Whether to Wabi or Sabi

“You can’t really say what is beautiful about a place, but the image of the place will remain vividly with you.” – Tadao Ando

 Close-up of potter turning a pot on a potter's wheelWabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic philosophy. It revolves around three central thoughts: everything is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Wabi sabi celebrates simplicity, the profound elements of nature and natural causes. It is imperfect and asymmetrical like a tree, yet elegant and long-lasting. It’s the difference between a 300-year-old Japanese garden and a pre-fab Tiki bar. It’s the difference between the battered wooden bench in your grandma’s kitchen and stackable plastic chairs. It’s Grace Kelly vs. Kelly Kelly. Beauty is radiant and tactile, not airbrushed. It’s something you watch over, not something you stare at.

Some Japanese differ with the rather symbiotic western definition of wabi sabi, arguing that the terms are mushed together because they sound good as a pair, like zig-zag or Steve and Edie. Wabi and sabi are distinct terms. Wabi sabi is a composite of two concepts: wabi – which is a quietness attuned with nature in a simple despondence, an ascetic, monastic lifestyle; and sabi – which is the withered beauty that attends age, like a patina, chill and solitude. Both terms are better translated to describe feelings, rather than objects. To some, wabi and sabi together evoke a reverent austerity, wisdom, an appreciation for what is known to be good, rather than a longing for what is missing. A respect for authenticity and a shedding of accoutrements.

To a Japanese, wabi sabi is described as more of an inexplicable feeling than a physical trait. According to Tim Wong, Ph.D. and Akiko Hirano, PhD, “Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics – imperfection, crudeness, an aged and weathered look, etc. Although wabi sabi may encompass these qualities, these characteristics are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it.”

Martin Mull said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I think that quotation expresses the inexpressibleness of wabi sabi.

Wabi sabi is an understanding that life is not endless, that all of us and all that is around us will return to the dust from whence it came. In that regard, wrinkles, cracks, blemishes and other signs of weathering are symbolic of the life lived, the life enjoyed. It doesn’t mean that you don’t build with quality and don’t care for what you have; indeed that is what makes our home and furnishings last and become part of our memories. Rather it means if my son spills grape juice on my hand-made, Roy McMakin coffee table, I clean up the spill and then value it for reminding me of a relaxed afternoon having lunch with my boy. It’s a memory that may have blended into the others were it not for that purple stain. It’s caring for the good, solid stuff, without the need for ornamentation. It strips away gaudiness. It is an ability to make do with less, without sacrificing love, kindness, caring and purposeful work. Above all, wabi sabi is genuineness. It is an Andrew Wyeth farmhouse.

We have a natural yen for wabi sabi. You should pardon the pun. It explains our fixation with finding innovative ways to age things, such as, chemically enhanced patina, crackled paint, distressed furniture, barn-wood-look flooring, stone-washed jeans and other fake finishes. We want to feel the comfort of things that don’t just look weathered, but are weathered, that have been cared for and lasted, that hold songs and laughter in their energy and link us to the easier joys of youth. We want fulfillment, the satisfaction of mastery over endeavor. If we don’t have these feelings we try to create them thru artifice. But here’s the difference; being wabi sabi means you create real things, imperfect things – things that last, things you can’t count, things that matter.

My thoughts, my daydreams, my considerations, the way in which I think about the things that get me thinking, have been elevated by wonderful books. The better writers leave us wondering about the flawed people who live in their stories. They don’t reveal every last thought, they let us live alongside them and decide for ourselves. We root for them despite their defects, understand their misgivings and misguided enthusiasms. Sometimes we loathe them because we fill in their missing parts with our own frailties, the things we hate about ourselves that we project on the people we despise. Whether it is the characters or the narrative, the imperfections give the readers a place in the story, a chance to fall into the empty spaces the writers leave behind.

Now let it go. It’s impermanent. Wabi Sabi is not something to obsess over. It’s the place in your head where you put it and the thing that goes in that place.

