Tuesday, August 9, 2011

More Wabi-Sabi-ness. . .

I found this vintage English candy tin in a thrift store in Portland. If it had been new, I would have thought it was cute, but I wouldn’t have bought it. The faded colors on some sides and signs of wear drew me to it, and I just love this tin with its fancy feet and knob on top. It catches bits and pieces of things—spare change, little notes, etc. My grandchildren like to take off the lid and put things inside (more than once a small toy has been stowed here), and once I found a surprise note left inside for me by my niece. She’s great that way. Another time, I found a note from her in the refrigerator, and she still leaves messages on my typewriter every time she comes, too. 

In this post, I’m mixing excerpts from the chapter “Practice Makes Imperfect” in The Wabi-Sabi House by Robyn Griggs Lawrence (editor of Natural Home magazine) with pictures of a few more ordinary “wabi-sabi” things from my home that I enjoy. Hopefully, the (italicized) captions of the photos won’t distract so much from the text that this whole post becomes confusing. (Perhaps, if you want to read the photo captions, you can go back and do that after reading the text. Haha—aren’t you glad I’m here to suggest how you can read my post?!) The pictured objects appeal to me or have meaning precisely because of their history or well-loved character. When something is wabi-sabi, it is used and appreciated, and a crack or dent or “flaw” is not considered a detraction from its true worth.

(Book excerpts are in quotes. The words that follow the excerpts—mine—are not.)

"For many of us, interior design magazines and books are food for neurosis. We can’t help ourselves from diving into those seductive, glossy pages, marveling over the stylish, expensive rooms—so finished, so perfect. Everything is considered and carefully placed, down to the art books poised on the tufted ottoman and the flawless calla lilies leaning just so against the sides of a sparkling crystal vase. Could these homeowners be parents? They’ve obviously found a more stringent means than you or I of keeping their kids from bringing bowls of chocolate ice cream into these living rooms. Could this home include pets? If so, they are hairless.”
This antique Asian tea table was given to me as an anniversary gift several years ago, and I must admit that it took awhile to grow on me. First, an Asian table with tiger stripes on the legs and strange sea creatures painted on top did not seem to fit my country life with English antiques. But I began to appreciate this piece the more I looked at it, and now really like it. It’s wabi-sabi for sure! I love that it’s used and worn yet still sturdy. I can’t remember what country this hails from (I have the paper and certification for it somewhere. . .), but it fits right into my home now because I say it does. 

"Having directed photography shoots for many years, I know what often lurks outside the frames of these shots. It takes a crew of us to create a picture-perfect room. We move out the evidence of daily life. . .

"But most people see these photos and believe that real people actually live this way. . . Unlike the magazine home-owners, we have appliances—toaster ovens and clock radios and other ungainly plug-in things—and they clutter up our surfaces. Our candles melt funny, our throws don’t drape, and when we try artfully leaving a few lemons out on the kitchen table, it just looks like we didn’t put all the groceries away.

"Then comes the confusion. Are we really so shallow? Do we really believe it would change our lives for the better I we could fold fitted sheets and make military-style beds? Is hot-gluing fabric borders onto our lampshades really the best use of our time? Do we have it in us—and do we want it?”

This is my wabi-sabi icon! :-) I have several reproduction icons, but most of them painted. They were each hand-made in Bulgaria and were given to me as a gift. This metal one is my favorite. It hangs on the wall right next to my bed where I can look at it before I fall asleep and when I wake. The icon symbolizes everything that matters: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. . .” 

"Then comes the guilt. Are we snobs for not displaying the granny-square afghan our mother-in-law crocheted for us? Isn’t it hideously materialistic of us to want a $1400 lamp—when that amount could house a few homeless families for a month? We really should be content just to have a roof over our heads. . . shouldn’t we?

"We become locked in the struggle between envy and repulsion; our inhuman drive for perfection and our human need for comfort. We do want beautiful, nurturing homes, but we don’t want to succumb to the price of entry and the constant maintenance that perfection demands. We want our kids (if not the dog) to feel welcome on the living room sofa, and we don’t want to find ourselves plugging in the Dirt Devil every hour on the hour. We want to invite guests into a clean, hospitable home, and we want to learn how to be okay with it if they put their glass down on the coffee table without a coaster."


