I wrote about wabi-sabi, how it can help you look at your day-to-day life differently and put you more at ease.
You might be asking: what good is a concept that reminds you things shrivel, break or die?
It’s quite good, actually.
Here’s an example from my own life.
See the painting above? We saw it hanging in a gallery one summer and were smitten. We left the gallery without buying it. After all, we were only there to look. But we couldn’t stop talking about it, so we returned to the gallery for one last look and that was that. The painting became ours.
That was 2004, around the same time a powerful tsunami hit the Indian ocean. Remember? It was all over the news and the stories were heartbreaking. I remember turning away from a newspaper article, looking up at the new painting now hanging on our wall and thinking it could get destroyed in a flood, fire or some other unfortunate event. Oddly enough the thought wasn’t troubling. In fact, it put me at ease.
By imagining the painting damaged or gone it suddenly became more precious to me. It wasn’t about giving way to carelessness or neglect. It was accepting the painting could (will?) one day be gone AND appreciating it, all at once.
That’s what a wabi-sabi perspective offers. Appreciation without the panic.
Exhibition kitchen/The Rockpool experience by Elaine Coffee
This happened to me several years ago when I learned about wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi (wobby-sobby) expresses things I’ve long felt but had no words for.
Wabi-sabi (not to be confused with wasabi – the green condiment with the strong pungency eaten with sushi) is a concept deeply ingrained in Japanese society and notoriously hard to explain.
I read somewhere if a culture has no word for something then it’s not considered important or significant. It’s not surprising there’s no direct translation of wabi-sabi into English. That’s because a wabi-sabi way of seeing the world is quite different from the way we typically see things in the West, especially when it comes to expressions of beauty.
It’s easy to forget ideas of beauty aren’t universal. In the West we lean toward Greek ideas about beauty, which focus on perfection – symmetry and proportion, glossiness, newness and freshness. Wabi-sabi shifts the balance away from perfection in favour of authenticity.
Wabi-sabi is a mind set, a way of seeing things but it’s also expressed in certain physical characteristics. Things earthy, modest, organic, rustic, simple, and things that bear the mark of time because they have been so well cared for are all beautiful and all very wabi-sabi.
It helps to know wabi-sabi started out as separate terms.
In the 8th century sabi appeared in Japanese poetry and meant the beauty of things withered. Sabi celebrates the toll living takes on everything, and is expressed in the graceful aging of objects in nature as well as things made by hand from materials like wood, wool, clay and cotton. Autumn leaves, a fading flower, aged utensils and weathered wood are considered beautiful because they are authentic. At its core, sabi is about flux and the limited mortality of all things.
Wabi emerged in the 15th century as a reaction to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which was lavish, expensive and a means to show off wealth. The ceremonies mostly involved the ruling class and were extravagant affairs. Tea houses were gaudy and expensive imported goods were used. The wabi way of tea is the opposite; humble, quiet, and simple. Beauty exists in the modest and imperfect. Tea is served in locally fired bowls. Decor consists of bamboo and fresh flowers in weathered baskets. Hospitality, not pretension, is what counts.
Now wabi and sabi are combined, interchangeable and shorthand for finding beauty in the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay. Wabi-sabi is often summed up in three truths:
nothing is finished,
nothing is perfect.
Maybe you find wabi-sabi too gloomy and grim a concept to adopt. Or maybe you’re like me and find it unshakable.
I see value in viewing life through a wabi-sabi lens. It’s a way of engaging with life that, although bittersweet, puts me at ease. Accepting life as imperfect, unfinished and transient actually feels quite freeing.
A greenhouse, I recently experienced, is both a physical and psychological oasis in the dead of winter.
For starters, it provides you with a potent plant fix. Plants are proven mood enhancers and this heritage greenhouse houses more than 500 lush tropical varieties.
The building itself is a sight to behold. It’s a soaring web-like structure made almost entirely of glass and metal, a seemingly too thin separation from the realities of a harsh winter day. Yet inside you’re guaranteed the air is warm and humid. You can ditch your winter duds, close your eyes and be momentarily transported to somewhere tropical.
Here’s hoping there’s a greenhouse somewhere near you.
What’s applesauce got to do with heirloom guilt and clutter?
Inheritance and heirloom gifts are given to us and we’re expected to accept and appreciate them. Sometimes we love them and they fit into our life and support us. Sometimes they’re things we don’t like, want or need but we accept them anyway, and they become clutter. It’s in this latter case that many of us struggle with what to do.
Even today, when many of us have more than we need, more than we can sometimes take care of, and yet refusing family heirlooms or a bequeathed gifts can feel like a betrayal. We feel we couldn’t possibly get rid of them (let alone refuse them in the first place) for fear people will think us disrespectful or uncaring. So we end up living amongst inherited furniture or other things we don’t like or don’t have room for.
Maybe, too, we fear if we let these things go our memories will go.
My parents had a grandfather clock that hung on the wall. It would ring every 15 minutes, and every hour it would ding and dong the appropriate number of times.
While some people might really appreciate such a clock my memories of it aren’t great.
