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, 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 a 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 flowers 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, satisfied with things as they are, owning only what’s necessary for its utility or beauty (ideally, both).
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 townhome 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.
Clutter smudges clarity.
I spent a solid three months clearing out that townhouse, mostly 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 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 did want my junk. It felt good to give away an Eastlake chair I tripped over in my bedroom for nine years to a furniture refinisher 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 from your mother-in-law, or because you might need them someday are all 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.