I bought this little runner on clearance in a thrift-antique store that was going out of business. I love knowing that it was created by hand—knot by knot—either by a family or a group in Iran. This is not the most expensive, elegant, high-quality hand-knotted rug available, but it is very sturdy, pretty, and made of all-natural fibers. The rug is a bit crooked, but I think that makes it all the more charming. If I can find something like this used—of much better quality and for far less than the price of a new rug in a big store, I’ll go the used route every time! 

"What we really crave is not material gloss but comfort. We want a place where we can slow down and revel in the texture of our lives, our histories unfolding. A place where our kids’ lumpy pottery class projects (or our own) are not out of place. A place where scratches in the hardwood floor are a cherished reminder of the dog’s later days—not flaws to be ashamed of. We don’t want a showcase; we want a home.”

I bought this old corner cupboard in Lavenham, England, in an antique shop that specialized in scrubbed pine. It was built around 1840, and I loved the scalloped shelves (above the jug and bowl). As is common with pine antiques, the corner cupboard has some dings and gouges and scratches, but it is in excellent overall condition. I love it just the way it is—imperfectly lovely. It currently sits in my bedroom with the white jug and bowl gracing one of the shelves. The jug and bowl were purchased in England, too, and somewhere along the way, a piece broke off the top of the pitcher. It was glued back on, and I wouldn’t think of getting rid of this “flawed” set because I think it’s pretty, and it reminds me of happy times with my young family in England. 

(It’s me talking from here to the end.)

I would guess that this is what most of us want—a home and not a showcase—but there is a mysterious allure that draws many of us to home magazines. We like to look at the houses of others because we appreciate beauty and comfort and artistry, and sometimes we see ideas we want to emulate. But I think a kind of standard of “perfect” is set up for us in the magazines, as well as a temptation to spend money needlessly. We see the photo shoots, and our own homes look dingy, dirty, and dated in comparison. Everything we have suddenly looks worn and tired, and some of us begin to plot how we can replace it.

Instead, might we just change how we’re looking at our homes and how we administer their organization and design? With a “wabi-sabi” sort of mindset would we be better able to appreciate well-loved—even worn—prettiness? Would it help to get rid of clutter so that our homes are more peaceful and so that we can appreciate the beauty or meaning of what we do have? A home with fewer, well-kept, well-maintained, well-chosen items tends to look nicer, in my opinion. My friend Laurie once said that even if what you have is old, if you keep it clean and well-maintained, it still looks really nice. (That is a wabi-sabi spirit.) And when we have fewer things, it’s much easier to organize, maintain, and clean them.

This is my bedside lamp. It’s pretty obvious that I bought it used—it’s worn and old, but I think it’s charming. The brown cord hangs runs down the wall from the lamp to the  outlet, boldly and unashamed (I have no intention of trying to hide it) just like the cords that used to hang below my grandparents’ kitchen wall clock or the lights on their beds. I love this little lamp—it works great, and it doesn’t take up room on a bedside table, which means more room on the table for books! 

Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote that a thing is more beautiful when it is framed in space because we can see and appreciate it for what it is. When the house is not cluttered, we can bring in the items from nature and more easily see their beauty:  A bouquet of wildflowers. A blossoming apple branch. The bare winter branches of a bush or tree.  A collection of shells or bird nests. We can frame art or nature pages created by our children and hang them on the wall. When these things are well-displayed in a clean, uncluttered space, they can be appealing, interesting, and even beautiful.

Also, when there is less clutter and more space around what we have, we can leave a few things out without the house looking like a typhoon has whirled through it.

When we create a low-key, imperfect home that is meant to allow for real life and warm relationships and welcomes people to let down their guard and relax, we won’t need to worry if popcorn gets dropped on the floor or if milk gets spilled on the dinner table. People have become more important than things, so we calmly clean up the messes and relax. Accidents happen, and if my table is more important than my child, I need to get a different table or a new mindset.

I occasionally look at design blogs or home magazines, but I no longer look wishing I could own this or that or create a similar look in my own home. I have become very comfortable with my simple, thrifty mish-mash of styles and objects from my life (and from the lives of some of my ancestors).

I’ve used this photo before, but here it is again. This imperfect, sturdy loveseat is far more suited to grubby-fisted grandchildren who climb on the furniture wearing shoes and with bugs, sticks, and rocks in their hands. And I like it, which is important, too. 

