Here’s a short one. Wabi-sabi. An old Japanese aesthetic value, wabi-sabi is not easily translated into English. A combination of once separate terms—wabi referring to an austere or empty beauty found in the solitude of nature, and sabi referring to the imperfect kind of beauty that comes with age—wabi-sabi has been a standalone aesthetic ideal since approximately the Middle Ages. Deeply rooted in Buddhist principles of impermanence and imperfection, it is perhaps beauty that is lacking in some way or showing signs of decay, beauty that is simple and unpretentious and often inspired by nature. But the lacking is to be welcomed—it is the acceptance of the present moment, the beauty of what-is.
Still, that can’t be all there is to it. I don’t know Japanese, but sometimes when you muse over something for enough time, a concept starts to transcend translation—you can grasp it even as you fail to put it into your own words. I can see it sometimes—in the adolescent trees and wild understory plants and creeping ivy reclaiming an abandoned swimming pool at a nature preserve where I once worked in the highlands of southern Ohio, a friend carefully placing old bamboo against the garishly new stained-red fence her neighbors had installed, the crumbling beauty of the neo-Gothic school-turned-artist-community where I used to live. Although we often didn’t have heat in the winter, and it was a long trek down two flights of stairs to the communal bathroom, and the roof was constantly blowing away, it was filled with light and art and the kind of good architecture we can’t really have anymore. Even now, I find it impossible to live in clean, crisp apartment communities when I’m used to castles—even if they were crumbling castles.
Now I live in a simple, four-cornered house, built—from what I can tell—entirely of concrete. Cold War architecture, I like to call it, sturdy and safe and certainly lacking in wabi-sabi. So I have to create my own, I guess. Before I unpacked the last of the boxes or hung the curtains, I nailed my pink Buddha painting on the bathroom wall, a gift from a friend whose path I’ve not crossed in many seasons. He is a stained glass artist, not a painter, or so he says.
I have good light here; it streams in from three directions—east, west, and south. Most days, I walk around the quiet rooms, watching the golden afternoon light transform my little haven—some flowers on the kitchen table, just a little past their prime, drying into a vibrant indigo; bamboo shoots reaching for the sun from an earthenware vase rescued from a thrift shop; the simple lines of that ancient face, the pink paint peeling.