside.
A reminder that life is brief and that even a container
for mending or sewing bits should be beautiful.

The beaver stick my brother gave me.
He's a very active outdoorsman with a geat eye for
appreciating the natural world.
It might puzzle many as to why this is in the house,
but I don't care because I love nature,
and I love my brother, so I love this beaver stick.

We're getting pretty mundane.
A memo roll.
But isn't it way cooler than sticky notes?!

This sits on my mantle.
After my dad died unexpectedly, I stayed with my mom.
And God gave us an entire month (in February!) of
calm, sunny days around 70 degrees.
We walked and walked the beach, every single day.
I collected boxes of shells and sand dollars. These are a few.
I look at this as God's presence with us, blessing and caring for us.

 A stapler!
I couldn't resist because this is one fine, vintage stapler!
I needed one and went to Goodwill, and there it was.
It is extremely sturdy, well-made, and staples so much better
than a new one.

Some good wabi-sabi commentary from the book to come. What's wabi-sabi in your life?


  1. I may sneak in one evening and walk away with that awesome stapler and memo roll. They are quite cool! My favorite though is the box of your great-grandmothers. Such a wonderful treasure.

  2. Such brilliant timing. I loved this post and have my very own Japanese visiting friend to discuss this with tomorrow morning.

  3. I immediately recognized myself as a wabi-sabi! My favorite "wabi-sabi" item is a butter dish containing the shells and agates my father gathered on his last walk along his favorite beach. I truly treasure them. Loved your stapler and memo roll! They are beautiful, as well as functional!

  4. Susan, I'm looking at the picture of your bookshelves at the top of the page, which I have long admired, with a tinge of envy! I'm looking to have some bookshelves built and can't quite decide what to do. Here's the dilemna: Open shelves, which are more accessible, even psychologically, or shelves with glass doors to keep the dust out. How often do you take all those books out and dust them and the shelves behind the books? Do you or any of yours have dust allergy issues? Just curious for another bibliophile's point of view. Thank you. :D


  5. Mary, if my stapler and memo roll go missing, I'm coming after you! :-) I love my great-grandmother's sewing tin, too. Just love it!

    Lucille, so cool! Tell me how the conversation went! I know some Japanese don't know much about wabi-sabi, but others do, and I'd love to hear your friend's perspective. For more info, Leonard Koren (or something like that!) wrote a book that a lot of people say encapsulates the philosophy fairly nicely.

    Mrs. Fordyce, how special (the shells and stones in the butter dish)! These memories, and reminders of them, are no small thing! :-)

    Judi, I have dust allergies! So I don't dust. (Ha ha). Honestly, though, I don't dust the bookshelves as often as I should. I will take a vacuum cleaner attachment to the tops and sides of them occasionally, and I dust under, and especially behind, the books shamefully infrequently. I like open front shelves because I have my hands all over those books all the time! :-)

  6. Susan, I know exactly what you mean! I looked back at those shelves again, and I see that you have plenty of clearance above the shelf on most of your shelves so that you can get on top of the books with the vacuum cleaner attachment. You can't even do that much when the book to shelf clearance is too close. I was curious to know how often a self-professed domestic who loves to clean does things like books on bookshelves. I'm heartened by your story, but I suspect your definition of shamefully infrequently and my definition might just differ a little!!! (Haha.) Thanks for your input, though I am still torn. I'll just have to pray about it. (P.S. That is one little advantage of moving from time to time. The books and shelves get a good thorough dusting! :D )