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Beauty in Imperfection: Confessions of a Wabi-Fraudie, or Pay No Attention to What’s Under The Stairs.

Nov 27, 2018 09:04PM ● By Robyn Lawrence
I had so much shit I got rid of most of it Wabi-sabi me?

When I started writing about wabi-sabi, right around 9/11, the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection had a serious underground following, but most people still thought wabi-sabi was that spicy green stuff you eat with sushi. Marie Kondo was, like, 10.

Wabi-sabi was a great umbrella for a lot of conversations I was enmeshed in as the editor of a green lifestyle magazine: simplicity, the Slow movement (starting with Slow Food and evolving into Slow Everything), reduction, recycling, reuse. It was still pretty early for a lot of those conversations in 2001, though, and it was early for wabi-sabi in America, too.

In those first few months after the planes hit the towers, my agent and I and a handful of people in publishing were pretty certain Americans would retreat and nest, plant Victory gardens, and live more thriftily, as they always had during times of war. I got a fat advance to write The Wabi-Sabi House just as Americans at the directive of President George W. Bush, who told them it was the patriotic thing to do embraced easy credit and went shopping. My book wasn’t the runaway bestseller we thought it would be.

Wabi-sabi if you’re being real about it is a tough sell for Americans. An ancient philosophy with roots in Zen, it’s about revering austerity, nature, and the everyday and accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. A reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials in 15th-century Japan, wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, and revering authenticity above all.

“It’s everything our sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t,” I wrote in The Wabi-Sabi House. “It’s flea markets, not warehouse stores (today I would say Amazon); aged wood, not Pergo (today I would say vinyl planks); rice paper, not glass. Wabi-sabi celebrates cracks and crevices and rot, reminding us that we are all transient beings that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came.“

Well, you can see. This didn’t land all that well in the forever-rich, forever-young early aughts, which launched the Kardashians and eventually crashed into the Great Recession.

A simple, unpretentious oasis in an extravagance-and war-weary world In 2011, while Americans were still smarting from the financial meltdown four years earlier, I wrote a follow-up book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, for a small, progressive Canadian publisher. I didn’t get a fat advance. But it seemed like the time might finally be right for wabi-sabi, and I wanted to see it have its day. If everyone embraced it, we would have a completely different world. 

Wabi-sabi was born from the Japanese Tea Ceremony, a simple Zen ritual for making and sharing a cup of tea that warlords in 15th-century Japan turned into a means of showing off their immense wealth through gaudy Tea houses full of gilded imported goods. The wabi way of Tea (wabichado) grew out of a backlash to that, championed by a master so powerful his style is practiced to this day. Sen no Rikyu’s quiet, simple Tea ceremony, with tea served in locally fired bowls and fl owers in fishermen’s baskets, was what everyone wanted. Wood, bamboo, and hospitality were in; porcelain, lacquer, and pretension were out.

Japan had just gone through several centuries of war and extravagant consumerism, and Rikyu’s Tea ceremony provided the simple, unpretentious oasis that society craved. For wealthy merchants and shoguns, it felt like the ultimate luxury, the epitome of high art. For peasants and commoners, it made the art of Tea accessible. Preparing and serving the bitter green tea became a means for everyday samurai, who had few material comforts, to escape for a moment and share a ritual. Ichigo, ichie, or “once in a lifetime,” is perhaps the most important tenet when learning the art of Tea. We never know what might happen tomorrow, or even later today, but right now we can stop for a cup of tea.

Wabi, the name for Rikyu’s style of Tea, was often used by poets to evoke melancholy. One of my favorite descriptions of it is “the feeling you have when you’re waiting for your lover.” It evokes a little monk in his torn robe, enjoying a night by the fire, content in poverty. No one’s quite sure how or when the word sabi got hooked up with wabi, but conjoined it takes on an entourage effect. Meaning “the bloom of time,” sabi connotes tarnish
and rust; the enchantment of old things; appreciation for dignified, graceful aging. Wabi-sabi, then, is a philosophy that reveres age, imperfection, and natural order.

We don’t practice Tea in this culture, though, and it can be hard to see how it translates for 21st-century Westerners who drink lots of coffee. Like all good philosophies, wabi-sabi gives us a launching point toward thinking about what matters. To practice it, or to become what is called a wabibito, means living modestly, satisfi ed with things as they are, owning only what’s necessary for its utility or beauty (ideally, both).

Great Uncluttering Advice

(If You Follow It)

Here’s what I had to say about uncluttering in Simply Imperfect: Uncluttering is common sense; there’s no magic to it. All the experts offer the same basic advice, in one form or another. It goes like this:

• Don’t try to unclutter your entire house at once. Start with a drawer or a shelf and move to problem areas (such as the garage or basement) once you’ve had some smaller success.

• Maintenance is key. Spend 15 minutes per day cleaning up daily detritus before it becomes overwhelming.

• Take everything out of a drawer or closet and spread it out in front of you. You’ll eliminate more and organize what’s left more efficiently if you can see it all at once. (This also gives you a chance to clear out the dust and run a damp rag over the surface.)

• Mark four boxes or bags “Keep,” “Give Away,” “Throw Away,” and “Hold for One Year.” (The last one’s for items you don’t need or use but just can’t bear to part with yet. If you haven’t touched these things in a year, their time has come.)

