Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Wabi-Sabi Home

I first became aware of 'wabi-sabi' last spring reading Lynn Schooler's  Walking Home [fixed the link, sorry] where he's writing about building a house in Juneau. 
The woods I was using - spruce and hemlock for the cabinets, fir for the timbers and frame of the house, rot-resistant cedar for the outside decks and siding - were soft woods, without the defenses against marring offered by hardwoods like oak and maple or “engineered” products like laminated bamboo.

But this was part of the plan.  In time, I hoped, day-to-day wear, weather, guests, and rambunctious children or grandchildren would eventually mark and smooth the various parts of the structure into what the Japanese call a wabi-sabi home.  At it’s simplest, sabi can be defined as the beauty that comes to physical things with the passage of time, such as the way an old wooden door weathers into striking colors and patterns, or the grip of a tool develops a glowing patina after years of respectful use.  Wa, the root of wabi, means “harmony” and connotes a life of ease within nature.  When applied to objects,  wabi-sabi  implies the beauty of simple practicality.  More important, the phrase carries a Zen overtone of living in the moment and accepting the inevitability of decay.  It might take decades, but years of good living would transform the assemblage of wood and concrete into a comfortable wabi-sabi  home, where my wife and I could grow old together graciously.  pp. 25-26

There's a lot packed into that.  The obvious is the idea of cherishing the scratches and dents as like a physical photo album of the family.  These marks are when Billy was 6 and tried to eat the door.  This reddish spot is from our 1st Thanksgiving when we spilled the cranberry sauce on the tablecloth. Marking a kid's growth on the wall is almost a movie cliche.

The positive flip side means not getting so hung up about making a spot or dent. 

But it goes deeper than just family history.  Schooler was building a not just a house, but a home that was going to last for generations.  Most people today build or buy homes as investments as well as places to live.  Our economic system promotes that by turning everything in our lives into commodities.  And by encouraging people to move around in pursuit of higher paying jobs.  Toward this end, the house is to be kept as 'new' as possible.

I copied down the passage, but left it to settle.  And then eight or nine months later my wife showed up with a book simply imperfect by Robyn Griggs Lawrence.  The subtitle is "revisiting the wabi-sabi house."

It's clear that wabi-sabi is more than marks in the dining room table and scuffs on the floor.  One of Lawrence's attempts to describe wabi-sabi:
...wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay and death.  It's simple, slow and uncluttered - and it reveres authenticity above all.  Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores;  aged wood, not Pergo;  rice paper, not glass.  Minimalist wabi-sabi reveres age and celebrates humans over involnerable machines.  It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the marks that time, weather and use leave behind.  It reminds us that we are all transient beings - that our bodies and materials world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came.

We'd learned about feng-shui while we lived in Hong Kong before it came to be hip in the U.S.  So I look at books like this with caution.  They offer us a glimpse of a view of the world from another culture.  That's good.  But we shouldn't think we understand it just from this one book.  After all, how wabi-sabi can a book with a bar code on it be?

I grew up in a family where things were to be treated with care and respect.  Wabi-sabi was not in anyone's vocabulary or world view.  On the other hand,  only a few of my grandparents' possessions survived Nazi Germany so there was always the understanding that mere things were transitory and not to be overly valued.

It seems that in the end there's a balance between caring for things so that they last, yet recognizing that things age with use and to accept and cherish those age marks. Including those on my wabi-sabi body.

The last day of the year seems to be a good one to wrap one's head around the idea of wabi-sabi.  A good time to consider how things have aged this year and how we'll think about them next year. 

I also have to mention that Schooler's marriage never got wabi-sabi.  His wife left pretty early on. 


  1. I 'spose that my house, built by my grandfather (where you have visited) is pretty wabi-sabi by now. The moss still keeps growing back on the front porch concrete, even if I try cleaning it off. The oak floors here in my office, once my grandmother's sewing room and then her bedroom, have been worn by family footsteps and the casters of my office chair.

    But it's the weathered windowsills that have the most sabi. Straight grain old growth fir, stained blue-gray and shellacked, then exposed to 70 years of rain from a forgotten opening, grubby kids' fingers, spills, and scrubbings.

    Happy New Year, and I hope that I'll see you at least some time during the coming legislative session?

  2. Harpboy, There's some serious wabi-sabi in your house, though from what I can tell wabi-sabi more than wear and tear. As I recall, minimalism is not a part of your home's decor. :)


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