Whenever I visited Mom and Dad when the kids were small I was usually very sleep-deprived, and that darn clock was always waking me up, robbing me of precious much-needed rest. I would even attempt to cover it with towels to muffle the sound before bed at night. Still, it would wake me.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, among all Dad’s personal possessions, he was leaving the clock to, you guessed it, me!
I’m almost nervous to tell you I didn’t take the clock and I don’t feel bad about it. I did what one of the world’s leading authorities on space clearing, Karen Kingston, advises: I accepted the love given with the gift (he thought it would look nice in our dining room, which is very sweet) but I let it go.
I chose not to accept it even though I loved him; I already have enough clocks, it triggered bad memories (horrible sleep deprivation) and I knew I didn’t need it to remember him.
Which brings me to applesauce.
On one of my final visits to Mom and Dad’s before Mom died I felt such relief to witness how much love there was in their home despite the difficult situation. Mom had Alzheimer’s and was living at home with Dad as her caregiver. Although he initially struggled to accept what was happening to Mom, Dad had really stepped up to the plate.
I decided I could be helpful by making applesauce from a huge bunch of apples that were threatening to go bad. While I sat peeling them, my mother, who wasn’t talking much at that stage, watched me and told me what a patient person I was.
I couldn’t have felt more close to them while I peeled apples yesterday than if I had a room full of heirlooms. No need to have stuff to help us remember loved ones.
I’m the kind of person who likes to shed stuff regularly. I’ve never been a collector. I see value and magic in having less stuff and I feel best living amongst meaningful and useful things. I’m clutter averse and I try to encourage my family to be the same way.
I’m also part of a large and ever-growing group of people who has had to downsize for a parent who, over the years, didn’t pare down or separate the meaningful and useful things from the clutter.
Almost a year ago, my sisters and I processed and cleared everything from my Dad’s home (my mom died several years earlier). I wrote a bit about it here.
If you’ve ever gone through this experience you become acutely aware of what’s in store for your children in the future, and you feel a strong resolve to not heap upon them the same burden.
The time and energy spent sorting through a parent’s lifetime worth of stuff, coupled with the responsibility to honor the past, is exhausting and overwhelming. It takes a toll emotionally, physically and financially. It can require long plane flights, taking time off work without pay, and leaving family behind to cope in your absence. And if you and your siblings are not on the same page, it can cause tension and arguments.
I’ve read about cases where people pull up a dumpster and get rid of stuff that way. But that approach wasn’t for us. We worked hard to deal with Dad’s belongings thoughtfully and respectfully. We separated the meaningful stuff from the clutter. We doled out heirlooms diplomatically and found good homes for treasured items. We advertised and held a moving sale. What didn’t sell we donated to worthy causes. What was left went in the garbage. It took 5 weeks in total, working day and night. We did it gracefully without tension or arguments, which I’ve also read is rare.
So don’t wait. Clear your clutter and lighten your load now. If we spend the first 40 years of our lives accumulating and collecting, it seems to me we should spend the next 40 years letting go.
It’s nothing short of a gift of love.
Above: My Mom’s beautiful collection of tea cups found a good home. They went to Beaverbrook House, an historic home in Miramichi that holds tea services open to the public.
Above: Crystal for sale.
Above: We sorted through all of Mom’s artwork and sketches.
Above: What we didn’t keep for ourselves, my sister framed with old frames found around the house and we added them to the items for sale. It feels right knowing Mom’s art will be hanging in so many homes.
Above: We polished up the furniture and staged the house to get ready for the big sale, which took place over two days.
Above: My sister was full of clever ideas. One of them was to bundle the towels and facecloths rather than sell them individually. They were snatched up quickly.
While having breakfast in a restaurant recently, I saw a couple sitting across from each other. Each was reading a newspaper. It made me think how this particular scene, a couple reading the morning news instead of chatting or connecting, would appear benign to most onlookers and not cause them to fret that the couple were reading and not connecting through conversation.
But if they were staring at their phones? I imagine it would get some people’s knickers in a knot.
If there are two camps – those who think Iphones and the like are making us asocial, and those who think we should loosen up a little and suspend judgment that new technologies are ruining social relations and making us disconnected – I fall into the latter.
I’m suspicious of negative warnings about new technologies and all the bemoaning about how society is abandoning the more wholesome media we grew up with. After all, it too was considered harmful when first introduced.
Socrates famously warned against writing because it would make us forgetful. The French statesman Malesherbes warned against getting news from the printed page because it socially isolated readers and detracted from the uplifting group practice of getting news from the pulpit. The writer Douglas Adams observes that technology that existed when we were born seems normal, anything developed before we turn 35 is exciting, and whatever comes after is treated with suspicion.
I’m not saying all new technologies are harmless and there is no discussion to be had about how they affect us. It’s just I’m reluctant to pathologize behaviour which is perfectly normal in today’s life. I’m more inclined to follow this advice recently posted on Tumblr:
Do not let adults steal this generation from you. Relish in selfies. Snapchat pictures of coffee to your friends. Huddle around an iPhone to watch Vines. Shamelessly love this generation’s commodities, like how our parents loved their commodities, like disco or Hammer Pants or whatever else. Do not let angry adults take away your chance to experience the uniqueness of right now.