• If in doubt, throw it out. Give it to Goodwill or any of the charitable organizations who send trucks around to collect it. Or give it away on Craigslist. Nothing moves faster than the stuff in the “Free” listings.

• If you can’t find a good home for something, it’s time to say farewell.

• Get rid of two items every time you buy a new one.

• Keep like items with like: cups, baking goods, candles, etc.

• Allow only three items on each surface.

• Cover only one-tenth of a table; use objects of differing sizes.

• Just say no to refrigerator magnets. They encourage clutter.

• Keep windowsills clear of knickknacks and potted plants.

• Use baskets and bowls to collect mail, pens and pencils, loose change, and all the other odds and ends that collect on counters and tabletops.

• Storage is key to containing clutter. Storage areas should make up at least ten percent of your home’s total square footage and be placed so that you can store items where they’re used. (If you can’t get rid of the stuff, hide it well.)

• Furnishings that do double duty as storage help minimize clutter. A wicker chest holding blankets can serve as a coffee table in the TV room; a small chest of drawers makes a great end table.

But What’s Under Those Stairs?

Both of my books have entire chapters on the importance of uncluttering and how to do it. I’m something of an expert. Unfortunately, they both have chapters on decorating with salvage and flea market finds and how to find them, so I’m something of an expert on that as well. These areas of expertise don’t play nice together, as you can imagine.

I wrote Simply Imperfect post-divorce, after I’d moved into a townhouse and left most everything behind. Looking back, I’m hilarious. “Living in a small space keeps me from acquiring things,” I wrote. “Except for storage, my little house has just enough of everything.”

I was so smug and such a wabi-fraudie, hiding everything under the stairs in the basement.

My town home had a terrible little crawl space, far too deep and narrow, that encouraged layers upon layers of crap to build up. When the space became impenetrable, I would stand in the doorway and throw stuff in. The woman I bought the house from warned me about it during the closing. She’d thought she could show the house furnished until she looked in there. When it came time for me to sell the place 10 years later, I felt her pain. 

“Where the hell has all this stuff been?” everybody asked as I unearthed bins and boxes of my memorabilia, my kids’ art projects, photo albums, toys, sports equipment, appliances, file cabinets, record albums, CDs, books, dishes, phones (four of them!), textiles, dog beds, jars, tools, old paint, door, light fixtures, screws, nails (so many screws and nails), and assorted other crap I had tucked in there and forgotten about over a decade. “In hell,” I would say.

Live Wabi-Sabi

Without Buying Anything

Wabi-sabi is the design trend of the year. Everyone from NBC News to Rachael Ray is talking about it (and if it’s on Rachael Ray’s site, can it still be cool?). It doesn’t seem like most of the media get the philosophy at its core, though, because a lot of them use it as a basis for featuring new products that consumers should buy to get the wabi-sabi “look.” Here are a few tips on getting to wabi-sabi without buying a bunch of shit, lifted from Simply Imperfect.

• PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR DAILY BREAD. Is the food you’re eating in season, and is it available locally? The meals you choose and prepare connect you with the earth’s cycles and where you live, and you’ll live a healthier life. Buy food from your local farmers’ markets and ask the produce manager at your grocery store where different items came from.

• When you’re invited to someone’s house or even to a meeting, BRING A SMALL GIFT—nothing extravagant, just a small gesture (homemade jam, apples from your tree, or a luxurious bar of soap) that lets them know they’re appreciated.

• Next time you sweep the floor, CONSIDER IT A MEDITATION. Opt for the broom over the Dirt Devil when possible.

• OFFER EVERYONE WHO COMES TO VISIT A CUP OF TEA. Serve it in pretty cups with something sweet. If no one comes by, enjoy a cup of tea by yourself in the late afternoon.

• KEEP ONE VASE IN YOUR HOME FILLED with seasonal flowers, branches, or grasses, ideally picked within a mile of your home.

• TAKE A WALK EVERY DAY.

• LEARN TO KNIT OR CROCHET.

Clutter Smudges Clarity

I spent a solid three months clearing out that townhouse, most of them under the stairs. I dumped a camper truck and several carloads of stuff at Goodwill and left weekly loads for the Vietnam Veterans Association. I had a garage sale and got depressed watching no one want my gorgeous coffee table books and pink midcentury nesting ashtrays, even for a dollar. I got tired of being rejected by my son when I texted, “Sure you don’t want those red dishes from your childhood?”

Some people wanted my shit. It felt good to give away an Eastlake chair I tripped over in my bedroom for nine years to a furniture re-finisher who understood its value and could give it the love and attention it deserved. I sold my daughter’s bed to a woman who had gotten rid of everything to hit the road in her van 10 years earlier and was starting over again. I gave her all the bedding, too. When it was all over, I felt like I’d had an ayahuasca-strength purging.

“Clutter smudges clarity, both physically and metaphorically,” I wrote in Simply Imperfect. “Things you’re holding onto because they were expensive, because they were gifts from your mother-in-law, or because you might need them some day are all just getting in your way. In a wabi-sabi home, space and light are the most desirable ornaments.”

I bought an Airstream with brilliant space and light, limited but efficient storage; no room for furniture; and no basement. After all these years and all these words, I might finally be a wabibito.

If not, I can always find a bed on Craigslist.