Did I mention in an earlier post that before I bought the loveseat and chair that sit in my living room, I had a chance to buy a truly gorgeous couch and chair that was made in the 1930’s? The set looked literally brand new and unused. (Someone must have had this well-stored for many years, plus the upholstery was beautiful and sturdy.) It was pink with some small (mostly light-green) flowers on it (which sounds a bit frou-frou, but this was really nice, sturdy, and comfortable). I was so excited to find this set for such a great price (on Craigslist) and arranged to pick it up. But then I got to thinking.

I have grandchildren who sometimes escape the kitchen with dirty hands or climb up on furniture with dirty shoes. Sometimes they’ll walk around with a cookie, dropping crumbs as they go. Bugs and sticks and rocks get set on furniture. And adults will be drinking coffee or tea and eating snacks in the living room, too. As soon as I realized that I was going to feel protective of that beautiful couch and chair, I called the woman selling it to tell her that I had to renege. I have grandchildren, I told her, and I want them to be able to relax at grandma’s house. I do not want to worry about that furniture and be constantly hovering over children who might have dirt on their hands or feet or nervously watching a cup of coffee jiggle in the hands of an excited talker who is sitting on that couch. 

How long could I maintain that watchful nervousness and still eagerly welcome guests into my home? And how long would it take for them to be not-so-eager to return for another visit? And what would I be left with then? A too-often empty house with a pretty couch in it. No, my house is not a show-case. It is a home where children are welcome and you can put your feet up.

(Sorry for all of the spacing mess-ups. I tried to fix it and can't overcome some of the problems. It would help to know HTML, huh?)


  1. I managed to buy Simply Imperfect - revisiting the wabi sabi house. It is a very soothing read in these troubled times.

  2. "Having directed photography shoots for many years, I know what often lurks outside the frames of these shots. It takes a crew of us to create a picture-perfect room. We move out the evidence of daily life. . .

    I have found this to be true when trying to take photos for my blog. I look through the lense and see something in the background that has to be moved to make the picture 'pretty'. It sure makes taking pictures for my blog quite an ordeal and a chore. Maybe I need to relax a little and let real life shine through to my pictures.

    I tend towards perfectionism and electric cords are my nemesis, LOL! And now it seems so silly. (o;

    I love this post so much....

  3. Thanks for sharing this book. I found it at the library, and it will be a vacation read!

  4. that was a great post - and oh dear... I feel so awful everytime I slip a coaster under another teacup! but I think there is a balance between enjoying the home, and also protecting it from harm...ie scratches or dirt on the furniture... so I buy almost everything that is practical rather than gorgeous so that my family can enjoy the house ( and my dd's three gorgeous dogs can roam free) without the fear that something will be ruined. I'm right there with you about that couch! hmmm maybe I should hide my coasters? (lol) I dont think I could! great post Susan its made me think and evaluate the stuff in my home.

  5. Hi Susan, I have never commented before but have been reading your blog for awhile and just love taking a peak at your place and your life.
    Thank you for this post! We just moved from a 1950's rambler to a 2007 two story and I have had such a hard time liking this new home. The old one felt worn and comfortable and everything in the new one feels well, new...and fragile. After reading this to my husband, he laughed and said, we have 4 kids and a dog, I love the idea that this home will soon reflect that. Thank you...it really is okay to eat a cookie on a couch which sits on semi new carpet. And the cord from your bedside lamp, makes me grin. Perfect! Thanks for the insight and encouragement~

  6. Lucille, is that the updated version of the book I have? I'll have to look for a copy of it! I'm glad you found it. :-)

    Michele, I really liked what you said! (Your comments are always interesting.) I want to say more but it's past my bedtime, and I'm sleeeepy. . . :-)

    Michelle, I'm so glad you found the book! I hope you like it. Let me know. If you're going away for vacation, have fun! :-)

    Winterwood, you are so right about needing to care for what we have the best we can! It's a fine balance, isn't it. Taking care of things and relaxing about people. It's not that we should let people abuse or things or turn a blind eye to rude carelessness, but. . . I like what you say here, and keep your coasters out. You can see a coaster in my hydrangea photo just a few posts down. I use it all the time. :-)

    Stacie, I am *so* glad you commented. It's very nice to meet you, and I really enjoyed reading what you had to say. I love your attitude about your house, and your husband sounds great! I'd have loved that 1950's house, but I'm sure your new one is nice, too. Still, I get what you are saying. Good thoughts here, Stacie. Thanks for speaking up. :-)

  7. Speaking of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, I just finished Gift From The Sea for the eighth time. I find something new and apropo every time I read it. I love your living room. It's sparse but homey; simple.