The Ordinary Meridian

On my hand-made table

On my farmhouse table

Something about the American west has captivated me lately. It could have started while I was drinking a bottle of Masked Rider zinfandel; the label stirred a forgotten image I may have had in my youth of growing up to be the kind of man who can rid a town of varmints without unholstering, “Nothing like a good piece of hickory.” I don’t know where that fella went but he took along his hickory, his rifle, and my girl.
More likely my inclinations have been roused by the photography of Lisa Dearing, who has an uncommon ability to capture the alluring qualities of the west; the open skies, chapped hands, temerity and the numinous beauty of a cowgirl roping a wild mustang. If Miss Dearing’s photography doesn’t make you want to hop a west-bound freight train with nothing but a bedroll and a pack of smokes, it will at vespers make you pray no one else moves to places like Lance Creek Wyoming or the Dakotas, or the Snake River Canyon, places like Southern Idaho, places where the hard earth meets the black sky in a lightning storm on the devil’s edge of the plains. There are enough people there now, enough to smell a storm on the wind, enough to birth a foal, plenty to do what needs doing and just enough to wrangle my imagination. Should you ever find yourself smitten with the desire to conjure the weathered spirit of the American west, to rest your hand on stack of barn-wood or feel the power of a herd of Red Angus underfoot, you can tip your hat to Lisa Dearing.
Photography can provoke a man to thinking about the rites of human aspiration in the same way architecture can. Both manners of art hold us in the moment, in the essence of the space within which all those moments happen. Brad Cloepfil has a way of expressing his sentiments about architecture that is directly reflective of the underlying sentiment of what I hoped to achieve writing this. He says, “The primary responsibility of architecture and the primary possibility of architecture is to create awe; to establish a sense of wonder, to provide a kind of emotional range in the world that no other art can provide.”
Together we can design a way to live north of ordinary, to be unafraid to step across that meridian, a place where better things happen, where we create something that shines on the other side of possible.
We expect from architecture as we do from our fathers, two virtues: first, that they do what they should and second, that they do it with style.
My father died young. At just forty-one he was the first of seven siblings to pass. It was 1968 and I was eight years old. I remember him telling me (after I screwed up) that I wasn’t working to my full potential. Actually, it was more like, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Use the brains God gave you for Christ’s sake.” Ahhh, memories. My father was a rough-and-tumble kind of guy, not an eloquent speaker or an intellectual. He fought for the Navy in World War II, became a truck driver and eventually a police officer in the city of Newark, where he married my mother. Together they had four children. He died of heart failure. His life wasn’t extraordinary but he loved his kids and he wanted them to do what they were capable of. That’s not a bad sentiment to pass along. Try it for a while and you will be astonished at your capabilities. Do the amazing, and you’ll never look back.
We expect our dads to do the right thing, to yell at us when we mess up, to bring us to ball games, teach us to change a flat tire and be the toughest guy we’ll ever meet. We need heroes and dads fit the bill just fine.
But I also think we want our dads to have style. That doesn’t mean that they wax their eyebrows, shave their arms or wear silk under-shorts, but they should know enough to wear a pressed shirt and jacket to a wake. They should have a good haircut, but not dye it, and while we’re at it, unless you’re Willie Nelson – no pony tails. They should take their shoes off in your house and leave their shirts on at home. Having style means they shouldn’t take themselves so seriously and they should make us laugh. They should know when to wink, have a touch of swagger. They should dance terribly, but dance anyway. At family parties my father wore these red socks with embroidered foamy-head beer mugs. They were hideous, but I suppose they had a certain tavernesque style to them. Dads should be good citizens. They should know how to make pancakes and grilled cheese. They should talk to us. They should be curious about the world but know simple pleasures. Enjoy what they are and nothing more – feel the romance. Dads should always fall on the right side of a moral argument because character counts, because human kindness is essential.
General Norman Schwarzkopf said, “The truth is, you always know the right thing to do; the hard part is doing it.” So do the right thing, but have fun, have a little style. Get a new suit, and not from Sears. Stay healthy and vigorous. Break your routine. Eat a dragon fruit. Travel to Kenya. Celebrate the Holi. Get off the computer and get on a horse. Go to Chicago. Have a sense of tragedy. Read Joan Didion. Why Joan? This is what she wrote about getting yourself involved in the only life you’ll ever have, “I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
My gosh – she’s good.
Listen, you don’t have to a save a cattle ranch outside Billings or design a self-sustaining skyscraper to have a gratifying life, unless those things are precisely what you must do – you only need to stand tall and look north of the ordinary meridian, then find a way to get there.